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4 Lessons from the Great British Baking Show

Learn how to go with the flow, follow a plan and, most importantly, stay friendly.

I have a confession to make. I have been secretly binge watching The Great British Baking Show (GBBS). Ok, that is not really a secret.

But my binge surprised me. I don’t watch a lot of TV and I don’t bake. After hearing some folks talk about it, I tried it on a whim. Now, many cakes, breads, pastries, and desserts later, I’ll share some workplace lessons inspired by the show.

About the Great British Baking Show (GBBS)

If you are not familiar with the GBBS (also called the Great British Bake Off), the title explains it pretty well.

It is a British show that features amateur bakers competing across 10 weekly episodes. The bakers gather in a tent in a lovely spot in England that is stocked with ovens, stoves, refrigerators, mixers and ingredients.

Completing three bakes in every show, they make everything from meat pies to fancy pastries to wedding cakes. The show highlights elite performers in the world of amateur baking.

The show is interesting and relaxing to watch. It also teaches some valuable lessons that can be used at work. Here are a few.

Lesson 1: Everything is different in the tent

One common refrain from the contestants is that everything is different in the tent. After seeing it on TV, they arrive and find the tent (the set for the show) bigger than they expect.

As with any TV show, the set is chaotic. The big tent houses elements like the cameras and crew that don’t show up for viewers. Being in the tent differs from viewing bakers in the tent.

One work lesson here is that you can’t accurately judge a situation from the outside. Being in a situation differs from viewing a situation.

Judging from the outside the tent applies to many situations such as job searching, evaluating colleagues, making assumptions, and knowing only part of the story.

When applying for a new job, you can guess at the culture. But you won’t fully understand the culture until you start.

Similarly, you can’t judge someone else’s job from the outside. I often hear co-workers say things like “I don’t know what that person does all day”. Sometimes the colleague is goofing off. More likely, you do not have a full view of the co-worker’s tent (job and priorities). Sometimes jobs are far more complex than they first appear.

Recognize that you can’t judge everything you see – you might be missing some key information.

Lesson 2: You can’t prep for everything

The format of the show tests the bakers. They receive a brief to prepare for their first bake and their last one. But the second bake of the week is their “technical” exercise.

The judges assign a bake (usually a complicated and obscure pastry) for the bakers to prepare. The bakers receive an ingredient list, a few cryptic instructions and a short time period.

Often the bakers have never seen or eaten the mystery pastry – much less made one. They must rely on their baking knowledge and then improvise.

The quality of the technical bakes is usually mixed – and sometimes not even edible. The bakers also struggle with baking in a tent. The unpredictable English weather sometimes has them trying to mold chocolate while it is melting from the heat or trying to get bread to rise when it is cold.

The work lesson translates cleanly – you can’t prep for everything.

Things change fast. Deadlines move. Customers complain. Requirements get updated. Priorities shift. People come and go.

Success at work requires learning to be agile in your work tasks. Stay positive when faced with change. Understand that change is a constant.

Lesson 3: Following your plan is critical

So, I just wrote that you can’t plan for everything. Which is true. You need to be prepared for change. But success also requires you to think through and plan complex activities.

The bakers get advanced notice of the first bake – the signature bake – and the third bake – the show stopper. They receive general guidelines, but the bakers get to design and create and decorate within those guidelines.

These are usually complex bakes that require 4-6 hours to complete. Most of the bakers spend the week in between sessions frantically designing and practicing their bakes. They come in with detailed recipes and plans.

With one oven, refrigerator and freezer per baker, all of the components need to get chilled and baked at the right time for the right length. One contestant had a spreadsheet that broke the instructions down to five-minute increments.

The occasional contestant comes in and says that they are going to wing it. In those cases, the baker often ends up with a disaster like under-cooked bread or an incomplete cake.

When you are facing a complex project at work, make a plan and follow the plan.

Outline the steps you need to take. Estimate the time and effort for each step. Confirm that you can meet your deadline. Stay on target.

If you have the luxury or practicing or learning from a similar project, take advantage of it. Don’t wing it when you are facing a critical project. If you face a change (see lesson 2), you will be able to adjust if you have a solid plan.

Lesson 4: You can compete and stay friends

The GBBS culture of kindness and goodwill is my favorite part of the show. In a world in which people seem to attack each other about everything, this show provides a welcome respite.

The bakers compete to win, but graciousness and kindness temper the competitiveness. They bond as a group. You see them chatting and advising and sometimes helping each other.

Competition does not need to be vicious. Winning does not need to mean destroying your competitors.

At the end of each episode, the judges eliminate one baker. The hosts and other bakers support that person with hugs and well wishes. They are encouraged to keep baking. The winners manage to celebrate their own success and stay kind at the same time.

You can compete – and remain kind – and stay friends. This is the key message for me. Now, bake!

This article was originally published at Science of Working as “4 Workplace Lessons from the Great British Baking Show” on July 30, 2019.

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