Wednesday, February 6, 2008

PM Lessons from Dinner: IMPOSSIBLE

The Food Network (and my wife) have got me addicted to a program called Dinner: Impossible. It features the adventures of chef Robert Irvine. In each episode, he is presented with the challenge of preparing and serving a meal to some unique audience, often with interesting constraints. He has had to work, for example, in an ice hotel, a Marine base, a cruise ship, and a Renaissance fair. Often, the meals are for thousands of people, and in every case, there is a significant time limitation to work with.
I want to stress that these really are not great examples of projects because the planning process is so limited. Still, I enjoy learning from Robert's style, and in this post, I share some observations.
Unless you are familiar with his show, you may want to start by looking at this video (it's short) and then continuing to read the post.

Welcome back. You DID see the video, right? OK. At this point I'm assuming that you at least have been exposed to the concept and the context of the show. Otherwise, you won't appreciate the rest of this post.
Here are some PM observations:
Understanding stakeholder requirements: At the start of each episode, Mr. Irvine is introduced to the stakeholders (steakholders?) for the meal. Watch the show carefully and you will notice that he literally leans forward towards the speaking party - ostensibly to be seen as listening "harder", or, perhaps he really is leaning in to actually listen harder. Either way, I think this is a great way to show that he is intensely interested in what these people have to say. Given that a misunderstanding at this point will cause him big problems, this is indeed an important consideration.
Stakeholder Identification: One of the things that can really undermine a project manager is when they don't (as above) get the requirements clear up front from stakeholders. But if you haven't even properly identified the stakeholders, well then you have NO chance to get their concerns considered. In one episode, Irvine improperly associates a college president as the person in charge of a dinner reception. It turns out that this administrator did not really have a handle on the event's particulars. The net result was that Irvine did not know the correct configuration of the serving lines and had to make a radical correction for this on the fly. Had he identified the event planner as the key person from which to get this information, he would have avoided this catasrophe.
Team motivation: Chef Irvine works with a limited number of his own staff, but also with team members provided to him by the host. For example, when he had to prepare a "Warrior Meal" for US Marines headed overseas, his staff was mainly a group of Marines loaned to him for the purpose of preparing the meal. I notice an interesting phenomenon regarding the way Irvine motivates these teams. Remember, he has a very limited timeline, he cannot send team members off to team-building exercises! He starts by involving them in the creative process - the design of the meal. More often than not, he rejects their ideas, but he does involve them. Then, I notice that he takes on a very pessimistic project view for the first 70-80% of the timeline. He will constantly, and very loudly, remind the team of all of the dishes that are not done, and be fairly negative and reprimanding in his style. Then, as meals start to get complete, he becomes much more of a cheerleader, with a "we can do it" attitude. If you watch the show carefully, you can detect that particular moment when he switches from naysayer to cheerleader.
Closing and recognition: Chef Irvine takes the time at the end of the project to recognize the heroic efforts of his teams. There have actually been tears during these moments - legitimate tears, not TV tears, I believe. With the intensity of the projects and literally the 'heat of the kitchen' as the backdrop, his prep teams do bond pretty quickly.
In any case, I do not recommend running projects the way that Robert Irvine prepares meals, but I do recommend the show from an entertainment perspective and think that you will pick up a project management gem here and there as you are being entertained. Enjoy!


Rob said...

Rich, interesting Dinner Impossible article.

I wrote something on Stakeholder Management here at my IT Management Life Blog


Anonymous said...


A Chef has to be creative - which in this case is taken to the extreme :-) - but the result is that there is not much time for planning or process.

On the other hand, a reasonable cook can follow a recipe to produce a good meal.

Question: Who would you rather have preparing your dinner?

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