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Is Mary Berry our greatest business design inspiration?

By richard coughlin, PA business design expert

Even those who I’ve only briefly met won’t be surprised that I quite like a cake. As a result, I may be in danger of over-venerating Mary Berry – so please correct me if you think I am stretching the bounds of imagination by suggesting we can learn things about designing high performing businesses from her baking skills.

I’ve pulled out the inevitable three parallels between cake making and designing businesses. I suspect, if nothing else, it demonstrates that I should stick to designing businesses, but here it goes:

Eating the ingredients of a cake separately isn’t as nice as eating a cake

So, my first analogy may sound obvious for bakers, but it’s apparently less obvious to business leaders. Mary’s perfect Victoria sponge cake has four free-range eggs, 8oz caster sugar (ignoring any extra needed for dusting the finished cake), 8oz of self-raising flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, 8oz of soft butter and some jam. It could make a great cake, but it would be awful if you tried to eat the ingredients separately – I especially would advise against the baking powder on its own.

However, we repeatedly see businesses who try to tackle building businesses one ingredient at a time: solving IT issues without understanding how this relates to the operating processes, the business rules or changes to the planned customer experience. The same goes for reorganisations, process improvement initiatives or capability programmes.

I think the cake analogy is worth keeping in mind – these ingredients work when they are combined with thought and care, not when you try to scoff them individually. 

Beware of too much marzipan 

I have to confess, I am re-treading older thinking of mine here on the evils of marzipan, but let me explain. Some cakes need marzipan – it keeps the moisture in the cake, stops it spoiling the icing and prevents the icing leaching into the cake. In cakes, the impenetrable layer of marzipan is good. Sadly, the same cannot be said of businesses. The marzipan is any excess layer of management. Its effect is to stop operational insight flowing up from the business to the senior leaders and to stop strategic initiatives being effectively delivered into the business. Sometimes it is deliberate as local chiefs want to retain their operational independence, but in other instances it is accidental as the weight of too much management acts as a drag on the business. Either way, too much marzipan can spoil a cake and ruin a business. 

Some cakes keep and some do not 

I am sure Mary’s Victoria sponge is a delight just when it’s made and maybe even a day later. After a month, I suspect it would be like trying to chew through carpet. Her Christmas cake however is designed to last – in fact I think she suggests it should be made something like a month ahead of time. It is clear therefore that different cakes have different shelf lives. It’s the same when you design a business and it’s pretty important to know the shelf life before you start making changes in your organisation.

I was involved in creating a new business unit within a major mining operation and this was a business design that was going to last. The business model of digging stuff out of the ground, grinding it up, putting it in bags and selling and distributing it is not one that changes too much from one season to the next. In contrast, I have recently been involved in designing the digital teams for a consumer services business. Here, the expectation is that the roles, structures and processes needed today would probably change within six months as the environment is shifting so quickly. In design terms, both needed clear thinking, but one was created for a static world and one for a dynamic world. One could be set in stone, while the other needed change mechanisms that allow it to react and respond to changing events, creating a more fluid structural, resourcing and funding model. 

I accept that there are limits to any analogy and that I may have strayed over those limits slightly here. Maybe Mary isn’t going to go straight into the business design hall of fame but I think the parallels I’ve drawn stand up to a little scrutiny.

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