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Published: February 28, 2007

 
 

The Game Maven of New Haven

The Anti-Dilbert Principle
Barry Nalebuff is standing in front of a roomful of Yalies at a recent alumni gathering where he’s the guest lecturer. Because he’s not working the natural foods crowd, his dress is a more professorial shirt and tie. Still, he is never far from using food to illustrate a point. He picks up a banana. “How do you peel a banana?” he asks the gathering of high-powered financiers, attorneys, and other mover-and-shaker types. A few members of the audience shout out, “From the stem.”

Nalebuff smiles. Holding the banana stem up, he slowly rotates the banana, until the stem points at the floor. “Bananas grow like this,” he says, positioning his thumb over what most people would consider the “bottom” end of the banana and peeling down. “What you will discover is the banana peel comes away in two pieces, there are no strings, you’ve got this built-in handle, and your first bite is perfect.” The crowd chuckles. Nalebuff chews and gives them the punchline. “If you had any doubt this is the right way to eat bananas...” he says, his voice trailing off, as a photo of a monkey appears behind him eating a banana the very same way. “My point is not to teach you how to eat a banana better or get you extra potassium, but to remind you that we get complacent,” he says. “We get into this habit that there is one right way to do things, and often the opposite way might be right.”

The topic of Nalebuff’s lecture is innovation, and it has been the focus of his recent research and writing. His approach is summed up in the 2003 book Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small. Indeed, since publishing the book, Nalebuff and Ayres have established a two-man media operation, of which their proposed reality television show is just one part. They cowrite a column in Forbes, make joint appearances on NPR, and run a Web site that asks users to offer and modify fixes to problems submitted by other users. Their goal is to shake people and companies from their complacency and cynicism, and to help them generate new ideas. The theme of Why Not? is the power of new ideas to foster new companies, new markets, and ultimately, new games.

“I want to be the anti-Dilbert,” Nalebuff says. “What I want to bring together is this Yankee ingenuity, old-fashioned problem solving, ‘no engineering degree required’ approach. We’ve lost some of this approach — the ‘how can we do things differently and better?’ part. Part of our response has been to hibernate, to go back into our shell. I am suggesting that we are not going to solve our problems that way.”

Nalebuff then describes four essential techniques that he uses for promoting innovation and idea generation in his consulting work and in the classroom. The first is to look at problems from the point of view of a person with all the power and money in the world — in other words, a person without constraints. The goal is to remove the individual’s internal editor, the nagging voice that raises all the reasons not to pursue a new idea, and replace it with the voice of the customer. “Instead of focus groups or market research, look at this customer in your head, look at how they would solve the problem, and then go make it practical.”

What, for example, would Donald Trump do to solve the problem of a fax machine calling your bedroom phone at 2 a.m.? “He’d hire an apprentice to answer the phone for him,” Nalebuff says. “It’s a great solution, but it’s not affordable for us. But who do we know who is up at that time, who can screen our calls for free?” The caller. Nalebuff suggests a simple automated voice response when the call goes through, but before the phone actually rings and wakes you up: “You’ve reached the Trumps. Press 1, and the phone will ring. And it better be good.” As Nalebuff explains, “The fax machine won’t know how to get through, but an important caller will.”

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebuff, Co-opetition: A Revolutionary Mind-set That Combines Competition and Cooperation. The Game Theory Strategy That’s Changing the Game of Business (Doubleday, 1996): One competitor doesn’t have to fail for the other one to win.
  2. Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff, Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life (W.W. Norton, 1991): How to apply game theory to problems of all sorts, including those in business.
  3. Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres, Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small (Harvard Business School Press, 2003): A guide to automating the process of innovation.