Where’s Your What-If?

Spending a good chunk of my days researching human creativity, I landed on a strange phenomenon. What-if questions, one of the hallmark techniques of innovation, can also serve to extinguish imagination depending on where they are used. Oddly, the same framework can both ignite creativity or quell it, subject to where it is placed in the invention process.

Open-ended questions that contemplate positive change and exceptional outcomes are ideal at the beginning of the creative process. “What if we created a healthcare facility where no patient ever had to wait?” or, “What if we could reduce carbon emissions by 45% through wind-driven vehicles?” are terrific examples. What-if questions are perfect for blue sky brainstorming, imagining what’s possible without any regard for execution, cost, risk, feasibility, competition, or other restrictive factors. The dreamer phase is the textbook place to apply your what-if inquisitions, sparking creativity and stoking imagination.

Unfortunately, too many of us use our what-if’s in the wrong spot. Instead of deploying in the magical, early ideation phase, we shift these questions down the path to the idea-elimination phase. The same what-if that was designed to liberate fresh thinking is instead used to assess risks and surface fear.

“What if the idea tanks and we all lose our jobs? What if we can’t get regulatory approval and the project lingers for two extra years? What if I look foolish and my colleagues think poorly of me? What if the competition poaches our key people?”

It turns out that the same question – what if – can be both a blessing and a curse. If you find yourself using the phrase to explore the downside of things, try shifting the same exploration earlier in the process to imagine the upside instead. And we dreamers can learn from our executional-focused brethren as well, strategically using the what-if as a mechanism to look before we leap.

The very nature of a what-if question is that it forces us to stretch our imagination. Especially in these challenging times, let’s stretch in the direction of fresh possibility, positive change, and accelerated growth instead of squandering the question to only examine negative consequences and repercussions.

Where you place your what-if is as important as the question itself. What if you used it to expand your creative horizons? What if you reconnected to your childlike wonder to imagine uncharted opportunity? What if you became unshackled from downside thinking in order to unlock new ideas?

What if we all gave ourselves permission to dream?