In pursuit of ‘better’, not ‘the best’

I’ve recently read The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek, I highly recommend it if you have any aspirations of leading a business. The central idea he champions is to move from the pursuit of being the ‘best’ to always trying to be ‘better’ – for him it is the shift from a finite minded way of thinking to an infinite minded one.

The psychology behind this is that it ‘best’ implies something can be finished; that you have set out to achieve a certain goal and have done it. You have completed the task, so on you go to the next thing. Over time, the problem with this is that it can drag us in to short-term thinking as our eyes are drawn down from the horizon to hit our goals for the quarter. Decisions get made based on needing to hit arbitrary criteria like profitability without understanding the long term consequences. Sometimes these decisions start to become very questionable in a phenomenon he terms ‘ethical fading’.

Casual dining crash

As an example, let’s think about the tale of the growth that lead to the casual dining crash in recent years. A restaurant founder slowly (or not) grows a successful group of restaurants based on a clear vision. In order to grow further they get a venture capital firm to buy in at 9 sites, who in order to get their desired return want to scale it to 30 and then sell it to another VC firm. The next VC firm are even more ambitious and want to get their ROI by scaling it to 100 sites….  In itself this is not a bad thing, but what often happens is that in order to grow quickly and hit targets over 5 years, brands make short term decisions like taking on sites with rents that are too high, don’t scale internal processes to ensure excellence, can’t hire and train enough great people, use cheaper ingredients to cut cost and increase consistency….in short, something that was excellent scales to something mediocre. In this example, the idea of being the best, most successful business is measured in being the biggest. The vast majority of these types of business are in trouble now.

Success, money, growth. I wouldn’t argue against any of those as being both exciting and important, but surely our goal is to create something that can last, not just build an empire on a foundation of sand, make ourselves rich and then shrug our shoulders when it collapses later on? Money is important for sure, but it is a bit like the sun – the world is a cold, dark place without it and the warmth of a sunny day is a wonderful thing indeed, but if you stare at it, you will go blind. I think too many people have been caught staring at the sun.

So what does it mean to strive for ‘better’? Well, it means you are on a journey that is never complete. As any successful restaurateur knows, if you want to succeed you always have to be watching, thinking, learning, adjusting, responding. The Japanese have a word for this kind of culture of continuous improvement, it is called ‘Kaizen’. You have to be slightly obsessed with what you are doing to be able to live up to this, which is why great hospitality people have always been a special breed. It is not just the people though that are important; if we are looking to constantly grow and be better, we need to make sure we are operating in a system that can sustainably support us.

Hospitality and the Circular Economy

Having recently read a lot about the principles of a circular economy, there seems to be a clear link here. The traditional linear approach (take-make-waste) is based on a finite mindset; you take natural resources to build a shiny new restaurant, operate for a few years but eventually fail, then the next person comes along and puts most of your restaurant in the skip.

However, this is not how nature works. Nature is in an infinite circular game, endlessly recycling itself into the next iteration. A tree isn’t trying to be the ‘best’, it is trying to grow and be ‘better’ every day. And when it can’t do that anymore and it dies, its task is to rot down and release its nutrients to feed the world around it. And so the cycle begins again.

The linear approach is actually one of scarcity; where resources get used up and eventually we run out. The circular approach is one of abundance; of resources that, through careful design and intelligent systems, can be kept in their most valuable level and constantly reused. As the circular economy is about creating systems to ensure things flow endlessly, it much better supports the pursuit of growth that we so crave.

So how do you create a circular ecosystem for hospitality? The recently published Circular Restaurant guide produced by the SRA is a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in this as it covers all the aspects involved in operating a restaurant. I highly recommend you check it out.

As part of this, our attention at Object Space Place has naturally turned to look at how we can create physical restaurant designs that are circular in their nature. It is clear that doing this will take a huge amount of change to the way things are traditionally done – the way that materials are sourced and specified, designing things with disassembly in mind, focusing on an extreme minimising of waste, building partnerships with people that can repair and restore….there is a whole new way of working required and we are excited to have started on this already with some of our clients.

We are determined to help move hospitality design to an infinite mindset in order for it to be sustainable and look forward to sharing everything we learn along the way. Please get in touch if you want to collaborate on this or are a client that wants to pursue this agenda.

This post was written by David Chenery

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