In this February Inc. Magazine article, which I finally got to this weekend, The University of Virginia’s Saras Sarasvathy talks about research she’s done into the thinking styles of accomplished entrepreneurs.

The whole piece is worth reading, but I was especially intrigued by her flavorful distinction between entrepreneurial thinking and managerial thinking:

“Sarasvathy likes to compare expert entrepreneurs to Iron Chefs: at their best when presented with an assortment of motley ingredients and challenged to whip up whatever dish expediency and imagination suggest. Corporate leaders, by contrast, decide they are going to make Swedish meatballs. They then proceed to shop, measure, mix, and cook Swedish meatballs in the most efficient, cost-effective manner possible.”

Are you an Iron Chef or a Swedish Chef? Or is this difference just a misleading stew?

14 Responses to “Entrepreneurs are Iron Chefs, Managers are Swedish Chefs”

  1. Carolyn S. says:

    That’s a pretty good analogy. How about members of Congress?

  2. Peter P says:

    I think a *good* manager is more like the head chef in charge of a 3 star Michelin restaurant – they need to be creative, execute well every day and yet be absolutely focussed on ‘operationalising’ their endeavours so that it can be repeated day in day out with loss of quality or a blow out on costs. They also

  3. Jan Y. says:

    Whatever you compare them to, we need both! One to shake things up and the other to figure out how to keep it going. I think congress just keeps throwing things into the pot but forget to stop and taste it to see if it’s any good!

  4. Trevor Lewis says:

    Expert entrepreneurs “…at their best when presented with…”??? “Presented with”? Surely not! Entrepreneurs go looking for opportunities to match ingedients to hungry people.

    Is Congress in the business of force-feeding?

  5. Kathleen says:

    In the food analogy, (IMHO) Congress argues over the recipe for the people’s cookies, all the while nibbling away at the ingredients.

    Iron Chef vs. Swedish chef, put in the art world–are you Jacques Louis-David or Thomas Kinkade?

  6. Bruce Howard says:

    Dan, great question. Applied to cooking (and I have to say, to my work, too), the meals the family likes the most have been created from the ingredients on hand, even when it was reported that “we don’t have anything for dinner.” Similarly, my best professional success has been as a “fixer,” even when someone else walked away from a mess. Maybe some of us need those constraints to get our creative juices flowing. I admire those who can plan & assemble resources deliberately and strategically…I look for them to hand projects to!

    Being aware of our natural prediliction can help us appreciate both kinds of chefs…and to be intentional on which is the best fit for a given situation.

  7. Katherine says:

    I think that the Swedish Chef analogy works if you are the one creating the company. The best manager I know came into his work after the meatballs were already being created by a variety of sous chefs. In that case, I think the best analogy I have read was one that I read over the weekend regarding the best principals being ones that were like band/orchestra directors. They know the product they want at the end, as well as both the possibilities, abilities and limitations of the musicians – and the instruments they play.
    I see Congress as the head of a restaurant chain that they don’t know how to best utilize. Should everyone be fast food? Elegant dining? How about the profits from elegant dining prices and serving fast food?

  8. john serpa says:

    Entrepreneurial thinking latches on to the notion that today’s problems generally result from yesterday’s solutions. Managerial thinking devises ways to apply six sigma to every process hoping that minimal error will result in better outcomes. While the SS tool is valuable, managerial thinking often misses the Thrive Factor, that people are jazzed in their inner core by something greater then 99.999% accuracy.

    As an example, in 1949 a company named Circuit City was born, in 2001 it was a Good to Great poster child, in 2008, it imploded. So, ask yourself this question, did the managerial thinkers at CC pay attention to the meal they were preparing or was it they had no time and thus opted for a drive through mentality where the health of everyone in the organization suffered in the long run?

    Food for thought.

    @johnserpa
    Vienna, VA

  9. KC Ramsay says:

    Perhaps hidden in this nifty metaphor is the subtlety that the Iron Chefs know in advance that the “surprise” ingredient will be selected from one of three possible choices and they, therefore, can prepare for three possible scenarios. Said another way, remarkable execution benefits from both skill AND focused preparation.

  10. Mark Curzon says:

    Interesting idea. Recent experience with entrepreneurs indicates that they do indeed make do with what they have and can end up serving a dog’s dinner. Being entrepreneurs, of course, they’ll still look you in the eye and sell it to you!

  11. Helen F says:

    I acknowledge that you are just repeating the suggestion that the “Swedish” chef perhaps lacks the right brain creativity and problem solving abilities of some other TVLand metaphor. Add to that the somewhat dismissive idea that Swedish=meatballs and I wonder how you would feel if we substituted instead “American” cheese. You’re right… a misleading stew, but fair enough if you don’t forget it is an extremely narrow metaphor.

  12. Brahm Memone says:

    I would tend to agree whole heartedly again with the metaphor. I have worked on three different continents in large and small corporations. Being a high right brain (in a very left brain profession – Accounting) change was more easy in small entrepreneurial focused organizations than in behemoth dinosaurs where everything was done in accordance with policies, processes and procedures laid down.

    Needless to say a lot of dysfunction occurs in large organizations, and people like Richard Branson are able to move quick as an iron chef and take on these behemoths at their own game.

  13. Mr.Choice says:

    I don’t think she is far from right when she ascertains established entrepreneurs do actually act like seasoned chefs. Entrepreneurs have to utilize tactical measures to derive substantial revenues from their operations.

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