Question everything to break out of habitual thinking

big pinata at Mi Pueblo Restaurant in TIjuana

Innovation comes from new ways of seeing and new ways of being. Learn to see different, learn to be different, and you will discover the different.

Though Tijuana has to come to be known as a place where you’ll find great food, I don’t think that is the case. For example, take a stroll through West Los Angeles and you are bound to find more food variety and differentiated restaurants than in Tijuana. Same goes for San Diego. Yes Tijuana has great food, but it’s not like you can’t find it anywhere else.

This weekend I had lunch at a very colorful traditional mexican food restaurant in Tijuana. The inside of the restaurant is themed as a city and it has the biggest Pinata I’ve ever seen in my life!

As I was eating my meal, I overheard the restaurant manager talk to someone about the challenges of running this particular restaurant. It seems this manager has been around the block, including 20+ years at a very popular seafood restaurant in the city; so he was hired to bring that experience with him.

When asked about how he was promoting the restaurant, he responded with the same answer most restaurant owners answer with: provide great service so people will tell their friends.

I’ve worked with restaurant owners before, and they all say the same thing: great food and service is what makes customers happy.

Sadly, great customer service is no longer a differentiator in the restaurant business. It’s expected, and it’s merely an entry to have a chance. At this particular place, the food and service were great; nothing off the charts. But that’s all.

Create a new dimension to separate yourself

Innovative restaurants provide great food, service and an experience. There are many ways to create an experience, but some dimensions you have to create. Take Andres Carnes de Res Colombia, where they’re only open Thursday through Saturday, have long menu of creative dishes, rely exclusively on word of mouth, improvisational actors come to your table to play games with you, and 1/3 of employees are actors. Beyond providing the basics of customer service and food, Andres Carnes de Res created a new dimension and has become a tourist destination; not just a restaurant.

Alinea is another restaurant that is experimenting with it’s business model, aiming to replace reservations with a ticketing system. They are not the only ones who are experimenting with a ticketing system though. As the benefits of a ticketing system are clear, restaurant owners have at least some level of control and expectation about what to expect on any given business day, other well known restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon.

Unlike the restaurant I visited yesterday, both of these examples of restaurants provide great food and service but also something more.

Finding hidden dogmas

Habitual thinking is the enemy of innovation. Dogmas exist everywhere and they’re hidden because of our habits. The manager of this mexican restaurant may have 20+ years experience in the restaurant industry, but that means he’s accumulated a lot of experience and a lot of habits. The same day-to-day habits, rituals and routines that blind him to new ways of doing things.

It’s interesting that when you deconstruct stories of innovation, you find that many of them start with a question–often one that could be considered provocative, or maybe even a little crazy. Andres Carnes de Res came up with their novel concept by questioning the givens of the industry: the activities no one ever questions because “that’s just they way it is”.

They questioned the operating hours, the people they hire, the language they use to express themselves, and how they’re buying menu cover holders. The result is a unique “restaurant as theater” concept that also includes great food and service.

So, how do you surface dogmas?

It starts with shifting perspective, so questioners can look at an existing reality from multiple views. To help you see differently, here are two questions to ask yourself and colleagues:

  1. What are the ten things you would never hear a customer say about our company or our industry? Why wouldn’t they say those things? What orthodoxies do they reveal? What opportunities do these orthodoxies create for some unorthodox newcomer? What would happen if we turned this orthodoxy on its head?
  2. What are the ten things that all major competitors in this industry believe in common? What would happen of each of these assumptions were inverted? What new opportunities would present themselves? How would customers benefit?

I bet you nobody believes banks are fun, or that their telecom company is awesome. Same goes for a restaurant where you are immersed in a world of entertainment. Usually, questioning dogmans to create a new concept leads to an opposition strategy that counters the status quo in a very radical way and that brings a new reality to bear with a new set of benefits to the customer.

Bottom line: In order to break out of habitual thinking, question everything. You will find opportunities to make things better.

Also published on Medium.