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Opposites: A Must-Have Tool For Every Research And Innovation Professional

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at February 17, 2022

Cultural Anthropologist and CEO, MotivBase is a research technology company that decodes the implied meaning behind trends.

If you are a fan of the show Seinfeld then you might remember that episode where George Costanza decides to do the opposite of everything his instincts tell him to do. It is perhaps the only episode where everything George touches turns to gold. 

That episode always reminds me of an important concept in anthropology that can serve as a critical tool for innovation and research professionals. It’s the concept of opposites. In the early part of the 20th century, linguists and anthropologists figured out that when human beings are presented with new ideas, they make sense of them by contrasting them with existing ideas that are well understood.

For example, if you have just heard about this new type of car that is completely electric, instead of trying to find other alternative cars that could be similar to an electric car, your mind will make sense of this new type of car by thinking about what it is not — i.e., a car with an internal combustion engine that burns oil and blows smoke. 

But there is a problem. While the human mind naturally uses the tool of opposites to make sense of new ideas, it rarely flexes that muscle to evolve its understanding of existing ideas in culture. Which is exactly the point of this article.

The tool of opposites, when used with discipline, can serve as an incredibly rich resource to get innovation and research professionals outside of the box their industry often puts them in. Let me give you a tangible example.

Let’s say your job is to innovate in a category like fitness. Since the idea of fitness itself is so well established in culture, you will rarely find that your colleagues or superiors will take the time to step back and ask what fitness even means in the modern context. Further, because fitness is such a well-understood and documented concept in culture, your mind also will not naturally make use of the opposites tool to evolve its understanding of fitness. This is exactly why doing so can result in incredibly powerful outcomes.

By simply asking what is the opposite of fitness today in the mind of the consumer, you can go on a path of discovery that not just opens your mind, but also that of your peers and superiors. For example, in the past, the opposite of fitness may have been something like laziness or weakness. So if you were fit, it symbolized that you were also strong.

Today the opposite of fitness may be something completely different like access. Why? Because people recognize that fitness is a privilege — to have the time, energy and resources to make room for fitness in one’s life.

Now imagine discovering that the opposite of fitness is completely different from what you imagined or were convinced it would be. Would that not completely change your perspective on how to think about your industry or even your existing and future customers? It is such a simple exercise, yet it is so powerful and it can be done by anyone without the use of sophisticated tools. 

Incorporating Opposites Into One’s Toolbox At Work

Begin with the most obvious topics and ideas that your company or your peers often take for granted and ask what they are the opposite of. Then, to uncover opposites, examine a bit of data from the web such as articles on blogs and news sites about the topic. You can do this type of exploration quite informally. Going back to the fitness example, in each of the articles, note how fitness is being talked about and what particular things it is being compared to. Articles are a great way to understand who the antagonists are to your protagonists. The more consistently you see the same antagonists appear, the more obvious the opposites will become.

The great thing about opposites is that you never have to teach people how to think through its lens. They will simply get it because their brains are already hardwired to do this type of analysis. By uncovering surprising opposites, you will be able to kick-start important conversations within your company and push your peers and superiors in directions that are more aligned with where culture and society are naturally headed.

At the very least, it will help you get out of your own comfort zone and get you excited once again about the possibilities for innovation, especially if you work in an industry that is well established.

Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?


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