The Cheeseburger Tree - Why Not?

The Cheeseburger Tree - Why Not?

You may know about Howard Hughes, one of the richest men of the 20th century and the subject of the film The Aviator.  Hughes was at various times in his life a test pilot (setting world records in both speed and distance), an entrepreneur, movie producer, TV station owner, real estate mogul, and a significant shareholder in an airline that became TWA. In his personal life, Hughes was romantically linked with Katharine HepburnBette DavisOlivia de HavillandGinger RogersAva Gardner, and Faith Domergue.

By any account, Hughes had a fascinating and remarkable life - and all of his business success enabled him to have a different perspective than most.  Hughes managed to solve problems that others might not even recognise as a problem.  An innovation technique that has been proposed by Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayers in their excellent book "Why Not?" is that when faced with an intractable problem or wanting to spot an opportunity, think about how Howard Hughes (or indeed, anyone with a practically unlimited supply of money) would approach it.  This broadens the frame of what's possible as an idea generation tool - and can then be refined back to what's practical.

For inspiration:

  • In 1966, Hughes had been staying in the Penthouse Suite at the Desert Inn hotel and casino in Las Vegas for a few weeks.  Another customer was coming into town and had booked the room, so Hughes bought the property for $13.2 Million so he didn't have to check out.
  • Hughes was an insomniac and a movie buff.  Because it was the 60's and the Home VCR wasn't invented until 1975, Hughes had no means of watching the movies he wanted, when he wanted to.  So instead, he bought a TV Station, K-LAS TV, in 1968.  Hughes would reportedly call up the station in the middle of the night to order particular movies to be played - and re-wound if he missed part of them.
  • Hughes became obsessed by Baskin-Robbins' Banana Ripple icecream, and ordered the hotel to stock it.  When Baskin-Robbins stopped making it, his assistants had to special-order the flavour from the factory in minimum orders of 200 gallons (around 750 litres).  
  • According to Tim Ferriss's 4 Hour Workweek, In his hotel-bound years, Hughes was rumoured to have instructed assistants to place a single cheeseburger in a specific tree outside his penthouse room at 4:00pm each day, whether he was there or not.
  • Hell's Angels was Hughes's first film, and the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its' release.  The film cost $3.8 million in 1930 ($54 million in today's money).  More than 70 pilots were used in the film, and 3 of them died during shooting.

Naturally the insights that you can get from putting yourself in Hughes's shoes have limited practical use to begin with - after all, there are few who have the equivalent of Hughes's monetary resources.  But in fact, this is the point.  The "Hughes Method" is effective in generating ideas by suspending practicality, and having a vision of what's possible.  The trick is then to refine from those insights to more practical solutions.  The VCR, home delivery, and movie special effects have since solved three of the problems that Hughes identified.  Often by visualising ideal solutions in the way Hughes did, we can then bring those solutions back to more practical responses that may have many of the benefits with only a fraction of the cost.  Without visualising them in the first place, we'll never get those insights.

The Hughes Method is one of many techniques that can be used with HR Strategy - or, indeed, any type of corporate strategy.  If Hughes was in charge of your organisation today, how would he structure the workforce?  Who would he hire?  Where would operations be?  Why?


The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Laura Wolff Scanlan, Vegas's Revolutionary Recluse

National Geographic, The Secret History: Howard Hughes (Video)

IMDB, Hell’s Angels Trivia

Wolfram Alpha Currency Conversion 1930 to today

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