The Project Manager in the Kitchen

Multitasking StoveMy mother taught me about project dependencies before I even knew there was such a thing as project management. It has taken me longer than most dutiful daughters to learn the ropes in the kitchen, not least because I was lucky enough to marry an incredible cook. I remember watching my mother in awe as she prepared a Friday night Shabbat dinner for a crowd of people. She began each dish at a different time in what seemed to me to be random order. Then, as if by magic, five minutes before everyone arrived, five to seven different items were finished at once.

Finally, I asked her: how do you do it? How do you know when to start each thing to make sure it will come out at the right time? Her reply was, as usual, simple and deceptively murky: You just practice and learn how to do it over time. You start to know how long each thing takes and you work backwards. Easy, I thought, but each time I tried to execute, either the chicken would be done and cold long before anyone arrived or I stood over a pot of rice willing for it to soak up the liquid while the guests stood around. She was right (of course), it does get easier with practice. I now do a much better job at knowing what needs to happen when. I’m still a far cry from replicating her well-oiled machine, but now I have a toolkit that helps me provide a framework for dinner: a project plan.

I think about phases of dinner preparation: meal planning, grocery shopping, food prep, cooking and eating.  For me, meal planning is like scoping and requirements gathering would be during a project, I think about who is coming and their dietary needs, the season, the weather, and how much time we have to prepare.  I think well in advance about what I want to make and get buy-in from the rest of the project team (whoever is staying in our apartment at the time), get what is needed at  the store and do all of the vegetable prep.

Shopping and food prep is the design phase, sometimes the plan changes when something at the store catches the eye, changing the elements of the meal.  Food prep is the early stages of execution, making sure each piece is ready for cooking.  Determining what should be done when is the same as in a project, if I start with the goals, the skills we want to have at the end of a course, I work backwards to determine what pieces are the foundation, and what other aspects are dependent on that foundation.

Just as you must sauté the onions and garlic first in many dishes, so too do you need to prepare students with a basic understanding of the core skills they need to be successful in a role. If you jump into later stage skills first, they won’t stick (and your onions won’t brown). If you blow a fuse, you might be making salad instead of soup: as things change you must adjust.  A last-minute guest with a bean allergy might cause you to make major changes. Finally, after we sit down, eat (which never takes as long as the preparation) and everyone is done enjoying, I think about what I liked, what I would do again and what I would change for next time.

For some people, like my mom, project planning and management is intuitive, for others (like me!), it takes a bit more structure to get the same result. Either way, the ingredients are the same.

Thanks Mom – You were my first project management teacher.