What if we kept a cow in the fridge so we never ran out of milk? What if vegetables tasted like sweets? What if children got to tell grown-ups when to go to bed? Your average 5 year old has more mind-boggling reality-inverting ‘What If’ questions than the average adult brain can cope with. They are naturally curious and life is full of endlessly exciting possibilities. Yet give them a few years more at school and they have learnt to ask ‘sensible’ questions, to use what they already know to create logical hypotheses and then to test them out. And then we are up and running with the prototype for the rest of our lives – look at how things are, extract the rules and norms and apply them.
We tend to equate wisdom with greying hair and having all the answers, not asking questions. When I first started work my father gave me some advice: “never ask a question for which you don’t already have the answer”. But what if his advice is not the whole story. What if using your curiosity to ask the right question was even more important?
We all know that asking a Closed question, where the answer is only Yes or No or a simple statement of fact, tends to be less illuminating and valuable than asking an Open question which elicits wider information and opinion and helps to open up the conversation. When you ask yourself a question which is based on assumptions, so that you presume you know the answer, it is in effect a cleverly disguised closed question. By narrowing the focus of the question, basing it on shared ‘groupthink’, an agreed map of reality, you limit the potential usefulness of the question.
Making directional decisions for your product or service based on this kind of question is less likely to result in a significant step change and more in a kind of shuffling forward as a crowd with everyone else in your industry. Traditional choices do not guarantee success.
To create real game changing plans maybe we should take the advice of Professor of Innovation Luke Williams, who proposes that we generate Disruptive Hypotheses, something intentionally illogical or unreasonable which will confound our assumptions and open up other possibilities, ultimately leading to unexpected solutions.
For example, for a furniture manufacturer doing the same thing just more efficiently – 6 week delivery instead of 8 or 10% cheaper than the competition is unlikely to set the world on fire. Asking yourself, ‘What if we didn’t build the furniture but left it to the customer to put it together?’ makes you the very successful Ikea.
As a camera manufacturer putting yourself in the user’s shoes and asking, ‘What if I didn’t have to send the film off to be developed and then wait for my photos – what if the camera could do it instead?’ leads you to Polaroid Instant.
Disruptive Hypotheses are themselves not new; philosophers down the years have been crafting them. Where would all of us be if Copernicus hadn’t asked himself “What if the Earth actually orbits the Sun?” or Pythagoras hadn’t wondered whether the world was not flat at all but round. Perhaps what is new is our tendency to trust above all the reasoned and the deductive approach to the world.
The ability to stand back and create your own map of the world is a critical leadership skill. Management guru Peter Drucker a fair while ago warned us of the danger of finding the right (logical, sensible, appropriate) answer to entirely the wrong question: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” An inspirational leader opens up new horizons and heads in new directions when required, rather than just marshalling the troops along in an endless shuffling queue. He or she asks: How can we deliver a completely unexpected solution that will knock the customer’s socks off? Perhaps something they didn’t even know they needed until we created it, like the iPad or skinny vanilla lattes.
I advise my Executive Coaching clients to revisit the curiosity of their younger years and unleash their inner 5 year old. First identify the area that you want to address – product innovation, marketing choices, employee engagement – and then examine the norms: what is everyone else doing, what is the accepted approach, what is assumed to be the right move?
Then ask yourself the ‘what ifs’ – what if you did the opposite? what if you turned the concept upside down? what would be totally illogical? What if you charged by the hour not by the contract or vice versa if that is the industry norm, what if you enabled the client to do their own design work with an app that they get from you, what if your client joined a club and then all your professional services were free? What if you rewarded your best employees with training (not the strugglers) or gave the poor performers gym membership?
Sometimes you are the product – when you are looking for a job move or a promotion – when replicating what everyone else is saying and doing only makes you a ‘me too’. Your topic to address is how to make an impact that makes you stand out, to offer yourself as a prospective employee with something great to offer, and make the interviewer open their eyes to the possibilities. So what if you created a multimedia presentation of your CV to show to the interviewer, what if you presented your references as a talking head video of interviews with your lecturers or previous clients? The unexpected gets you noticed – and the unexpected never follows the rules and the norms and the run of the mill assumptions.
At this point you can be as crazy as you like (nobody’s listening) to challenge your established ways of looking at things. Think – What would Sheldon Cooper do? What would the Dowager Countess of Grantham do? You get the idea – pick your favourite off-the-wall thinker and borrow their map of the world. What you are looking to for is not the incremental but the radical. Maybe you will need to draw a picture of it, write the story of it from the end users’ point of view or imagine it as part of a film. Maybe even ask a handy 5 year old.
Give yourself time and space to harvest as many weird and colourful questions as you can, it’s important. As the philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss said “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.”
Only when you have given this stage due attention should you begin to ask the logical questions to work out which ideas have legs and which are just mad, whether they could really work for you. Focus on what would actually happen in the real world context – who would benefit, who would lose out, how would it affect what else you do? What motivates your audience and prospects? How will it look from their point of view? What problems does it solve for them? How does your different approach demonstrate your USP?
And then you will be fully prepared to take my father’s advice. When you propose the solution to stakeholders, business partners, clients or your parents you will have all the logical answers. You don’t need to tell them that you kicked off your thought process with a cow in the fridge.