Oval At Six

How does a simple request for a round table at 5 p.m. get complicated? Well, it can and it did. Let me start from the beginning.

A few months back my family decided to throw my mother a surprise 80th birthday party at a local restaurant. I know what you’re thinking: a surprise party was our first mistake. But bear with me.

A date was picked, people were invited, and reservations made. Done and done. Everything was going smoothly — that is, until Mom found out about her “surprise.″ Suffice to say, we slightly miscalculated Mom’s enthusiasm for the element of surprise.

Okay, scratch the element of surprise. We’re still gonna party, right? Not so fast. True to form, Mom had a very specific and non-negotiable preference about the logistics: she wanted her guests seated at a round table and the party to start at 5. A simple enough request, I thought. It wasn’t. The restaurant we booked didn’t have a round table available at that time.

Three days and counting before the party, I made call after call determined to find the Holy Grail. Though the quest seemed futile at times, I was going to get that round table at 5, come what may.

Finally, when all seemed lost and hopeless, I found a Mom-approved restaurant — that alone was a high hurdle — with an oval table available at 6. I had my doubts (an oval isn’t round and 6 isn’t 5), but the restaurant assured me in no uncertain terms the table would meet all my requirements. Close enough, I thought. With some trepidation, I booked it.

I arrived at the restaurant at 5:45 p.m. only to find: THE TABLE WASN’T OVAL. How did we ever get from our ideal, round table at 5 p.m. to this travesty of a long rectangle with rounded corners doing a bad impression of an oval? Would I live to regret this? Was this party going out of bounds?

Well, what could I do except put on my bravest smile and greet guests. Mom was a trooper. She didn’t say anything, but I know my mom… she was not happy. Ah, to disappoint your mother, on her 80th birthday, at her not-so-surprise party! What lessons could I take from this fiasco?

Well, I started thinking about how I fulfill clients’ requests, and how I didn’t follow the steps I normally would as I tried to satisfy Mom. This is what I should’ve done:

  • Get clarity: At the time of my client’s (Mom’s) initial request, I should have asked questions to fully understand the reason for the request. Just as I might ask a client, “What objective do you want to meet with this learning solution?” I should’ve asked Mom why the table shape was so important. What did she want it to provide for her and her guests? After the fact, I realized seating a large group at a round table makes it easier to see, hear, and talk to everyone. Not so at a rectangle table posing as an oval table.
  • Set expectations: If a client were to ask for the design and development of a solution in an unrealistic time frame, I’d let him/her know what is and isn’t possible, and provide reasons why. In this case, I should’ve shared with Mom the difficulty we might have booking — only three days in advance — a large round table for a Friday night. I should’ve prepared her to consider other options given the situation’s constraints.
  • Consult: When clients make requests I know we can’t fulfill, I consult with them to find out what alternatives are acceptable. Can they extend the timeline? Can they review in one day? Can we break the training into smaller chunks? For Mom, I should have asked, “Could we eat earlier or later? Could we move the date of the party? Would two smaller round tables work?”
  • Provide options: Once I’m clear about my client’s request and what’s acceptable to them, I consider options that can meet their needs. This might involve research, discussions with colleagues and freelancers, or figuring out budgets and schedules. In Mom’s case, instead of settling on the first option and assuming it was the only one, I should’ve called more restaurants, asked how or when they could accommodate us, or even asked guests to suggest options…

…Who knows, maybe Mom would’ve been happy with “Round at Noon on Saturday for Brunch.” 

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