Motivating with a Kitchen Utensil: The Golden Spatula

It was frosted toaster pastries and sugar-coated sugar bomb cereal for breakfast.  Again.  We have to do better.

We were camping with the Scout troop, and while the outing was a lot of fun, the meals had become pretty uninspiring.  Everyone knew we could do better, but the enthusiasm just didn’t seem to be there.  Here’s how we changed the game almost overnight using an old kitchen utensil and a can of spray paint; maybe something like this could work for you!

Golden Spatula

Motivating Through Competition   

This troop had done many great things recently, like white water rafting, backpacking, bike hikes, and plenty of living and eating outdoors.  It was a good, talented group, but when it came to meal time, things weren’t always all that great.  Especially breakfast.  Meals had become all about minimizing the work and taking the path of least resistance instead of creative campfire cookery.

That morning, the boys were wandering around, pastry in hand, getting their sugar rush on, instead of producing and eating a healthy meal as a team.  The familiar box of toaster pastries was starting to get old.  Something had to change.

But how do you motivate a group to make a change, to raise their standard of performance?  We adult leaders had always encouraged them to do more, had modeled how to cook delicious food over the fire in multiple ways, had told them they needed to do better, but nothing seemed to take, and the patrols often could not be bothered.

Then one day back home I was puttering around in the kitchen and thinking about maybe encouraging some sort of cooking competition among the patrols.  But what to hold up as a prize for winning?  There has to be a trophy, some kind of incentive.

I came across a battered black plastic spatula in the utensil drawer that was just about ready for the trash bin.  And for some reason my mind flashed to the can of metallic gold spray paint I had seen in the basement recently.  Put the two together, and you get the “Golden Spatula.”  Two coats of paint later and I had a gleaming culinary artifact to hold up as the award for the best dinner meal at the next campout.

What you Measure Becomes What’s Important  

We adult leaders thought about the areas where they could improve performance – the meals should be done and ready to eat on time with everyone sitting down together, meals should be balanced, they should be flavorful, and they should be cooked using some Scouting skills, like over the fire or in a Dutch Oven.  So we established simple categories and criteria for each.

At the meeting before the campout, I held up the Golden Spatula, talked about how it represented excellence in cooking, recalled some of the great meals we had eaten in the past that would be worthy of such an honor, and announced that it would be awarded to the patrol that cooked the best dinner meal on Saturday night.  I then briefly explained the judging categories and publicly anointed the other adults camping with us as “Distinguished Judges.”

Timeliness – All elements of the meal ready at the same time; everyone sits down to eat together

Taste – Meal is flavorful

Balance – Meal has appropriate amounts from all food groups

Skill – Use of of special cooking skills to produce the meal

The Results

On Saturday afternoon, we noticed that a couple of the patrols curtailed their game a little early and were soon gathering around the fire or digging through their coolers for ingredients.  By the time the dinner hour approached, there were Dutch ovens over the fire, steaks on a grill, and chicken patties on a griddle.  It was a long way from perfect, but suffice it to say we ate very well that night, and the judges had the privilege of observing the process and enjoying a sampling from each meal.

Around the campfire later that night each judge extolled the many merits and positive points of what he had seen and eaten, also noted a few areas for improvement, and we recognized the winning patrol in each category.  Finally, after dramatic pause, the overall winner was duly awarded the first ever Golden Spatula.  I think it was the Dutch Oven beef stew with biscuits; it was delicious!

Making it Enduring

But that wasn’t the end of it.  The idea of competition seemed to spur the patrols into action, and it had worked.  But success wasn’t just one meal –we wanted most of our meals to be this good.  So we did one thing more – we turned it into a tradition.

At the camp fire, the Scouts said that they enjoyed the competition and wanted to do it again.  Absolutely we can.  Just one thing: before the next Golden Spatula meal, the previous winning patrol had the right and duty to make an “improvement” to the trophy and return it ready to be awarded to the next winner.

Motivation - the Golden SpatulaIn this way, over the next two years and many campfire meals, the Golden Spatula has grown from a simple plastic utensil to a totem for the troop, and is embedded in troop tradition.  The implement is now mounted on a fire-hardened, multi-pronged staff, festooned with various colored ropes, monkey fist knots, carvings, the tail of a squirrel, and a toy plastic laser sight (presumably so that any pancake flipping is done with great precision).  Making and explaining the significance of each improvement is as much part of the fun as is eating well.

And we are eating well now.  Last campout for Golden Spatula breakfast, we had scrambled eggs and maple bacon, enormous pancakes dubbed “man-cakes” with maple syrup, bacon and sausage, orange juice, and the winning entry included eggs, bacon, onions, sausage, diced peppers, diced potatoes, and a variety of seasonings, accompanied by fresh fruit, and English muffins.

The Takeaway

Teams work best when united to accomplish a common goal.  But merely announcing the goal is not always enough.  We found that we were able to improve team motivation and performance by designing a simple competition that made it fun and beneficial to participate and work together to win.   By specifying what it took to score highly in each category, we saw the behavior quickly move closer to the ideal in each area.  Over time, we adjusted the categories for even greater performance (for example adding a “cleanliness” criterion).

What you measure becomes what's important. Choose wisely... Click To Tweet

The experiment was a win for everyone:  even the boys from the patrols that don’t win eat better than they used to.  We’re even eating better at meals that aren’t part of the competition.   And of course, being a judge is a good gig!

What is it that you want your team to accomplish?  What goals have you set?  How will you motivate your people?  Maybe there’s a way you can establish a healthy competition so that you can have fun along the way.  Give your team a reason to work together, make it fun, and sometimes the results will take care of themselves.   And incentive doesn’t always need to be money or promotion; sometimes a well-worn kitchen utensil and a can of paint is all you need.

Give your team a reason to work together, make it fun. Click To Tweet

Question:  What’s your Golden Spatula?

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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