‘Go Opposite’ to Solve Your Toughest Challenges, Part I

From managing the exploding volume of data to keeping the network secure to taking a high-level strategic role at the C-level table, CIOs live in a complex and intense environment. Therefore, when challenges appear, overcoming them quickly is key for long-term success. But part of the challenge about challenges is knowing how to do that.

Experience tells us that our biggest challenges are often quite different from what we think our biggest challenges are (see my last article, Don’t Solve It, Skip It, to learn more). But in searching for the real problem we want to address, it’s not always easy to know where to look. One way to help tease that insight to the surface is to note where everyone else is looking — and then look in the opposite direction.

It is often breathtaking how quickly this strategy makes the invisible visible and reveals surprisingly practical solutions to problems you didn’t even realize you were facing. In fact, this counterintuitive idea is often a quintessential flash foresight strategy.

Not sure how going opposite could realistically play out in the corporate world? Consider the following classic examples of how going opposite produced stellar results:

Amazon.com – Jeff Bezos looked at how Barnes & Noble had taken the traditional bookstore to a new level of size and substance, creating the modern superstore — and went the other way. He shrank the size to nothing and made it completely insubstantial.

It didn’t take Barnes & Noble, Borders (now going out of business), and the other major book retailers long to create their own versions of virtual book superstores. But, by the time they caught up, Amazon had gone in an opposite direction again: It added consumer electronics, toys, clothing, home and garden accessories, etc. … in short, everything . Next, Bezos rented excess technology capacity to any size company, acting as a virtual IT department. Having become the first major virtual bookstore, it has now become a virtual unbookstore.

Dell – Dell looked at the PC industry’s reliance on retailers and did something else: direct marketing. All the other personal computer manufacturers created their own line of models and then offered them to consumers to buy through retail outlets. Dell showed its consumers the full range of options, on the Internet, and then invited them to design the models they wanted themselves.

JetBlue and Southwest – JetBlue looked at the hub-and-spoke system used by legacy carriers and decided to do the opposite. Launching their low-cost airline based on a point-to-point system, they profited while others suffered and went into bankruptcy.

The founders of JetBlue came from the opposites-work-better culture of Southwest Airlines. Southwest does almost everything the opposite of the legacy carriers, right down to how they put you on the plane. Instead of assigning you seats on the plane, they assign you a place to stand in line at the gate while waiting to board. Sounds crazy, but it works. By 2007, as measured by number of passengers carried per year, Southwest Airlines had become the largest airline in the world.

The opposite of no money

There is hardly any conversation where the idea “that’s impossible” more commonly enters the picture than the conversation about budget and finance. Only in this context, the phrasing usually goes like this: “We can’t afford it.” You’ve probably heard this regarding your IT budget. You propose an investment in new software, upgraded network security, adding tablets, and you’re met with the age-old reply of ,“We can’t afford it!”

Anytime you hear someone say, “But we can’t afford it,” or hear yourself saying it, know this: You are probably looking at the wrong it.

Remember, your biggest problem is typically not the problem at all. And once you’ve figured out which problem really needs solving, then “go opposite” is one of the most fruitful ways to approach the question of how.

Here are three examples of the power of going opposite involving an elementary school, a college, and a Fortune 500 company. Perhaps one of them will inspire you with new ways to think opposite, too:

A pint-sized think tank

In the late 1980s, my education division worked with a school district in northern Wisconsin that was struggling to raise enough funds to meet their schools’ needs. They had been approaching leaders in the business community and asking for money; a strategy that met with mixed results. As leaders in the community, these prominent businesspeople were constantly being approached by people representing one good cause after another. Clearly, they were very community-minded, but there were only so many dollars they could contribute.