Mmmmm, Tacos

joe —  Sun 18-Apr-10 — 6 Comments
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There’s a busy street corner in the northern suburbs of Atlanta that seems like a great location for a restaurant. Lots of traffic, a movie theater across the street, a Home Depot next door and a WalMart across the street. That’s apparently what at least eight other entrepreneurs have thought over the last 15 years – each one having put in a low end Mexican eatery into the exact same location after the previous one failed.

Let me replay what I envision the conversation between the last owner and the loan officer sounded like.


officer: So you want to put in a Mexican restaurant.

owner: Yes

officer: What was the previous restaurant in that location?

owner: A Mexican restaurant.

officer: And before that?

owner: A Mexican restaurant.

officer: And before that?


officer: Ok – here’s a boat load of money. Good luck.

While you may be chuckling at the stupidity of that conversation realize that same conversation happens with great regularity every day throughout the modern business world.

Product Manager: …and that’s why we need to develop product X as soon as possible or we will lose millions of dollars.

Review Board: Didn’t we try that exact same thing two years ago and it only sold one copy?

PM: Yes.

RB: Was the product a bad product?

PM: No, actually it was quite good

RB: Is the market different now?

PM: Not really.

RB: So what is different now?

RM: We have a whole new team and we’re a lot smarter now

I kid you not, that was an actual conversation that happened with me at a company that was considered extremely successful in its field. You would be surprised how many times people count on the stupidity of those before them as a reason why their idea is so wonderful now. I’ve met very few software engineers that once inheriting a new project looked at the code and said “Wow – this guy was brilliant!” Nearly every developer wants to rewrite the bad code from the past. It’s human nature and not just limited to the software field.

If you are aware of this brilliant dose of logic I am sure you see it happen all of the time. If you weren’t aware of it I guarantee that you will soon see how prevalent it really is, in many different forms. (see the previous column called The Red Honda Theory)

Eleasnor Roosevelt.pngIn order to avoid this fallacious reasoning you need to be armed with two things. First, you must know your history – know the failures of the past and study them hard. If you have been at a company a long time, this should be easy. If not make great use of the sage wisdom of those that have been there much longer than you. You need those that have “Been there. Done that. Have the T-Shirt.” These people will keep your tail end out of the fire more than you can imagine.

Second, practice saying this over and again until it is a regular part of your vocabulary.

What is different now than the last time we tried this?

It is an incredibly simple, powerful question. You will be surprised how many times you can use this short phrase.

At a previous company I was a part of many new product review panels. Often these new product ideas were a rehash of something we had tried earlier and failed. After a regular, repeated dose of “the question” everyone learned that I was going grill them on that. Because they knew it was coming people started coming prepared with their answer. Unfortunately sometimes the answer was still a shrouded version of “Because we are smarter now.”

Those people didn’t last with the company very long.

Today’s Question
Albert Einstein once wrote

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Let’s be honest – we all do it. What would your answer in those situations typically be if you asked “What is different now than the last time I tried this?”

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  • Paul

    The same thing goes for personal relationships for many who end up in the same type of problematic relationships over and over thinking “this time it’s different” when it probably isn’t. They haven’t discovered what’s really drawing them in, that it may be to hide or protect from something or ‘save’ the other person who wasn’t even looking to be saved, etc.

  • Mike Hughes

    I once saw a comparison of contradictory maxims, as in “Haste makes waste,” versus “A stitch in time saves nine.” I see this topic equally at odds with a rail against “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” But let’s stay with the theme. Possible good answers:
    * We have new tools that will overcome what stopped us before.
    * The market has changed and I have data that shows…
    * We under invested before, I have realistic numbers now.

    • joe

      Agreed, Mike. Each of your good answers has a key qualifier that makes things different – “I have data that shows”, “I have realistic numbers now”.

      My concern with these types of responses is that in the original attempt we are often told “we have good market data” and “our numbers are realistic.” Then the question is “what about your process for getting numbers is different than last time and why should I believe you now?”

  • Beth Kleinwaechter

    I think it is important to uncover what the common element of the previous attempts (other than the failure itself). Once, uncovered it can be removed or modified in such a way the the next attempt has potential to succeed. It is a painful process and one that can be quite tedious. If no common element is to be found then I suppose the missing elements need to be looked at. This applies to relationships, product generation, raising kids, training the dog, etc. It is so much easier to say than actually do!

    • joe

      So true, Beth.
      It reminds me of a sermon from Andy Stanley where he said “Look at all of the problems in your life. What’s the one thing they all have in common?”

      In the case of the Mexican restaurant, the common element wasn’t the people, so there must have been something else.

      In your opinion do you think the last few owners tried to find the common element of failure and improve on it? If so, why do you think they still failed?

      It’s hard to believe that someone that has their financial well being bet on an investment like this wouldn’t have studied this carefully.

  • Beth Kleinwaechter

    No, I can’t imagine that the last few owners tried to find the common element of failure. I think that there are many reasons why this step wasn’t attempted.

    * Ego
    * Spontaneity
    * Immaturity
    * Ignorance
    * Financial lacking
    * Experience

    Oh, I think the list can go on. Really though, we all suffer from some of the traits above. But, it is how we overcome them that makes a difference. I know of a small company that had a great Engineer come up with a terrific idea. This Engineer did not have any business sense though, but he recognized this fact and hired someone that did. This company was very successful.

    Maybe there were just too many Mexican restaurants in that area to support another one!