Lately, I’ve been in a confessional mood. And as confessions are also a way of staking a little ground in this world, a way of claiming ownership, even of the things we are ashamed to admit, I proffer this small confession and grab for myself just a little more space.
I’m not saying I’m proud of this. I’m just saying, this is how it is. And to those of similarly unrefined palate (you know who you are, even if you tell yourself the occasional drive-thru doesn’t count), I hereby admit to the rarest-of-rare pit stops at McDonald’s. Now, to be fair, this is pretty much limited to road trips, airports, and those highly nostalgic moments while living abroad when I most miss home. Strangely, McDonald’s does not so much remind me of my own home as the sense of home in general, the sense of things American, things so familiar we barely notice them when they’re around.
But this isn’t just about McDonald’s. It’s about human behavior and the ability to anticipate it.
I first moved to Europe in 1997 and have lived abroad on and off since then, so I’ve had the chance to roll out this “McDonald’s experiment” many times and in many different countries. And whether I’m in Berlin, Bologna, or Bordeaux, this is roughly how it goes down: I go inside, make my way to the counter, and in one foreign language or another, I must expose to the cashier my bizarre idiosyncrasies, which at McDonald’s amounts to asking for “two cheeseburgers, no meat.” Now whether you say, “zwei Cheeseburger ohne Fleisch,” “due cheeseburger senza carne,” or “deux cheeseburger sans viande,” the reaction is always the same. Utter bewilderment. The server raises her eyes to get a better look at you. She twists up her mouth, not convinced you fully understand what you have just ordered. Perhaps you don’t realize, since this language is not your own, that you have just ordered a cheeseburger—nay, two cheeseburgers—without meat. Then a bit of panic sets in. Can we even make a cheeseburger without meat? Without fail, this is what happens next. She tells you to wait a minute and she goes to investigate the situation further. This always involves flagging down a manager, and the two of them huddle in the back, as the server tries to explain. The manager looks confused. They both look up at you in unison. You wave back, just to show you’ve done this before. Shoulders are shrugged. A line cook is engaged in the discussion and now the manager, who has resolutely taken control of the crisis, points at you and explains to the line cook—as best one can explain something that apparently defies all logic—that the meat should be left off the cheeseburger. Heads are nodded, eyebrows raised, a few indulgent laughs are exchanged, and now the manager confidently strides back toward you, server in tow. It can be done! Rest assured. Chaos averted. McDonald’s triumphant.
Oddly, this never happens in LA, where any bizarro order just rolls off the employees, utterly un-phased and uninterested. But in Europe, it’s like clockwork, and the fact of its complete predictability brings me an immense amount of joy. I’ve been thinking about this lately, the pleasure I derive from accurately anticipating this scenario each time, and each time having it reaffirmed in such a choreographed way. It strikes me that something bigger is going on here. Something useful and maybe worth noting explicitly. It is the joy of testing one’s hypotheses—however loosely they are constructed—and being confirmed in one’s findings. And when I really think about it, this little charade is probably what keeps me coming back in the first place. Certainly, I could make my own cheeseburger without meat—I mean, we’re not even talking about a grilled cheese here, just a cold piece of American cheese thrown on a small bun with a few condiments!—but I keep going back because there is a particular comfort in this kind of situation, where I know exactly what I will get, and more so in terms of human behavior than the food even.
Reflecting on this predictability in the context of small business, the ventures that I have already undertaken and continue to undertake, I realize it’s not just about the comfort of accurately anticipating things. There is also something highly lucrative about the ability to predict human behavior, particularly when the goal is to create better and more usable products, products whose success depends on the way that users interact with them and integrate them into their lives. It is about recognizing that there is value in assessing human behavior, and that such behavior itself is the very thing that determines the success or failure of a product, whether that product is a good or service, tangible or virtual. I would go so far as to say that without this predictive factor, a business cannot truly sustain its success. And this is not to undermine the value of accident, things unanticipated and unforeseen that lead to highly favorable outcomes, but even then, it is a process of turning the unprecedented into precedent, the little surprises into pieces of information that can be read, understood, and incorporated. The trick is to identify your own hypotheses, roll out your own experiments, discover the human behaviors that most impact your industry. In the meantime, I highly recommend traveling to Europe, hitting up the nearest McDonald’s and ordering two cheeseburgers, no meat. A very enjoyable experience all around!
[For a serious, brilliant, and less tongue-in-cheek description of hypothesis testing, validated learning, and rigorous experimental approaches to entrepreneurship, check out Eric Ries’s, The Lean Startup, which provided the impetus for this blog post.]
-By Jacqueline Abrams