Solving problems in unusual ways at Restaurant Canada’s Leadership Conference

What do purple chickens and a bowl of M&Ms (with all the brown ones removed) have in common? They’re both “counterintuitive solutions” to solving a problem, and an important reminder that turning an obstacle into an opportunity can offer a huge creative advantage over the competition.

“What keeps a company from prospering isn’t a lack of chops, but a lack of creative problem solving,” Canadian radio host and former advertising executive Terry O’Reilly told attendees of Restaurant Canada’s Leadership Conference in Toronto last month. “Tackle the business problem with a different point of view.”

African chicken farmers were forced to think outside the box when trying to save their chicks from hawks hovering above. Unable to stand guard over the chicks all day, the farmers approached the situation from the hawks’ perspective, said O’Reilly.

The solution? Hide the chicks in plain sight. Using a biodegradable paint, the farmers covered the chicks in purple, which hawks are unable to process. “The survival rate went from 20% to 30%, to more than 80%,” he said.

We’ve all heard some of the outlandish demands made by music’s biggest stars. As part of its rider, ’80s rock band Van Halen used to request a bowl full of M&Ms minus the brown ones, explained O’Reilly. The rider even had a clause saying the band would forfeit the event if brown M&Ms were found. This may have seemed ridiculously high maintenance, but in actual fact, it was a shrewd business decision.

Lead singer David Lee Roth said it was a way of knowing the promoter had paid attention to every detail in the contract. The band’s setup was extremely complicated at the time, and members of Van Halen wanted to ensure they were performing under safe conditions. “A beautiful counterintuitive strategy,” said O’Reilly.

As a company, you may be faced with budgetary or staffing constraints, but those constrictions force you to abandon conventional thinking, he said. “The answer is hiding in the obstacle. Peel the problem like a banana, the solution is in the middle.”