Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man When the rules change, government targets stay the same

I recently stumbled on a Wikipedia page on American diner lingo: ‘sunny side up’, ‘pigs in a blanket’, ‘peel it off the wall’ and so on.

I recently stumbled on a Wikipedia page on American diner lingo: ‘sunny side up’, ‘pigs in a blanket’, ‘peel it off the wall’ and so on.

I recently stumbled on a Wikipedia page on American diner lingo: ‘sunny side up’, ‘pigs in a blanket’, ‘peel it off the wall’ and so on. Whether or not these phrases were all commonly used (did anyone really ask for ‘shit on a shingle’ when requesting minced beef with gravy on toast?), the list’s length hints at the remarkable breadth of 1930s American street food.

Then McDonald’s came along. While the old diner offered choice and customisation, the fast-food restaurant offered the opposite — faced with the choice, people chose to sacrifice variety for speed and consistency.

The American obsession with choice has now shifted from food to coffee. In 1993, when I first heard a Berkeley student demand a ‘half-decaf, half-regular latte with low-fat milk to go’, I remember thinking that, in a London café, they would be risking a punch in the face. Today, like McDonald’s, Starbucks is everywhere.

So, to a 1930s mindset, it would seem that two of the world’s most successful businesses are now engaged in a) making the production of hamburgers needlessly uniform and fast and b) making the serving of coffee annoyingly complex and slow.

These changes happen because there are two kind of business competition. The first is where you try to be better at doing what the business next door is doing already. The second is where you create a ‘paradigm shift’, pursuing some entirely new ideal no one has focused on before.

Once quite rare, this second kind of disruptive competition is common in technology, since the rules are changing so fast.

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