The Parable of the “Turd in the Punch Bowl”
Lessons for life, technologists, career, and consultants from a punch bowl problem…(mostly because I just feel this title requires a subtitle and that won’t fit in the title block).
I’ve heard it said There are two kinds of people out there. Those who group people into categories and those who don’t. (I’ve also heard it said that there 10 types of people out there – those who understand binary, and those who don’t). But I’m actually telling you there are four kinds of people out there. At least for the purposes of this little tale from a client, which has applications in life, technology, and consulting.
There are four kinds of people out there. Well, really two sets of two kinds of people:
In one set we have party hosts – There are those who, when hosting a party, would want to be informed about a “turd” in their punch bowl post haste, even if it meant another guest hearing the strange status report. And there are those who would rather see (smell?) no evil, hear no evil if it meant they’d look bad.
In the other set, we have party guests – There are those who, upon inspecting their gracious hosts punch bowl and discovering the aforementioned “turd”, would promptly inform their host, even if it was someone really important and in a higher position of authority than them of said “turd”. There are the others who would avoid the punch bowl and maybe tell their guests to also follow suit – but they wouldn’t tell their boss or rich uncle or higher up about the interloper (see. The fact that I used the actual word interloper here instead of resorting to a sort of not so witty malapropism should show you that I am trying to teach a serious lesson here)…
What Kind of Person Are You?
I run the risk of this client from many years ago discovering this post, but I believe enough years have passed and no identifying remarks will be shared. Plus I’m using their wise (and they were wise) counsel in an admirable (I hope) way here. So I was consulting, as I often do, for another firm. They were experts in some areas but they needed some deep SQL Server experience, I guess they got desperate and they stumbled upon Straight Path and our services and we helped them out on quite a lot of projects. In this particular project, they had done some work, and I was hesitant that a less experienced consultant before me had made some mistakes from initial views. I don’t play politics, I tend to shoot straight and I call things as I see them. Sometimes I lack a filter (though I am over 35, so I guess that means I qualify for a really important job, but I digress.. see. Filter..) but I also want to be mindful of threading that needle between delivery style when there is bad news. For me, if I make a client mistake I own it (I wrote about Bill Clinton and owning mistakes here, just need to work on that better in all phases of life, on reflection here), and do it promptly and openly. But if I’m in the middle, I don’t want to describe or deliver that news in a bad way that adds animosity or annoyance.
I was getting ready for the call with this client of mine and their client. But before the call, the sales guy/account exec who was working with me understood my trepidation apparently and he told me a little parable. In a southern drawl he said, and I’m quoting this to the best of my ability, though the word “Turd” was the precise word:
Look Mike. I get that we messed a few things up here. That’s why we have you in here and we aren’t billing them for your time and paying you out of margin. This is our gift to them – a SQL Server expert working out their issues plus any that we aggravated with the VM build out and migration. But let me tell you a story. Pretend you are at your rich uncle’s house. He’s hosting an amazing party. Your boss is there. Your family is there. And it’s all set up fancy. There’s even a punch bowl with a couple layers. It’s all decked out. You walk up to that punch bowl. Now this is your rich uncle, right? And he’s short on temper and you want to impress him. Someday maybe you’ll work for him. Or get in his will. You walk up to his punch bowl to get some, and you notice, what’s that?! A turd! There’s a turd in the punch bowl. What do you do? Well you’re a good person, you want him to know. You want the other guests to know. So you let him know about it. Who cares if someone else hears you, there’s a turd in his punch bowl and he needs to know. It’s his punch bowl. He owns it. And he’d rather know and fix it even if he has to make a joke about it or look like a bad host, than risk someone drinking from it and dealing with that mess. Mike. If there’s any turds in our punch bowl, you let us know. You can tell the client too, we want them to know about it before anyone takes a drink.
I laughed. But then I knew I liked this client for a couple reasons:
- How can you not like a guy who uses this story to disarm any potential fear of causing offense on your part? Maybe it’s the dad in me. Maybe it’s the firefighter in me. But I found his story disarming and charming. And it made the point. It obviously stuck with me.
- How can you not appreciate a client you are sort of stuck in a “monkey in the middle” situation with that doesn’t try and say “psst, hey listen, I got a big deal riding on this client loving me and thinking I’m awesome, just drink the punch and smile, I’m paying you good money!” ?!
I’ve had conversations with folks who wanted to hire me to do their rubber stamp dirty business, one offered me a great deal – stupidly high rate that we’d split and all would be good and more work to come. But I was reminded of the old plumber joke that sort of is a good reminder of why you shouldn’t trust thieves (We have a plumber in the family, I have many friends who are, you could use the joke about other professions also – though many of my clients are in the legal industry so not lawyers). The joke or saw goes “If a plumber does a job for $50 and the client accidentally gives you $100, what’s the ethical dilemma?” the answer is “Do you split the $50 with your partner or not?!” While that’s worth a quick little chuckle, it illustrates a point I try and teach my kids – if someone is going to gossip to you, they’ll gossip about you. If someone is going to ask you to lie for them, they’ll lie to you. If someone wants to rip someone else off with you, hold onto your wallet.
So. In life. In career. The moral of this parable of sorts depends on if you are the guest to the party or the host:
“When you see a turd in the punch bowl, say something.” You don’t always need to run up to it and knock it over (I mean, yuck) and you may be able to alert on the issue without making a scene – but fixing the problem is sometimes a better approach. And don’t get into business with someone who wants you to smile and help scoop more punch into cups – even if they are a great client.
“When someone tells you about a turd in your punch bowl, thank them! (And clean it up) – Don’t ask someone else to pretend it doesn’t exist or help you ignore it. Reward the people who see something and say something. Generally speaking, they aren’t seeking to embarrass you, they’re seeking to help the situation. But before you reward them? Maybe that that punch bowl out of service. You know, fix the problems folks alert you to. Then show them they made the right decision to tell you.
(p.s. – I have no clue what categories to put on this post. I went with career advice and professional development… For some reason, it reminded me of my only other bathroom reading post – one about 5 database lessons from the bathroom. )