Stop me if this sounds familiar: You’ve got some friends and family over. You’re cooking for a small crowd. There are a couple of things on the stove, a half-compiled meat and cheese plate on the counter, and you haven’t even started on the salad dressing yet. Dinner is starting shortly, and your kitchen in abuzz.
A friend intuitively asks, “How can I help?”
You do a quick mental somersault. You think about the ingredients you haven’t pulled from the fridge yet, the recipe that’s in your head, the specificity of your plating…
“Um…um…” you stammer, opening up the fridge, while something on the stove starts to sizzle. “Actually, would you mind flipping that over before it burns?”
“Sure thing!” they reply. “Where’s the spatula?”
You mentally sigh inside as you reach into the side drawer and turn down the burner yourself. “You what, never mind,” you jump back in. “Don’t even worry about it. You go enjoy yourself. I got this.”
It takes a certain level of expertise to prepare a meal for a large group. But it takes it to the next level to prepare to get a little help along the way.
Giving away work in chunks
I’ve noticed in my professional work that the best managers are ones who know how to look at a project, or the scope of work, and figure out how to carve out pieces to those around them. The bigger the pieces, the more that individual has a clear visual of the long-term vision.
Of course, this is easier said than done. In order to ask someone to do the work, you first need to know where you’re going. You need to have a game plan for how to get there, and you need to be able to offer enough lead time to get others on the bandwagon. But a little upfront planning and preparation can make for a far more creative outcome than you may have managed on your own.
You might say, it’s the difference between asking someone to get the salad dressing out of the fridge or asking them to make the salad dressing themselves. Or maybe even, describing your main course in advance and asking them to bring whatever sides they choose. (They may even decide soup is a better pairing!)
It takes real talent (and effort) to deliberate on the right direction, spend the upfront mental energy to come up with a loose game plan, and then break that plan up into smaller chunks based on the team and the fit around you. It can also feel pretty amorphous as a business concept.
I’ve found that practicing this behavior in smaller, more tactile settings, like my own kitchen is a pretty good place to start. In the two months that I’ve moved into my new apartment, I’ve hosted dozens of people, in large groups and small. Some meals I’ve prepared myself, others have been true collaborations, but most are a mix in between. Along the way I’ve picked up certain little hacks that help — adopting a common vocabulary for where the most commonly called for kitchen utensils live. When someone asks, “Where are the hot pads?” I can tell them, “In the drawer next to the oven” rather than go and find them myself.
Another one is organizing things in my home that are pre-chunked activities. For instance, I keep all of the outdoor plastic cutlery and utensils in a couple of baskets. I can ask someone to easily grab that basket and set the table outside without needing a lot of supervision. A third simple win is just having a lot of versatile containers and plates available and in clear sight. When people bring things to contribute, they can find what they need to serve it without micromanagement from me. Another one is making sure your dishwasher is empty — it’s a clear signal for people to start filling it up themselves.
There are of course larger ways to “chunk” out activities too. Often a few days in advance of a meal, I’ll pick some signature dish as our “anchor” selection, then others will chime in. Or even list out a whole series of things we might want and let folks choose their own contribution. For Labor Day weekend, I told some friends I was going to pick up burgers from the butcher shop around the corner, and a friend walked in with a peanut salad and an entire homemade flan. I never would have come up with either option on my own. He said he was inspired by the rest of the guests’ selections.
I get it — hosting is hectic. It’s really nice to know your way around your own space and many times, you certainly can get things done faster yourself (at least the first time).
But as I’m finding, it can be pretty nice to let others help in your kitchen.
Also published on Medium.