At first glance, it was easy to mistake Peter for a
soldier. He had a very short haircut and the erect bearing we associate with
military professionals. Peter was no soldier. He was a professional waiter.
There aren’t many waiters like Peter around these days. He worked at a small
private club where he wore a crisply laundered jacket and tied his own black bow
tie. He did not wear a name tag and he certainly would never say, “Hi, I’m Pete
and I’ll be your server this evening.”
Peter taught me many things. He taught me that waiting tables was a noble
profession when treated as such, but that it was a profession I would succeed at
only with the greatest of effort.
The job I held during most of my high school years was setting pins in a
bowling alley. It was steady, but it was hard work and didn’t pay that well. I
heard that waiters could make good tips so I decided to try it. Part of Peter’s
job was evaluating young men like me and then training the ones who passed his
scrutiny for, first, an on-call job. That meant being called in for a special
event or when one of the regulars was out ill or on vacation.
One of the things he tried to teach me was what he called “The Gentle Pour.”
One of the reasons that he didn’t teach me a lot more was that I couldn’t master
it, even though it’s pretty simple.
When you pour coffee or water, the danger is that you will try to go too
fast. When you do that, liquid flows over the side of your coffee pot or pitcher
onto the table and the diners. We refer to that as a bad outcome.
The Gentle Pour is tipping the pot just slightly so that the liquid doesn’t
overflow the lip. You accommodate your pour to the capacity of the spout. As
Peter would say, “Gently now, so you don’t make a mess.”
Effective change initiatives need a “Gentle Pour,” too. If you try to do too
much at once, you overload the system and you make a mess. Better to go gently.
There’s one more part to “The Gentle Pour.” Tapping his chest with both
hands, Peter would say, “Even a master cannot pour perfectly every time. You
will spill a little. So be ready, carry a towel, wipe the spout, and clean up
any small spills.”
That’s true for change in organizations, too. There will be spills. If you’re
lucky and good there will only be small ones. Make sure you have a way to clean
them up quickly.
Boss’s Bottom Line
Change is a delicate thing. Go gently. Don’t make a big mess and clean up the
small messes you will surely make.
It’s been fifty years since Peter tried to teach me the Gentle Pour and I’ve
tried to master it. I was inspired to write this post when, again, this morning,
I slopped coffee onto the counter and made a mess.