What’s not on the menu?

I was at a workshop a couple weeks ago, and there was an organized dinner one evening where we went to a restaurant and ordered off a pre-planned fixed menu. While chatting before ordering, a couple locals mentioned that the restaurant was known for its mac’n’cheese, which was not on the fixed menu. So when the waitstaff came by to take orders, I asked if we could get an order of mac’n’cheese for our table. They said they’d have to check, but probably. And, sure enough, we got delicious yummy mac’n’cheese at our table, while the other 5 tables at dinner missed out on that experience.

The reason this is funny is because this was a workshop on decision making, and we had spent most of the day talking about cognitive biases, including anchoring, pre-judging, etc. One such bias in decision making is to assume that the choices presented are the only choices available. And I understand that the fixed menu was to increase efficiency, as it would take forever to take orders if everybody made a custom order. But it was still a good reminder for me that it’s easy to miss what’s not in front of you as an option.

This is the power of framing the available choices. A friend of mind once told me that he’d learned that as a parent – he would always give his kids choices, but he’d limit the choices to options that he approved. For instance, the question in the morning would be “Do you want to wear the green shirt or the red shirt?” and not “Do you want to wear a shirt this morning?” I immediately stole that technique to use at work e.g. when talking to my boss, “Do you want me to delay project A or project B to take on this new project Q?” to preclude the option of me having to do everything without delay.

People also often fall prey to this bias when thinking about their career. They think they have to choose from the available jobs or career ladders, as if selecting from a menu. One common piece of advice is to decide what job you want in ten years and then plan your next ten years to develop the skills and experience you will need to get that job. But that assumes that the job you want is among the jobs available now. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been living off the beaten path over ten years now – my last four jobs didn’t exist before I took the job, so I couldn’t have planned to get those jobs, and that has freed me to think more broadly about my career possibilities.

Anyway, I was telling the mac’n’cheese story yesterday to a friend, and thought it was a nice little parable that I would share here on the blog as well. One lesson I’ve been trying to learn is that you can sometimes get what you want just by knowing to ask for it, and I’ve been practicing it in small ways like this – my first instinct was “I can’t ask for that, it’s not on the menu!”, and I over-rode that instinct and was glad I did. Can you think of a time when you asked for something not on the menu and got it? Can you build on that experience?

2 thoughts on “What’s not on the menu?

  1. I had an interesting discussion about this recently–I was at lunch with a group of people I don’t know well and asked for something not on the menu (I think it was tater tots instead of fries). One person at the table said “You are my hero” and asked if he could have tater tots, as well. Another person said that they would never do that, for fear of inconveniencing the staff. I pointed out that I know they have tater tots at brunch, so it was likely a matter of grabbing a handful out of that freezer bag instead of the fries bag. We agreed that part of making it “ok” was a willingness to accept “no” for an answer, but I don’t think we convinced the person who felt it was simply wrong to ask for something not on the menu. But I really like tater tots.

    1. Oh, yes, thank you, that was something I meant to mention, which is the ask vs. hint culture distinction, which is very relevant here. For those who are used to hint culture, where one does not make a request unless the answer is almost certainly Yes, there is pain in asking for something where the result is uncertain.

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