The Uncertainty Mindset

People CRM


The Uncertainty Mindset dives into the practices of the most innovative teams within high-end cuisine, and explores how their embrace of uncertainty leads to great R&D.
Here’s my synopsis of its key insights:
  1. Consistency and efficiency are essential for restaurants to win business and make a profit. This can create powerful countervailing pressures for R&D. However, at the high end cuisine, shifts over the last couple of decades — a greater appreciation of novelty and ability to share immediately with a worldwide audience — have created incentives for and ability to monetize innovation.
  1. New dishes are the tip of the iceberg for culinary innovation. The R&D stack that underlies them includes novel combinations of existing ingredients, development of new ingredients or affordances from existing ones, new methodologies for preparation, and new workflows for restaurant teams to create them reliably and at scale. Examples include:
    1. Amaja’s three-month investigation of the mahogany clam, an ingredient that prior to their work had been deemed too tough for human consumption.
    2. The popularization of sous vide (largely through Modernist Cuisine) and an after-sear to prepare meat.
    3. Using spherification to create a pea ravioli at El Bulli
  1. The Uncertainty Mindset involves distinguishing uncertainty from risk. Most teams consider risk — the idea that disruptive perturbations may disrupt an otherwise predictable project — but fail to embrace the truly uncertain context in which many R&D projects actually operate. The culinary R&D teams studied thrive amid true uncertainty with a few shared practices including:
    1. Building frequent prototypes and iterating on them; recognizing that many of the prototypes will “fail” and may not make it into a dish that’s served to customers.
    2. Leveraging those prototypes as demonstrations so that each team member develops deep familiarity with the strengths and weaknesses of all of the others
    3. Leveraging team-wide critiques of the prototypes to build a shared sense of an “open-ended style” that allows the restaurant to innovate while creating dishes that still feel on-brand.
    4. Taking on stretch projects (”desperation by design”) that push the team to do more, while also incorporating rest and relaxation cycles to recharge.
    5. Allowing individual roles and responsibilities to morph with each prototype and project — a set of many small changes that over time add to major shifts.
  1. Open-ended roles with good communication support the constant adaptation required for R&D while simultaneously supporting the fire-fighting necessary to keep the production kitchens running. This included daily standups, allowing task lists to change, and constant adjusting of roles and responsibilities to align the tasks at hand with the skillsets and interests of team members.
    1. The prototypes provided the microtests that allowed team members to learn thought processes and problem solving approaches from each other. Critiques were usually on the end-result, with suggestions on process.
  1. Style in cuisine is essential to brand identity — a dish must feel new and at the same time “like something we would create.” Many companies address this by trying to articulate the style in depth; the R&D teams studied here instead calibrated through countless public critiques of the many many prototypes that team members created.
  1. The R&D team leaders repeatedly picked up stretch projects (”Desperation by design”) that pushed the team’s skills and organization’s reach.
    1. Examples included opening new restaurants, publishing a book in which none of the current team had particular expertise, planning a conference, or creating a non-profit to serve food during crises.
    2. Projects were usually picked with lots of team engagement about opportunities and concerns in advance. But leader often chose ones the team did not think were well advised.
    3. Projects had major public commitments that could not be changed. Real possibility of failure existed.
    4. Teams worked very hard, but after project had time to recuperate.

Commentary and Questions

While the book’s emphasis was not on incentive design, I found many insights related to how incentives played into these teams practices. I also came across many questions that I would like to see further developed, and could be good grounds for future ID research. Some of the questions that came to mind are:
  1. The public commitment in the “desperation by design” clearly affects the motivations and incentives of the team members. When and how did leaders make these commitments? Were the risks of failure hedged, and to what extent were team members aware of those contingency plans?
  1. How were team members compensated and promoted? When and why were team members reprimanded or let go? These practices were not discussed but would affect the incentives of the system.
  1. These R&D innovations were made possible and also contributed to the broader socio-cultural awareness of food innovation and the well-heeled, well-traveled clientele that became their patrons. How did these trends interact and how can future innovation cycles use those dynamics to build similar positive feedback loops?
  1. More focused on general business instead of ID… How do prices and margins factor into these R&D teams’ thought processes? How did these R&D teams communicate and rollout their developments to other restaurant staff?