Cake-mix and improving life at work

In the early 1950’s, cake mix was introduced in the U.S. Take some mix, add water, and put it in the oven. In ten minutes you had a homemade cake. Great idea, right?

It wasn’t. Really bad idea actually. Huge failure!

Until one of the vendors figured out what the problem was, took action accordingly and left their competition behind in the dust, wondering what happened.

So what happened, and why should you as a software development professional care about that?

What they figured out was that the original mixes made it too easy. Housewives of that time took great pride in their occupation. Clearly, just adding water would simply just not qualify as baking a homemade cake.

The solution was to have the housewives add a fresh egg to the mix. Fiddling around with an egg was messy enough that the housewives now felt like they contributed to the baking. Now this was something that they could serve as homemade!

And it works the same way with ideas! If you have some great improvement idea you would like to promote, you need to make sure that everyone affected by your idea will have the chance to contribute something to the mix! Then it will be their idea also, not only yours.

So, if you have worked out a brilliant solution to some problem, don’t tell your co-workers! Instead, ask everyone involved to join you, working on solving the problem. Carefully facilitate the meeting so that everyone gets to contribute their thoughts, and see what the group comes up with. (I’ll be writing more about how to do that in another blog shortly.)

But, what if the group discussion results in a solution that is not as good as one you have already worked out? Well, one advantage is that the group solution may actually get implemented. And that’s a start! In contrast, the chance that a prepackaged solution, offered by you, is sustainably implemented is very close to 0.

Also, often when I do this, I’m surprised to see that the solution crafted by the group is actually better than mine…but maybe that’s just me 😉

Wait! Someone says, maybe it was that adding the egg to the mix actually did make the cake taste better? Well, I have further proof for you skeptics, and I might do another blog on that later. But the only way to truly learn something is to try it out yourself, so next time your about to sell some new solution to your team, just consider that this may be true:

People do not like other people’s ideas, they like their own ideas!

Change your tactics accordingly and just see what happens…


Credit to Gerald Weinberg, in whose fine book “The Secrets of Consulting” I first learnt about this idea.