Stone soup

Everyone has heard of stone soup right? The summary of the idea is that some hungry strangers arriving in a village set up a boiling pot (with stones to give it some heft) in the town square and convince the villagers (who are not overly well fed themselves, and wouldn’t normally be charitable) to donate ingredients to help create a big meal that can sustain everyone.

The message (from an entrepreneurial point of view) seems to be that if you convince and organise people appropriately, value greater than the sum of its parts can be created.

I think there are a few assumptions in the message which don’t translate well to a real life entrepreneurial context, and that its not a very efficient model on which to base a decision making.

Of course the stone soup message can be taken so broadly as to be unprovably correct…

For example ingredients are themselves miniature stone soups, there are “stone soups all the way down“, or that the stone soup story is really just about good management or organisational effort.

…but then it does not serve as an actionable strategy (which seems to be you just need to gather the appropriate people and resources and get them to add value). So lets take it at face value.

The first assumption is that its easier convincing the villagers to partake then simply going and hunting (or gathering) your own food.

The second assumption is that its actually a worthwhile strategy. There are probably more examples of the “organise people to add some value in order to create more value” strategy failing than succeeding, which leads to the issue that the stone soup “process” has no way of being successfully repeatedly applied.

Another assumption is that in real life ingredients are ready made – that there is no need to go to the large effort of creating the appropriate ingredients for a particular soup – the appropriate ingredients are just there and they perfectly fit the soup architecture.

There is also the issue of fair return for investment – does the person who adds a kilo of potatoes get a bigger meal than someone who adds a carrot (how much do you get reimbursed for the use of the pot – presumably a commodity?)?

There is also the issue of the deception used at the beginning of the process. “We’ve got boiling water and nothing to add” doesn’t convince as well as “We’ve got an amazing soup why don’t you help make it better?”.

On the other hand, there can also be the implication, when applied to entrepreneurship, that the management of resources is not valuable (hence the need to deceive initially).

For those of us building new technology (especially if its competitively differentiable) the important ingredients making up that technology will need to be designed to fit the architecture, they can’t be all modular – if they are the technology will be commoditised and its value driven down to very low levels.

So the ingredients in real life need to be designed and built, a recipe (architecture) that describes an appropriate soup that some people will like, needs to be designed, the ingredients will be created by people that need to be trained or need to do research, many interim soups will be created and while this development process is underway, the people involved in that development need to be supported.

I’m therefore not sure that the stone soup parable is all that useful, when you want to create something innovative.

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