07/06/18, Peter Russian

What would you recommend?: Giving control to others

Intent-Based Leadership, Leaders at all levels, Giving up control

A Friday night and after a rare afternoon off for a round of golf on one of Scotland’s finest courses, the fourball concurs a curry would be an appropriate conclusion.  The tradition of pints and poppadoms is respected and to all intents it looks like any other night out.

We’re offered menus but they remain unread.  No great poring over the dishes to determine our individual preferences and needs - we’re going to leave it to the experts.  Jamie makes the order simple: “We’d like you to recommend four starters and three main courses please. We’d like a mix of meat and vegetarian, mild and spicy. Everything else is up to you”. The waiter is slightly surprised. This is not the norm. We are all used to specifying our favourites and being in control – after all we know what we like.

What happens next is a revelation. Four starters arrived which none of us would normally order yet they were mind blowingly sensational - gorgeous prawns, amazing paneer and the most sumptuous chicken and honey. And the mains were even better, they disappeared very quickly. Every plate (licked) clean and four very happy customers.

Yet how can this be?  Surely we are the experts when it comes to our own taste buds? Surely the whole point of (often) lengthy restaurant menus is to afford the customer the greatest choice?

Except we’re not really the experts here are we? We might think we are (and if we have an allergy you I guess you might need to be) but unless we walked into the kitchen and tasted every dish we are never going to make the best culinary decision. Whereas someone who has a deep understanding of the different flavours and subtleties of the menu is probably going to be much better placed to make that decision for us. As customers we can specify the parameters of our desire – in this case ingredients and spiciness – and we leave the decision in the hands of the waiter.

All in all it was a brilliant meal and for me a revelation, as I’d only ever experienced run-of-the-mill dishes on previous visits. It led to a few simple conclusions over some more drinks;

Asking a waiter to choose your food is an easy way of giving control to see the potential of another’s expertise; it’s a superb metaphor of how we might find it hard to give up control more generally, even when we might not be best placed to make the decision.

Organisational structures and job profiling embed this problem because they assume that decision making and authority is aligned to hierarchy and job roles rather than to experience or knowledge. A waiter taking an order in a restaurant is in essence the same exchange we have when someone at work asks us “What should I do?”.

So here’s a suggestion: instead of responding with very specific requirements offer some broad criteria and invite others to use their expertise to make a recommendation. Because giving up control isn’t simply about giving people a sense of ownership, it’s fundamentally about getting a better outcome. 

My Indian meal that Friday was the best I’d had for some time because when it came to the detail, I left the decisions to the experts.

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