Talk to the Waiters
How advice from Professional America’s favorite villain can save your project
A client once came to me with a clear message:
“It’s taking us months to create global reports,” he told me. “Our primary reporting product is too complicated and our various business units and geographies don’t understand how to use it. We need to simplify into something usable to allow for quicker results.”
In the immediate aftermath of that conversation I met with leadership of the geographies and businesses in question, all of whom echoed the same basic message:
- Global reports take too long
- Our people don’t understand how to do it
- Need to simplify
Next I was handed a trove of documents to pour over in my quest to hash out the ideal simplification that would lead said client to the promised land. A quick review of the documentation for the dreaded reporting product made one thing clear: there’s no way I’m going to be able to sufficiently redesign this in the twelve weeks I have to work with.
But I had a suspicion that all was not as it seemed. I started picking at one piece of the narrative: why was everyone so sure their reporting product was too complicated for the rest of their organization to understand? Why had everyone in upper management been repeating this so effortlessly?
One of the most common mistakes consultants make is not spending enough time talking to the people on the ground. Always looking to sell the next project, most are preoccupied with relationship building at the upper management level where follow-on work gets green-lighted.
Yet the best information is almost always at the bottom of the pyramid with the junior analysis, the people doing the data entry, the employees who get tasked with the job of spending months compiling the reports executives want.
I’m reminded of an anecdote from the Trump White House:
“Then he told a story about a friend who owned a popular restaurant whose revenues had been declining. The friend hired a consulting firm, paid them a lot of money, and implemented all their advice. Revenues continued to fall.
The frustrated and bewildered friend reported all this to Trump. “I told him,” the president said at our meeting, “‘You wasted your money. Talk to the waiters. Talk to the cooks. Talk to the busboys. They know. They know what’s working and what isn’t. They can help you fix this faster than any fancy consultants.’”
After a little searching I found a “waiter” named Jane whose actual job was database administrator and who knew the reporting product from hell better than anyone. Jane shared my love for long, detailed emails and within a few weeks we had written a series of short novels to each other trying to hash out why reporting had become so difficult at her company.
By the time we were done writing I realized she had long ago found the solution her company needed. It didn’t lie in overhauling the reporting tool or simplifying anything — but in addressing inconsistencies in how various geographies understood the terms they were being asked to report on. Anyone could have come to her and asked for her opinion at any time but prior to me no one had.
Once this message was clearly communicated to the folks at the top, the solution looked a lot different. No big projects to overhaul a perfectly fine reporting product (sorry, boss), just a series of training for the users and tweaks to what was already in place. Shortly thereafter, they were on a quick path to improvement.
My value in getting to the right solution didn’t lie in a genius reconstruction of a reporting tool or deep technical expertise built on decades of experience but in my ability to find someone who already had the answer and communicate their message in a way that would ensure it was finally heard. In massive, sprawling organizations there are often treasure chests of information to be found if you know where to look.
Talk to the waiters. They know.