Co.Design

What George Costanza Could Teach Businesses About Taking Risks

What would George do? A leadership lesson from Seinfeld's "opposite" episode.

If there were an innovation Hall of Fame, it’s unlikely that George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld would be enshrined in its halls alongside the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But for one episode of Seinfeld’s sitcom, the pair stumbled into a strategy that could help you grow your business.

In the classic episode, called “The Opposite," George is fretting in the diner about his life and how his decisions always go awry, when Jerry suggests that he try doing the opposite of whatever he would normally do. “If every instinct you have is wrong,” Jerry says, “then the opposite must be right.”

For the rest of the episode, George completely changes his behavior based on Jerry’s insight. Instead of being intimidated by women and ashamed of his standing in life, he boldly walks up to an attractive woman who was glancing at him from the lunch counter and opens with, “Hi, my name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” And for a change, his refreshing honesty works.

As a business leader, how do you do the opposite of your instincts and help your company deliver the results you want?

Go against your experience and training

In this one episode (and probably never again!), George is somewhat of a role model for executives seeking to drive change within an organization. While he was never right about much, George was right about this: thinking and acting differently is necessary to produce different results. It might sound obvious, but leaders who want to use innovation to transform their business must often think and act in ways that are completely counter to their own experiences and training, competitors’ actions, and even conventional wisdom.

We recently collaborated with a large retailer that is trying to navigate an industry in the midst of upheaval. To combat non-traditional upstarts who are capturing market share, the company’s leaders recognized they needed to think more like their entrepreneurial competitors who rapidly test new business models. This approach requires short cycles of experimentation and failure--very different behavior for an organization with a relentless focus on optimization of existing systems.

The leaders put aside their track record as excellent operators for a moment. Instead of using their deep knowledge to improve things, they engaged in an exercise in which they brainstormed ways of shopping that traded off important attributes (like a large selection) to achieve new goals (like simplicity). And they were eventually able to translate their thinking into real-world actions. They dedicated a team to finding innovation opportunities, agreed to follow a “test and learn” approach to trouble-shooting ideas, and agreed to evaluate experiments against a new set of innovation-specific metrics. The company is now rapidly developing and deploying experimental store formats.

Blow up the business model

Normally, you buy non-refundable tickets for events and make easy-to-cancel reservations for dinner. But what if a restaurant tried the opposite: you had to buy tickets in advance to have dinner?

That is the question that Michelin Star-winning chef Grant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas asked in 2011 when they opened a place called Next. A year later, after experimenting with this novel approach, they moved their flagship restaurant, Alinea, to a similar system. And profit at the restaurant increased 38%.

Challenging conventional wisdom through questions and experimentation helps to quiet your usual instincts and allows room for the opposite to emerge.

We recently worked with a client in a developing country that was facing disruption from companies selling cheaper, “good enough” products. The client’s primary competitor had built a strong vertical supply chain and invested in state-of-the-art factories that enabled it to produce goods at a low price.

Such a situation is normally very difficult for an established organization to counter. Conventional wisdom would suggest that copying this “winning” formula is the quickest route to survival. Instead, our client asked, “How might we reconfigure the industry in such a way that investment in factories and vertical supply chains would become a weakness, not an asset?”

The client is now implementing a strategy that reinvents the dominant business model in the industry to better serve customer needs while positioning itself, without fixed assets, for victory. The approach was precisely opposite to its first instinct.

Be open instead of protective

Intellectual property is normally the lifeblood of a company. It defines how the company creates value, protects it from competitive threats, and establishes competitive advantages that can last for years. So why would a company make its IP public and encourage others, especially competitors, to use it?

That’s a question that Elon Musk of Tesla Motors recently grappled with. Under a normal strategy, the electric car company would stand to benefit immensely by laying a foundation for network effects and establishing proprietary control over its electric car designs. Instead, Elon Musk pulled a George Costanza when he recent decided to share Tesla’s patents.

Trying three opposite behaviors

While change can certainly bubble up in an organization, more often it is senior executives who must champion and model what it means to think and act differently. And that requires different leadership behaviors. Behaviors that often feel like the opposite of what made the leaders successful. Trying these three behaviors just might produce unexpectedly good results:

  • Think like a venture capitalist, not a manager. Venture capitalists invest in people that have identified a problem and created a solution that people are willing to pay for. Sure they look at the financials but they don’t make their decisions based on them because it’s impossible to measure something that doesn’t exist.
  • Act like a problem solver, not the devil’s advocate. Devil’s advocates look for excuses to say no, while problem solvers recognize that all early plans have weaknesses, and seek to collaborate to find ways to overcome challenges.
  • Celebrate failure, don’t avoid it. Managers fear failure, while innovators recognize that failure is often a necessary step to success because it helps the learning process.

Certainly, leaders need to carefully choose when they follow their instincts and when they do the opposite. But, as one of our colleagues is fond of saying, “If you want to do something different, you need to DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.” George and Jerry would agree.

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