The Power of Counter-Intuitive Thinking

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

Why did the Swiss lose the watch market to the Japanese and others?

According to Bill Byron Concevitch, chief learning officer for Verint, the Swiss discovered the idea of a transistorized watch over 40 years ago, yet they did nothing about it. In his book, Counter-Intuitive Selling (Kaplan Publishing, 2007), Concevitch points out what happened. The Swiss didn’t pursue the idea of a transistorized watch because it was counter-intuitive to their thinking. 

Some Japanese businessmen were visiting Switzerland, heard about the idea, and asked the leaders of the Swiss watchmaking industry if they planned to pursue the idea. Told no, the Japanese recognized the opportunity. As Concevitch explained during a visit to AMA, the Japanese were prompted to pursue the idea because they had no preconceived notions about watches. The story, he shared, points out the importance of giving up old habits and embracing new ways of thinking and acting—counter-intuitive to our current thinking.

“Today,” said Concevitch, “the Swiss still have a small piece of the global watch market, but 80% of watches today are built in Japan and elsewhere.”

While Concevitch’s book is targeted primarily at salespeople, its message is just as important to corporate leaders: In today’s highly competitive world, changing old habits has never been more important.

Just as salespeople have to rethink how they approach a customer to close more business, corporate leaders need to rethink how they present their vision for the company to their constituents. “Too often, sales people assume that doing what they’ve always done in specific selling situations will continue to secure the business. Counter-intuitive behavior is demonstrating that you are different, that you are thinking differently. You are enabling the decision maker to reach out from the inside, rather than doing what most sales people do—pound from the outside. Counter-intuitive selling communications look unique, devoid of typical sales information. In essence,” said Concevitch, “counter-intuitive selling is doing the opposite of what the customer expects—and the opposite of what 99% of today’s sales people are conditioned to do. It begins with self-reflection and ends with self-revelation. The same holds true when you apply counter-intuitive thinking to leadership.”

How can you apply counter-intuitive thinking to leadership? Leaders should not only share their vision for the future with the people within the company, but also step back and engage employees during informal group meetings with questions such as, “Does this make sense for our organization?” and “What do you think?”

“What you find are constituents saying to the leader, ‘Maybe, with a slight change, we can get behind this.’ The leader might respond, ‘I’m not really sure…tell me more.’ In the end, the constituents may end up selling the leader on the vision that he or she put forth to begin with. A completely counter-intuitive approach that results in an unprecedented level of up-front buy-in.”

“In the end, the organization rallies behind the leader, giving their all to make the vision a reality. When the top executive can get other believers to support his or her vision through counter-intuitive communication, those members of the constituencies will believe the vision is theirs as much as it is the leader’s. The buy-in is increasingly higher, as the positive view of the vision increases exponentially. The constituents reach from the inside with a desire to make the vision their own.”

The same approach can be used by leaders with customers. “Before taking a product idea internal,” Concevitch suggested, “a leader might take it to his most valued customers. The leader should get on an airplane, visit each of these customers, and share his vision of the product before he shares it with the workforce. The process can be very constructive, leaving the leader with a better targeted vision.”

Here are some further tips from Concevitch for leaders:

• Don’t allow “Swiss Watchmaker Thinking” to paralyze your ability to change your habits. Adopt counter-intuitive thinking.

• Take time to practice how to execute necessary changes. When you find yourself slipping back into old ways of doing things, refer to the steps listed below to make your new behaviors stick.

• Be bold. Create unique avenues that open up communications with your competitors. Talk to others who know your competitors extremely well—and talk to key customers, both current customers and former customers that you’ve lost to competitors.

From selling products to selling ideas, counter-intuitive thinking can be a major asset for those who learn how to permanently change their behavior effectively. How can you learn to behave differently?

Concevitch keys in on the following:

• Use trigger notes and trigger objects to remind you of the actions you need to take to turn new behaviors into permanent habits.

• Place the triggers where you’ll find them during your normal day—place these “in the way” of your normal routine and activities.

• Use key words and symbolic objects (e.g., paper clips) to activate the triggers. Make sure the triggers are “larger than life.”

• Avoid the bad habit of thinking you will remember to act differently without using strategically placed triggers.

• Use the exact same triggers for at least 21 consecutive days. If you find yourself reverting to old habits, remember the 21-day period of constant trigger use and behavior change, and start all over again.

• Don’t fall into the trap of believing that “thinking you will change” is sufficient to force you to change. Only repetitive action will help you form new habits—and successful repetitive action requires the use of triggers over a period of time.