What Are Your Organisation's Milkshake Moments?

Posted on 14th August 2019


This is a true story.

A few years ago, leadership consultant Steven Little was travelling across the United States for a speaking engagement. 

It was a long and tiring flight. His prize at the end of every business travel day is a vanilla milkshake . . .”a thick, gooey, luscious, indulgent vanilla milkshake”.  According to Steven, “the image of that milkshake is the proverbial dangling carrot that gets me through even the worst travel day”.

When he finally got to his room at midnight, the first thing he did was call room service where he was greeted by Stuart.   

“Good evening, this is Stuart in room service. How may I help you?” His voice brimmed with enthusiasm. “Stuart, I’d like a vanilla milkshake, please,” Steven said. A seemingly simple request? Well, not quite.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have milkshakes,” Stuart replied regretfully. Steven was disappointed. Quickly, he regrouped.

“All right, Stuart, let me ask you this: Do you have any vanilla ice cream?”
“Yes, of course!” he responded with renewed enthusiasm.
“Okay, Stuart, I’d like a full bowl of vanilla ice cream.”
“Yes sir, right away, sir! Is there anything else I can do to serve you?” Stuart asked.
“Yeah . . . do you have any milk?”
“Yes, we have milk!” he replied confidently.
“All right, Stuart, here’s what I would like you to do. Please send up a tray with a full bowl of vanilla ice cream, half a glass of milk, and a long glass. Could you do that for me, please?”
“Certainly, right away, sir,” Stuart responded triumphantly.

Steven hung up the phone and a few minutes later there was a knock. Sure enough, at his door there was a tray with a full bowl of vanilla ice cream, half a glass of milk, and a long glass — everything needed to make a vanilla milkshake. But, of course, they didn’t have vanilla milkshakes!

Now, we need to ask ourselves an important question. Is Stuart stupid? Or what is going on? Stuart’s behaviour is not unique. Like the vast majority of employees everywhere, Stuart wanted to do a good job. To this day, he probably still thinks he did.

Out of the 100 or so hotel rooms Steven Little stays in every year, he runs this experiment approximately half the time. He conducts this experiment only when a milkshake is not on the room service menu. More often than not, they do have all the ingredients to make him happy. Yet, he usually ends up with the same full bowl of ice cream, half a glass of milk, and a long glass (some assembly required).

Stuart is probably standing at a screen popping in orders with his company-issued plastic access key. If his screen doesn’t say “milkshake,” then a milkshake simply does not exist. The supposedly fool-proof system is designed to ensure that Stuart can’t make the organisation appear foolish. Yet even a casual observer can see that the system has pushed the organisation well beyond foolish. It is now sitting squarely in the land of lost opportunity. How’s that for irony?

Peel back the bureaucratic layers of any organisation and we will find a broad range of self-imposed limitations, from antiquated recruitment practices to poor workspace design to poor process design to inadequate customer service.

Consider your organisation. When are you saying no when it would be much better and just as easy to say yes? Do your current policies, procedures, and systems enable you to truly deliver? Do they enable you to be innovative? 

Adapted from The Milkshake Moment, by Steven S Little
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