The Power of “What if?”

I wrote last week about the importance of asking questions – and the fact that often, questions are more important than answers.  As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.“ And there’s one type of question that’s more powerful than any other – the question that starts with “What if…?” “What if” questions are powerful because they can be a catalyst for creativity – by forcing people to face new scenarios, new possibilities and new assumptions.

1)   “What if?” questions spur creativity and innovation
“What if?” is the single-most important question to the creative process – it says you aren’t content with the status quo. Creativity and innovation are, by definition, about creating something that didn’t exist before. “What if” is a way of asking questions about things that haven’t happened or have never been put together before. “What if we sold books on the internet?”, “What if bourbon was flavored with honey”, “What if people could ‘time-share’ a car?”  “What if” gets people to imagine new worlds and new ways of doing things.

2)   They help build things.
There are two ways that asking “what if” helps build ideas. First, asking “what if?” demands response and engagement. It’s a thought-starter. If someone asks “what if” in a meeting, the other participants are forced (in a good way) to engage and build. Secondly, someone may ask “what if” after hearing someone else’s idea. It’s a good way to build on it, make connections to other thoughts and ideas and give the idea momentum and dynamism.

3)   They help identify problems before they occur
Asking “what if” is a tool for critical thinking – it opens the mind up to review and assess a myriad of possibilities and either avoid them or prepare for them. Anything that’s never been done before, from landing on the moon to launching a new ad campaign, needs to be assessed this way in order to be ready to take action if the “what if” scenarios take place.

4)   They force you to face (and, often, change) your assumptions
Because of the fact that these questions will often challenge the status quo, you may be forced to re-think your in-going hypotheses. But that’s a good thing. In fact, as Al Pittampalli said, “why bother going to a meeting if you’re not prepared to change your mind?” It’s a very good thing to face your own assumptions and be prepared to change your mind. In fact, every time you think “I’m right”, force yourself to think, “What if I’m wrong?” This, invariably, will lead to something better.

Never stop questioning. According to Naguib Mahfouz, “you can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.“ And add “what if?” to your question repertoire.


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