Last night we ate dinner at a restaurant where the kitchen and dish-washing stations were separated from the main dining room by a staircase. When I left our meal to head to the bathroom downstairs, a hurried water jostled past me with a very precariously stacked tray of dirty plates, cups, wine classes, and utensils.
As he cleared the landing at the bottom of the steps, he turned quickly left, pivoted right, then spread aside the curtain to enter the kitchen, tray in hand. As he did so, he shouted (to apparently no one in particular):
No one responded. They didn’t have to. But his goal served him well; that phrase served as a signal to his colleagues that someone was about to round a sharp corner, most likely with a large stack of something in hand, and that you better give them the right-of-way.
I smiled to consider the circumstances that may have led that restaurant to adopt that particular passphrase. Had somebody previously spilled hot soup leftovers all over the chef? Was there a great disaster of broken dishes that implicated multiple patrons? Or is the restaurant owner simply an experienced enough entrepreneur to know not to make this mistake twice?
Whatever the case may be, I love stumbling upon secret languages from different organizations. Every group of people that I know has their own signaling vernacular — whether it’s body language (maybe a slight twitch of the mouth during a meeting with an entrepreneur to indicate that you didn’t like how they answered that question), or verbal cues (I once asked my colleagues to use a secret phrase with me in client meetings if they felt like I was over-stepping), or something else entirely (like the sign a company may hang in their refrigerator to remind people to take their leftover home). And these signals are what helps keep up momentum and maintain a certain status quo in the culture.
Restaurant work, like theatre, is another profession where all of the team collaboration happens in real time right in front of you. You’re cooking in real time, you’re prepping, you’re cleaning, and people are eating. There’s little to no time to pause and reflect. As a result, I’m finding that groups of people who operate in “live environments” are among the most deliberate in their signaling tactics. This makes rational sense: The risks are of messing up have pretty immediate and severe consequences (ie: someone might get hurt).
This “corner warning” tactic happens in other places too. Just last week, while on a boat tour through a national park in Florida, our tour guide came on the intercom and instructed us all to cover our ears as we approached the dangerous turn in the middle of the mangrove forest. Across the water, I saw a red sign, signaling to all boat traffic that this turn was indeed obstructed. And as we passed, a massive ship of 100+ passengers in comparison to a two-person kayak, our captain laid on the deep, bellowing horn of the ship for a solid 10 seconds. Make no mistake, he signaled to the world around him: There’s a big ship coming this way.
Sometimes I wish that startups and other businesses acted with a bit more urgency around their signaling too. Corners are scary for us, too, after all. Sharp turns or massive organizational pivots certainly cause aftershocks and rifts in any company. Whether it’s a navigating to a new product direction, adopting a merger with a smaller entity, making a change in the leadership team, or undergoing a downsizing event, these are all corners that we must navigate — often without warning.
It probably doesn’t make sense to shout, “Corner, corner!” or sound a bullhorn in the middle of an office on a busy workday and expect that this will adequately prepare employees for a big change. (That certainly would not help me feel any less anxiety about change.) But I do think it’s important to consider what signals you’re sending (both intentionally and unintentionally) and then seek to identify more deliberate practices around those signals.
In many ways, traditional businesses have it easier than chefs because we’ll often have hours, weeks, or even months to respond to a “corner warning” — as opposed to mere seconds to get out of the way. However this also can just extend the communication cycle and invite more opportunities to muddle the messaging. And I’m starting to think that, whether you run a restaurant, a boating company, a theatre, or a startup, how you handle corners is an incredibly important (and often overlooked) communication framework to get right.
And it seems like just a little signal can make a really big different. Either that, or you better be prepared to break a lot of dishes along the way.