Cooks and Chefs: Why Agile Hasn’t Fixed Our Problems

November 30, 2020

Agile has become a jungle of tooling vendors and consulting companies selling frameworks that are implemented almost as a blueprint or a recipe. There are too many cooks when what we need is more chefs. Let me explain…

Cooks follow recipes. Chefs create them. We need both. However, it’s much easier to copy recipes that work, and for many aspects of our life, it probably makes sense to act as a cook. Cooks span a wide range.

Cook by the Book

On one end, we have cooks who only cook by following a recipe to the letter, carefully measuring every ingredient precisely the way the recipe dictates. The result is a delicious meal that tastes exactly the way the recipe has it designed. Nothing wrong with this when you have all the ingredients or you want to learn how to be a better cook.

In our organizations, we almost never have all of the ingredients. In the professional consulting and coaching industry, cook by the book is somebody who swears by his favorite framework and acts dogmatically like he just drank the agile kool-aid. They’re usually not aware that they don’t have all of the ingredients. How many people like this do you know?

Cook with Unique Style

Down the range a bit, we have more of a confident cook — someone with experience who gets the general gist of the recipe and then uses her skills and instincts to do it her way. The result is something a little more unique to her style that tastes like the recipe but not quite.

The professional consulting and coaching industry is full of cooks with a unique style. Everybody today calls themselves an agile coach and consultant. They all tend to claim that they have a unique style and experience. All they have is the general gist of agile frameworks and some confidence at this point in the spectrum. Again, nothing wrong with that, we need cooks with unique styles.

Cook with Innovations

At the far end of the cook range, we have an innovator who makes his version. But what all of these cooks have in common is their starting point is something that already exists. Even the innovative cook is still making an iteration of a burger, a pizza, and a cake.

For cooks, even the more innovative kind, there’s almost always a ceiling on the size of the splash they can make in the world unless there’s some luck involved. In the past, there was nothing wrong with being a cook. In today’s environment, cooks without chefs to help them grow will not help you push boundaries and create solutions to the disruptions your industry faces presently and in the future.

In the professional consulting and coaching industry, these are the experienced coaches and consultants that understand the underlying patterns and principles behind the frameworks. These are the people that think they are chefs but are actually not. I find myself being a cook a lot of times. I assume originality while I don’t give props to the chefs and cooks who helped us get to where we are today. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.


At the very end of the spectrum, we have the chef. The chef reasons from principles, and for the chef, the principles are the available raw edible ingredients. Those are her puzzle pieces, her building blocks, and she works her way upwards from there, using what’s available, her experience, her instincts, and her taste buds. The chef creates while the cook, in some form or another, copies.

In the professional consulting and coaching industry, the essential thing the chef knows that the cooks don’t is what it takes to change the culture. In my upcoming book, Wicked Leadership, I show how organizational culture is shaped by the mindsets, actions, and systems. Chefs know that none of the frameworks work all the time. Instead, they help others learn the underlying thinking and principles (Systems Thinking, Complexity Management, Lean Thinking, Psychology, Culture, etc. ), then co-create a system that works best in their context. Chefs create more chefs. Is it in our DNA to be chefs? How many people do you know that want to be a chef?

In complex environments, we need to work to evolve our recipes as our ingredients change.

In the culinary world, there’s nothing wrong with being a cook. Most people are cooks because, for most people, inventing recipes isn’t a goal of theirs. Chefs are iterative and constantly evolving their recipes as they learn. When it comes to the reasoning “recipes” or frameworks we use to run our organizations, we may want to think twice about where we are on the cook-chef spectrum. I love the feedback that Tobias Mayer gave me when I asked him about what he thought about this article. Here’s what he said.

Give me an experienced, humble cook any day over a self-appointed, arrogant chef. – Tobias Mayer

Without cooks, there are no chefs. The chef will never tell you that they are a chef. They’re humble and always learning. They’re aware of how much they don’t know and how important it is to help others grow.

The Last 20 Years

Simply being a cook wasn’t the intent of most of the Agile Manifesto signers. The Agile Manifesto was written in February 2001, almost 20 years ago, as of this writing. In the intervening 20 years, organizations of all sizes, from the largest enterprises to the nimblest of startups, have attempted to follow the values and principles of agile. Agile — spelled with the capital A — has informed frameworks, framed transformational business strategies, and, in some communities, elevated to the status of religious dogma. In other words, we’ve become stubborn in our beliefs that agile is the way. We’re ever so sure that we’re right, that they, whoever they are, are wrong. Have you noticed it?

We’ve become stubborn in our beliefs that agile is the way.

Agile Hasn’t Fixed Our Problems

As conceived by its creators, the entire premise of agile development was that its focus should be to deliver software and continually improve it to satisfy the customer’s changing needs. Any focus that did not deliver valuable working software to the customer should be eliminated. Somehow along the way, agile got redefined by the consulting industry and what the majority of people (cooks) thought.

The truth is that most agile transformations and adoptions never delivered what they promised. Agile adoption failure stories are abundant. Just talk to anybody that’s been part of one and hear what they have to say. A very large majority of all of these so-called “Agile” transformations and adoptions fail to generate the capability to adapt to changing market conditions. In this context, failure means that change initiatives that use agile approaches are reversed, canceled, or don’t deliver the desired results.

Agile, as we know it today, hasn’t fixed our ongoing problems. It never will. It was never meant to do that.

Regularly, thousands of coaches and consultants are asked if they could help bring agility and responsiveness to the organization. This leadership and organizational addiction to bringing in consultants and coaches to fix their problems have been around since the 1920s when James McKinsey and Marvin Bower injected the consulting industry with a professionalism that would shape it for the next 100 years. Bringing in coaches and consultants is like bringing in outside cooks and chefs to tell our kitchen staff what to do. The problem with this approach is that it only works until it doesn’t. Lets me explain by using another culinary analogy.

New England Clam Chowder

To say that I love the New England Clam Chowder would be an understatement. Made as it should be, is a dish to preach about, to chant praises and sing hymns and burn incense before. Okay, maybe I’m over exaggerating, but it’s wicked good! It has about a dozen ingredients that make it a signature dish here in the North Eastern United States. Similar to New England Clam Chowder, Scrum also has about a dozen ingredients (roles, events, artifacts, values) that make it a powerful framework for product development.

Now imagine that you are a cook who does everything by the book. But you don’t have all of the ingredients for the New England Clam Chowder. Instead of clam juice, you add white wine, and instead of butter, you add coconut oil because you heard from another cook that those are good substitutes. Now we have something that looks like a New England Clam Chowder but doesn’t taste like it. As a cook, you are not aware of how these new ingredients are reacting to other ingredients. I see this all the time with Scrum, where people pick and choose what they like from the Scrum framework. A few weeks ago, I did a workshop, and I heard somebody say that they’re doing Daily Scrum every other day because the team has too many status meetings. It might look like they are doing Scrum on the surface, but when we look at the outcomes and behaviors, it’s not cutting the mustard. There is nothing wrong with using different ingredients if we know what we’re doing. Just don’t call it Scrum or New England Clam Chowder.

Why We Need Both Cooks and Chefs

The new wave of agile is here, and guess what? It’s not coming from the consultants. It’s coming from the people and companies that have realized that to adapt to the changing market conditions, they need to grow their own cooks and create their own chefs. Ultimately, cooks and chefs need to work together to create and evolve their recipes.

In a fast-changing work environment, where “ingredients” are changing so rapidly, there is no single framework or recipe to address all our needs. If every team in our company is doing the same thing, we are not “big-A” agile or “little-a” agile. Instead, every team should be evolving its way of working. When we are truly agile we can change our direction very quickly — we can redirect individual teams and what they’re building very quickly. What I’ve seen is that we need about 10–15% of the employees to be able to step in and occupy the full cook-chef spectrum. We need both cooks and chefs. We need our chefs to help the organization create more chefs. Our internal chefs need to create something delicious from the ingredients available rather than blindly following popular recipes and frameworks.

If you start looking for it, you’ll see the chef/cook thing happening everywhere.

Dare to be a chef!


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