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Wednesday, October 9, 2002

Prof. Ian Ayres Asks "Why Not?" in Proposals for Government, Business, and Life

"Why not?"

It's a simple question. But it's also a challenge when asked about a new idea. Why not do it?

"Why Not?" is the title of two concurrent writing projects undertaken by Ian Ayres, the William K. Townsend Professor of Law at YLS, and Barry Nalebuff, the Milton Steinbach Professor of Management at Yale School of Management. The first is a column in Forbes magazine (read it here) and the second is a book due to be released in 2003 by the Harvard Business School Press. In both venues, Ayres and Nalebuff try to present ideas for which there is no response to the question "Why not?"

Though the two words encapsulate the spirit of many of their proposals, Ayres and Nalebuff started working on the project before they had a name for it. "We had examples of the idea before we had a theory of what we were about," says Ayres. What primarily drove them forward was the sense that there was a "missing market" in thought pieces written for the popular press. "We actually did some empiricism on this," adds Ayres. Using research assistants to read the op-eds in the four major daily newspapers, they found that fewer than five percent of such essays approached their subject with a potential solution, rather than a complaint.

Ayres had noticed this tendency in his own writing career. "It's only my second-best op-eds that get placed," says Ayres. "My best op-eds, which are solution ones, don't go." He was told that op-eds are supposed to be opinion pieces, but he asked in return "Why can't I have an opinion about how to do things differently?"

And that is essentially what the "Why Not?" column and book cover: ideas about how to do things differently. Some ideas are common sensical and some seem strange at first glance, but they all strive to improve a common process "They're not based on technological breakthroughs but could have happened five years ago if we'd just had the gumption to do it," says Ayres.

For instance, in their inaugural column for Forbes in March, Ayres and Nalebuff suggested that HMOs bundle term life insurance with their health insurance. "That way, the HMO would treat you as if your life really were worth a million dollars," they wrote.

Another suggestion in that first column was for telemarketers to use reverse-900 numbers, meaning that they would pay you whenever they call. "Paying people to listen would solve the telemarketers' problem, create a new business and avoid regulation."

While the Forbes column focuses on business ideas, the forthcoming book will also cover government, law, and everyday life. It will also outline some tools for generating "Why not?" ideas.

Ayres describes one approach to idea creation, which he calls a "symmetry tool": "You look at an accepted way of solving some problem. You then force yourself to describe that in simple, declarative sentences, and then you write it down. Then you do a stress test, like Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver. You stress different words. You start off by saying, 'Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me?'... Stressing the different words forces you to focus on different aspects of the solution, and then you ask yourself how could you flip it around."

Ayres provides an example of this type of symmetry that many people have already used. "If you describe the way an auction works, instead of having the sellers set the price and having the buyers bid, you could have the buyers set the price and see if any sellers want to do it--and, voila, you have Priceline."

Ayres produces his ideas in bunches, and so he has a list of others built around this symmetry tool. "Right now, raising your hand means that you want to answer a question in class.... It might actually be better if raising your hand meant you didn't want to answer a question. Wouldn't that be pedagogically stronger, to embarrass the people that don't want to talk to you? Would it be easier for shy people to participate?"

Or, instead of having more explicit director's cuts on the DVD release of a movie, why not have tamer, child-friendly versions? Instead of adding material, take some away.

Or, the reverse-900 numbers for telemarketers mentioned above.

If you talk with Ayres for long enough, he will ask, "By the way, do you have any 'Why not?' ideas?" Not only has he gathered new ideas from acquaintances, but the online version of the Forbes column includes a forum for readers to submit their own ideas and comment on the ideas of others. "I have the desire for this to be a good kind of a virus, where we reach out," says Ayres. And so far, he has been impressed with the quantity and quality of the ideas that have been submitted. (Visit the "Why Not?" Forum.)

Moving from the question of "Why not?" to "Will it actually work?," Ayres says that the test will be whether any of the ideas have been put into practice five years from now. But the process of actualization has already begun--he has contracts to help companies develop two of the ideas into working businesses.

And some of the ideas are so simple, Ayres can practice them himself in day-to-day life. Take for instance, a scenario in which you are driving along a two-lane highway and see a sign that the left lane will end in a mile. This presents a small dilemma. Do you move over to the right lane, which is moving slowly, and feel frustrated as others pass on the left? Or pass on the left and cut in front of the other drivers, taking advantage of them? "Our 'Why not?' idea is stay in the left but don't pass," says Ayres. "I do this," he adds and reports the results: "I would say a third of the people will honk at you. No one has rammed me."

But Ayres says that he has fun with the process, whatever the result. "In some ways, I just think that it is pleasurable to roll your mind over some of these 'Why not?' ideas. You know, why not have adjustable term mortgages?" He also appreciates being able to present his ideas to a wider audience than will ever read a law review. In addition to the column and the book, Ayres and Nalebuff have made occasional appearances as commentators on the National Public Radio program Marketplace. (You can hear these radio commentaries using RealAudio: July 24, 2002; August 28, 2002; October 4, 2002.)

Ayres emphasizes that the "Why not?" project is only a sideline to his academic writing. He insists on keeping academic work above a 70 percent market share of his writing time. But there is some interplay between the two modes; for instance, he wrote a 100-page article on the reverse-900 number idea. "Forcing myself to write the op-ed version or the column version or the Marketplace version actually is a catalyst for getting me to go forward and write the more serious academic piece.... And I'm getting interesting feedback, so it spurs me and deepens the more serious stuff."