Technology, Toasters, and Knowing What Matters…

Steve Boese HR Tech, Steve Boese, Trench HR

Chances are if you are any kind of a foodie or even just someone who has a special affinity for a particular culinary creation like coffee or barbecue (my personal weakness), you’re likely in possession of some fancy and cutting-edge appliances or gadgets that help you satisfy your cravings for that classic cup of joe, or perfectly smoked and seasoned piece of brisket.

A walk through a Williams-Sonoma store or some time spent watching your favorite celebrity chef on TV provides ample opportunity and rationalization for the food aficionado to make the investment in a $600 blender or a $5,000 backyard oven. Whether or not dropping that kind of scratch on an outdoor oven will suddenly transform your cooking to Iron Chef challenger status is questionable, but you’ll at least look more the part if nothing else.
In the last thirty or forty years, kitchen technology has advanced apace in most areas, but there is at least one ubiquitous culinary technology that actually has not kept up, and in some ways has actually regressed in functionality, satisfaction, and effectiveness – the lowly toaster. Yes, one of the simplest devices in your kitchen, a tool that should be reasonably easy to perfect, (after all, it only performs one basic task), is likely less capable than models made back in the 1960s and 1970s. From a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine’s Food Issue:
In terms of aesthetics and performance, the toaster has been devolving for a generation. According to Eric A. Murrell of the Toaster Collectors Association, the Toastmaster 1B14, a handsome hunk of chrome and steel discontinued in 1960, remains “absolutely the end-all-and-be-all toaster there ever was.” Among its charms was a patented timing system that didn’t tick off seconds but used its internal heating mechanism to gauge the bread and produce a consistent shade of brown.
The dark age of the toaster began when consumers started choosing price over functionality, particularly during the 1980s. The market is now glutted with machines that toast unevenly and retail for less than $10. “Mind you,” Michael Sheafe, a New York dealer of vintage appliances added, “that’s what they’re worth.”Ok, so you’re thinking so what? Who cares about toasters anyway, and what does this have to do with talent management, recruiting, the workplace – i.e. the subjects that Fistful of Talent is allegedly about?

The toaster tale is, I think, a good metaphor for choice, the kind of choices we face in our daily lives that often play out in our owning a $10 toaster sitting alongside a $135 coffee bean grinder.
For most of us, the ‘perfect’ piece of toast from the Toastmaster 1B14 isn’t really all that much better or more memorable than the ‘just average’ piece of toast that the ten-buck machine can fairly reliably spit out.

And whether it’s a hiring or internal talent management decision, an allocation of scarce leadership development funds, access to mentoring time from busy senior executives, or the tough decisions that we make around workforce technology purchases – we have to make these ‘perfect vs. good enough’ trade-offs all the time, even if we don’t want to and even when we don’t like to admit that’s what we are actually doing. Heck, Andy Porter and R.J. Morris have both hit this topic up here on FOT in recent weeks. You won’t win prizes in the talent game for endless recitations of the same old corporate mantras – ‘We only hire the best’ or ‘We have the best people in the industry’. You win by knowing how and when to invest your organizations’ time, money, effort, and energy in the ways that can yield the highest return given the resources at your disposal.

Sure, you can probably still dig deep and outspend just about any competitor for any one or two critical hires, or find some slack in the budget to make a counter-offer to keep someone even if your policy (and your gut), wants to say no, but should you?As the Times’ piece suggests, toaster technology has basically regressed, the market has more or less collectively determined that ‘good enough’ results are fine, and keeping investment low so as to free up resources for more important tools is preferred. Smart cooks know what’s memorable and what differentiates a great meal from an average one. And it isn’t toast.

Sorting out inside your organization what talent investments are worthy of Toastmaster 1B14 treatment and which ones aren’t is probably the most important thing you’ll do today.

How can you get started? When your guests leave your table, just ask them. The things they never mention, good or bad, (like the toast), will give you your first clue.