MasterChef: lessons about comfort zones & marginal gains

It’s the final week of MasterChef 2015. Over the past six weeks, from the 40 hopefuls taking part in the heats, just five talented amateur cooks have fought their way through to the last week of competition in a bid to win the trophy and become the champion.

The five travel to Cambridge University’s Churchill College, where they have the task of cooking a five-course dinner in honour of Sir Winston Churchill. The dinner will be overseen by legendary chef Michael Caines, who has held two Michelin stars for over 15 years. Caines has devised a five-course menu for the dinner and the amateurs will be challenged to replicate his exquisite food for the occasion.

Can the MasterChef final five blow the guests away with some amazing food? It’s high drama as they push themselves to the limit to impress judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace to keep alive their dream of winning MasterChef 2015.

We’ve seen numbers dwindle as the strongest cooks conquered fierce challenges. The chefs-in-training have experienced exciting highs and devastating lows as their show-stopping dishes and original creations met praise and scrutiny from celebrities, food critics and winners from the past.

From ‘choice’ and ‘palate’ tests to a ‘calling card dish’ and the ‘reinvention test’, the strictly timed challenges have pushed the cooks to the limits of their abilities. All of these heats have been building up to the big final, where just one chef will overcome the competition to be crowned champion.

There’s no telling who can cook themselves to victory. For me, to win the competition you have to be resilient and brave, I don’t think the cooks who are best at the start win, it’s the ones who learn the quickest and improve. It’s all about learning from and absorbing the experience.

I’ve watched Masterchef right through this series, there’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid bare and vulnerable.  Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and their confidence, triggering anxiety. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of gravy on the plate.

Last week’s highlights included Gregg saying Two tarts and an ice-cream as if it were the title of a new release by One Direction. An overriding memory came from the celebrity series a few years back with Janet Street Porter banging on about her love of cooking roadkill. That and India Fisher’s hushed narrative and voice over giving me goose pimples…for the soft ‘g’ in the pronunciation of tagliatelle.

From 8am till midnight, day in and day out, they’re ordered about by egotistical chefs in Michelin-starred kitchens while cooking complicated dishes against the clock and all this while being constantly nagged by the judges bellowing YOU ONLY HAVE FIVE MINUTES LEFT.

I’ve long been a passionate cook and constantly developing my culinary craftsmanship. As far as I’m concerned, food is about taste, texture and simplicity, cooking is not an opportunity to make a climbing frame out of vegetables or building blocks out of meat. My food is chunky and unpretentious, a bit like me!

I’m an avid reader of cookbooks for inspiration. Giorgio Locatelli’s big Italian book is a great read, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg book has a load of good ideas and Rosemary Shrager’s recipes are simple and fool proof, so ideal for me. Heston Blumenthal is just too posh and too fussy for me. I spend more time trying to use the letters of his name as an anagram and spell something rude. That lush nobleman is my best effort.

I love basic and traditional English food. My ‘signature dish’ is a Desperate Dan pie – braised steak with morel mushrooms and pink shallots, in rich chestnut-flavoured gravy, with a puff pastry topping, served with sprouts pan-fried with chestnuts and garlic, and carrots braised in Manuka honey. Gregg and John would love my dish, although I suspect there would be some whingeing about my presentation as I’m all about substance over style.

But back to Masterchef. Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch. This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves.  By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

How many of us commit ourselves to our business like this?  Very few I suspect. Most of us settle for a bit of effort but we seek to avoid at all costs any loss of dignity, the risk of appearing foolish, or being criticised.  We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. They step out of their comfort zones in the glare of national television and bare their soul. And sometimes their sole.

As always when looking at something like this, I always try to find lessons we can take into our business:

Bosses come in all shapes and sizes and have different personalities Greg Wallace is kind, wants them to succeed but is firm and professional. John Torode is sarcastic and likes to watch people sweat, quick to anger, but has plenty of heart too. Occasionally, lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes the contestants try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home. Attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles.

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants are told the goal of the day and then have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and how would they present. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven. Having a clear strategy is key.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency. Businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events of significant adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and be able to respond with a back-up plan is vital.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Yes, you have a Plan B, but often Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay clam and present what is completed with conviction even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each episode there is a challenge, with a clear goal, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete it. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve success.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with clear instructions. In business, ambiguity or inaccuracy in a process can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful outcomes in business. The pressure of Masterchef is a perfect example of how to get things done when the heat is on.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Contestants are shown the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product.  The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve.  We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the presentation of each dish the contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a big risk to take in business.  Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it with some of your colleagues and selected clients to see if it can be improved.

Masterchef is a good example of getting out of your comfort zone. It’s important to push the boundaries, and when you do, it often feels like a big deal. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with the familiar routines? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to an experiment in psychology in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.

The idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the Masterchef competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It’s a natural state that most people trend towards. But don’t demonise your comfort zone as something holding you back, we all need that headspace, but Optimal Anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

Whether you love or loathe the programme, the tension and the occasional temperamental chaffing of the competitors, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from cooking under pressure in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, as shown by the amateur chefs. For example:

  • Be open to learning
  • Remove the boundaries and barriers
  • Curiosity
  • Do it in small steps
  • Focus on the positive past to envision a positive future
  • Accept that it will be uncomfortable

Breakout and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, push and stretch yourself and you’ll configure new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I don’t want to be a ballroom dancer, but I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.

A second thought for me from the kitchen recalls the thinking of Dave Brailsford, once Performance Director of British Cycling and latterly head of Team Sky, who was instrumental in leading a period of unrivalled success for competitive team and individual cycling in Great Britain. His performance philosophy was based upon ‘marginal gains’ – the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

As well as looking at traditional components of success such as physical fitness and tactics, Brailsford’s approach focused on a holistic strategy, embracing technological developments and athlete psychology. He is noted for his emphasis on constant measuring and monitoring of key statistics and developing training interventions, which target any observed weaknesses, however minor.

Brailsford is a keen student of management technique and attributed some of success to Moneyball, a book written by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in US Major League Baseball. Beane recognised that the way baseball players were assessed was flawed, based on traditional, outdated indicators.

Beane’s focus was analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, which informed Brailsford’s own analytical approach to individual performance. What we do at the Velodrome is all about winning or losing. We just spend our time thinking about how to go faster. If a rider isn’t going well, how do we sort it out? That is what occupies our lives.

Brailsford took Beane’s viewpoint and revolutionised an analytical performance system based on a series of hypotheses to determine the trajectory of a professional cyclist’s potential and ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ – It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in every single thing you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a soundbite but rather an approach that has underpinned Brailsford’s phenomenal success in both track and road cycling. The philosophy of marginal gains is simple: To be the very best they can be so that they perform when it matters.

So, what can you distil from competitive cooking, the concept of the comfort zone and the philosophy of marginal gains into application for a business context to take your performance to the next level?

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like for yourself?
  • How often do you review how you’re performing, examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • When is the next opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • When do you envisage you’ll next get out of your comfort zone to embrace a challenge?
  • Have you identified what the marginal gains are for the way you perform?

As Greg says: Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this. Business life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil, salt and pepper, and the world is your omelette. Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

Dave Brailsford and the aggregation of marginal gains

Sir Dave Brailsford has announced that he is standing down as Performance Director of British Cycling to concentrate on running professional cycling outfit Team Sky. Brailsford has been instrumental in leading a period of unrivalled success for Great Britain, winning eight gold medals at the last three Olympics, and has transformed the sport during his 10-year tenure.

Since taking charge of Team Sky in 2009 alongside his British Cycling role, Brailsford has masterminded Tour de France wins for Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013. The success of Team Sky has taken more and more of his time, leading to his decision to concentrate his efforts on the professional road-racing team.

Brailsford’s success as British Cycling Performance Director has been across all categories of competition –individual road time trials, Keirins, Team Sprint, Team Pursuit and Omnium – developing riders who have now become household names – Bradley Wiggin, Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish, Ed Clancy, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott.

Brailsford joined British Cycling in 1997 on the back of lottery funding and took over as Performance Director in 2003. He revolutionised the sport with his attention to detail, notably with his focus on the context of ‘marginal gains’, which brought Team GB 30 Olympic medals between 2004 and 2012. He was also instrumental in establishing the Manchester Velodrome, an Olympic-standard track as the home of British Cycling.

Brailsford’s philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ came from the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

As well as looking at traditional components of success such as physical fitness and tactics, Brailsford’s approach focused on a more holistic strategy, embracing technological developments and athlete psychology. He is noted for his emphasis on constant measuring and monitoring of key statistics such as cyclists’ power output, and developing training interventions which target any observed weaknesses, however minor.

Brailsford is a keen student of management technique and attributed his Olympic success to the skills and knowledge he learnt whilst studying for his MBA at Sheffield Hallam University. Moneyball, a book written by Michael Lewis, also left an impression on him. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in US Major League Baseball. Beane recognised that the way baseball players were assessed was flawed, based on traditional, outdated indicators.

Beane brought a refreshing, clean review of the standard thought processes that had developed over a period of time but had remain unchanged. In baseball, they talk about a player having ‘the full set’ if they are good at certain things. Beane stood back and said he wasn’t going to go with conventional wisdom.

Beane’s focus was on a team based analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, which informed Brailsford’s own analytical approach to team selection. What we do at the Velodrome is all about winning or losing. We just spend our time thinking about how to go faster. If a rider isn’t going well, how do we sort it out? That is what occupies our lives.

Brailsford took Beane’s viewpoint and revolutionised the approach to team building into an analytical approach based on a series of hypotheses to determine the trajectory of a professional cyclist’s career potential. He identified four stages in the level of performance, two stages in each of Professional and World Tour categories. The other dimension of performance was rider age, in five-year milestones at 20 to 35.

Brailsford plotted the trajectory of a rider’s career, peaking around aged 29, and a relative ranking based on dimensions and attributes of overall performance. There are different stages, as riders go from phase to phase. It aims to stimulate the asking of a series of questions: what does it mean in terms of potential, the coaching and support needed and performance potential?

As Brailsford says: We have split the phases, broadly speaking, into riders who we can support in Pro Continental races, riders who can podium in Pro Continental races, riders who can support in World Tour races and riders who can podium in World Tour races, who are your top guys. For the older guys the aim is to try to flatten out the curve so that they can continue performing at a high level for longer.

For a hi-res pic of the graph, follow this link http://www.cyclesportmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/DBgraphhires.jpg

Brailsford explains the five life stages of rider potential and its application to team selection:

1. Riders recruited for what we believe they can do in the future You’re betting on the future. You want to concentrate your coaching on these guys. The key here is to get people who are ahead of the curve – performing at a higher level for their age.  This is the area we want to invest in. This is where we concentrate our coaching and development.

2. Current top performers Riders who can deliver big results and who are in the peak of their career.

3. Proven performers – but who are beyond their peak if they can still do a job they still deserve their place on the team. Guys here don’t need coaching, as such. They still need support but we are not developing their talent, we are prolonging their careers.

4. Once you get down here, it’s time to say goodbye Is it worth having an older guy, who can podium at Pro Continental level but not at the bigger races? Probably not.

5. Riders in this area are borderline As you get older, the potential for improvement disappears and so it’s much more a judgement call. A rider might bring something to the team in terms of his personality that makes him a good guy to have around.

Aligned to the analytics of team selection, ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ is Brailsford’s catchphrase. It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in every single thing you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a soundbite but rather an approach that has underpinned Brailsford’s phenomenal success in track cycling, and which is now being applied to road cycling. So what does the philosophy of marginal gains look like exactly? To be the very best they can be so that they perform when it matters.

In 1997, when lottery funding was introduced, British cycling had no real ‘system’ in place. A structure was established by the newly appointed performance director Peter Keen, who coached Chris Boardman to an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, and Keen also had a clear vision: to become the world’s number one track cycling team.

That seemed a far-fetched ambition ten years ago, but by the time Brailsford succeeded Keen they were on their way to achieving the goal. By the 2008 World Championships in Manchester, the British team was dominant, and they confirmed their pre-eminence in Beijing, winning seven of the ten Olympic gold medals available on the track – and winning gold on the road, too, thanks to Nicole Cooke in the women’s road race.

In Cooke’s success there were several examples of the ‘marginal gains’ approach. The first was in her attire. She was not wearing the traditional road shirt and shorts. She was wearing a one-piece skinsuit typically favoured by time triallists and track riders. Why? Because she believed that its greater aerodynamics properties and comfort could give her a marginal advantage.

A second example was Cooke’s choice of equipment – she used ultra-light tyres, of the type favoured by track riders. It was a risk – they are more vulnerable to punctures, especially in rainy conditions – but one that she considered worth taking.

Another calculated gamble was Cooke’s approach to the final corner, which led into the hill that climbed to the finish. Approaching this corner she communicated by radio with the team car that she was worried that, in the wet, using the ultra-light tyres, there was a risk of crashing.

A crash would have spelled the end of her challenge for victory. So she decided to take the corner slowly, carefully, losing several lengths to her breakaway companions, but calculating that she could make up the difference. Which she did, winning a memorable sprint to become the first British road cyclist to win Olympic gold.

The skinsuit did not win Cooke the gold medal. The tyres did not win her the gold medal. Nor did her cautious negotiation of the final corner. But taken together, alongside her training and racing programme, the support from her team-mates, and her attention to many other small details, it all added up to a winning advantage.

Brailsford and his backroom team examine every single detail right down to the pillows used by cyclists to sleep on, installed seat warmers on the bikes for muscle conditioning, and how the riders wash their hands. His appointment of Dr Steve Peters – described by Brailsford as ‘the best appointment I’ve ever made’ – helped riders control the fears, anxieties and negative thoughts and that has been key. See an earlier dna blog regarding ‘the Chimp Paradox’ http://www.dnapeople.co.uk/inner-vation-lessons-from-steve-peters-the-chimp-paradox/

So how do we take Brailsford’s philosophy for creating a World Class cycling team into a development framework for the people and team in your business? Here are a few thoughts:

Set audacious goals In 2009 Brailsford set out to win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years. No British rider had finished in the top three in the previous 98 attempts, so this inconceivable goal was ridiculed. They achieved it in three years with Bradley Wiggins in 2012 – and followed this up with Chris Froome’s victory in 2013.

Focus Olympic Gold, winning the Tour. Ignore distractions and focus everyone and everything on the goal.

Get a performance mind set Even as he crossed the Tour finish line and before punching the air with joy and pride, Wiggins punched a button on his bike computer to log the ride data. He ha a performance mind-set.

Be relentless Many of Brailsford’s ideas took time to work out, but he relentlessly pursued the tiniest gains in everything – the bikes, fitness, training regimes, clothing, teamwork, nutrition, strategy, mindset.

Instil learning into habits Rigorously implementing what has been learned, no matter how small, is not an option for Brailsford. Once they got the best they had the discipline to hold on to it and put it into ‘business as usual’

People (rider) centred philosophy Training and developing people so they are the best they can be. Bradley Wiggins reshaped his physique by losing 8kg in bodyweight and Mark Cavendish vastly improved his climbing ability to enable him to support fellow team members and to get himself into more sprint finishes. It’s not about the bike, it’s about the rider.

Teamwork Road races are nearly always team events and every member knows their role and is committed to supporting each other and the leader to achieve the goal.

Plan, strategise and stay the course Being flexible and adapting to change and new knowledge is essential, but so is having that core vision and strategic intent of what you want to achieve and how you will get there. Brailsford never waivered from the vision: to become the world’s number one track cycling team with British Cycling, and with Team Sky, to win a Tour.

So whilst much of the philosophy and approach is still held confidentially by Brailsford, you can distil his thinking into application for a business context to take individual and team performance to the next level:

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like for each individual and the collective team in your business?
  • How often do you sit with your team and review how you’re performing together – examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • Have you identified with your team what the marginal gains are for the way you perform individually, and together?
  • How often do you solicit feedback about your leadership performance from your team – what’s working or not working about how you perform?
  • Do you see your role as leader to direct or to support your team? Are you asking and listening or focussing too much on telling?

Disciplined and rigorous process thinking, continuous improvement and a people centred philosophy. The aggregation of marginal gains Brailsford achieved brought together a wide range of incremental improvements, and had the discipline to implement and make them count. If it worked for Team GB’s cycling team, what could it do for you to identify the marginal gains for you and your team?

This blog is my own work, but I’ve drawn upon informative pieces from Denis Taylor at The Hidden Office, Team Sky, and The Guardian web sites.