The Sweet Dangers of Setting Vision


As much as I love to cook, one ingredient fills me with a sense of foreboding. In cakes and cookies, sugar is easy enough to handle. Whisk it with soft butter and the crystals puncture the fat cells, giving you the rich creaminess that’s going to glom on to everything else in your batter. In its resting state, sugar is attractive to everything in the bowl. Who doesn’t want a little low-risk sweetness.

It’s when working with sugar specifically, in confectionary work, that the stakes are raised. Temperatures become precisely important. Depending on what you are trying to make – a taffy for instance – you’re going to need to watch the sugar closely. While the end result will be delicious, in the process of cooking with sugar, touching it will blister the skin. Once sugar has moved to a liquid state, too much is in flux to be able to take hold of it. You’ve got to wait until it’s found its final form to grasp it.

So too is it with vision. In its solid state, everyone can take a piece of vision. It can be a part of everything an organization does. Again, who doesn’t want a little low-risk sweetness. Vision that’s been set somewhere off-site or prior to a team’s formation seems easy enough to handle.

When vision needs to be something more, when an organization needs to head a different direction, that’s when it can become too hot to hold for some members of a team. While they were fine to pass around the standard refined message of the organization, they may not have the tools, the patience, or the know how for transforming a pretty standard statement of vision into something in flux and then returning it to a solid state.

Maybe you’ve been in meetings with these folks. You’re talking about the new vision for a school or a interdisciplinary team, maybe it’s a cross-classroom unit plan. Whatever the stakes, you’re likely to find one or two people who tap out. They’re fine to support whatever vision is crafted by the rest of the team, just let them know when you’re done.

Moving a vision from a solid, graspable statement to something in flux can create heat between colleagues and peers. While that heat and friction are exactly wha are needed to mold a new vision, they can and will become uncomfortable for some team members. Blisters will result in relationships, between offices, on teams; if care isn’t taken in how creation of this new vision is handled.

Similarly, you won’t know if you’ve crafted the vision you were setting out to create until it cools and sets to a point where you can put that vision to practice. Many batches of candies have ended up in the garbage after hours of work because I’d rather throw them out than eat them or serve them to others.

This is exactly what any vision-setting team must be prepared to do. A vision that doesn’t serve the organization, that is a mismatch for the passion of its people, is a vision that should be tossed. Even if you need to throw it out, I can attest to the fact you’ll have learned enough from the process to move you closer to success in the next batch.

From Theory to Practice:

  • When starting the process to refine or redefine the vision for your organization, identify a coalition of the willing. This doesn’t have to be limited to folks who think it’s time for the vision to change, in fact it shouldn’t. Make sure you ask people who like the vision just fine the way it is to come on board. Having the loyal opposition as part of the process will help to make sure you’re building something everyone can own.
  • Make sure you get it where you want to go. Sometimes, when working with sugar, it can be tempting to ignore the temperature and say, “This hot is good enough.” In the end, it won’t be. Ending the vision-setting process prematurely can mean you’ve got a vision that won’t hold together or will be too brittle to stand up to external pressures. It can be tempting to stop the process when you want it to be done. Stick with it until you’re entire team is sure.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Things I Know 327 of 365: The sweet spot is in the browning, not the burning

A life lesson from baking.

Yesterday’s cookie recipe included the following direction:

To make icing, melt the butter in a skillet over low heat and swirl the pan over the heat for about four-five minutes until butter begins to brown. Be careful, you don’t want to burn the butter—you just want to brown it! It will happen fast and when it does, immediately take the browned butter off the stove and pour into a mixing bowl.

My beliefs about butter were challenged. I’ve whipped butter, cut it in, and melted it. This is to say nothing of the more pedestrian spreading of butter. To my mind, I’d pushed butter to its limits.

This was new.

Melt it, heat it, take butter to the brink. The key, don’t burn the butter. Watch for the line separating making something new and making something useless.

That idea appeals to me.

Think differently about what can be done, what things and people are capable of, but remain mindful of the burning. For Icarus, the lesson came with flight. For me, it came with a cookie recipe.

Things I Know 158 of 365: Seven courses brought seven lessons

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.

– Harriet Van Horne

I didn’t know the seven courses of a seven-course meal until today. With just under 20 days left in Philadelphia, the good bye sayings have begun.

Part of that meant joining together with friends to enjoy a meal tonight.

Something about the breaking of bread with others assuages the worries of the day, and puts me in a very real sense of communion.

Even when I make popcorn for my students, it brings about a connectedness that can’t otherwise be achieved.

Tonight’s meal was more than popcorn.

As I said in my toast, tonight’s meal was an attempt to take care of some of those who have so readily taken care of me throughout my time in Philadelphia.

Of course, as an English major, each of the dishes for each of the seven courses was symbolic – as if I’m going to pick something just because it tastes good. Each dish was a lesson I’ve learned.

First Course: Jamie’s Goat Cheese Crostini

As a cook, I’ve a tenuous relationship with roasted red peppers. They can overpower a dish, they can throw off the balance of flavors, and they can go just right. This was about making a choice and hoping it would turn out. As the first course, it was also a reminder that every choice will be followed by many more which will help in the gaining of perspective.

Second Course: Gazpacho Casa Botin

The recipe for this course lives only one place that I know of – a May 2007 page of Men’s Health Best Life magazine. I tore it out when I read that the gazpacho was the same recipe Hemingway ate and wrote about. It was a tie to the words of the past and one of my literary hero’s. When my friend Heidi set out on a cross-country journey to be inspired and writer her novel, I made this soup as well as dishes authentic to other great American writers for her send-off meal. It serves not only as a connection to Hemingway, but of that other great meal of new beginnings.

Third Course: Sicilian Orange Salad

I didn’t choose this dish. My friend Michael did. That was its symbolism – the importance of looking to others for guidance and working to be a thoughtful friend. I’ve made this salad more times than I can remember. It’s a simple and beautiful combination of ingredients. I know everything that goes into the salad, and I’m always surprised by how much more flavor it produces than I expect. I suppose friendship is the same way.

Fourth Course: Spicy Grilled Salmon with Mango, Radish and Lime Salsa (I added blueberries)

I’m a vegetarian. I have been for about 15 years. Tonight, I cooked fish. I cooked it because the recipe sounded awesome and I liked the challenge of the salsa. Once the salsa was done, though, the lime overpowered all the other flavors. Rather than tossing the whole thing or serving something I wasn’t proud of, I grabbed a pint of blueberries, mushed them up and added them to the salsa. The result was a sweetness that complimented the fish well. It also furthered the symbolism of the course. There are, and should be exceptions. Whether it’s eating fish as a vegetarian or being willing to take a chance by modifying a recipe, nothing except stone is set in stone.

Fifth Course: Raspberry Honey and Black Tea Sorbet

If you look up the courses of a seven-course meal, you’ll probably notice two things. One, the sorbet course is fourth, not fifth. Two, there’s a sorbet course.

Now, I love sorbet, sherbet, ice cream and any other frozen treat that falls under that particular umbrella. Making it from scratch, though, worried me as I don’t own an ice cream meeker or have any interest in investing in one. So, I made sorbet from scratch sans machine. And it was wonderful.

It was even more wonderful as the fifth course and not the fourth. In the crazed energy of preparing all this food, I simply forgot.

So there were two symbols.

1) Beautiful, wonderful things can be made even when you know you don’t have the proper tools.

2) Despite the regimented order of things, sometime its best to change course.

Sixth Course: Crispy and Delicious Asparagus and Potato Tart

Filo dough and I have gone round and round. I’ve had the best of intentions for cooking with this tissue paper-thin pastry, but each time been bested by my own lack of patience. Attempt to unroll filo dough before it’s had a chance to thaw, you’ll break it. Wait too long to separate the sheets, you’ll rip it. Pull two sheets apart too quickly, you’ll rip it. In my cooking psyche, filo dough has a uniquely querulous nature, intent on thwarting any attempts I might make to ply it into tasty submission.

Tonight was different. I kept the dough thawing from the time it came home from the store until the time I needed it in the recipe. When I needed to unroll and separate the sheets, I took my time, paying the patience it needed. As one or two tears occurred, I chalked them up as Persian flaws. I could have chosen another recipe. History taught me filo dough would be more trouble than it was worth. Still, I wanted the challenge.

Seventh Course: Tiramisu Cupcakes

I didn’t make these. I selected the recipe and gave guidance where asked, but I spent no time baking these amazingly rich cupcakes. If seven courses were to be prepared by the time guests arrived, I needed to hand off responsibility for one of them to someone else. Michael made the cupcakes. It meant I needed to share a kitchen. It meant I needed to pay attention to what I was cooking and not what Michael was cooking.

The first batch wasn’t to Michael’s liking. A little light, the cupcakes stuck to the pan and ripped apart when they were removed. It’s the kind of thing you can fix with creative icing, but Michael wasn’t satisfied.

He made a second batch from scratch because he wanted to serve something he was proud of. They were amazing.

Aside from the possible exception of the filo dough, I learned no new lessons tonight. I did re-learn many lessons. Sometimes, it’s the re-learning that means the most.