Management in the Not for Profit Organization

Dedicated to Exploring the Philosophies and Techniques of Management in the Non-Profit Sector

Recipe for Disaster

What do you do when the requirements of funding entities, regulatory agencies, and accrediting bodies constantly add detailed requirements to those that you already must satisfy?  How do you avoid missing anything?  And how do you prove that you did everything right?


Most organizations begin by modifying their policies, if necessary.  The policies are then operationalized via procedures.  So far, so good.  However, a problem arises when the procedures become so detailed that they specifically prescribe practice.  They leave no room for independent thought or creativity.  They become, in effect, the recipe for practice.


A checklist, for example, can be a wonderful way to make sure that you have not missed anything.  It ensures that the practitioner’s attention has been directed to each and every requirement.   It is an effort to make things “idiot proof”.  However, sometimes the list is so detailed that it covers virtually every move that the practitioner must make.  Indeed, sometimes it is all they have time to do.


This is the next issue that contributes to the creation of “recipe” work.  As financial pressures mount, managers look for ways to cut expenses while still satisfying requirements.  The thought occurs:  “If completing the checklist means that we have provided the service, then all we really need to do is complete the items on the checklist”.  Services become “streamlined” so that more units of service can be provided with little or no additional cost.  The practitioner now has just enough time to complete the items on the checklist.  Soon, the recipe becomes the practice.


In other words, efforts to “dummy things down” create dummies.  Attempts to make things “idiot proof” create idiots.  Anyone who has read Deming knows that there will always be errors.  They are unavoidable because nothing is perfect, especially human nature.  It is also human nature to rise or sink to the levels of expectations placed upon us.  Procedures that are too detailed and confining convey the message that we do not expect much of our personnel.


Pilots use checklists.  They have for many years.  But they use them before they take off.  They must think and react – not be referring to a script, a checklist, or a recipe.  Even when a checklist is used in flight – such as in preparing for an emergency landing – the person flying the plane in not the one reading the checklist.  Similarly, practitioners need to be able to think, engage, react, innovate, and create.


Unfortunately, this writer’s experiences lead him to believe that more and more practitioners have been learning how to fill out forms, and fewer and fewer know & utilize the basic tenets of good practice.  One of these tenets:  “Start where the client is”, appears to have been replaced by “Start at the first item on the form”.  We managers have created a cadre of dependents, as described by Bennis1 and others who have put forth this well-established concept through the years.  Dependents are those “who are comforted by authority structures”2. That is, we are inviting our personnel to become so dependent upon recipe approaches that we discourage independent thought.  In doing so, we stifle responsiveness to the needs of our clientele.  In short, we have brought trained incompetence into our organizations.


Furthermore, we invite rebellion through the imposition of recipe driven practice.  In one of the earliest stages of the development of group or team identity, participants tend to choose one of two paths.  The first is the route to the above-mentioned “dependent” role.  The other takes one to counterdependency.  At this stage, persons who are counterdependent “look for trainer behaviors that will offer grounds for rebellion”3.  In normal group development the situation becomes worse before it gets better, but it does get better.  The process might need some outside intervention, but it will progress to the point where a productive team is formed.  However, when the organization adopts recipe thinking (or lack of thinking) as an organizational paradigm the process often becomes skewed or fixated.  The adoption of a “thinking inside the box” standard causes the group development process to be stuck in the Dependence versus Flight stage.  Team members must follow the structure as it is, leave, or suffer disciplinary action.  Individuals who would otherwise have become true innovators are labeled as uncooperative and screened out.


Moreover, the recipe approach can have many “one size fits all” aspects.  Sometimes the ingredients of a situation do not match those on the recipe.  Instead of flexibly designing approaches that fit the situation, one encounters phrases such as “this is the way we do things” as justifications for failing to individualize.  In those cases, practitioners who are locked into the tightly formulated, detailed procedure are likely to “make it fit”.  In other words, when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  The effort to tailor services to the individual customer is damaged.


Recipe approaches to problem solving and service delivery are indeed streamlined.  So is an assembly line.  The workers on an assembly line use the same tools and the same parts over and over and over – mindlessly- until they only see their part and cannot see the whole.


It must be mentioned that some managers like this.  The idea of having mindless drones doing repetitive tasks is appealing because they are easily replaceable, if not completely disposable.  In addition, people who think can also be viewed as “trouble makers”.  They create a stir, and managers who are very controlling do not like things to be mixed up.  New ideas create confusion, the antithesis to the manager who insists on total control.


In a Times News Network article about his interview with Warren Bennis, Vikas Kumar of The Economic Times – India Times wrote “leaders have to deal with more uncertainty and ambiguity than before”4.  However, rather than recommending a rote, canned, recipe solution, Bennis took a different view:  “the days of the imperial CEO, the lone ranger leader, are clearly numbered. ‘Leadership capacity now requires a realization that you have to abandon your ego for the talents of others.’”5


Therein lies the solution.  Rather than training people to fill out forms, we should be helping those talents to blossom.  “You need to look at what are your modules of talent, what are your modules of genius.”6  However, he asserted that what has been happening is quite the opposite.  He said “What we’re doing is almost a ‘trained incompetence’ – training people so specifically that they cannot generalize and see things as a whole.”  According to the article, Bennis said that we should be “teaching ‘integrative skills of thinking’”7.  However, this is considerably more expensive than creating new forms and showing people how to fill them out.  It requires a financial and value driven commitment to develop personnel.


For those who just wish to satisfy minimum requirements, recipe practice is the way to go.  But if you wish your organization to thrive, adapt, and be vibrant then you will invest the time, energy, and money necessary to train your people to think and to look beyond the concrete walls of the box formed by the forms they must complete.


  1 A Theory of Group Development; Bennis and Shephard, 1956

2,3 A Consultant’s Perspective on Groups; an article by Carrie Hutton

4,5,6,7 The Imperial CEO is dead as a dodo; Times News Network article; November 4, 2005, Vikas Kumar of The Economic Times – India Times