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

Doing the opposite has always been a smart strategy for breakthrough. Today, though, it has special implications, because in so many ways our entire world and everything about it is going through an intensely rapid and comprehensive reversal. The acceleration of digital technology is turning conditions on their heads, creating a profound shift in the core nature of what works:

Shifts in the digital age:

  • Slow -> Fast
  • Static -> Dynamic
  • Stability -> Flux
  • Maintain -> Transform
  • Adaptive -> Anticipatory
  • Dumb tools -> Smart tools
  • Material economy -> Immaterial economy
  • Scarcity -> Abundance
  • Isolated -> Integrated
  • Competitive -> Collaborative

This shift from an economy based on substance (physical resources) to an economy based on knowledge (immaterial resource) has triggered a polar shift in the very nature of wealth and the anatomy of success. This is so because of the simple physics of it: when you share a physical resource with someone else, your own store depletes but, when you share knowledge, it increases.

Because of this polar shift in the nature of wealth, we have moved into an era when suddenly it makes sense to collaborate rather than to compete. The open source movement in software is a dramatic example of this.

The globally realized nature of the economy has turned the rules of geopolitics upside down, too (although nations are still in the process of catching up to this fact). In a world that now functions as one fully integrated economic organism, the idea of one nation profiting at the expense of another makes increasingly less economic sense. But protect-and-defend is a deeply ingrained impulse, and it will take some doing to unwind this pattern of thinking. Unwind it we must, though, if we are to flourish in a world run by new rules.

Now, don’t get confused between “cooperating” and “collaborating.” Even the idea of cooperation contains within it the assumption that your interests and mine are inherently in conflict, but we will temporarily set aside those cross-purposes to find some cautious tactical common ground. Really, cooperation is about protecting your piece of the economic pie and doing everything you can to make it bigger. Collaboration is working with everyone else, even your competitors, to make a bigger pie for all.

The move from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking, from zero-sum competition to one-hundred-sum collaboration, is not just a “nice” or “moral” idea. In the 21st Century, it’s plain good sense. Scarcity says, “I’m going to keep all my ideas to myself and sell more than anyone else.” Abundance says, “By mentoring, coaching, and sharing all our best ideas — even with our competitors — we’re going to create a powerful tide that raises all our ships and we’ll all sell more as a result.”

And this brings us back to Southwest Airlines for one more example of their insistently counter intuitive, upside-down oppositeness.

In the early 1990s a South Carolina-based aircraft services provider named Stevens Aircraft threatened to sue Southwest for trademark infringement, claiming that Southwest’s new slogan “Just Plane Smart” was a direct knockoff of Stevens’s slogan “Plane Smart.”

Nothing new here; just one more big-bucks corporate lawsuit, right? The litigants get down and dirty, the courts get clogged, and the lawyers get rich.

Only this time, these particular corporations decided to go opposite.

Stevens’s Chairman, Kurt Herwald, proposed (rather publicly) that instead of a lawsuit, the companies send their top warriors to battle it out, like jousting knights of old, in an arm-wrestling tournament before an audience of their employees and the media: the best out of three matches would keep the slogan, and the loser would donate $5,000 to a charity of the winner’s choice.

Southwest sent this reply:

“Our Chairman can bench press a quart of Wild Turkey and five packs of cigarettes per day. He is also a fiercesome [sic] competitor, who resorts to kicking, biting, gouging, scratching and hair-pulling in order to win. When really pressed, he has also been known to beg, plead, whine and sob piteously. Can your pusillanimous little wimp of a Chairman stand up against the martial valor of our giant?”

… and of course went on to stage the match, proudly producing a video of the entire proceedings. (At one point the video shows Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher in training, doing a sit-up, with assistance, so that he can reach up and take hold of a cigarette and down a shot of Scotch.)