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In the capital of our country, bribery is not allowed, at least not publicly. For years, K Street lobbyists would gain time with elected officials by bringing them to dinner. Give them a free aged rib eye and their attention was yours for the next few hours. A cozy arrangement that resulted in an excess of breweries a few blocks from the Capitol.
In 2007, Congress was forced to act. The only question was how. You could say no to dinners, but then they would just make lunch. No lunch? To have breakfast. What about snacks?
The result was known to his friends as the chopstick rule.
While the meals were completely out, an exception was created for “foods you have to eat standing with a toothpick.” The first time I did a measurement workshop for some government officials in our Washington, DC office, we actually had someone coming down from Legal to make sure all of our snacks were compliant. Actually, our lawyers have a slightly stricter interpretation of the rules: “nothing bigger than 1 inch by 1 inch in size” and, my personal favorite, “self-supporting.” So yes, they brought a ruler and tried to overturn the food.
You know where this is going.
Now there is a whole industry of people, a “toothpick industry”, dedicated to finding different ways to work and bend the rules:
“We have had to be very smart with food delivery devices [held items] substantive enough that if someone ate enough, they could prepare a full meal, “said Mark Michael of Occasions Caterers, in a story in Washington. Over the years, this has included 40 types of sticks, from meat skewers to bamboo spears to dessert lollipops.
It’s absurd, isn’t it? A case study on why Washington can be an incredibly frustrating place. Look at him, and he’s totally crazy. Government inefficiency in action.
Until you take a step back and think about the goal, the original intent of the rule: the goal was to reduce the lobbyist’s influence over politicians. They were going out to too many dinners.
Based on that goal alone, did it work? Yes. He prevented them from going to dinner and completely eliminated work solutions at meals, and provided guidelines on what is acceptable. We went from three-hour steak dinners to diced with a toothpick. He did what he set out to do.
Is perfect? Absolutely not. But it is a step forward. It is a progress.
Why the little one is cute
I think we can all agree that it wouldn’t be a good idea to sit at home on the couch and try to think of the perfect thing to tell someone when you go out that night. Do it and you will not go out. You will be sitting in your basement for a long time. It’s much easier to say, Is there anything I can learn from my previous experiences about what? no to do tonight? Just one thing, that’s all.
I like the story of the chopsticks because it has a powerful point. Too many companies get stuck on the couch every time they try to develop a new program, a new strategy, a new interpretation of the data. They want everything to be perfect. They get lost in all the reasons why they think it won’t work or is incomplete. They do not advance until the data shines, until they are collected without bias, until the models are demonstrated and validated in all possible conditions. So they do nothing.
This is where start-ups can stand out. When they know they don’t have all the data, all the answers. But he acknowledges that they should not. They’re scoundrels, they often have little funding, they work in someone’s garage. And they agree with that. They just have to keep moving until they show the viability of their business. They will take the 90 percent solution, and so will the best companies in the world. It sets them apart from their competitors, the billion-dollar conglomerates who believe that with their resources, size and people, they are entitled to perfect data. Their standards are higher, but in fact it is more difficult for them to extract good data through bureaucratic networks.
How to think small
Deep breathing! Lower your expectations. Seek progress, not perfection. Trust that small iterative changes will take you forward.
Even small changes in strategy carry risks. Guaranteed changes are often boring and uninspired and do not generate higher sales. We’ll talk to a lot of entrepreneurs who will say, “Look, this costs $ 50,000, so I don’t want to try it until I have enough evidence to make sure it’s the right direction. Let me spend a few months thinking about it. ” What they don’t consider is that by not taking that $ 50,000 risk, they could be losing a million dollars in sales. They don’t look at the opportunity cost of inaction, of staying home one more night on the couch. Instead, just look at what they are putting on the table. There are two sides to the risk coin, so turn it around.
As soon as the powers that be in Washington imposed the chopstick rule, it became clear that more work needed to be done. A rule aimed at preventing lobbyists from buying legislators big, juicy steaks did its job, but then the industry adapted. Now the powers that be must do the same.
I’m not saying this to discourage you. My point is that even the brightest idea won’t work forever. You may have discovered the best collection line ever; you tell someone and they immediately fall in love with you. But if you’ve created something so fantastic, other people are likely to find out. After a couple of months, everything you are is not very original, because everyone else says the same thing. The market will change. Your customers will change. And the process of being better never ends.
Sometimes entrepreneurs try to find perfect solutions to their problems, which in fact hinders their progress. If they had been trying to control the lobby brasserie strategy, they would not have passed a new law until they were sure they had closed all the gaps.
This mindset underestimates the impact of small changes. An imperfect step is less attractive, less sexy. But the truth is that the great solutions are few and far between. It’s more productive to focus on what you can do each day to improve your business practices a little.
These modest improvements add up, but they are the kind of improvements that many employers can mistakenly ignore in favor of pursuing the big solution, which will never come.
This article was taken from Neil Hoyne’s book Converted: The Data-Driven Way to Win Customer’s Hearts, published by Penguin Random House (2022). For more information click here.