Growing up, we often played the popular board game, The Game of Life. The object of the game is to end with the most money. This is accomplished through a series of various decisions and circumstances, and one thing the game made clear was that higher paying jobs usually resulted from going through college first. In real life, this choice was made equally clear, and we learned that jobs that directly applied what we learned in college were deemed better career choices.
After college I found myself in a geographic area that was not conducive to my specific engineering field, and while looking for a new job and relocation I worked as a waitress at a TGI Fridays. This wasnt all bad as I made more money, had better hours, and much more fun than many of my friends in entry level real jobs. However, I was determined to make my way to a real job that made more direct use of my degree.
What I didnt realize until after several mind-numbingly boring (to me) real jobs and a couple of advanced degrees, was that what I learned while working at TGI Fridays prepared me more directly for my current career than all the other real jobs combined. Heres why.
At the time, TGI Fridays was a place that tended to be different things to different people. For some people, it was one of the nicer places they could go to if they couldnt afford a fine dining establishment. For other people it was the happy hour watering hole, and so on. It wasnt uncommon for customers looking for very different experiences to be seated in your section at the same time.
The key to making more money was to ensure that each customer received the experience they were looking for. This meant that the wait staff had a very short time to assess the experience the customer wanted and to deliver it. The feedback as to how well you did (via the size of the tip) was immediate. What I didnt appreciate at the time was that this enabled me to hone a skill that is crucial in determining the types of game changing products and services that a company should develop. This skill is the ability to find and solve the problems the customer doesnt ask for directly.
"The greatest value is not found in providing new solutions to known problems, its in finding more valuable problems to solve."
To illustrate this point, the example of one of my frequent customers comes to mind. They came in about once a week, usually on a Thursday or Friday after work. They were clearly there to share a bit of time together and they didnt want to be interrupted too often. They would order 1-2 drinks, along with some cheese sticks. They sat in my section sometimes, and over time I passively noticed that they didnt eat the meat sauce that came with the cheese sticks, preferring ketchup instead.
On the surface everything seemed fine, but this behavior stuck out for me as an unusual choice. So the next time they sat in my section I substituted marinara sauce for the meat sauce. When I brought it to the table, I explained what it was, and why I did it. They thanked me and I left them to their conversation. They ate the marinara sauce, and I thought they were just being polite. They started sitting in my section every week, however, and the hostess told me that they specifically asked for me. They tipped noticeably better, and they ordered their cheese sticks the way we like them. I never knew their names or anything else about them, but clearly, I never forgot them.
When I work with companies who are looking to innovate, learn from consumers, or just make better products, one of the first things I do is help them to understand the need to look beyond what their consumers are directly telling them. The greatest value is not found in providing new solutions to known problems, its in finding more valuable problems to solve.
Sadly, this is not the way typical market research, product development, and corporate decision-making works, so most people have little experience in honing and applying this very valuable skill.
This is not to say that I didnt learn a lot from my other jobs they provided me with the background to understand my clients businesses. However, understanding the current business is no longer enough on its own. I'm sure that waiting tables is not the only way to develop problem-finding skills, but it was a great way to learn how closely our success is tied to how well we do it.
Image credits: Game of Life from http://therealsarahc.com; Also, an interesting evolution of the TGI Friday's logo http://www.creativebloq.com/logo-design/tgi-fridays-rolls-out-new-logo-8134118