It drives my family crazy when I order at a restaurant. As an obsessed foodie, over the years I’ve learned to ask one very simple question: If this were your last meal on death row, what dish would you order from this menu?

You might wonder why I don’t simply ask about the day’s special, which usually gets you the dish that has the highest profit margins. And I don’t ask the server which dish he or she likes because that doesn’t have the same passion as my question. Of course, my question usually results in a head tilt, and a VERY direct and honest answer — one that often yields the chef’s signature dish.

The interesting thing is that signature dishes don’t apply only to the culinary world.

I’ve worked with hundreds of enterprises around the world that have extensive menus of goods and services, and while quite a few have brands well known in their markets, they often have no product or service that relays a strong point of view on any particular part of the business, especially at the IT divisional level.

For example, if an internal focus group were being held, would your organization’s IT suite have skills and talents that your stakeholders would say are your signature dishes? More importantly, to what extent are those offerings recognized for being groundbreaking, or to use the gastronomic metaphor, a flavor explosion?

This is not meant to minimize the importance of the critical bread-and-butter (sorry!) offerings that might be characterized under the age-old “keeping the lights on” (KTLO) part of technology services. But in 2019, even certain aspects of KTLO services could be upgraded to signature dishes, given the proliferation of apps and APIs.

Signature dishes are critical for reinforcing and quantifying the value proposition of the IT suite’s brand internally, especially with the most senior leaders — the ones that hold the purse strings.

Will anyone eat what you’re making?

There are challenges in determining a signature dish, and the process for doing so requires patient experimentation. That’s because, at times, there is a complete disconnect between what the IT chef feels is the signature dish and what leadership patrons say is so.

As a foodie, I used to religiously read Food Arts, a culinary trade magazine that featured a section called “Hits and Flops.” The section was perfectly subtitled: “Chefs rejoice in their menu victories and eulogize dishes vanquished by dim bulb diners.”

You can probably see where I’m going here. Far too many times in my business career I’ve created my division’s signature dishes in business based on what I thought the customers should have ordered versus what they actually consumed, without coaxing with great regularity.

Just as every chef wants to be known for mastery of the perfect soufflé or the richest and most flavorful sauce, most enterprise IT professionals want to be known for their forward-thinking digital transformation or mind-bending data science prowess.

But remember, signature dishes, like signature brands, will stand the test of time. They scream of customer loyalty because no restaurant or IT shop does it better. They are a destination, not just the closest place to eat. When there’s more than one chef, and there often is, each chef in the restaurant often has his or her own signature dish that draws a following. They don’t just cook the same dish as “shadow chefs” in a different dining room in the same establishment. Yes, there can be two or three different signature dishes but they must all fill a unique need … vegetarian, seafood, meat, etc.

This brings on the challenge. In your next team meeting, survey your staff — the chefs — to determine what they believe is your organization’s signature dish, or dishes. Then survey your internal and external customers — the diners — to track their perception of what they would drive a distance to your IT shop to consume.

I think you’ll find the results eye-opening, and perhaps even mouthwatering.