Skip to main content

Author: Drew Davison

From the Sponsor’s Desk – The Nuts for Cheese Project

“Follow your passion, be prepared to work hard and sacrifice, and, above all, don’t let anyone limit your dreams”.

– Donovan Bailey, retired Jamaican-Canadian sprinter, who once held the world record for the 100 metres.

We know that great sponsors make major change initiatives exciting and successful experiences. If we could bottle that “great sponsor” juice, what do you think we’d find in the bottle? Chances are we’d find the ingredients that are present in this month’s case, the Nuts for Cheese project.

In this post, we’ll follow the path one woman took to develop her knowledge and skills and launch and guide a company that, in just three years, is now offering its high quality products through small and large retailers across Canada.

The Situation

In her early teens, Margaret Coons’ love for animals convinced her to adopt a vegan life style. That meant eliminating everything of animal origin from her daily life, including meat, milk, eggs, wool, leather, honey, etc. To her parents’ amazement, she proceeded to learn how to prepare plant-based foods that would complement what was available and prepared in the family kitchen and replace the meat and animal products that were consumed by the other members of the family.

Margaret continued her vegan lifestyle through her secondary and post-secondary school years, graduating with a degree in English Language and Literature from Western University in London, Ontario.

After graduation, she worked as a chef in a local vegan restaurant preparing plant-based foods. In the evenings, after work, she rented the restaurant’s kitchen to experiment and learn, developing her own recipes. They would often appear on the restaurant’s menu in subsequent days, giving Margaret valuable customer feedback on her creations.

In addition to the night time experimentation, Margaret completed Rouxbe’s Plant-Based Professional Certification, appeared on London daytime television with creative vegan cooking demonstrations and offered cooking lessons and classes at local fairs. She also provided private catering and helped other culinary establishments create vegan recipes. All this while working as a chef at the vegan restaurant. But her love and her specialty was creating cashew cheeses. She started her business on a small scale, offering her products at local farmers’ markets and contributing her wares at a local vegan food bank.

In 2016, the local vegan restaurant closed its doors. Margaret had a decision to make, and she made it – to go full time and full bore with her own company, designing, making and selling cashew based cheeses. And so she launched the Nuts for Cheese project.

The Goal

Margaret’s vison for Nuts for Cheese: To be the #1 selling, high quality, great tasting vegan cheese that people love.


The Project

Margaret’s initial challenge on hearing about the vegan restaurant’s closure was to find a new location and hire and train staff to help her get back up and running. She located and contracted for a small 1200 square foot space, hired four staff and was back producing her cashew based cheeses in short order, serving about 25 retailers and continuing to cover local farmers’ markets.

A year later the company landed Farm Boy as a client and moved to a larger production facility to serve the orders from a growing customer base. Two more moves were required in the following years as demand continued to grow. Nuts for Cheese now operates out of a newly acquired 11,000 square foot facility. The number of staff has also grown, currently standing at 23 and counting.

Margaret admits that she became an entrepreneur by accident. With little formal business training, she had to learn on the go. She has enjoyed the guidance of mentors along the way, including her current mentor who offers expertise on the grocery business, quality control and supply chain management. As the company is self-funded, she has had to master and aggressively manage cash flow, the supply chains, hiring and management of a growing workforce, putting an organization structure in place and, of course, the facilities to house her operations.

Margaret’s recipes for her cheeses are a reflection of the dedication and precision she brings to all aspects of the company’s operations. She starts with organic cashews which are soaked in filtered water for 24 hours to create the base cashew milk. The milk is then fermented for 24 to 36 hours using yeast cultures created in house. The fermented milk is then seasoned and aged to create the company’s unique offerings including Un-Brie-Lievable, Super Blue, Chipotle Chedder, Red Rind and Smokey Artichoke and Herb. The company also creates all its own seasonings using all organic sources.

Margaret’s passion for quality is reflected in her hiring practices. To date, she has interviewed every candidate and participated in every hiring decision. Her primary hiring criteria are personality match, values match, then skills. The use of only organic products and the creation and operation of rigorous quality control practices at each stage of the supply chain simply reinforces that quality ethic. The company has applied for and is currently waiting on formal organic certification for their products.

The Results

In the three years since its launch, Nuts for Cheese has tripled revenue every year. The number of staff has grown from four people to twenty-three. It has just moved into a new 11,000 square foot production facility to supply its products to retailers across Canada, including major grocery chains. And the firm was just named one of the top 14 employers in London. Not bad for an accidental entrepreneur!

How a Great Leader Succeeded

Margaret’s journey with Nuts for Cheese is a wonderful success story, but it’s also a wonderful roadmap for managing any kind of change. The values and tenacity she brings to her job as CEO are the same qualities and attributes that make great sponsors, successful projects and wonderful experiences in any field. That includes:
1. Knowledge – Margaret built her vegan knowledge from her mid-teens on, studying, experimenting, sharing and soliciting feedback iteratively and incrementally. From her early ventures into a vegan diet, to the restaurant’s kitchen, to her after hours experimentation and creation, to her formal education, Margaret acquired the knowledge to succeed in her Nuts for Cheese adventure and openly shared that wisdom.
2. Commitment and passion – Take a look at Margaret’s goals for her company. #1 seller. High quality. Great tasting. People love it. Take a look at the recipe. All organic with quality control processes to ensure that’s the case. Seasonings and yeast cultures created in house. Take a look at who and how she hires. Personality, values, then skills. Involvement in every interview and hiring decision. Add Margaret’s regular 80 hour weeks to that mix and it’s evident that passion and commitment are drivers of the company’s success.
3. Collaboration – Perhaps more than anything, collaboration characterizes Margaret and her company. From her early years with her family, to the restaurant experience, to her engagement and work with mentors, to her relationship with her staff, customers and communities, collaboration has been the hallmark of her approach to life and business. That’s how the name for the company was developed – brainstorming with friends and colleagues.
4. Sharing core values – Margaret hires people who share the core values she wants for the company. That reinforces and builds a collegiality based on customers, quality and success. The company’s selection as a top place to work is evidence of the strength of that sharing.
5. Lessons learned – Without a business background, Margaret and her staff have acquired and shared the operational, supply chain, quality control, marketing, distribution and product development skills and insights needed to grow the company and provide their customers across Canada with tasty, quality products.

In his article The Speed Trap – When Taking Your Time (Really) Matters, Tom Peters states: “An organization is nothing more and nothing less than people (our folks) serving people (our customers and communities).” It is evident Margaret got that right. She “owns” her Nuts for Cheese project lock, stock and barrel. It’s also apparent that her staff shares her ownership. That’s the force multiplier. The whole is significantly greater than the sum of the parts. If you are a project or change manager, imagine what your projects would be like if your sponsors, key stakeholders and project staff exhibited the characteristics described above.

So here’s a suggestion: use these points to evaluate your sponsors, key stakeholders and project staff. If there are gaps and deficiencies, include activities in your project plans to build collective capabilities and close the gaps. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and the Decision Framework (including key stakeholder assessments) right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation on this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your experiences.

Leaving a Legacy of Lessons Learned

BA_June21_Feature“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
– George Santayana

Project completion reviews or post-mortems are often seen as an essential best practice that enables organizations to learn from their experiences. However, all too frequently, the insights gained from post implementation reviews are lost to posterity.

There are a ton of books, periodicals and articles that address project management, software engineering and management of change disciplines and practices. But the rate of success for major business and technology changes is still well below 50%? Why? The bottom line – we lack a common mechanism where findings can be stored, examples cited and recommendations for future undertakings recorded and accessed. And, we lack the structure and discipline to ensure that our knowledge is managed and referenced consistently and rigorously.

According to Nancy Dixon in her conversation matters blog, “NASA learned its lesson about losing knowledge early in 1990. They experienced the sad recognition that much of the knowledge about how to build the Saturn V rocket that took the astronauts to the moon, had retired along with the engineers who had been encouraged to take early retirement”. In response, NASA created the NASA Engineering Network a knowledge network to promote learning and sharing among NASA’s engineers. The Network includes the NASA Lessons Learned data base, “the official, reviewed learned lessons from NASA program and projects”.

Most stakeholders involved in a change aren’t aware of all the best practice information out there and aren’t inclined to spend the time and money to find out. They’re business people, financial types, actuaries, engineers, marketing folks, business analysts, IT practitioners. They’re not project management or management of change experts. They don’t really understand the role they need to play and the information they need to ensure success! They just want to get the job done.

So, what do you do as a sponsor, stakeholder, PM, BA or other interested party to leave a legacy of lessons learned? There are five critical steps:

1.     Identify and confirm accountability for managing lessons learned

Somebody needs to own this practice, to establish the goals and objectives, to measure performance, communicate to stakeholders and establish and drive initiatives to increase organizational value. Even open source software groups, which counts on thousands of interested volunteers to deliver and enhance functionality, have managing entities to oversee progress. Find an owner and hold him or her accountable. More on this later.

2.     Build or acquire a framework

Even with lots of great experiences, insights and findings, without some kind of organizing structure, a collection of project post-mortems will pose an unwieldy and perhaps insurmountable barrier to leveraging collective lessons learned. Fortunately, PMI, ISO, ISACA, SEI and many other organizations have developed frameworks and a wealth of best practice information. I personally developed the Project Pre-Check Decision Frameworkto bring together the best of project management, management of change, software development and other practices and provide a Lessons Learned framework in my consulting practice. Select a structure you and your organization are familiar with and build it up with real world experiences and examples to facilitate effective use and enable real performance improvements. Or build your own framework.

3.     Enforce usage

Having a comprehensive, easy to access, easy to use facility for mining best practices adds absolutely no value if no one uses it. So part of the Lessons Learned challenge, and a critical responsibility for the owner, is to ensure that everyone uses it, on every assignment, for every project. That use needs to involve a thorough review to identify and leverage applicable best practices and contributed learnings in a form and structure others can use. I can hear the groans already! More bullshit! More red tape! Get over it! If your organization wants to improve its ability to deliver major business and technology change successfully, a certain level of rigor and compliance is essential. What would you rather be, a sponsor, PM, BA or architect with an incredible track record of successful project deliveries, enabled by an organizational ability to leverage lessons learned, or an incredible individual contributor with a mixed record of project successes? Your choice!

4.     Manage the transformation of project experiences to organizational Lessons Learned

A key challenge is gathering the experiences and insights of each project participant and the collective wisdom of project teams and abstracting that information into the selected framework. Don’t leave it up to the BA or PM to post the project learnings to the Lessons Learned framework! The owner needs to assume that responsibility and establish the analytical mechanisms and quality and usability standards that will ensure that others, in different circumstances and on other assignments, can quickly and effectively gain value from the information.

5.     Manage Lessons Learned value contribution

There is no point in doing anything beyond individual project post-mortems if you’re not willing to manage the organizational value contribution. Getting a return from Lessons Learned means measuring usage, compliance, value derived and contribution frequency and identifying gaps and discrepancies in content and application. The measurement results provide the fodder to develop and implement continuing improvements to the practices, increasing the value delivered to the organization.

Where should Lessons Learned be managed? The PMO is an obvious suspect. The PMO mandate is usually very compatible with a Lessons Learned program. It typically has a broad view, encompassing enterprise or organizational initiatives, programs and projects. It should be tracking and reporting on aggregate project performance and taking steps to improve that performance, very compatible with a Lessons Learned program.

But, implementing a Lessons Learned practice across an organization is another change that has to be sold, prioritized, funded, initiated, staffed, managed and monitored. It is still very worthwhile but there is another option – the individual Lessons Learned practice. As a professional, you have undoubtedly committed yourself to a program of continuous improvement. An individual Lessons Learned practice starts and ends with you. You need to follow the same five steps reviewed above but you don’t have to sell anybody else on the idea. You are the decision maker. As you gain value, and confidence, you’ll build a track record and reputation others will notice. Also, share your experiences with your peers. Chances are you’ll find an enthusiastic audience and perhaps an attentive sponsor in waiting. Good luck.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Drew Davison is a former IT practitioner, project manager and system development executive, the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting, a senior consultant at The Manta Group and the author of Project Pre-Check: The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change. He works with organizations that are planning or undergoing major business and technology change to access the power of the Project Pre-Check building blocks; an effective stakeholder group, defined and proven processes and the decision framework, a mechanism for quickly leveraging industry best practices. Drew can be contacted directly at [email protected]