Learning to Appreciate Cutthroat Kitchen

Blog - Giant whisk

I’m not a huge TV fan, but I first came to know about Cutthroat Kitchen because my wife liked to watch it.

The format of Cutthroat Kitchen is simple. It is a cooking competition where four chefs eliminate one another over three rounds of cooking. At the start of each show, the chefs are given an upfront prize money of $25,000, which they can use to bid for sabotages to inflict on one another. The more money they bid with, the less they have for themselves if they end up as the final winner.

The sabotages differ each week. In one episode, one chef had to do his food prep in a ball pit! (Talk about being in the pits…)

Blog - Cook in ballpit

In another episode, one chef had to make crepes “in” a terribly misshapen pan!

Blog - mishapen pan

After each round of cooking, a judge tastes the dishes and eliminates one of the chefs. The judge has no clue what the sabotages were, or who was sabotaged.

When I first watched the show, I thought it was silly, even sadistic. Why do we delight in seeing people pranked and sabotaged? If the point is to pick out the best chef, why place so many obstacles in the way of their culinary skills?

But after a while (and perhaps one gets desensitized over time), I began to appreciate the show. I think Cutthroat Kitchen reflects some realities about life.

How often we go into a situation with a great plan only to be disappointed to find out that critical parts of the plan are missing. Perhaps we don’t have certain resources. Maybe the cost of materials has gone up. Perhaps some other department is not cooperating. When that happens, we get anxious and upset. We think, no way we can do it like this!! So we do everything to raise the stakes, not too different from how the chefs in Cutthroat Kitchen raise their bets.

But as we’ve seen too many times on Cutthroat Kitchen, it is possible to take a sabotage (or more), and still finish the task. It may require a different process, it may require the dish to be refashioned or even reinterpreted, but it can be done. Often, the dish turns out quite well too. In fact, chefs who’ve had to work through sabotages at times outperformed those that had no sabotages!

Life likes to throw us curveballs, sometimes nasty ones. It is important to be able to adapt and change one’s strategy and plan in the midst of adversity. More impressive perhaps, are those who can change their mindset as well. The most impressive chefs I’ve seen are those who have looked at a sabotage and said, yes it’s dreadful but I’m not going to raise the stakes on this one because I think I can deal with it. There is something inspiring about people who are keenly aware of their skills and gain quiet confidence; people who focus on what is possible rather than what is impossible. These are often the game-changers.

As they say, things often seem impossible until they are done. I used to find Cutthroat Kitchen frivolous, even irritating. I’ve learnt to appreciate it better. I think there’s a lot we can learn from the show. I now watch it with a curiosity as to the breathtaking possibilities when we learn to adapt and change our plans and strategy, and perhaps more importantly, also our minds.

Blog - High stakes

Image credits: Food Network


We Are One


George Yeo, the former Foreign Minister of Singapore, shared the following story in his new book, ”Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao”.

The late Cardinal Jan Schotte, who had served as Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican, was drafting a speech for the late Pope John Paul II. In one of the sentences, Schotte wrote,

“despite our differences, we are one.”


When John Paul II saw it, he replaced “despite” with “because of”.

because of our differences, we are one.”


For me, this ranks as one of my favorite simpler ideas.

We often focus on our differences, and we draw lines that divide us. Actually, noticing differences is not a bad thing in itself. For our differences make each of us unique, and they allow each of us to bring something unique to the table. It becomes a problem only when we use those differences not to strengthen ourselves but to divide ourselves.

And in trying to divide ourselves, we become a lesser one.

George Yeo’s story also shows how profound change can be achieved through subtle shifts in how we think. By simply changing a few words, we can see the possibilities of a better world.

And to close, here’s another simple idea :)


Photo credit:


A changing world?

Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the Chicago area, predicting up to 18 inches of snow. The city of Evanston deemed it serious enough to declare a snow emergency, although Northwestern University remained open today (from where I sit here typing this J)

Snow or no snow, Rusty still needs to get out of the house three times a day to relieve himself. So, this morning we braved the weather to get out and also check the “damage” outside.

Rusty snow

The snow was thick, but not as scary as I thought. I think Chicago has experienced far worse blizzards. I think we survive this one quite well.

Rusty though was jumpy and anxious. It was not the cold, for he was the least interested in heading back to our warm apartment.

As I observed him further, it dawned on me that the world could look different for him. The usual smells are now blanketed under heaps of snow. As we walked along the footpath, where it was unshoveled he had to jump and hop a lot, and where it had been shoveled the shoveled snow formed huge piles on each side. I was curious how the world looked like for him, so I bent down to take some pictures from a dog’s eye view.

Snow terrain

Seeing these “dog’s eye view” photos, I began to empathize with his experience. I could imagine why he might have been so jittery walking along these same paths that we must have walked hundreds of times. For him now, it may feel like a different place, perhaps like walking around in trenches and not knowing whether friend or foe might pop out at every turn.

Snow terrain 2

I tried to assure Rusty that all was fine, and the world has not changed. But the poor boy could not be placated. If dogs could talk, his cries and whimpers might sound something like, “But Daddy, you don’t understand! The world has changed! Everything has changed! What I used to know, I don’t recognize it anymore! I can’t tell where the dangers are!”

To little Rusty, the world has changed drastically. In fact, it must have looked different to him each time we go out. He is stressed, anxious, and he is mounting a huge effort to make sense of it and find new bearings.

As human beings, we know the world has not changed overnight. At least not in the way Rusty thinks it has. We have a different vantage point to realize that despite the changes, nothing has really changed. We might even have a good laugh watching him running around like a headless chicken.

Could there be an interesting parallel here with what goes on in our organizations and workplaces? On one hand, increasingly we hear leaders and experts declare that the world is changing at a faster and faster rate. Complexity is growing and we must adapt even more quickly! On the other hand, employees are increasingly overwhelmed and fatigued, perhaps not so much by the changes in the external environment, but by the internal (organizational) responses to that.

What if amid all the complexity and change, some things have not really changed? Some of us may have laughed at Rusty just moments earlier, but what if in our own ways our behaviors are not too dissimilar to his?

As the world around us changes, do we focus only on what has changed? Or do we also look for what perhaps has not changed?

Power and Responsibility – Two Sides of the Same Coin


There is a popular quote in the Spiderman story, where Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

A common understanding of this quote is that power is in our hands must be used responsibly. This is huge in an age where so much power (economic, military, social, or otherwise) lies in the hands of so few. Much can be said about this, but I want to focus on other aspects of the power-responsibility relationship.

Recently, I had a chat with a friend about delegation. We all know that leaders cannot (and should not) do everything on their own. They need to learn to develop others within the organization and delegate duties appropriately. My friend asked whether it would be any different for regimental systems such as the military. (How) should a leader step in when he feels that things are not going the way he thinks it should?

One way to look at such issues is to see power and responsibility as two sides of the same coin – we cannot have one have one without the other. As much as it is dangerous to give people power without responsibility (i.e. the Spiderman logic), it is arguably just as bad to give people responsibility without the corresponding power. One, this sets people up for failure. Two, when we give others responsibility without the power, we end up holding that power ourselves but without the responsibility (i.e. the same Spiderman logic)!

Think about a situation where the boss puts you in charge of a project. He tells you the project is important and puts the responsibility on you to deliver it. But along the way he micro-manages and gives you instructions all the time. When the project fails, the boss tells you that you have failed in your responsibility.

What has happened? If power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, we can look at where the two separated. First, it is useful to note that leaders make decisions all the time on how to distribute power and responsibility. For example, a leader can choose to do the work himself, or he can delegate it. He can decide how and who to delegate it to. This is a prerogative and power of leadership, and it also comes with the responsibility to make the right choices. Often, when certain appointments fail we like to look at the people in those jobs. For me, I like to also ask who had put those people in those jobs in the first place.

Next, when a leader puts responsibility on his staff, does he give them the right power to do the job well? If he does not, e.g. the leader still wants to make the day-to-day decisions, then the responsibility has not left the leader. Likewise, if he meddles or micro-manages, he effectively takes power away from the staff, and so, the responsibility reverts to the leader.

Once we see how power and responsibility are kept together, or kept apart, we can make sense of many dysfunctions in organizations. If we are serious in wanting people to take on more responsibilities, we must be prepared to give them the corresponding powers to do so. So, whether a system is regimental or not, is not the main issue. The main issue is whether power and responsibility go hand-in-hand. In a system where the powers must remain centralized, the responsibility is also centralized, and the leaders should have no illusions about it. We cannot have it both ways e.g. centralized power but diffused responsibility.

A similar logic applies to societies. Today, more Governments are realizing that they alone cannot solve the problems of society; they must involve the people. And so, there are more calls for people to step up to take on more responsibilities. This invites the question, what power will the Government give to the people? In societies, power can come in various forms, e.g. formal authority, process power, financial power, information power, influence power etc. This is where it may get awkward and uneasy. If power is “the ability or right to control people or things” (source: Merriam-Webster), then sharing power or giving it up may make people (incl. Governments) feel vulnerable. For many societies, this is the real deal, the elephant in the room. It is difficult to talk about active citizenry without a corresponding talk about power.

Spiderman popularized our thinking about power and relationship in one way. I think it is important to also look at the relationship in the other direction, that is, “with great responsibility must come great power”.


Photo credit

Marvel comics

When a movement moves on


I did something today that I had not expected. I deleted the Facebook app on my mobile.

By all accounts, I’m still a Facebook fan (and an active one). I simply decide to access it via a laptop rather than my phone. But from a personal habits perspective, much will change. Since it is not so accessible, it won’t be one of the first things I check when I wake up nor one of the last things I check before I sleep. I won’t be able to sneak glances while I’m on the go or when I wait in line at the coffee shop. Without the instantaneity, I will miss those spontaneous instincts when I might post what’s on my mind.

In sentimental fashion, I looked up my Facebook timeline. I joined in August 2007, which places me somewhere between the 1st 20 million to 50 million users. By those stats, I was hardly a pioneer, but arguably an early native if you consider Facebook’s current user base of 1.3 billion (as of Sep 2014). I still recall the early days when Facebook was a quiet place: I had fewer than 20 friends. We would poke each other, and play with one another’s virtual pets (quite fun!).

As Facebook grew, it became a way to stay in touch with more friends and their important life moments (e.g. when they got married, had a newborn, or when the kids grew up and went to school). At times it felt a bit odd that we could know so much about friends we’ve not met for a long time, more than we might ever have known about them! When I came to the States, Facebook became an even more important platform to stay in touch with friends back home.

Facebook continues to fill those needs pretty well. At the same time, as it expanded its services to cater to a wider variety of needs, it began to look and feel different. Politicians and leaders began to use Facebook for public communication, and even propaganda. People began to use Facebook to share their favorite articles (which I appreciated), and to bookmark articles (which I did not appreciate). Facebook also started suggesting articles that I might like (which I did not quite appreciate) and advertisements (no!). It showed me what posts my friends liked or commented on (eh, no), and the pages they liked (e.g. Facebook’s Facebook page – NO). As Facebook made it easier to simply post, like or share things, many of my friends started saying less and less. At times, it felt like being at a party with lots of people, who simply put badges of approval (i.e. “like”) on others but with not a lot of conversation otherwise. It was still an opportunity though to selectively engage friends in private chat, but in recent months the Facebook “ushers” would to stop me and require me to install Facebook Messenger before I could chat with someone (or hear what he or she had to say). It became more difficult to be social, at least in the way I enjoyed being social.


A popular theory in social movement is Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovation, which explains “how, why and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures” (source: Wikipedia). Accordingly, a movement starts when a small group of innovators try something new. As they try and experience success, this gives confidence to the early adopters to come on board. The crux of the theory is the underlying social dynamics e.g. the early adopters do not come on board until they see the innovators in the game and experiencing success (and not a lot of harm). The theory has it that among the early adopters there are people i.e. opinion leaders who influence more people (i.e. in the early majority) to come on board. This growth curve has held up for many movements e.g. Facebook, iPhone, fashion etc. Even in an age of disruptive technology, technology may hasten the rate of change, but the social dynamics are what give the movement its distinctive shape.


As a movement grows larger, it may mean different things to different people. The story I shared about Facebook is illustration of how even as Facebook becomes even more popular it may start to lose traction with others. This is not meant to be a prognosis about the future of Facebook. In all likelihood, Facebook will continue to enjoy good growth especially as it enters relatively new markets such as Africa.

At the same time, it could well be that some of the innovators that had sparked the Facebook phenomenon and demonstrated its viability and popularity, could be on their way experimenting other things incl. potential new platforms. Perhaps the same for some of the early adopters who had appreciated the earlier, less sophisticated designs of Facebook.

Even as a movement continues to pick up momentum, more seeds may be sowing for new movements to potentially rise and compete for its place.


Image credits

Facebook screenshot


Dog, Cow, Monkey & Man – Part Two

This is not an original story – others have shared it before (for example, here). Someone shared it with me recently, and we have a Part Two to it :)

The story goes like this.

One day, God decided to create Dog, Cow, Monkey and Man.

God gave Cow a lifespan of sixty years. Cow was to work hard all day in the field under the sun. He would provide man with milk and calves, and he could only eat  grass. On hearing this, Cow requested to live twenty years and return the other forty years to God.

God gave Monkey a lifespan of twenty years. Monkey was to entertain man, perform tricks for man and make him laugh. And he would eat only bananas. On hearing this, Monkey requested to live ten years and return the other ten years to God.

God gave Dog a lifespan of twenty five years. Dog was to sit at the door of man’s house, and bark at those who came along. He would eat only what was left over from man’s meals. On hearing this, Dog requested to live fifteen years and return the other ten years to God.

Finally, God gave Man a lifespan of twenty years. Man was to sleep, eat and have fun all day. He would not have to work and would only need to enjoy life. Man really liked the deal, but felt it was too short. He had an idea – he asked God to give him the forty years that Cow had returned, and the ten years that both Monkey and Dog did not want. In all, Man would live eighty years. God thought about it, and agreed.

And this is why we spend the first twenty years of our lives eating, sleeping, playing and enjoying ourselves, the next forty years working hard like a cow, then the next ten years entertaining our grandkids like a monkey, and finally ten years nagging at others like a dog.


This is where the original story ends. Many people find it an interesting parody of life, and laugh it off. Some may even wish that man had kept his mouth shut and just enjoyed his twenty years.

Come to think, is it such a bad idea to take Cow’s forth years, Monkey’s ten years and Dog’s ten years?

I actually think it is a blessing to be able to work hard for forty years (Cow’s) to help make the world a better place, to spend ten years (Monkey’s) helping others find happiness in their lives, and ten years (Dog’s) taking care of others’ interests.

Often, we focus on the WHAT, but not the WHY. If the WHY is meaningful, then the WHAT doesn’t matter so much.

Cow, Monkey, or Dog, are all great lives if we know how to live them meaningfully :)

Why are transitions always so messy?

A friend of mine is being transferred to another organization. Such changes are not uncommon; in fact in this day and age they seem to be taking place more frequently.

Many of us would also be familiar with the mess that happens when people move. Although my friend is pretty a hardworking and detailed person, the transition still felt chaotic. She felt bad leaving a mess behind, and more so, she felt guilty that she was “abandoning” her team.

Why are transitions so messy, and must they always be so? Why can’t the transition be orderly?

I am not an expert, but I suspect the notion of an orderly transition is an idealistic myth of a highly systemized world. It is a world that believes that systems are the be-all and end-all of organizations. It is a highly rational world that believes that with the right knowledge management systems, procedures and protocols, and detailed handing-taking over task lists, any transition can be managed. It may also add, “no one is indispensable”.

In the real world, things are not so idealized or simple. William Bridges, a famous change consultant, popularized the idea that transitions involve emotional and psychological processes. Particularly when someone is a key member of a team or a respected leader, the loss can be deep and letting go can be hard. People may go through a range of emotions, such as denial (“It can’t be happening!”), anger (“How can you do this?”), depression (“We have been abandoned…”). Eventually, most people come to terms with the change (“Life has to go on. We will get by.). These are similar to the range of emotions when one grieves the death of a loved one (although the severity may be different).

sad dog

During a transition, emphasis is often placed on the transfer of knowledge and duties. This is well intentioned, since organizations must continue to function. At the same time, as much as we try to transfer the knowledge, often not a lot goes through! A grieving heart is not good at registering logic. When there too many things weighing on one’s mind, one does not pay attention to all the logical details. And so, no matter how much and how well we brief others, little goes through and often things still get messy and chaotic.

Does this mean that planning and preparing are not useful? Not true either. Planning and preparing can be helpful before a loss hits (e.g. if a succession is planned and made known well ahead of time), or after people have overcome their emotions and accepted the loss. But not when they are still struggling with the loss.

When the heart grieves, the mind closes. In my view, the best transition is to support people emotionally. In fact, I would suggest placing more emphasis on the heart than the mind. It may be painful, it may be drawn out, but it is important. People need to grieve, seek support in one another, and find closure. The sooner they are helped to get over the loss, the better frame of mind they will be in to direct their energies to the tasks at hand.

And so, I believe that transitions should always be managed carefully, and organizations should not be cavalier about them.

Quick comment on “dispensability”: I agree that no one is indispensable, however I would argue that there are always better, and also worse, ways to manage a transition. For example, planning to have multiple major transitions going on at the same time simply makes things a lot more unpredictable and potentially chaotic. So yes, no one is indispensable, but how you manage the change matters a great deal too. A successful transition is as much the responsibility of the people who hand over and take over, as it is the responsibility of the leadership that lets that happen. Leaders that happily believe that structures and systems alone will ensure smooth transition, or who believe that they can order any change since “no one is indispensable”, may be playing around with their fortunes of their organizations and the well being of their people.

Photo Credits:

Rich Renomeron via photopin cc