Thinking ‘Upside Down’: Unleash Your Team’s Potential like Warren Buffett

When you approach opportunities from a nonintuitive angle, you create better plans faster.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet recently slipped away from a meeting to go to Dairy Queen, which is owned by Buffet’s firm Berkshire Hathaway. There, the billionaire buddies donned aprons, took orders, and shot a pretty darn adorable video as they explored a moment in the life of a Dairy Queen employee.

At Dairy Queen, the Blizzard is served upside down to prove how very thick they’ve made the dessert. After watching Buffet dump a customer’s Blizzard on the counter, Gates reflected that this upside-down approach reflected much of Buffet’s approach to business. Not because it was messy this time–although that’s an occasional reality for us all–but because it was unconventional.

Bill Gates wrote “Every time I get to see Warren, I’m struck by his surprising, insightful, ‘upside-down’ view of the world. He thinks differently–about almost everything.”

Thinking differently makes it possible to see options that no one else can see. When you and your team face a new business challenge, sometimes coming at it from an upside-down perspective can be just what you need. 

Here are two ways to embrace the counterintuitive power of thinking upside-down with a group. 

1. Reverse Brainstorming

If you’ve ever read reviews on Amazon or comments on the internet, you know that humans are naturally wired to spot the flaws, gaps, and inadequacies in any endeavor. Reverse brainstorming takes advantage of our natural ability to more easily see problems than solutions. It works great with a group that seems stuck for good ideas. 

Instead of asking a group to list ideas that would work, in reverse brainstorming the group lists all the ways that they could sow the seeds of their own downfall. 

For example, let’s say Warren Buffet’s team wanted to make sure he looked amazing dishing out ice cream. Before the video shoot, they could try to brainstorm all the things they can do to help him look like a pro. But what if they can’t think of anything special? 

They would then reverse brainstorm all the ways they could turn that video into a PR disaster. Dirty equipment, wet floors, screaming customers, bad lighting, burning oil, treating a customer rudely… it’s really easy to think up a list of potential ways to make a video that would go viral in a bad way.

Once your team gets all those ugly ideas out there, you can build a plan by figuring out how to do the opposite. If a video of the billionaire mistreating customers would be bad, how can they show him playing the humble host instead? 

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Dairy Queen video was contrived in any way. This is a fictional example illustrating how teams that want to plan a victory can make a quick start of it by first reverse brainstorming failure. 

By tapping into our trollish gift, teams that reverse brainstorm can often come up with more useful ideas more quickly than their sunny-sider counterparts.

2. The Pre-Mortem

While we have a gift for seeing flaws in other people’s work, we’re often unable to apply that gift on our own behalf. For all of us who start businesses with blithe confidence in our success, despite the clear odds against us, this happy optimism is a necessity. 

Optimism keeps us persevering and innovating even when evidence shows we’d be better off building banana splits. Optimism doesn’t, however, help us craft the best plans. For that, we need another dose of upside-down thinking.

Gary Klein, the research psychologist, invented the pre-mortem technique to help teams break through the protective gloss we wrap around our precious plans. It works similarly to a reverse brainstorm, but starts from a different place.

After you’ve all agreed on a brilliant plan, ask the team, “What might happen that would cause the project to fail?” It sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? In reality, the pre-mortem is project magic. 

Together the team will address the most likely and preventable causes of project failure. Your customer will realize they need to go through legal. The developer remembers an impending audit. You learn a key contributor is leaving on sabbatical. 

I run a pre-mortem in every kickoff meeting because it reveals important details we’ve glossed over in our enthusiasm. More importantly, rather than bringing the group down, it fires them up. They start working to address these new threats in this very first meeting, learning to collaborate as they build  a better plan.

I don’t know if Warren Buffet would consider either of these techniques upside-down or not, but I do know that they make for better plans–the kind of plans you’d reward with ice cream.

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