The Celery Test was devised by leadership thinker Simon Sinek. It reveals the disadvantages of best practices and underscores the need for authenticity.
Are you listening to the right kind of advice?
The Celery Test
Simon Sinek is the leadership expert and author best known for “The Golden Circle” concept, which became a viral TED talk in 2009. His book, Start With Why, plows many of the same fields as that talk, and expands his theory on the importance of “Why” in business.
Imagine you’re at a conference and somebody comes up to you and says, “You know what you need in your organization? M&M’s. If you’re not using M&M’s, you’re missing out.”
Taken aback by the bizarre recommendation, you nevertheless move on to the next conversation. “You know what you need in your organization? Rice milk. If you’re not using rice milk, you’re missing out.”
Successive speakers recommend Oreos, celery, and a litany of other grocery store items.
Confused, intrigued, and certain at this point that you really are missing out on the latest and greatest management advice, you proceed to the supermarket with a list and a half-understood mission to grab everything on said list.
But one thing’s for sure: when you’re standing in line at the supermarket with all of these items in your arms, your celery, rice milk, Oreos and M&Ms, nobody can see what you believe. What you do is supposed serve [sic] as the tangible proof of what you believe, and you bought everything.
Business management writer Tom Peters tells this story in The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations.
Peters was in Auckland, New Zealand, looking for a dinner place. He happened upon one of those outside menu boards designed to entice pedestrians into the restaurant.
Except instead of your typical overpriced Italian fare, this one said the following:
Sometimes menus don’t reflect what you might find in a restaurant. So I didn’t bother with one.
In our restaurant you will find atmosphere and character. Friendly and witty staff. A half-crazy owner, and real food.
The kitchen is in open view to the customers, and you are welcome to inspect it.
The cockroaches left me a long time ago. The only animals remaining are my cats, Jeffrey and Luigi. Otherwise I am left with a bunch of paranoid human beings to deal with.
If you are accustomed to all this, then come on in an join us for a pleasant lunch or dinner.
How could you not go in after reading a crazy thing like that? Even just to see what the place was about.
Peters had a similar thought before walking into Valerio’s.
Inside, he found that instead of displaying awards on the wall, they displayed letters with customer complaints—complete with owner Valerio’s funny and deprecating responses (for example, the customer had “three hours at a so-called ‘business lunch’ to complain,” but didn’t say anything then. Why after?)
Needless to say, the restaurant left quite an impression on Peters. I’m not sure the food even figured into the equation.
Nothing Valerio’s did—the oddly revealing sign outside, displaying the customer complaints on the wall, displaying Valerio’s responses to the complaints—could be described as “best practices.”
But Valerio did them anyway and somehow, it worked. The weird charm offensive all rolled up into Valerio’s unique value proposition.
Are “Lessons Learned” Worthless in Turbulent Times?
The Celery Test and Valerio’s Test illustrate the downside of so-called best practices:
The idea that copying WHAT or HOW things are done at high-performing organizations will inherently work for you is just not true. Like the Ferrari and the Honda, what is good for one company is not necessarily good for another. Put simple, best practices are not always best.
The idea that practices might not translate from organization to organization cuts at the heart of best practices.
Practices from one era might not even translate to another era in the same exact company.
Part of the problem is that the world simply changes too fast.
Author Michael Raynor, in his book The Strategy Paradox, showed that there were tons of lessons Sony had “learned” from its war against VHS, but that when it tried to use those lessons to succeed in later product launches, it just didn’t matter. The world, their competitors, and the company itself had changed.
Sony would later do battle in the Blu-ray-HD DVD war of the mid-Noughts. Except this time it prevailed.
In the intervening years, the world had changed drastically. The Berlin Wall fell, opening up new markets. Home computer use and Internet access exploded. Sony, unlike in its war in the 80s, had a home entertainment/game console, the Playstation, that it could bootstrap its nascent Blu-ray format to.
About the only “lesson learned” from the 80s that stuck was that perms really weren’t a good look for men.
Only You Have the Complete Picture
In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz details the horrible pressures he faced as the CEO of a failing company (emphasis mine):
By virtue of my position and the fact that we were a public company, nobody besides me had the complete picture. I knew we were in deep, deep trouble. Nobody besides me could get us out of the trouble and I was through listening to advice about what we should do from people who did not understand all the pieces. I wanted all the data and information I could get, but I didn’t need any recommendations about the future direction of the company. This was wartime. The company would live or die by the quality of my decisions, and there was no way to hedge or soften the responsibility.
Horowitz’s insight underscores an important point about your work, your career, and your life: No one has the complete picture except you.
General advice, even in the form of industry-wide “best practices,” will always miss something about the particulars of your situation.
That doesn’t mean all advice is bad, or that you should never take the advice of others. It’s entirely possible that M&M’s are in fact the thing that’s going to save your company.
But the point is to turn the general into the specific. Don’t be afraid to modify or adapt best practices before implementing them in your systems.
Know what the core of your identity and your values is. Don’t deviate from the core. Otherwise, you may face the consequences of failing your own Celery Test, as Volkswagen learned in the mid-2000s.
How VW Failed the Celery Test
Sinek tells this story in Start With Why in order to illustrate what happens when a company fails its Celery Test.
In 2004, Volkswagen introduced a $70,000 luxury sedan called the Phaeton into their lineup. By all accounts, it was a fantastic car. The only problem? Hardly anyone bought it. It didn’t make sense as a Volkswagen car.
Volkswagen literally means “car of the people.” It’s the common man’s car. A high-end luxury sedan clashed with VW’s unique value proposition. It failed VW’s Celery Test.
Toyota and Honda had a better idea. When they introduced luxury models to their car lines, they created luxury brands to go with them: Lexus and Acura respectively. When Toyota decided they wanted to skew younger after the success of the Fast and the Furious movies, they created the Scion brand.
Toyota and Honda understand their image as reliable and efficient mom-and-dad-mobiles. They changed the rules of their Celery Test by creating a distinct brand. That’s how they avoided the mistakes of their competitor VW.
Are you staying true to what makes you unique? Or are you failing your own personal Celery Tests in big and small ways every day?
There’s no telling really. Not unless you make the time to understand for yourself what it is you stand for.