Recipe Versus Shopping List Thinking

recipe versus shopping list thinking

Several years ago I was called into a company to solve a dilemma.

I sat down with the controller for this company, who, as if often the case, was in charge of the company’s I.T.  Note: VP of Finance, CFO, Controller’s – etc. are often in charge of I.T. at organizations of 50-200 people.

She was a bit exasperated.

“Which of these is right? How do I know what to choose,” she asked?

On the desk between us were three proposals for computer systems upgrades. I don’t remember the exact numbers but it was something like this.

Proposal #1: $135,000
Proposal #2: $180,000
Proposal #3: $220,000

I commend her for not simply selecting the least expensive of the 3. The fact that she had three different companies provide her proposals with three wildly different prices gave her cause for concern – and rightfully so.

She wanted me to help her decide which proposal was the right one.

What I didn’t do

In order to best help her, I made sure we DID NOT look at the proposals.

We pushed them to the side and I asked her to tell me about the company. We talked about what they did, what they were planning for this year, challenges they faced, frustrations that she and other executives had with the systems and operations in general, what their employees did and their frustrations, what she felt should be simple but was not, etc.

About 45 minutes into the conversation she said, “I never talked about any of this stuff with these companies,” referring to the proposals, “it seems important.”

Don’t leave it to dumb luck

I assured her that it was, in fact, important. And then I said:

“It could be that proposal #1 is the right one. It could be that proposal #3 is correct. It might be that you need to spend twice as much as the most expensive proposal to get what you need. But if any of these proposals is actually correct, it is probably just dumb luck and that is a problem.”

I explained that she had been given 3 shopping list. The ingredients on those shopping list are probably pretty good.. quality is not the issue here.

Never go grocery shopping when you are hungry

You ever hear that adage? Shop when you are hungry and you end up buying all sorts of unnecessary food items. Everything looks good when you are hungry. You over shop and there is little rhyme or reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I bought a pack of Klondike bars the other day because, while they lack nutritional food value, they taste marvelous.

But your organization’s I.T. spending probably should NOT be handled this way.

The Recipe drives your shopping list, not quality ingredients

I explained that while she had some quality items on these shopping list, she had no recipe. They didn’t know what they wanted to prepare.

If you are making Thanksgiving dinner, you don’t send someone to the store to buy a bunch of stuff. You send them to the store with a list. Turkey, stuffing, green beans, yams, apples, cinnamon, wine (oh yes, lots of wine), etc.

Two things about the list above. One: you might not want me shopping for your Thanksgiving dinner.. or you I might be perfect.. Two: Once you have a well-defined recipe, you can get quality ingredients from almost anywhere.

The shopping list becomes easier to manage when the recipe is pretty well defined.

The analogy goes for everything I.T.

I.T. professionals have a challenge. They are often so focused on learning the intricacies of tool X and technology Y, that they begin to believe that tool X and technology Y are the important elements of what they do. But they aren’t!

There is a very good chance that if tool X and technology Y solve a particular business challenge, that similar tools and technologies will also solve that problem. Tool W and technology L are equal and maybe superior in some cases to X & Y.

The real value is that the problem was identified and a solution was determined. Neither the tool nor the technology is truly required to do this first critical part.

Are you starting with a recipe or a shopping list?

Part of the work I do teaching I.T. professionals Concept Over Process, as both a mindset and methodology, is meant to create Concept Driven, rather than tool or process driven, information technology. Or to continue the above analogy, I want organizations thinking about the recipe rather than the shopping list.

Ingredients and Preparation are still critical

One push back I sometimes get is that some I.T. purist (I am one by the way) will suggest that I am saying that those hard skills or technologies or processes are unimportant.

Really? Do we even need to have this discussion?  sigh…

My goal with Concept Over Process is that I.T. organizations and I.T. professionals become:

Concept Driven & Process Savvy

BOTH/AND not EITHER/OR!!!  Yeah, that’s right! I want it all!

I want my Thanksgiving dinner to have the right recipe (business concept) AND I want it to be quality ingredients (technologies and tools) AND to taste amazing!! (process and implementation).

And you want the same thing.. right?

Posted in career development, Coaching, Leadership.


  1. Love this blog post. It really gets to the heart of the question that we are discussing at a regional meeting of Computer Professors in Pennsylvania. What should we be teaching in CS 100? CS 100 is the first, and usually only computer class that our Business Administration majors will be taking. Right now many of us focus on teaching Office 2013. Why? we always have.

    We only have 16 weeks, and we are so far away from that Thanksgiving Dinner.

  2. Thanks Arta. I know in speaking to CIS & MIS instructors there is an unavoidable challenge with the time necessary to teach the technology and a struggle to convey broader concepts of technology’s role and value in the business.

What do you think?