Think Opposite: A Movement In One Direction Inevitably Produces A Movement In The Opposite Direction

Ed's Ink

Editor's Note:

The concept of opposites is well-known to historians, fiction writers, and savvy marketers.

Apparently, it's not well-known to many best described as “long on schooling but short on education.” 

Said Harvard's Ted Levitt: “The prevalence of competing opposites is a persistent theme in the history of mankind; Othello had Iago, Jefferson had Hamilton, Lenin had Stalin, the id has its ego, the straight culture of the 50s and early 60s had the counterculture of the mid-60s and 70s."

Of course, today we have Trump v. Obama; conservatives v. progressives; climate change advocates v. climate change deniers; self-supporting members of the middle class v. the growing ranks of welfare recipients. The list is endless.

Our point? History shows there has always been simultaneous eruptions of opposing forces. That's the way the world works. Powerful forces are always met with competing or opposite forces.

Hegel's Model for Understanding What Happens to Opposing Forces

Friedrich Hegel, a 19th-century philosopher, sketched out the following rather simple (but extremely insightful) model for interpreting history:


The Thesis

In a long-out-of-print book, Ted Levitt popularized the “go-reverse” principle. It’s the idea that every time there is a strong movement in one direction of tastes, values, attitudes, and activities, another movement emerges that’s almost the complete opposite.

The thesis can be thought of as a strong, established movement in one direction. For example, capitalism is the accepted economic system in the United States. 

Capitalism in its varying forms believes in self-reliance, free markets unencumbered by government controls and regulations, and the creation of competencies, not dependencies.

Slowly, then suddenly, an opposing viewpoint (socialism) took hold. 

Bernie Sanders, in his quest for the presidency, represented a near-opposite. He believed capitalism was in decline and should be replaced by a centrist (i.e., near-government controlled), entitlement-rich economic system.

Simply put, in Hegelian terms, Sanders' agenda represented the antithesis of capitalism.

The Antithesis

Times change. People don't. There's always going to be an opposite movement to challenge the existing system.

Specifically, Levitt wrote:

In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Hegel enunciated in elaborate detail his dialectical conception of history.

According to Hegel, successful historical forces or ideas inevitably generate their opposite—what he called the ‘antithesis.’

The Inevitable Synthesis

The resulting struggle or competition between the thesis and antithesis leads each opposing force to ingest some features of the force it opposes.

In the process, a synthesis of the two emerges. In time, this synthesis becomes a distinct new force in itself, which in turn generates a new antithesis to repeat the cycle. 

Said Levitt: “Hegel thus viewed historical development as a continuous evolution of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.”

Some claim President-elect Trump is adopting some of the ideas of the progressives (e.g., providing government subsidized childcare) and should stay true to the core principles of conservativism.

But these moves could be reinterpreted in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, that is, President-elect Trump is “ingesting some features” of the Democratic Party's platform he particularly likes, and, in the process, is creating a new synthesis.

The music industry has always known about synthesis. Take, for instance, the extraordinary revival of the Baroque music of Telemann, Vivaldi, and Purcell in the early ‘70s at the very height of the then new boom of highly experimental pop music.

The synthesis, observed Levitt, "of pop music and folk music in the form of folk-rock, and the gradual ingestion of rhythm and blues music into modern so-called 'good music'" was predicted by many leading musicians and composers of that era.

Nobody questions this "eruption of opposites to eventual synthesis." Polarization is an accepted reality of the music world.

Yet many otherwise brilliant musicians and composers seem shocked when the same cycle occurs in areas they are not familiar with, including economics and politics.

Applying Hegel’s Model to the Business World

Levitt brilliantly showed how to apply the Hegelian principle of opposites to project what lies ahead for many businesses: 

“When there develops, in any area of activity or taste or values, a strong thrust in one direction, we may expect in its wake a strongly opposite thrust.”

Consider this: The great growth in prepared foods is paralleled by an equal growth in start-from-scratch cooking and the explosive sale of cookbooks, herbs, and exotic condiments.

The great boom in one-stop retail websites is paralleled by an enormous increase in specialty online stores that only sell one product (e.g., mattresses, baby diapers, and razors).

In marketing terms, this is really a market segmentation issue. Marketers already known about emotional versus rational selling, frills or no frills, and low-price bargains versus paying top dollar for a luxury experience.

Each can be viewed as a competing opposite.

In short, "think opposite" is a useful exercise for effective leaders.

Another Example: Hegel On Training Trends 

The Hegelian model helps us understand what appears to be opposite phenomena in training today: the growth in live instructor-led training programs and the growth of online training courses. 

Predictions regarding the imminent commercial annihilation of live instructor-led training courses are already contradicted by a new growth in niche market live instructor-led seminars.

Live instructor training when coupled with performance consulting and performance support enables practicing professionals to immediately put into practice what is learned.

In terms of on-site (i.e., in-house) training, the need for live instruction from a true expert has proven itself time and again.

For example, take a subject like statistical process control (SPC). An online program can teach the basics of quality prevention and quality control. No doubt about it! 

But the best way for SPC to be taught (and, more importantly, put into immediate practice) is to use an organization's actual processes to demonstrate the value and implementation specifics. 

Like many others, we think online training will soon become a major growth industry.

But we also believe it must be supplemented or augmented with performance support, performance consulting, coaching and mentoring, and the like.

In short, a synthesis between online programs and live instructor-led programs enables students to apply methodologies taught to their particular situation. 

Stated differently, the issue is not whether knowledge and know-how are teachable and transferable. It is whether they result in true performance and results. 

Summary and Conclusions

The Hegelian prediction of opposites always exists. Where there is thesis, there is antithesis.

In the final analysis, we believe understanding Hegel's model of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis helps explain the inevitable and constant eruptions of opposites.