What 16 Pieces of Toast Taught Me About Keeping Things Simple

What 16 Pieces of Toast Taught Me About Keeping Things Simple

Breakfast of Champions…

I’m a big believer in filling out that card you find in hotel rooms, the one that allows you to order in advance by checking what you’d like, choosing a desired serving time, and hanging the card outside your door. I like the idea that breakfast will be there when I need it, and since I’m clearly outlining what I want, there is little chance of a mix up. But, as they say, the best laid plans…

One time a while back I found the card before retiring for the night and perused the options carefully: “American breakfast,” “Healthy Start,” “Vegetarian Delight.” Nothing suited my exact fancy, so I opted to fill out the “Special Requests” section at the bottom of the card. To draw the staff’s attention to this choice I drew a bold square around the blank lines in that section, and to really reinforce my order, I decided to number my selections. Leaving absolutely no room for interpretation, that was my aim. I wrote in bold and legible capital letters: 1. Orange Juice. 2. Coffee. 3. Half-grapefruit (a big fear here because at least half the time they bring grapefruit juice, so I deliberately placed it number three, hoping they would realize there was no way I’d want orange juice, coffee, and grapefruit juice), and finally I wrote, 4. Whole wheat toast. I then ticked the 6:45 to 7:00 box, circled it for extra attention and hung the card on my door. “Nothing left to chance” I thought as I tucked myself into bed and soon dozed off into a deep and restful sleep.

I awoke the next morning at six a.m. refreshed and energized. The first order of business was to check outside my door and confirm the room service breakfast card had been retrieved. It had. “I’m off to a good start,” I thought, as I grabbed the copy of USA Today at my door. I then went about the rest of my morning routine. At 6:52, a sharp knock on my door announced room service, and I anxiously bounced from the chair to answer it. “Right on schedule” I thought.

As Simple as 1, 2, 3, and 4?

The bubbly young server greeted me enthusiastically and bounded into my room with tray in hand, asking where she should place it. Without even glancing at the tray or its contents I instructed her to put it on the coffee table, which she did. I expected a bill to be produced at this point but instead I was surprised when she said, “I just have to go and get your other trays.” Yes, that was trays, plural. She arrived with two more heaping trays and suddenly I realized what had happened: In misinterpreting my ordering scheme, something I fought so diligently to avoid, she delivered one glass of orange juice, two cups of coffee, three half-grapefruits, and four orders of toast. An order of toast is two slices, each cut in half, so for my order that amounted to sixteen pieces. They were piled so high on the plate the cover was unable to conceal them.

I laughed out loud at this gaffe, taking responsibility for the miscommunication, but I also learned a valuable lesson: Always keep things simple! The message here goes well beyond room service breakfast. So I challenge you, the next time you’re designing a process, such as an OKR Implementation, developing a strategy, communicating a vision, or virtually anything else in your day, remember my tower of toast and stop for just a second to think carefully about it. Are you keeping it as simple as you can so that others understand, and can act on, your true intentions? My embellishments on the ordering card didn’t make things clearer for the restaurant staff. It simply led to the wrong order and a whole lot of wasted bread!


Paul Niven, OKR Coach and author of Objectives and Key Results.