Why Your Business Should Embrace the “Toothpick Rule”

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In our nation’s capital, bribing is not allowed — at least not publicly. For years the lobbyists on K Street would win time with elected officials by taking them out for dinner. Offer them a free dry-aged rib eye, and their attention was yours for the next few hours. A cozy arrangement that led to a glut of steak houses within a few blocks of the Capitol.

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In 2007, Congress was compelled to act. The only question was how. You could say no dinners, but then they’d just do lunch. No lunch? Breakfast. What about hors d’oeuvres?


The result was known by its friends as the toothpick rule.

While meals were out altogether, an exception was carved out for “food that you have to eat standing up using a toothpick.” The first time I held a measurement workshop for some government officials in our Washington, DC, office, we actually had someone come down from Legal to ensure that all of our snacks were in compliance. Our lawyers actually have a slightly stricter interpretation of the rules — “nothing greater than 1 inch by 1 inch in size” and, my personal favorite, “self-supporting.” So, yes, they brought a ruler and tried to knock over the food.

You know where this is headed.

There’s now an entire industry of people, a “toothpick industry,” dedicated to finding different ways to work with and bend the rules:

“We had to get very clever with food-delivery devices that [held items] substantive enough so that if somebody ate enough of them, it could make up a full meal,” said Mark Michael of Occasions Caterers, in a story in Washingtonian. Over the years, this has included 40 kinds of sticks, from meat skewers to bamboo spears to dessert lollipops.

It’s absurd, right? A case study in why Washington can be an incredibly frustrating place. You look at it, and it’s entirely crazy. Government inefficiency in action.

Until you take a step back and think about the goal, the original intention of the rule: The goal was to reduce lobbyist influence on politicians. They were going out to too many dinners.

Based on that objective alone, did it work? Yes. It stopped them from going to dinners and eliminated work-arounds on meals altogether, and it provided guidelines as to what’s acceptable. We’ve gone from three-hour steak dinners to cubes on a toothpick. It did what it set out to do.

Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But it’s a step forward. It’s progress.

Why Small Is Beautiful

I think we can all agree that it would not be a good idea to sit at home on your couch and try to think of the perfect thing to say to somebody when you go out that night. Do that and you’re not going out. You’re going to be sitting in your basement for a long, long time. It’s a lot easier to say, Is there something I could learn from my previous experiences about what not to do tonight? Just one thing, that’s all.

I like the toothpick story because it makes a powerful point. Too many companies get stuck on their couch whenever they’re trying to develop a new program, a new strategy, a new interpretation of data. They want everything to be perfect. They get lost in all the reasons they think it won’t work or is incomplete. They don’t move forward until the data sparkles, until it’s collected with no bias, until the models are proven and validated in every possible condition. So they do nothing at all.

This is where start-ups can stand out. When they know they don’t have all the data, all the answers. But, recognize they aren’t supposed to. They’re scrappy, they’re often underfunded, they’re working out of someone’s garage. And they’re okay with it. They just need to keep moving until they prove the viability of their business. They’ll take the 90 percent solution — and so will the best businesses in the world. It sets them apart from their competitors, the billion-dollar conglomerates that believe with their resources, size, and people, they’re entitled to perfect data. Their standards are higher, but in fact it’s generally harder for them to extract good data through the webs of bureaucracy.

How to Think Small

Deep breath! Lower your expectations. Seek progress, not perfection. Trust that small, iterative changes will lead you forward.

Even small changes in strategy bring risk. Guaranteed changes are often boring and uninspired and don’t lead to higher sales. We’ll talk to lots of entrepreneurs who’ll say, “Look, this costs $50,000, so I don’t want to try it until I have enough evidence to make sure it’s the right direction. Let me spend a few months figuring this out.” What they don’t consider is that by not taking that $50,000 risk, they could be missing out on a million dollars in sales. They don’t look at the opportunity cost on inaction, of staying home one more night on their couch. Instead, they look only at what they’re putting on the table. There are two sides to the coin of risk — so flip it.

As soon as the powers that be in Washington imposed the toothpick rule, it became clear that more work needed to be done. A rule intended to stop lobbyists from buying lawmakers big, juicy steaks did its job — but then the industry adapted. Now the powers that be need to do the same.

I’m not saying this to discourage you. My point is that even the most brilliant idea won’t work forever. Maybe you’ve figured out the best pickup line ever; you say it to someone and they instantly fall in love with you. But if you’ve come up with anything that great, chances are other people will figure it out too. After a couple months, all you are is unoriginal, because everyone else is saying the same thing. The market will change. Your customers will change. And the process of being better never ends.

Sometimes entrepreneurs try to find perfect solutions to their problems, which actually impedes their progress. If they’d been trying to bring the lobbyists’ steakhouse strategy under control, they wouldn’t have rolled out a new piece of legislation until they were sure they had closed every loop- hole.

This mindset underestimates the impact of small changes. An imperfect step is less attractive, less sexy. But the truth is that big fixes are few and far between. It’s more productive to focus on what you can do each day to make your business practices slightly better.

These modest improvements add up — but they’re the sort of improvements that many entrepreneurs might mistakenly ignore in favor of chasing the big solution, which will never come.

This article was excerpted from the book, Converted: The Data-Driven Way to Win Customer’s Hearts by Neil Hoyne, published by Penguin Random House (2022). For more information, click here.

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