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Use What If Questions to Create Innovation in Your Business

While visiting a few friends at a cool retro music shop I found an original 1985 vinyl version of the Back to the Future sound track. It brought us all fond memories of being back in that day where What If Questionswe could all state what we were doing at the time. Then we thought what if, we could go back to the future in our businesses. What if we changed something? How would the story unfold differently? Where would we be today? Granted we can’t go back to the future but we can ask what If questions to understand scenarios, create a story, find potential solutions and surmise future outcomes.

When I am speaking on business analysis facilitation principles at the corporate and university level, I will often create a scenario by asking ‘what if questions’. Sometimes I start with something that has no bearing on the business discussion whatsoever. For example, what if everything you touched turned to gold? I always get a lot of ‘right-ons’ with that question. But what if you touched the person next to you? Here I get mixed responses, some misgivings, some concerns, some want to melt their friend down and turn them into a watch. Then I ask some standard questions that we learned in grade school, who, when, where, why and how. This in turn helps create a scenario story.

Every business should use what if questions to create strategic innovative thinking to understand difficult situations and create possible solutions. ‘What if’ questions should be focus on a situation or challenge that should be solved or to look at the world around you differently. For example a business could ask some of these what if questions and build a solution story around them.

What if you simplified our customer value proposition?  This is a challenging what if question. It assumes you are in some way different in the market place. That you stand out from the competition. Over the years I think every business leader struggles with this one. What if you could stand out from the competition? What really makes you different? How can we state it so clearly even a child would understand it (ie: Duct Tape Principle)? Why would our customers care to know that information? In what way would it change your communication or business? There are lots of questions to ask.

What if you were an inch wide and a mile deep?  This has to be one of my favorite questions to ask. Every professional service provider has heard the expression; you need to be an inch wide and a mile deep. I don’t think a lot actually accomplish it. Adding what if component allows for interesting thinking and it is tied to the first question. Achieving inch wide mile deep would mean you are really niche in your business. Your services fit a specific market.

What if our customers paid what they wanted for our products or services?   This is a bit of a new business model that is scary for a number of business people. It has been popularized by content owners. Basically content owners offer their intellectual property and the customer decides what they want to pay. This model is showing up in the creative service industry as a pricing strategy. Customers could pay zero but a minimum floor price can be set. Some set the price after usage. This is somewhat like tipping. Some of my business colleagues are using ‘donation pricing’. Under this model customers can leave a one-time donation or donate regularly if they like the product you produce. This business approach is something to watch for as it will be seen more and more in certain industries. Would you survive if your industry turned to this pricing model?

What if 33 percent of your employees were going to retire in 5 years?  Another one of my favorite questions as it forces you to think creatively about succession planning. This is a real challenge for some companies. They are seriously reaching the maturity ceiling on all their resources and have to act now to solve this challenge. What scenario story would you create for this one? How will your business be impacted? What are the options to solve this challenge? Add in the question, what if there are no qualified people in the market place to replace my present employees. In some parts of the country that is a serious concern. There are many possible solutions to this challenge that include process and technology investments, a changed employee to contract model, a work from anywhere model, a no office model. There are all sorts of ways this challenge is being solved.

What if your employees were contractors or freelancers?  I have been a proponent of this model for almost two decades with the onset of flexible workforce and questioning whether you need employees or not. This questioning does not apply to all industries. With the rapid life choices and technology innovation freelance work is a serious option and hiring free lancers is easier with services like UpWork and Fiverr. My whole support staff are freelancers and I use professional contractors in partnerships to complete client work. It is thought now that freelancing is outpacing conventional job market due to desire for flexibility, freedom and control in our work and personal lives. By 2020 one in three jobs might be people working independently online. I tend to agree with this trend as I have personally and professionally experienced this trend in my business and my client’s businesses.

Final Thoughts:  In the last five years I have seen some major changes in product and service industries. I suspect you have experienced the same thing. Sometimes it is a challenge to know what to do next. The important thing is that you take the time to ask the right what if question, use them for innovation thinking and create stories around them. Don’t limit yourself in your thinking but do focus your intent. Make sure you are picking what if scenarios that deal with the key impact areas of your business (process, technology, sales, and people).

There’s an unlimited amount of ‘what if’ questions I could ask related to business and economic acceleration that impacts you. I believe what if questions will help you create a story for your greater business success. If anything, get the creative juices flowing.

What are the what if questions you are asking about your business? Send me a note and let me know. I’d like to know.

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Richard Lannon
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