The power of opposite thinking

Thinking the negative outcome has always been shunned, especially when dreaming of a start. Sure, startup founders and entrepreneurs go by trying for the best but hoping for the worst to happen in the path towards the best. Factoring in the uncertainties helps for a calculated start, but there’s yet another route for understanding problems and creating solutions that eventually work. It’s in the power of opposites. Not the story of opposite poles, but in thinking to combat the opposite of what you plan for. I’ve been trying some of this in my product journey—not everything is about instant success, but you gradually get good at it.

The ‘thinking in opposite’ goes the same way Charlie Munger talks about his investment success, productivity, and wealth:

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

The idea is the opposite of intelligence—you chase to avoid stupidity and that leads to intelligence. Let’s take a game like chess, where most grandmasters and renowned players agree that they focus on not ‘winning’ but actually on ‘not losing.’ Their tactics and spontaneous moves are decided based on the attempt to not lose their precious pieces and control of the game. You win by not losing. 

What’s the difference anyway? Because when you move by the opposite, you factor challenges and see things the way you wouldn’t otherwise. It helps you evidently discover roadblocks, challenges, and hiccups to deal with, so you know the cost of what you’re trying for. This could work in many ways in day-to-day lives. You avoid being idle, so you pick up a hobby; you avoid being a procrastinator, so you learn to finish things on time. You learn the power of opposite by living it. Why not apply this to the products we build? 

The one where users don’t fumble  

When we think about products, we think about features, and sometimes we think about too many of them. As makers, we get too excited about creating and shipping stuff, but most often we tend to see it from the angle of what makes the product more attractive for the users. That isn’t wrong, but when you don’t think about the opposite—what makes the users perplexed when they use it and how to avoid them—features remain just fancy and not entirely functional. 

Some of the opposite-style questions to ponder on (and address):

– How will the user not be able to complete this action 

– Why the user might face an ambiguity at a step

– Why this feature needn’t exist at all for the current problem

– What parts of this the users wouldn’t notice at all 

Of course, user stories, personas, and the umpteen frameworks by product teams come handy in preparing and executing features that help users with their problem. But, applying the power of opposite at an early stage rather than a later stage of testing and iteration will solve a lot of trouble. 

The next time you think about building that new feature, think why users shouldn’t fumble before you think why users should find it attractive. 

The one where alternatives play a role

This is a lot more common among us—to think about ‘competitors’ and what they’re up to, so you can speed up your product building. Well, by ‘alternatives’ it’s not all about competitor analysis or keeping tabs on that next update from your arch nemesis brand. Alternatives include the other ways by which the solution your product puts forth [or the challenge your product tries to solve for] is available for people. It could be your competitor tool, a software with incidental usage, or simply any possible means that your customers can easily access when compared to what you’re building. Let’s dig a bit into this. 

April Dunford keeps mentioning the advantages of thinking about ‘competitive alternatives’ when it comes to product positioning. Note that she doesn’t say competitors but alternatives because there could be simply other means to replace your product or help users with if your product weren’t to exist. It’s surprising to see what list you’d be left with—and it’s a continuous practice like she says, to list down and revisit them before arriving at an understanding. 

Another example to relate with is Superhuman’s method to gauge a user’s satisfaction with the product. In an attempt to quantify their product/market fit and see how many existing users would continue using their product, they followed a classic Sean Ellis test— just ask users “how would you feel if you could no longer use the product?” and measure the percent who answer “very disappointed.”

Products that catch up for traction have a measure below 40% in general observation. Superhuman after thoroughly analyzing the responses and segmenting their audience found a 32% ‘very disappointed’ percentage—a promising start for improving their journey! 

Thinking the opposite once again works in our favour. 

An example of the Sean Ellis test for Slack in 2015 [Source – Pisano]
Superhuman’s question in their p/m fit survey [Source – First Round Review]

The one with optimizing for not failing 

Experiments are like friendly neighbours for product teams—welcoming them often is a common activity. Product experiments range in their time periods depending on the goals and intended outcomes, but what matters even more is how tight the hypothesis is. And, this hypothesis seems to keep dynamically changing, right?

Most product professionals and entrepreneurs [Jason Fried, Jeff Lawson, Andrew Bosworth to name a few] have always talked about pivoting and fearing not to change hypotheses as the experiment keeps progressing. A thought I always go back to is—you don’t ‘validate’ an assumption, because in that case you’re fixating on making them come true. Instead you experiment with assumptions, and refresh your opinions. And, this is in par with the opposite thinking discussed here—to not optimize something for the sake of winning, but rather for not failing. 

No, this doesn’t put a bad color on failure—failures or setbacks we’d call them, are definitely necessary. I heard Eric Schmidt say this once which makes total sense for product teams, 

“Persistence doesn’t mean marching against the same hill with the same sledgehammer. You need to modify and think differently.”

Leaning into the power of opposite can take us in some new paths undiscovered insofar. It can also help revisit some basics we already know. In either case, it’s doing more good than we could ever think. How about putting it into action, then?