How to Understand Managers, Researchers, and Chocolate-Chip Cookies

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Greg MOLECKE, PhD Candidate

This month Greg Molecke and Sanchayan Sengupta, both PhD full-time students at Grenoble Ecole de Management share their thoughts on what managers can learn from researchers and how to make cookies.

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Sanchayan SENGUPTA, PhD Candidate

France is a land of amazing desserts. From crème brûlée to profiteroles and from éclairs to macarons to the amazing displays in patisserie windows, some form of sugary bliss is always nearby.  In fact, only one dessert is noticeably absent: chocolate chip cookies.

Warm, chewy, melty cookies with craggy tops and the complex aroma of butterscotch – they just don’t exist. A real business opportunity exists for some enterprising person who wants to invest the time to learn to make them. To do this, one might simply do plonk “Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe” into Google to see what would come up.  The most popular recipes tend to come from various celebrity chefs and they all recreate, more-or-less, the time-tested formula developed in 1938 by Ruth Wakefield at her Toll House restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts.  But you may also stumble across one outlier to this approach: the fanatical cookie experimentation done by J. Kenji López-Alt on his Serious Eats blog

cookies1 411X217Here, the goal was not to successfully make cookies, but to truly understand them. To figure out all the factors and fussy considerations that could affect cookies. To figure out how to make THE PERFECT COOKIE.  And not only the perfect cookie for him, but a map of all the possible perfect cookies, depending on one’s taste.

So why are we talking about chocolate chip cookies?

Well, as current PhD students we had been asked to talk to a DBA program filled with successful businesspeople about how to begin doing academic research. Being managers for many years ourselves, a big challenge was how to describe how our thinking and strategies had changed between the world of research and the world of business. How are the two activities different? How do they interrelate with each other?  In a lot of ways the difference between thinking like a manager and a researcher is a lot like the two different approaches to attaining mastery of chocolate chip cookies.

For most of the chef’s recipes we encountered, the “manager” mentality is clear:  find out a formula that works in your current business environment, perhaps add your own special twist (a pinch of nutmeg or chili perhaps?), and figure out how to produce it in a way that satisfies you and your customers.  For managers, the emphasis is in bringing your product or service into the real world. Your efforts are to get your idea made and made well. If you are baking chocolate chip cookies, you will find what works, add your own twist to differentiate it, and produce it. You likely don’t know why the recipe works. (Mrs. Wakefield was convinced that the chocolate chips would completely melt and create entirely chocolate cookies the first time she made the cookies; can you say why the chips don’t melt all the way?). You may develop your recipe over time as you get feedback or as you find ways to reduce costs. But, when you do this, you are more likely trying to improve incrementally what you already have, not trying to fully understand how it works. And usually eliminating variation is often important – to ensure quality and to make sure your customers always get what they are expecting. You would never make each batch of cookies slightly differently to see how your customers react.

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For researchers, the goal is different. Researchers will probably never sell their cookies to anyone. J. Kenji López-Alt’s wife had to beg him to stop making cookies as the leftovers from his experiments gradually filled their house.  And this can be empowering. The goal doesn’t have to be to develop a marketable cookie, but can instead focus on understanding cookies. Instead of taking what works and spending their efforts on producing it, researchers spend their efforts on figuring out why it works. Understanding the mechanism behind why some things work and why some others do not, is what academic researchers are interested in.  The aim is to develop a body of knowledge based on scientific evidence that other researchers –both academic as well as business researchers — can use to further advance their understanding of a phenomenon. Researchers could make terrible cookies for months and be exceedingly pleased with themselves, as long as they were learning. A manager who made terrible cookies for months would be out of a job.

This is not to say that managers COULDN’T do what researchers do. Of course they could. They just don’t have the time or budget to do it. They have businesses to run. And they haven’t really developed the skills or developed the tools to apply the scientific method efficiently and effectively. Managers often rely on anecdotal evidence – “we tried adding nuts to our cookies and people liked it, so let’s keep doing it that way.” Researcher’s experimentation is generally much more rigorous, efficient, effective, insightful, and reliable.

Researchers have the luxury to step back from the frantic hustle and bustle of business world to spend the time to look for subtle, overarching patterns, to map the hidden gears and wheels that make the world turn.

In exchange, managers can take a researcher’s lessons, their theories, and implement them. Researchers gain and succeed when other people take their ideas and use them. This is a strangely generous position for managers – imagine a cookie shop inviting all of its competitors over for a workshop on how to make its prize cookies.  But researchers want to do just this. Their reputations depend on others recognizing the value of their insights. And, they generally aren’t interested in the hard work of commercializing their ideas, they would rather move onto investigating next set of gears and wheels. Remember J. Kenji López-Alt’s poor wife who never wanted to see another cookie by the time all the experimentation was done.

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