Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travelers.
The travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. They go out and scrounge up a few roots and tubers around the village to add to the pot, but that’s all they can find.
One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making “stone soup”. It always tastes wonderful, they say, but it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup.
Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which tastes wonderful but hasn’t quite reached its potential. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient.
At dinner time, a delicious pot of soup is enjoyed by all.
One way of interpreting this story is that the travelers are pretty decent con artists that managed to get some free soup. Which, I guess, is a fair interpretation.
But, let’s take a more generous interpretation: it’s an example of how the whole (soup) can become greater than the sum of its parts (ingredients).
This phenomenon exists in many complex systems: be it sports teams, companies, nation-states, or flocks of birds. Sometimes a team or system “gels” in such a way that the output of the whole is much greater than just the sum of the individual pieces.
Cooking is a pretty good analogy for this dynamic of how you can combine things to produce something better than the individual pieces.
If you have sugar, flour, and butter, you could just sit down with a spoon and eat those ingredients but it doesn’t sound very good. If you combine them and put them in the oven for 75 minutes then you have pound cake 1 which sounds a lot better to me.
A business is a lot like stone soup. It gets started with an idea and the equivalent of a big rock and some crappy looking roots and tubers that someone scrounged up. As it grows, every process that gets added is like an ingredient in the soup.
Processes are what make up the business and keep it running. But, like the stone soup, they are never finished and they can nearly always be recombined in a better way to produce a better whole, a process John Boyd described as snowmobiling.
Imagine three separate scenes: a motorboat towing a skier behind it, a tank rolling across the desert, and a bicycle cruising down the street.
If you break them down into the constituent parts, you have:
- A motorboat with a hull, outboard motor, and a set of skis being towed behind it.
- A tank with treads, a gun, and armor.
- A bicycle with wheels, handlebars, and gears.
You can use these constituent parts to make many different incoherent wholes, but a coherent and useful whole would be a snowmobile: you take the treads from the tank, an outboard motor and skis from the boat, and handlebars from the bike and combine them to make a snowmobile.
A business is always like stone soup, in need of someone to add (and sometimes remove) ingredients to make a more useful and coherent whole. It’s up to everyone to not just do more of what is already happening but actively make it better.
The processes any business uses are always in the process of breaking down. As the market changes, the customers change and the competition changes, processes that were once ideal become outdated and ineffective. They’re going to need to be replaced and it’s everyone’s job to do that.
When Gmail launched, it had a little icon next to Gmail that said “beta”. As they grew, they never removed the icon. When they had become the largest email service provider in the world, they still had beta by their logo. It became a bit of a joke but the people working on Gmail took it seriously. The product still needed to be iterated on and improved, it was never finished.
There’s never going to be a permanent way to do something. We’re always making stone soup.
Last Updated on December 7, 2020 by Taylor Pearson