What is the perfect recipe for Performance Management?

  • 3GHR  
  • 1 July 2016

Matters of performance management are foremost in our minds this week. As we enjoy monitoring the progress of our favourite players at Wimbledon, we are also gearing up for the launch of the new series of The Great British Bake Off in August and considering what it means to be a high performer.

Our Chief Executive Scott Chambers posed an interesting question about performance management: “A mother has 3 daughters who are all going away travelling together on holiday. She asks them all to write to her regularly whilst they are away. The first daughter completely forgets to send any letters at all. The second daughter writes regularly but forgets to post any of the letters, so simply gives them all to her mother when she returns. The third daughter writes and posts her letters, but puts incorrect postage stamps on them so they never arrive. Which daughter would you say performed the best?”

It’s a tricky one. How do you measure the performance of each daughter against the task set in this case? What are the criteria? Do we use the tangible elements to measure against, such as physically writing the letters, stamping and posting them? Or do we also measure the moral and emotional aspects of the mother’s expectations and the integrity of the daughters’ intentions in each case?  Is the answer that performance should be a mixture of intention, integrity and commitment to an idea in conjunction with ticking tasks off a list? My initial response was that the third daughter performed the best because she did what was requested, only to be let down on a technicality.

A similar question was raised whilst watching the last series of Bake Off (stay with me on this). The judges use a lot of criteria to decide who is awarded the coveted Star Baker badge, and who gets to take the walk of shame back across the bridge to their floury hotel room; flavour, crunch, snap, density, colour, layers, decoration, shine……and the dreaded soggy bottom. Where is the line drawn that dictates whether a baker has succeeded or failed at the task set? If a cake is baked on time and looks fabulous but has no flavour, is that better than a messy looking cake that tastes divine? What if a baker has a fabulous idea for a recipe but the execution fails on a technicality? Should they (like the third daughter above) still be rewarded for the merits of the idea?

In one particular week, Baker Kate’s samosas were let down on two fronts – initially because she wasn’t happy with the consistency of her pastry and decided to re-make it. Good for her, I hear you say; she anticipated that the finished product wasn’t going to meet the required standard, and took steps to rectify it. However, this little flash of perfectionism cost her dearly, as it left her with much less cooking time. The final insult was that the deep fat fryer worked on a timer and, unbeknownst to poor Kate, switched itself off before her samosas were cooked. So, despite her tasty recipe and pre-emptive action to ensure she met the judges exacting standards, Kate was subjected to the Iron Stare of Paul Hollywood when he tasted her undercooked pastry parcels.

Hollywood argued that technicalities are also the responsibility of the baker. He felt that Kate should have been watching the fryer the whole time, and he may also have argued that she should not have re-made her pastry and run the risk of undercooking it, regardless of its superior quality. This argument was also used during the infamous ‘bingate’ scandal, where Baker Diana removed Baker Ian’s ice cream from the freezer during a very hot day, causing an incensed Ian to dramatically throw the whole lot in the bin rather than present a sloppy, sub-standard Baked Alaska to the judges. Mary Berry felt that Ian’s response to this challenging set of circumstances was ‘sort of unacceptable’. It seems that, despite their high standards, both Hollywood and Berry would prefer to see & taste something rather than nothing at all.

Or did they see something in Ian’s approach to the task that they didn’t much care for? Instead of giving vent to his frustration and assuming he’d failed because not all elements of the task would be met, should he have maintained a stiff upper lip? Kept calm and carried on? Persevered even though he knew the result was likely to earn him an Iron Stare of his own?

Is Baker Ian equivalent to the first daughter above? Perhaps she fully intended to write those letters, but after she forgot the first couple, assumed she was already in the dog house and she might as well enjoy a few extra margaritas on the beach until facing the music upon her return.

Perhaps the real answer is that – in spite of any number of task lists or KPIs – performance is always measured subjectively. Your relationship with your manager always has some bearing on how you are rated. Is that how things should be, how we would like them to be?

Personally… I don’t really like margaritas, but I’d rather eat a scrumptious squashed éclair than a beautifully bland one.