Is this Project a Salad or a Cake?

May 26, 2023

My wife wants me to cook more. To honor her wishes, I wrote this article explaining how understanding that some projects are like a salad and others are like a cake can help us be better leaders. I’m not sure this is what she had in mind, but I’m trying.

Salads are versatile. Some include many ingredients, and others just a few. When we make a salad, we typically select ingredients we like or just use what we have on hand. If we are out of cucumbers or forgot to buy tomatoes, no big deal. As long as we have some core ingredients and a good dressing, the salad will taste fine. In our work, “salad” projects allow a flexible approach to planning and management — there are a variety of ways to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

Cakes are completely different. When we bake a cake, we must follow the directions and include each ingredient in exactly the right proportion. If we leave out the baking powder, add too much salt, or bake it at the wrong temperature, we have an inedible disaster on our hands. In our work, some projects are “cakes.” They require a rigid standard of excellence and/or process we must follow to the letter.

Some people see everything in life as “cakes.” In their minds, there is a blueprint for every project. Every detail is essential, and all imperfections are catastrophic. Exacting standards can be a tremendous asset to an organization, but leaders who view everything as a “cake” confuse their rigidity for excellence. Failing to recognize the times when flexibility and creativity are needed creates anxiety in their teams, often leading to bitterness and burnout.

Others see life as one big salad bar. Their actions imply, “As long as we get close or try hard, we’re good.” This attitude produces greater harmony in relationships and can be wise, unless we’re working on something that requires precision and commitment to 100% completion. Misdiagnosing a “cake” initiative as a “salad” fails our customers, lets down our teammates, and harms the organization.

Asking, “Is this project a salad or a cake?” can help us in at least three ways.

  1. It provides a simple rubric for categorizing new efforts. When discussing a new initiative, it helps to identify whether we’re dealing with a “cake” with one prescribed plan and standard or a “salad” where a variety of approaches can be employed. Clarity reduces stress and produces better outcomes.
  2. It helps leaders to tailor accountability to the task. Accountability should fit the type of project we’re tackling. If we’re working on a “cake” initiative, everyone involved should understand the prescribed approach or standard to which they will be held accountable. In a “salad” project, leaders need to explain how accountability will work in this less rigid situation.
  1. It improves communication within teams. Personality, life experience, and culture all shape our conscious and unconscious perspectives. These biases infiltrate our thinking and can be a major source of conflict within teams. Reaching a shared understanding of the various “cakes” and “salads” on our individual and collective agendas helps to align expectations and expose areas of potential misunderstanding.

I hope this simple picture of the difference between “salad” and “cake” projects leads to clearer communication, greater productivity, and better relationships in your team. If you choose to use this in your leadership or have ideas for making it more useful, please reply in the comments section below. And if you have any must-try recipes for salads or cakes, let me know!

Written by Matthew Rohrs, Sinapis CEO