Competitive Competence

Learned Volume 3, Issue 9

Welcome to Learned, a short, weekly look at language, education, and everything else under the sun. I’m Joel, amateur linguist and professional slacker. And, this week, we're finding out just how good everyone is at their craft.

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A lot has been written over the past few years about the gentile, feel-good British competition shows, as exemplified by The Great British Bake-Off. Unlike, say, American reality shows, everyone gets along, mistakes are acknowledged, apologized for and moved on from, and generally there is a spirit of genial good-sportsmanship.

And, spurred on by the success of Bake-Off, there have been a whole raft of shows made in the same vein but highlighting different skills. There's The Great British Sewing Bee, The Great Pottery Throw-Down, The Great Interior Design Challenge, and now...The Big Flower Fight.

A photo from last year when we could all go to theme parks: tulips during the tulip festival at Hitachi Seaside Park.

We binged this one over the weekend. My wife and my daughter both loved it for the inventive, grand creations and I loved it because I still marvel at just how many flowers can be stuck into the typical English country garden. (In my defense, I grew up in a time and place where garden meant a few flowers tucked along the edge of a green lawn; those green lawns have, in turn, been replaced by more ecologically friendly native mesquite and cactuses, so the sheet amount of flowers available to the contestants is, well, mind-boggling.)

For as much as we enjoyed it, there was one small incident that stuck in my mind and that I've been mulling over for the past few days. (I'm going to avoid names or episodes to prevent major spoilers, but, still, I'm talking about an episode of a t.v. show so if you want to avoid being spoiled, stop reading now. But come back later, please.)

Two contestants were running low on time. The other contestants, who had finished their projects, volunteered to help the pair finish their project. The guest judge stopped them and made the original pair work on their own, to finish or not as their abilities allowed them.

This bothered me. A lot. The thought that finally solidified in my head was this: what were the contestants being judged on - the process or the finished product? To me, had I been a judge, it would not have bothered me that they got help. If the team could, through charisma, wit, or cajoling, persuade their rivals to help them complete their task, then more power to them. To me, it is as much an example of their innate skills as time-management or good color-coordination. In other words, if they are able to get job done, I don't really care how it gets done.

We, as humans, love watching the process, don't we? I mean, somewhere in the Venn diagram of how-its-made YouTube videos, competence-porn reality t.v. shows, and livestreams of creative people doing their thing, we all sit, happily absorbed in watching things the process, regardless of whether the outcome is a fully stocked freezer on a deep-sea fishing trawler or a new tattoo.

But we don't work that way. And, by work, I mean, our professions and our jobs. We don't give basketball players points for balls that don't go in the basket, we don't award oscars to movies that never got finished, and we don't give promotions to workers who never finish off their task list.

I think this is particularly relevant in the current moment. The role of the manager in working environments is to monitor the process. The manager keeps the team on task and working towards the goal. They minimize distraction and maximize efficiency and sort out all the schedules. But, of course, there's always been conflict between the process and the goal: if Bob has finished all his work, why can't he take the rest of the day off? If he's being paid for completing his tasks, then, logically, he should be good to go. If, on the other hand, he's being paid for his time, then he needs to sit back down and get back to work.

But, being paid for your time, is, of course, code for being paid for having your process monitored. We need to see what it is that you're doing. Ostensibly it's because we need to know how you did that bit of magic so we can replicate it later. Institutional knowledge and all that. But really, it's because we like to see the process. We like to know how the sausage gets made. And now, we can't.

Everyone's working from home. Companies might have some monitoring software installed on company computers or monitoring how many Zoom calls their employees make, but, for the most part, they're just having to rely on everyone getting the job done. Which brings us back to the question - are we getting judged on the process or the result?

The judge made a call. She felt it wasn't fair for the team to have help from the other contestants. And, in the final scoring, she marked the team down quite a bit for it. She simply couldn't separate the result from the process. I wonder how the rest of us will fare?

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