The Milkshake Moment

The story I’m about to tell you is true.

A few years ago I traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, for a speaking engagement. Anyone who travels for business knows that it is hardly glamorous. After 9/11, however, it became even more frustrating, and it keeps getting worse. I don’t think I’d be overstating it to say that business travel today is horrific: irretrievably lost luggage, annoying security searches, perpetually oversold flights, infuriating rental car policies, frazzled counter staff . . . I think you get the picture.

Despite all the traumas of travel, I decided a few years ago to always keep a smile on my face. The way I look at it: if the business travel industry gets the best of me, they win and I lose. I just can’t allow that to happen.

I keep a smile on my face by keeping my eye on a prize. My prize at the end of every business travel day is a vanilla milkshake . . . a thick, gooey, luscious, indulgent vanilla milkshake. I’m talking a hand-dipped, old-fashioned, malt-shoppy kind of milkshake. I don’t just like ’em; I love ’em. Both my career and my mental well-being literally depend on them. The image of that milkshake is the proverbial dangling carrot that gets me through even the worst travel day.

It had been a particularly difficult day of planes, trains, and automobiles. I was to arrive at the Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) Airport at 7:00 P.M . for dinner with my clients at 8:00 P.M . Unfortunately, I arrived at midnight. In other words, there was nothing out of the ordinary so far.

I grabbed my bags and stood in a long taxicab line to take the 20-minute ride to Baltimore’s beautiful Inner Harbor. I was cold, wet, tired, and hungry, but smiling, because I was going to get that vanilla milkshake.

When I finally got to my room an hour later the first thing I did was call room service where I was greeted by Stuart.

“Good evening, Mr. Little, this is Stuart in room service. How may I help you?” Stuart’s voice brimmed with enthusiasm.

“Stuart, I’d like a vanilla milkshake, please,” I said. A seemingly simple request, right? Well, not quite.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Little, but we don’t have milkshakes,” Stuart replied regretfully.

I was crushed. Quickly I 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 spoon. Could you do that for me, please?”

“Certainly, right away, sir,” Stuart responded triumphantly.

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

Now let me ask you an important question. Is Stuart stupid? Or is the system stupid?

Stuart’s behavior 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 I stay in every year, I run this experiment approximately half the time. It’s not every night, as some hotels don’t offer room service, while others specifically offer milkshakes. I conduct 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 me happy. Yet I usually end up with the same full bowl of ice cream, half a glass of milk, and a long spoon (some assembly required).

Why does this keep happening? Why can’t individuals like Stuart deliver what I asked for? I’ve had plenty of time to ponder that question now that I’ve received over 200 do-it-yourself vanilla milkshakes from America’s leading business hotels. Let’s take a look at some of the underlying causes that lead to these systemic breakdowns.

Stuart is standing at a point-of-sale 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 foolproof system is designed to ensure that Stuart can’t make the organization appear foolish. Yet even a casual observer can see that the system has pushed the organization well beyond foolish. It is now sitting squarely in the land of lost opportunity. How’s that for irony?

Think about this. I represent the mother lode for the business travel industry. I stay in over 100 hotel rooms a year and I’m not exactly price sensitive. Stuart could have charged me $25 for that milkshake and I would have been happy to pay it.

I actually feel sorry for the major business hotel chains. In an effort to standardize their systems, they’ve taken individual judgment out of the equation. They spend billions of dollars in marketing to get people like me through their doors and billions more in staff training to make my brand of traveler happy. Yet they continually blow it, due in some part to a stupid point-of-sale system. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It goes much deeper than that.

Despite my feelings to the contrary that fateful night, Stuart’s inability to deliver a Milkshake Moment is not the end of the world. It is, however, symptomatic of a much broader organizational malaise.

This story is not just another example of bad customer service. It’s much more than that. This is a larger tale of lost opportunity. Invariably, the root cause can be traced back to factors that are much more fundamental. Peel back the bureaucratic layers of any organization and you will find a broad range of self-imposed limitations, from antiquated hiring practices to poor workspace design to short-term financial myopia.

Consider your organization. When are you saying no when it would be much better and just as easy to say yes? Are you really putting people in the best position to grow? Do your current policies, procedures, and systems enable you to truly deliver?

So what is a Milkshake Moment? It’s certainly not a full bowl of ice cream, half a glass of milk, and a long spoon. Instead, a Milkshake Moment is a brave individual action, be it big or small, that furthers the cause of growth in an organization. Milkshake Moments materialize when individuals understand the organization’s true purpose, honestly believe it is their job to fulfill it, and are given the tools and the freedom to make it happen. When a would-be growth leader managing deep within the bowels of a stagnating organization has the guts to stand up and say, “This idea is contrary to everything we say we believe,” that’s a Milkshake Moment. When a thinking person is given the freedom to seize an opportunity afforded by change, that’s a Milkshake Moment. When a small business owner consciously puts purpose before profit, that’s a Milkshake Moment. When the executive director of a nonprofit foundation challenges the status quo views of her tenured board members, that’s a Milkshake Moment.

Members of twenty-first-century organizations need to realize they are allowed to do the right thing—to serve the interests of others in order to grow the organization—instead of following arcane, arbitrary rules, processes, and procedures that actually hinder growth. Only when we remove our own self – imposed barriers can we seize new opportunities in structured settings. A Milkshake Moment can only be realized when growth leaders clearly communicate an organization’s true purpose and grant individuals permission to do whatever can be done ethically to achieve it.

But it takes guts to do this. Growth requires persevering, creative, even courageous individuals who aren’t afraid to mix it up. Are you ready?