A while back I finished up Jared Diamonds Guns, Germs and Steel. A really great read.
In one of the chapters, he opens with a quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
He was illustrating a principle to do with the domestication of animals – throughout history, successful domestication relied more on the absence of any number of negative traits than the presence of positive ones. Essentially, all domesticated animals were domesticated in the same way – like all happy families are alike.
You can read the wikipedia article on this here. It’s a little unfinished but does give some history of similar principals (all the way back to Aristotle).
The thing I found fascinating about this principal when I first read about it in Guns, Germs and Steel was that it challenges our accepted ways of viewing a problem. In business, we’re often asked to find out the ‘key reason’, the ‘driver’, the ‘thing we really need to win at’ in order to succeed. But what if it simply doesn’t exist? What if there isn’t any one key ‘thing’ we need to do? Instead, there are many (possibly smaller) things we need to ensure we avoid.
This is a different mindset to solving a problem. It doesn’t take away the importance of doing the right things correctly, it simply says those might not be enough.
This idea hit me the other day when I was talking to someone in the restaurant business. They were trying to figure out what made a ‘great dining experience’. They were looking at all the components – service, meal, atmosphere, etc. Trying to figure out where to concentrate resource to really ‘wow’ the customer!
After thinking about it for a bit, it occurred to me that all great dining experiences are alike, while all bad ones are generally bad in their own way.
A great dining experience has a great meal, good service, good atmosphere, good company, good value. You need all of these. But you could have all of these and your hot drink might be cold. Or the bathrooms could be dirty. Or your order was wrong. It only takes one or two small things to turn that dining experience bad. MORE service, BETTER food, MORE atmosphere doesn’t make up for it.
Sometimes it’s just about removing obstacles. There is no magic bullet.