Cultural Design: Is This My Story to Tell?

This 1916 image of Frances Densmore and Blackfoot leader Mountain Chief listening to a cylinder recording has become a symbol of the early songcatcher era.

As a landscape architect, I subscribe to the idea that within our designs we are trying to convey stories. At the beginning of any effort, one of the most important questions is, “Whose story am I trying to tell?”. More important than that question is, “Is this story mine to tell?”.

For many of our designs, we are creating new stories based within the typical site programming of clients needs and wants, function, aesthetics, and the design elements that contribute to comfort and enjoyment. We are telling a story that we are creating on our own, or creating new with our clients.

The origin and ownership of stories comes to the forefront when we look to culture and tradition for elements to incorporate into our designs.

As designers, we get inspiration from all of the sources around us, and get truly excited with taking what we see and incorporating it into what we do. We might treat the whole world as a design sourcebook. The difficulty is determining whether there is any meaning behind what we see and draw from, and whether our use or adaptation of it is appropriate. Appropriate. Is it our story to tell?

From Wikipedia: “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures’ traditions, food, fashion, symbols, technology, language, and cultural songs without permission. According to critics of the practice, cultural (mis)appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or cultural exchange in that the “appropriation” or “misappropriation” refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture.”

If a story isn’t ours to tell, our telling of it will most likely have mistakes and not be true to form. If a story isn’t ours, then we either need to get permission to tell it (and the training to do so) or we work with the owner of the story to tell it with them… or ideally, assist them in telling their story within our medium (landscape and site). Within our expertise as design professionals… our success is facilitating stories to be heard in new ways.

Is this my story to tell?

**Below are some examples of some of the work we have done with our clients. I think our success in this is at the end of the day, our clients see themselves and their stories. We’re successful when we overhear our clients telling people what it is and what it means, if not stating proudly that it was their idea.**

Dena’ina Health and Wellness Center – A privacy screen based on a quillwork pattern

Dena’ina Health and Wellness Center – A cultural calendar and representation of tribal values translated from sketches into granite

Yakutat Community Playground – Clan artwork used to create a play fence representing the six local clans. They also show moiety, and history of arrival in the Yakutat area on their backs.

Yakutat Community Playground – Culture and tradition aren’t just historical, the play equipment shows current community activities such as hunting (and reading on a panel not shown)

Yakutat Community Playground – A swing with images of the ships that visit and call Yakutat home.

Sitka SeaWalk – Brick pavers and formline patterns developed with local partners to reflect the local community and Tlingit culture.

Note: The image I use at the beginning of this blog post with Frances Densmore and Mountain Chief also made me question whether “this photo is mine to use”. Other than proper usage, I thought that it might reflect colonialism or be in negative contrast to what I’m trying to say in this post. She was functionally an ethnomusicologist, and in the face of the damage of colonialism, these kinds of efforts did assist in preserving much information that might have otherwise been lost. As a designer, I’m hoping that I’m not in the same situation of trying to be helpful in the face of cultural destruction. I hope that I can assist the stabilization and growth that seems to be occurring, until there are Alaska Native landscape architects. I very much like the analogy of the “rising tide” that the Kenaitze Indian Tribe uses. Until then, I’m generally slightly uncomfortable in my role as the middle-aged white guy who is trying to listen and be of service. I think that discomfort is necessary. It means I’m paying attention.

Feeling Relevant is Important

Sokol exercises in year 1924

A part of the human condition is a desire to feel needed. The reality is that in most of our interactions, we won’t be needed… but we can be relevant. And our relevancy doesn’t need to me immediate, there is a similar benefit to thinking we can be relevant in the future.

When I interact with people, I ask enough questions to start to get a feeling for how I might be relevant to someone, and how they might be relevant to me. At a party, this could be as simple as trying to find the subject area that they love to talk about. They feel relevant through an area of their knowledge. If I’m flexible or clever enough (or they are), we find the way that our interests intersect and then we can both be relevant. I may not be a model train enthusiast, but I am interested in the modeling of landscapes. We become relevant to each other and provide mutual value.

Professionally, the people that actively try to understand my relevancy (value) create a bridge to me. I can see when people expend the effort to understand how I might help them in the present or the future, and it’s a natural inclination for us to then try to do the same for them. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. This person is filed in my brain as someone I’d like to work with.

In comparison, it is very obvious when people take no interest in you. I might find them to be interesting, and the conversation might be great, but it’s typically one-sided. I take knowledge value away from it, but I rarely take away anything more. This person doesn’t get filed in my brain as someone I’d like to work with.

It doesn’t take much effort to invest someone with a feeling of being relevant, now or in the future. At the worst you might just walk away with an excellent conversation. I like good conversations.

Awesome Leadership Development. Seriously.

I was just at the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) Pacific Northwest Regional Conference in Anchorage (my town). I’ve attended our local chapter events, and gone to a national SMPS event before.

If you haven’t been to an SMPS event, or your peers or employees haven’t… you need to. www.smps.org

As a technical professional (landscape architect), most of the professional development opportunities targeted at me are… well… technical. That was perfect for much of my career to date, but it doesn’t fully match the new skills that I need as I’ve transitioned into leadership and business. When that happens, us technical types typically learn through trial and error, being mentored (perhaps), reading books and talking to people.

If you want to shortcut that shotgun approach to absorbing business development and leadership training, go to SMPS. Seriously, go to SMPS! You will be surrounded by people whose goal is to develop business and people within the architecture, engineering and construction sectors. Even if you go once, you’ll find that most every session offers you something to temper your own thinking or provide you with new avenues to consider and follow.

Like any professional growth avenue, you’ll see immediate high return on investment for your exposure and knowledge. Over time, it will decrease as you begin to focus on specific needs within your professional development. Then, if not before, you need to get your staff to attend! While they might not be leaders, exposing them to this information will help you lead. It stands a strong chance of developing shared communication and semantics. If they have some comprehension of development and leadership strategies, then they may be more open to work within those ideas and at least understand what you might be trying to do.

This is not a paid advertisement. I’ve found great professional value in what SMPS offers, and I think that any A/E/C professional will find the same value. Especially if you are at a place in your career where you are in (or entering) the world of business development and leadership. I’m surprised that more technical types don’t attend their events.

At a minimum… going to one of these will help you understand your marketing and business development people, and how you can enable them to be better at what they do. And… they’re part of your front line for business success. If they are more successful, you are too.

Lastly… it’s fun. They seem to be great people who realize that relationships, networks and friends are not only key to business, but key to enjoying our time on this planet. Just be warned that if you aren’t in bed by 10:00pm, you might not get to bed. (and to be honest, I’m in bed by 10:00… I just hear the stories the next day. The stories make me feel tired. But, I also wish I had stayed up.)

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About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

The Sudoku of Site Design

Grading plan and sudoku comparison by Kristina Zalite

Grading plan and sudoku comparison by Kristina Zalite

A friend posted a grading plan on facebook and commented: “If you love sudoku and you are wanting a creative career, consider landscape architecture because site grading is real-life sudoku (with real life consequences).”

If you’ve played sudoku (or created grading plans), that’s about the best comparison I’ve seen. It also underlies how reliant on three dimensional problem solving landscape architecture is. You know where you’re starting (bottom of a hill), you know your destination (top of a hill), and you either brute force your way through solutions (trying different combinations until it works) or you have developed strategies that reduce (but don’t eliminate) the variations that you use.

This will resonate with anyone who has ever done a grading plan, and even more-so for those grading plans where you have multiple starting and ending points and you need to connect them to meet accessibility needs. For those of you that haven’t done this exercise… imagine a three dimensional sudoku game. It’s not a 3×3 grid, but a 3x3x3 grid. That’s what we’re solving on a complicated site. [ED: I’m also hoping you take a bit of pity on us… this stuff can boggle the mind.]

You also have to keep track of your solution iterations, and make tough choices on which ones are better than others as you assemble them into a cohesive plan. Balancing access, constructability, cost, aesthetics and client opinion… and what the architect is pushing for to blend with their thoughts, and the civil engineer is pushing for in their approach. Imagine playing sudoku where you have the pen, but it’s a bunch of people around you telling you how to do it.

So… landscape architecture is about aesthetics and design, but it also involves us trying to find the simplest and most graceful solution to complex puzzles under the pressure of countless variables that should be considered. When most people think of what we do, they think of planting plans. The reality is that math and strategic problem solving and client/team management are likely closer to our reality.

[ED: I love brilliant flashes of the obvious and things that help me understand (and describe) my world better. Thank you Kristina for this lovely revelation.]

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About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

“Thank You” as a Part of Your Brand

image  Thomas Leuthard https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ cropped from original

image Thomas Leuthard https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ cropped from original

Feeling Good About Ourselves

When was the last time that you received a hand-written note or card, where the sentiment was crafted by someone other than Hallmark? When was the last time that someone stopped to offer genuine thanks for something you did?

We often don’t remember the power of taking a few minutes of time to reach out to someone to thank them, compliment them, or otherwise add value to their lives.

When we take the time to reach out, we have the opportunity to reinforce the good that we see. When you are thanked for something you’ve done, you are more likely to do it again.

Building Your Brand

You want to be the person who is known as thoughtful. Your company/department should be remembered as having thoughtful staff. Instituting a ‘culture of thanks’ takes a little effort and support. By doing this, you reinforce your brand and create a positive atmosphere surrounding how people perceive you.

Case Study

We decided that we wanted to celebrate thanking people, make it was easy as we could, and to integrate it closely into our brand.

  • Step 1: What form would it take?
    • We like getting thank you cards, so we decided that having thank you cards on hand would be great.
  • Step 2: How does it reinforce our brand?
    • We are designers, so we wanted our card to emphasize our personality and ability:
      • Brand: With a raven as our logo, we already had a strong visual identity that we could draw upon.
      • Story: One of the reasons we chose our logo was that many cultures have stories revolving around Raven.
      • Approach: We wanted the card to be interactive so that not only would they get a thank you, they would spend a little time experiencing our card.
  • Step 3: A card.
    • Our card comes to you in a square envelope (with lots of stamps… more on that later).
    • You open it, and there is a round card  with a grommet in the center. It spins!
    • You notice that when you spin it, it shows you a word in a language that isn’t English and tells you what the language is.
    • You spin it some more, and you see that they’re mostly Native Alaskan languages, with some other languages commonly spoken in Alaska as well.
    • When you get to ‘English’, you see that the word is ‘Raven’
    • When you turn the card over, there’s a message from one of us to you.
  • Step 4: The psychology.
    • We hope that you are happy we’ve reached out to you to say something.
      • We’re trying to build and reinforce a relationship with you. We value you.
    • We hope that you see the card as something cool, and because it has a purpose/value, something you might keep.
      • You may show it to others, and expose them to our brand.
  • Step 5: Implementation
    • We have cards, envelopes and postage handy at all times.
    • We encourage staff to send these cards whenever they have an interaction that would benefit from a thank you.
    • We remind people that this includes all people, from the CAD tech who sent us a file to the Principal we had lunch with.
    • We keep a record of to whom they’ve been sent.
    • We also have Corvus Design Stickers, so we usually put one in the envelope. Everyone likes stickers, or knows someone young who does.
  • Step 6: Lessons Learned
    • We’re super excited when we go into an office and see our card on a cubicle wall. Success!
    • There are people we’d like to thank more than once, and this card would have minimal impact a second time. So, worked with a photographer to do a set of cards with winter, spring, summer and fall photos of ravens. Now we have the option of five fresh cards to send to any given person.
    • As an interesting “unintentional consequence”, we chose square envelopes because they are cool, and are perfect for a round card. Little did we know that the postal service charges $0.21 extra for square envelopes for special handling.
    • There are so many good times to earnestly thank someone. It’s a meaningful exercise for us to stop, and think about who we’d like to thank.

The Card

It’s hard to convey the card in a photo since it’s interactive, but here it is along with the sticker we include, and our branded USB drive. The USB drive is also a bottle opener, which aligns with our desire that people interact with our freebies. It’s also fun to hand to someone and say, “It holds memory… but helps you forget.”

Corvus Design Circular Raven Card, Bottle Opener USB Drive, and Logo Sticker

Corvus Design Circular Raven Card, Bottle Opener USB Drive, and Logo Sticker

What Value Will You Leave Behind?

construction

This might be the best interview question to ask someone: if you leave us, what value will you have left behind? People move on to bigger and better things, and at some point will leave your company. The true test of how good an employee was is what value they created in your company, and successfully left behind for the company to use.

Interview advice always includes researching an employer and showing interest in them. Taking this a step further is showing a company that you have the initiative to not only do your job, but to make your employer better. It’s an active realization that companies don’t just need workers, they need people who understand the company’s mission and want to take it someplace. Employee initiative builds on the foundation of a business plan, and begins to create a place that is not just the owner’s vision… but a collective vision.

If the right employees are hired, and they are actively engaged in building such value, a real benefit is that they will be less likely to leave a company (except for bigger and better things). It creates a collective agreement that all parties are invested in one another. ‘Collective’ is an important part of that statement. It leads to the fact that the question that started this post has an equally important question the potential hire must ask: How does your company enable employees to build long-term value within it?

It’s a partnership.

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About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

Free Energy For All

tesla

I’m fascinated by the concept of think tanks. I have this vision of one of those sci-fi war rooms with glass partitions that people draw and write on to illustrate their ideas for how to stop that asteroid from destroying the earth. It’s a room of highly (dys)functional people (the ‘dys’ part for Hollywood effect… and some reality likely). All of the stereotypical movie characters are there: thinker, firebrand, action guy, lone wolf, leader, genius, wisdom. There are sparks, conflict and… alignment (usually based in an achieved grudging respect). It’s a boiling pot of intersection chaos that slowly takes form and aligns with more and more clarity. Brainstorm.

My wife asked me what my dream job would be. My response was to be with a group of people operating at their highest level of expertise. The intent of this is to work at that tension point where you have a room brimming with skill and experience, and you can achieve the cold fusion of ideas from the future.

Talking about cold fusion… where do you get your energy?

Batteries on Samsung phones have been combusting. Things might look normal, but then a bunch of protons and neutrons get excited and can’t control themselves. Boom. Burnout. The goal for a battery is to have controlled chemical reactions that release energy as needed, not less than nor more than what you need. When the battery gets low, it gets plugged in and replenished. Eventually it wears down for that graceful slide into being replaced.

We all need to have an idea about how our batteries work. How much energy can they produce? How sustainably? What peak demand can we exert on them? How do we recharge them?

I asked a friend the other night where he gets his energy from. He spoke for a while, and I needed to laugh since I realized that his response was effectively “cold fusion”. His energy comes from ideas and the opportunities that have not yet materialized. His energy comes from future possibility. He’s drawing from the future to power the present.

How do you draw from the future? The future exists purely as an idea. In order to draw from that energy, you need to be a broker or participant in the realm of ideas. There are some among us that are visionaries who have a direct connection to this, but for the majority of us… the energy that the future provides requires a chemical reaction in the present.

A chemical reaction requires something precipitating change. My friend has placed himself in a position where he has access to people and the ideas that they bring. Another way to look at this is that change occurs when two things intersect. When we optimize our ability to harness intersections, then we can begin to direct and manage change, and the intellectual result is the ability to harness ideas.

So, he harvests the energy of ideas. Conscious or subconscious, he’s not fully drawing power from the land of the future. He’s tending a farm of potential intersections where each collision creates sparks. His excitement and drive come from a knowledge that some of these sparks can then be grown into something more. His energy comes from interacting with people who also align themselves with ideas and the potential for change. It’s a bit vampiric feeding on this energy created by those around you, but… we all find our ways to contribute. Or, just get to be lucky to be along for the ride?

Where do I get my energy? Some intrinsic instinct to try to make sparks.

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About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

Design: What Are You Buying?

My ultimate goal in these posts is to try to provide concrete ideas and actions. A previous post (The Beauty of Being a Hack) was more along the lines of musing, but a few minutes after I posted it I realized one of the more concrete things to which it might lead: you get what you pay for. [brilliant flash of the obvious!]

One of the tangents in the post was that I’m in a creative profession, but as a landscape architect much of our work relates to function. When we are scoping new projects, I usually have two very important questions:

  • For the client’s aesthetic, how ‘high’ of a level do they want? (I see the simpler version of this now which is, “How much design/art do they want?”
  • How linear do you expect the project to be? (I see the simpler version of this now is, “How actively will we have to manage the process to keep it on track?”

We work in a city with a landscape ordinance. At the simplest, our projects provide a client with a landscape that meets local requirements. We have systems in place for this that allow us to do it quite efficiently, and we have the design experience to add some flair within it as well. These projects can be super linear, without the intricacies of reflecting a higher design aesthetic. We can be confident in providing a very reasonable fee.

BUT… realize that you are hiring us for our project management capabilities. We have an agreement based on the very high level of knowns required for that very reasonable fee. You are not hiring us as designers/artists. Luckily, that’s what you generally DON’T want for this particular scenario. You’re looking for fact and a successful permit, not design and opinion.

When we are approached as designers, the interesting by-product is that we need to provide an even higher level of project management services. Design is incredibly messy and opinion-based, and takes significant time and effort to create what might seem to be a linear design process. The fees will be higher.

A small fee indicates a discrete and known task. A less discrete and less known task has a higher fee. All of the above is logical and sets the stage for the conclusion of this post. The above has a foundation of us wanting to deliver an optimized client value. Our goal is to find the fee where the client gets best value in our market, and to have our internal processes where for this fee we make money.

So… as a client there is the spectrum between frugal and patron. Reasonable frugality gets good value that leans toward the sparse. The emphasis on control in this relationship lies with us. A frugal client will always hope for more scope for less, and we are in control of what we deliver. My interest is in the concept of patron. The emphasis on control in this relationship is the patron. They need to determine the level of patronage that gives them their desired return on investment. There WILL be a point where the value of patronage is optimized, and beyond which will have no benefit… if not beginning to result in negatives.

The tongue-in-cheek point of the above. Pay us little and you get exactly what you pay for. Pay us more and you get what you pay for, but you do place some more control in our court to exceed your expectations. Pay us a lot, you might just make us lazy.

 

Beyond the humor intended within this, the summary point is: As creative design professionals (a licensed profession), your fee always gets you a high level of project management to ensure that we meet your expectations. We will be very careful about setting good expectations (which takes a high level of effort for small fees, disproportionate). To enable us as creative designers, we need to be compensated. We are fair in our approach, and our goal is to find the right level of value for you. With the right fee, you will engage us in a manner that you may just get more than you pay for… that’s the beauty of creatives. We develop new and unique things that sometimes deliver much more than what they cost.

Endnote: If you see us driving an Audi… it’s because we eat ramen for lunch. =)

Endnote Two: I drive a 1998 Ford Bronco II… because I grow attached to things… and it has an awesome turning radii for city driving. And I’m frugal. And I like to fix things.

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About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

This blog post was originally posted on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/design-what-you-buying-peter-briggs?published=t

Pokemon Go for Professionals

Coloring Book

Coloring Book! Creative Commons Copyright Elizabeth Albert https://www.flickr.com/photos/elizabeth_albert/5027163965 edited for size and to remove name on drawing

If you haven’t played Pokemon Go yet, you might be making a mistake. Especially if you are a design professional. Even more especially if you ever deal with the planning and design of people’s environments.

When was the last time you explored where you live with a fresh set of eyes? I know I stopped exploring  where I live years ago. By explore, I mean wandering around like I would when I’m a traveler in a new city. My lack of exploration of my home is in part because I’m goal driven, and I haven’t set goals that relate to wandering around and (re)experiencing the world immediately around me.

I typically explore when I hear of a new restaurant or destination, when we have guests in town, or during that rare instance when we choose to get out and do something we normally wouldn’t do. Like play Pokemon Go downtown.

Humans like reward. That’s why the concept of gamification can be quite successful. Pokemon Go is fascinating in that as the first truly successful augmented reality effort, it’s turned the world around us into a game’s playing surface. There are now new rewards for people to walk around and explore their environments. As a design professional, if you don’t understand and ‘get’ what this means… you’re doing yourself a disservice.

I’ve been playing Pokemon Go distractedly since shortly after it was launched. My wife loaded it onto her phone recently. We decided to go downtown yesterday and enjoy wandering around as we played the game. We drove and parked on the edge of our city center, and started walking. We developed a system for how we’d order our meandering:

  • Walk up and down the streets.
  • Within each block, we’d go to the Pokestops and try to avoid looking too nerdy.
  • We’d be unable to look anything but nerdy when we encountered Pokemon that we would then need to trap in a Pokeball. (swiping fingers on our screens)
  • We would linger at any Pokestop that had a lure activated, hopefully having it coincide with a beer and some food.

Many of the Pokestops in downtown Anchorage seem to be focused on art. We stopped a few places in the museum’s garden, and realized that we hadn’t been there in a long time. We took a bit of time to enjoy, and get some pleasure in seeing the work of friends. Around downtown, we found pokestops for art that we didn’t know existed. We walked places that we might never have walked. We looked at buildings and spaces, and learned the name for art where we have not known the name before. All the while, we had the overlay of the fun of pursuit of playing a game and the rewards within it.

KEY#1: Pokemon Go provided us with a form of tour guide that took us from place to place, with a focus on art. Since that aligns with our interests, the game provided us with a meaningful service. (note: in Hood River, Oregon… many of the pokestops focused on historic buildings.)

We stopped in for a coffee at Side Street Espresso, and as we passed Darwin’s… someone activated a lure on Darwin’s Pokestop. That drew us inside for a beer (close enough to noon to be okay).

KEY#2: Wise businesses realize that Pokemon Go exists and can be used to their benefit. We would not have stopped in at Darwin’s at that time of day if a lure hadn’t been activated. We came in, spent money on beer, and had fun.

As an augmented reality game, Pokemon Go is simplistic and in an infancy of potentials. As someone who works with urban design and planning (with a goal of engaging people into their environments), there is a fascinating potential for delivering information and the potential for interaction. At the moment, most players use Pokemon Go to “catch ’em all”, so it’s highest cultural success is likely getting people out walking. But, what’s next?

KEY#3: We went downtown with the sole purpose of meandering and catching Pokemon. We learned some things about our city in part because of Pokestops, but more so because we actually went downtown! It took a reward to get us to do that. In the future, when augmented reality tools incorporate different levels of reward, tied to local opportunities and knowledge, then they move beyond augmented reality into integrated reality. A logical step for that would be to require interaction (knowledge or activity) to get the rewards at a Pokestop… rather than just swiping the screen.

Pokemon Go is a digital treasure hunt. A pub crawl. First Friday art walks. Any community event with the goal of offering something in return for effort. It’s just a new approach to getting people out. I find it funny that many people and professionals dismiss or even sneer at Pokemon Go… as they miss the point. The point is the opportunities that it alludes to… and… fun.

Original posted on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/pokemon-go-professionals-peter-briggs

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About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

The Line Cook Crux

Restaurant_cook,_Seattle,_1954

Who’s your line cook?

A new friend owns some restaurants in Portland. When it comes to hiring, a challenge in that market is finding and retaining a good line cook (def’n:”Line cooks are usually responsible for prepping ingredients and assembling dishes according to restaurant recipes and specifications. Kitchens can be hot, noisy and stressful places, so you’ll need to be able to work efficiently and quickly to be successful as a line cook.”). The challenge in finding and retaining line cooks is that in most markets, the pay isn’t great and the work is hard. Those two conditions mean that it’s not necessarily an attractive position. It’s a pathway to something else inside the food industry, or a temporary stop on the way to something outside of the industry.

A dishwasher, a busser, a waiter, a manager. All positions that are somewhat formulaic and transferrable. They basically are about the successful delivery of a product. Without a product, they have no job. Who creates that product? The line cook. Hence, I find it interesting that this position is typically undervalued.

In your industry, who’s your line cook? What happens when you lose them?

The answer lies within specialization, and how an organization develops its staffing through evolution or importation. A line cook not only needs preparation and cooking skills, they need to be familiar with your recipes, imbued within your culture/brand, and have that certain zest/zeal/initiative where food gets  a bit of its magic. Whether an eye for detail, or artistry, patrons love to love their food.

Specialization. What kind of a person can step in and immediately get the job done? What proportion of the potential employee market have the ability to do this? How much training will it take?

Evolution. Do you have the ability to smoothly transition people within your organization from one position to the next? Do they have the skills and interest to do this? Do you have this person when you need them? Has someone already passed through this position and are they able to step back to it in a time of need? If they step back into this role, can they do both jobs?

Importing. Is the position one where someone can step in from outside and carry your business vision? How much training is required to provide them with the skills and knowledge they need? How much is required to invest them in your vision?

As an employee or business owner, you’ll identify with the challenges of having the right person in the right place at the right time… and the effort needed to manage doing it. The point of this post is for you to go out and find another business person to speak with. Ask them who their line cook is? What position is undervalued? What position is harder to fill than you think it should be? Then figure out why.

The restaurant owner I spoke with emphasized how important his company culture is to him. Vision/passion/brand/promise… whatever term you use, how his staff operate and interact with each other and the public is critical to him. When it comes to the ‘line cook crux’, his approach was to stop and look at the market around him. He sees it as an undervalued position, so his response is to value it through higher than industry pay… and also to value it through the culture he fosters for all of this employees. If the rarity of good line cooks is related to being undervalued… solve some of the problem by creating value.

A certain position within your company may always be a critical skill or resource. When you imbue that position with the right value, then people might seek you out, and certainly lessen the impulse to see  whether the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Once again, a brilliant flash of the obvious… but it’s a good exercise to go through to recognize that staff are your most important resource. Some are more ‘replaceable’ than others, but why put yourself in a place where you need to replace someone except when they are moving on to the next phase of their life? When your line cook goes to another company to be the same line cook there… what happened?