Want to Deliver Better Training? Take a Cue from 'Top Chef'

I'm not much of a reality TV fan but the one show I go out of my way to watch is Top Chef on Bravo.  It's fascinating to watch the creative process in action as chefs are challenged to turn basic or bizarre ingredients into haute cuisine under intense circumstances.  I'm always amazed to see how people who all started with the same ingredients achieve such different and innovative results.

The parallel between the high-pressure culinary challenges the chefs endure and the high-pressure training-design challenges we endure presents an opportunity to examine team dynamics and individual learning via re-occuring themes, such as:

1. Building & leading collaborative teams (when everyone has their own agenda)

2. Taking and giving constructive criticism

3. Delivering an elegant, focused final product when the main ingredients are missing or in conflict


What lessons can we take away from shows like Top Chef?  How do we apply those lessons to our very real-world challenges?  Here's how I break it down:

1. Challenge: Team Building & Collaboration (When Everyone Has Their Own Agenda)

Top Chef team challenges tend to evoke universal dread.  Team challenges in the kitchen (and in the workplace) are notoriously difficult to manage and failure is often the result of opposing interests.  Even in environments where competition or collaboration aren't outwardly acknowledged ingredients to success, getting everyone's full cooperation is often 90% of the battle.

Takeaway: The winning Top Chef team is usually the one that assigned clear roles and responsibilities up front and the one whose team members feel respected by each other and are willing to set aside their egos for the greater good.

  • Honesty and humility go a long way towards building bridges with reluctant or skeptical colleagues.  When you're discussing roles with the team, be open about your strengths and weaknesses and ask for help.
  • Clearly communicate quality expectations and deadlines for team members -- and live up to them yourself.
  • Get management buy-in for holding team members accountable for their actions and for rewarding them for their successes. Always recognize team efforts and individual contributions, alike.

2. Challenge: Taking and Giving Constructive Criticism

When a chef finds him or herself on the losing end of a challenge, this results in a trip to the Judge's Table where the chef is subjected to often brutal criticism of their efforts.  The chefs usually try to defend themselves by providing lengthy excuses that only annoy the judges.  Annoying the judges is always bad.

Takeaway: Judges, or bosses in our case, get annoyed when you rehash the past in a desperate search for reasons why you failed when all they want to talk about are your results and what you've learned from the current misstep.

  • Stop talking and start listening. Take responsibility and show an eagerness to learn and grow.
  • Clearly real life is more complicated than reality TV, so if you're the one dishing out the criticism always keep it constructive -- e.g., impersonal, actionable, and timely.

3. Challenge: Delivering Focus & Clarity (Amidst Vague or Missing Information)

My favorite Top Chef challenges are the ones where the chefs are asked to make bizarre ingredients like Cheetos or Dr. Pepper the featured ingredients in their finished dish.  Inevitably, the chef who embraces the constraints of the ingredients for their creative possibilities is the one who produces the winning dish.

Takeaway: When your main training ingredients are vague, contradictory, or entirely missing...

  • Don't become paralyzed by the limitations. Focus on what your trainees need and brainstorm some creative ways of getting there with what you've got.
  • Don't try to disguise the fact that there's vague or missing information with lots of bells & whistles.
  • Do train only on the concrete information and then back-fill the gaps by leveraging other ongoing learning tools or communication systems to transfer knowledge as developments occur.
  • Do speak up when the conflicts or gaps create a substantial business risk.  Remember, having a can-do attitude doesn't mean you should gloss-over serious problems.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these from the Mindflash archives:

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Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training. When her skills aren't being tested by her children, you'll find her helping others to develop their own training design muscles.

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