The intangible force of organizational special sauce

Jim Blasingame

"Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun."

You may remember this jingle that once described the McDonald's Big Mac. That burger was created to go head-up against the Hardee's Husky, which was, well, husky, and the first-to-market with a "special sauce."

Over the years, the term "special sauce" has been re-deployed beyond the burger wars, from condiment to handy metaphor. Management and organizational nerds, like me, have co-opted the term to identify a level of intangible performance that manifests beyond standard expectations.

Organizational special sauce in the marketplace isn't a strategy or campaign, nor can it be achieved with a slogan or mission statement. No special sauce was ever the fruit of an algorithm, big data, or other amalgamation of ones and zeros. To the chagrin of Wall Street quants and activist investors, organizational special sauce is an incalculable, unprojectable, and intangible force. It's 100% performance leverage produced by an active ingredient made of highly engaged human beings loving to work together toward something they all believe in.

Special sauce leverage kicks in like a turbo after the quantifiable, tangible kind reaches its RPM redline. Every business would like to acquire organizational special sauce but, alas, most don't, because the elements that it's made of are not easy to aggregate. If organizational special sauce came in a jar, here is the list of ingredients:

  • Motivated people who are respected and valued.
  • Excellence - not perfection - as a non-negotiable performance standard assumed by all.
  • Leaders demonstrate all the aspects that define the word: courage, integrity, morals, ethics, commitment, decisiveness, humanity.
  • People are not treated like interchangeable parts, as if they were modules.
  • Corporate values flow to the organization's last mile as a minimum expectation.
  • Delegation includes responsibility AND authority.
  • Corrective action first presumes that shortfalls result from best efforts followed by the default management response of redemption.

After spreading organizational special sauce around, these tastes and textures will nourish and strengthen the business and all relationships:

  • Peerless products and services.
  • Industry-leading employee retention.
  • Prospective employees line up to join the organization.
  • Employees and partners are proud of and claim the organization's reputation for excellence.
  • Ethical actions and integrity manifest as devotion to the unenforceable.
  • Customers become the organization's best salespeople.
  • Teams work harder than they ever did while having more fun than they ever had.
  • Team members take the work very seriously but don't take themselves seriously.
  • And the classic marker of operational special sauce: quantum leap performance.

You can't demand or buy the intangible leverage of special sauce, but you can invest in it, nurture it and foster an environment that gives rise to it. It's that engagement sweet spot that delivers beyond expectations and projections, producing that quantum leap performance.

In public corporations, organizational special sauce is possible, but rare, because it doesn't conform to the fish-eyed, analytical paradigms of the Wall Street 90-day conference call. But out here on Main Street, special sauce is prevalent, because small business leaders know the high value of the intangible resolve of their engaged employees, who everyday love-up their very happy customers.

Write this on a rock ... Accomplishing organizational special sauce is at once the hardest and most beautiful thing you'll ever do as a business owner.

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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