[CJP Insights] Creative, non-linear, asymmetric thinking

In 2009, Stanford business professor Tina Seelig split her class into groups and issued a challenge:

Each group had $5 and 2 hours to make the highest return on the initial money.

At the end, they’d give a short presentation on their strategy.

The results were fascinating…

Most of the groups followed a basic approach:

• Use the $5 to buy a few items.
• Barter or resell those items.
• Repeat
• Sell final items for (hopefully) more than $5.

These groups made a modest return on their initial $5.

A few groups ignored the $5.

They thought up ways to make the most money in the 2 hours of allotted time:

• Made and sold reservations at hot restaurants.
• Refilled bike tires on campus for $1 each.

These groups made a better return on their initial $5.

The winning group took an entirely different approach.

They had three core realizations:

1. The $5 was nothing more than a distraction.

2. The 2 hours of time was not enough to make an attractive, outsized return with a mini-business (like selling restaurant reservations or filling bike tires).

3. The most valuable “asset” was actually the presentation time in front of a class of Stanford students.

Realizing the value of this hidden asset, they offered the presentation time to companies looking to recruit Stanford students.

They struck a deal to sell the time slot for $650, netting a monstrous return on the $5 of initial capital.

The losing groups thought in linear, logical terms and achieved a linear, logical outcome.

The winning group thought differently.

So, what can we learn from this story?

There are two types of problems:

1. Low-Stakes: Lower potential, linear rewards. Decisions are easily reversible.

2. High-Stakes: Higher potential, asymmetric rewards. Decisions are not easily reversible.

With low-stakes problems, given the reward potential is low and the decisions are easily reversible, we can use shortcuts and heuristics to choose our path. We can take a logical, linear approach.

With high-stakes problems, the high, asymmetric reward potential means we need to think differently. We want to take a creative, non-linear approach.

Three steps to start thinking differently:

Step 1: Avoid the Distraction

There will always be an “obvious” solution that is simple, clear, and entirely wrong.

In the challenge, the $5 was nothing more than a distraction. It was a trap.

To find the best path, you have to avoid the distraction.

Step 2: Ask Foundational Questions

Ask and answer questions that expose and vet underlying assumptions and logic.

• What’s the real problem you are trying to solve?
• What’s your hypothesis? Why?
• What are your core assumptions? Why?
• What evidence do you have?
• What are your core options?
• What alternatives exist?

This takes time, but it’s an essential exercise when facing a problem with the potential for non-linear rewards.

Step 3: Select the High Leverage Approach

Slow down and evaluate the options on the table.

Select the path most likely to generate the asymmetric, attractive risk-adjusted returns.

If the story teaches us one thing, it’s this:

Creative, non-linear, asymmetric thinking generates creative, non-linear, asymmetric outcomes.