On briefing, A-Teams, and MasterChef

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I’ve been a long-time MasterChef fan, and love seeing all these amazing dishes being created, but the episode I always most look forward to each week is the Team Challenge. I think it’s my favourite because it relates to something I think about all the time — how, no matter how good your individual team members are, if your team is not well-coordinated, then things easily fall to pieces.

Of the Team Challenges, my favourite has always been the Team Relay. The contestants are broken into teams of four or five, and each person on the team gets 15 minutes to cook, one after the other. There is no planning before the first person starts, so no one knows before their 15 minutes what they’re meant to be doing. The only communication there is between the team members happens on the handover between the current cook and the next — there’s 45 seconds to do this, and nothing is allowed to be written down.

The way most of these teams work is that the first person on each team decides what the team will make. This first cook makes a start on all the elements of the proposed dish, but because there’s only 15 minutes for them to cook, almost nothing will be finished by the time they have to hand over, and the next cook has to pick up from where they left off (and it tends to continue like this down the line).

In these kinds of situations, you can almost always tell when a team will fail — in the brief snippets aired, sometimes you can see that the current cook is so caught up in what they’re doing that they haven’t even told the next cook what the overall dish is. They’re barking specifics at them like, “Don’t forget to take the sponge out of the oven, I’ve macerated these strawberries, but you’ll need to make the syrup and jelly…” without telling them they’re making a trifle.

The new cook then spends a quarter of their time trying to think how all the elements are meant to go together and whether anything else is needed, which means they don’t make a lot of progress themselves. If this happens very early on in the relay, sometimes a cook further down the line has to make the call to salvage what they can, but come up with a new idea altogether because they’re so confused.

When I watch these relays, it always makes me think about how important it is to set up the context for team members when you’re giving a specific top-down brief. If they don’t know what the end goal is, no matter how skilled a person is, it’s unlikely that they’ll deliver what was expected.

In the most recent series though, there was one team which did things differently, and very successfully. The first person on the team explicitly decided that he wasn’t going to decide what the team was going to cook. When he handed over to the next person, he basically said, “I started an ice cream, and you’ll need to help me finish making that, but otherwise it’s up to you to think of something that goes with it….” and so it continued down the line.

This was interesting to see, because in this case, the team goal was shifted up a level — they all knew the aim was to make a delicious dish which featured maple syrup (those were the rules specified by the judges at the beginning), but otherwise, they were told to use their judgement to assess what was needed to achieve the overall goal.

This reminded me that when you are working with very talented people with good judgement, sometimes giving them a broader goal and the autonomy to achieve it can give you the best outcome.

Also published on Medium.

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