A Lesson from the Vegetable Counter

15 Jul 2023

Long ago I worked in IT for many years, and every week brought several free computer newspapers to the office, one of which contained a column by Gerry Weinberg, a well-known author in the IT world with a writing style all of his own. In the mid-80s, he published a book “Secrets of Consulting”, which I read some years later. It contains many pearls of wisdom relevant to a lot more than being an IT consultant. Here’s one, relating to him working on the vegetable counter at a local supermarket aged 13:

“….. But mostly I noticed the rutabagas (swedes). I not only noticed the rutabagas, I made their acquaintance. I appreciated that each rutabaga had a distinct personality, and week after week I recognized the same rutabagas smiling at me from the same produce section. Evidently, nobody ever bought rutabagas. Rutabagas were just a permanent decoration, smiling their happy smiles at all the shoppers.

One morning, I was standing in the produce section with Rudy, the produce manager, trying to figure out how to place the fresh vegetables in the limited counter space. Rudy had wrestled with this problem for a long time but didn't seem to be getting anywhere. He asked if I had any bright ideas—and suddenly I was a consultant!

"I've noticed," I suggested, "that the rutabagas don't seem very popular. In fact, they seem to be the least popular vegetable we have in the store. Would it be any great loss if we didn't use any counter space for the rutabagas and used it maybe for something else?"

Rudy looked at me sideways. I knew I was in serious trouble for implying that a mere, temporary stock clerk could help him solve his problems. But he had asked for help. To my surprise, he suddenly smiled and grabbed an empty banana box. Sweeping the rutabagas into the box, he said, "That's a great idea, kid."

I beamed with a consultant's pride. For the first time in my life, an adult had actually listened to me and taken my advice. Rudy looked at the void left by the departed rutabagas, then looked at me, then at the many vegetables that still had to be stocked, then at me again. After a long pause, he said, "Well, kid, that was a great idea. Now what's the least popular vegetable?"

From this, Weinberg deduced “Rudy's Rutabaga Rule”: Once you eliminate your number one problem, number two gets a promotion.

This immediately chimed with me. I was frequently frustrated that my life always seemed to be weighed down with a pile of problems, no matter how hard I worked on solutions. My work in-tray was never empty for long; my mental in-tray was never, ever empty. 

Years later, I’ve taken on board the importance of “acceptance”. I’ll never solve all my problems, but “just” making improvements is OK. Seeking perfection is futile; like the Nobel prize winner Danny Kahneman advised, “Set yourself achievable goals”. A permanently-empty in-tray isn’t achievable. Let go a bit. I wish I had done so a lot earlier in life. 

Oldie but Goldie

A Moodscope member

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