Beware of the Close But Different Trap

In Washington, DC, last week, I presented to over 400 leaders—a rewarding session. However, I want to share with you, not about the event but the subtle changes on this visit to a city I once frequented. Having owned a business with a DC office until 2012, I was a regular here, once even racking up 185 hotel nights in a single year. These days, my visits are less frequent. During this week’s trip, I encountered a series of small but noticeable changes:

  • Security checkpoints at the airport had shifted.
  • My go-to restaurant had new ownership.
  • A familiar jogging path had been redesigned.

These weren’t groundbreaking changes—the Capitol and the Washington Monument stood unchanged—but they were enough to disorient me, a testament to the ‘close, but different’ effect.

Why does this matter? As people, we’re wired to appreciate familiarity, which often leads to efficiency at the cost of effectiveness. We might assume we know our team’s jobs well because we’ve done them before and, thus, skip seeking their input about the team’s goals and plans. But even if the job titles remain the same, the roles have evolved—new people, technologies, and expectations are in play.

Customers, too, can seem deceptively familiar. Past interactions might lead us to rely on what we assume to be their unchanging preferences. But beneath the surface, customer expectations and interactions are shifting, subtly altered by new market influences.

And in our personal lives, relationships we thought we knew inside out can evolve without us noticing. What was once a deep connection can become a series of assumptions if we’re not attentive.

The ‘close but different’ trap is real, and it can lead us to favor shortcuts over thoroughness, expediency over engagement. But there’s an antidote: investing time in our employees, customers, and loved ones. Inviting them into deeper discussions fosters involvement and commitment—essential ingredients for success. This investment in understanding the current landscape of our relationships and roles is time well spent, for it’s through involvement that we forge a path to genuine success.

  1. Reflecting on your own experiences, can you identify a recent ‘close, but different’ scenario within your team or organization?
  2. When did you last engage deeply with your customers to understand any subtle changes in their preferences or behaviors?
  3. Consider your personal and professional relationships. What strategies can you implement to ensure you’re relying on something other than outdated assumptions about those around you?

Make it a great day!