How Might…?

Reason for Use

It is a challenge to dream up an idea from nothing if you believe what Koestler says[1]: “The creative act … does not create something out of nothing;” As he continues, most ideas come when we uncover, select, re-shuffle, combine and synthesise already existing facts, ideas, faculties and skills.

It is reasonable to assume that you and your group have a large amount of information about the Focus of Innovation. Therefore, the tool I describe here, an adaptation of the much used “What If” technique, elicits all of the current information the group has, relevant to the Focus of Innovation and asks how it might be different. E.g. an author sitting down to write a story about Napoleon’s war with Russia needs to find an alternative to War and Peace. The author might create an alternative plot if he or she were to:

  •  List many of the things we know about Napoleon’s invasion: it was 1812; he had to retreat from Moscow; the loss or capture of nearly 500,000 men; the burning of Moscow by the Russians; the terrible winter; the lack of food; the lack of clothing; the Russian peasants making raids etc
  • Ask ,“How might this be different?

Now we have much more material for creative thinking. Our author writes a book about how General Napoleon enters Moscow as a welcomed heroine, spends the summer forming alliances with the Russian peasantry (possibly through Facebook) and sweeps through Eastern Europe establishing French themed shopping malls.

This approach enables the author to be… novel, and make the plot of War and Peace seem rather narrow. Which is possibly what you want to do to your competitors. Such a tool is especially useful for people uncomfortable or unskilled at generating lots of ideas nor possessing huge imagination.

Summary of Parts

Part 1. List What You Know About the FoI
Part 2. Share Your Lists
Part 3. Choose a Feature to Work on
Part 4. Ask, “How might this be different?” or “How might we build on this?”
Part 5. Have an Open Minded Discussion
Part 6. Choose Another Aspect / Feature

Actions to Take

Part 1. List What You Know About the FoI

This first step of the method has each person generate a list or map of what the team knows about the F o I, e.g.:

  • If you want to develop the plot of a historic novel, write down everything you know about the people, the place, the period, the situation, etc.
  • If you want to increase the revenue of accepting banks, write down what you know about how they make revenue, describe the transaction flow from merchant to cardholder, describe the responsibilities in the flow, etc.

Generically, it is useful to use “Who, What, Why, Where, When and How” as a prompt to generate information. Koestler also says “The more familiar the parts the more striking the new whole.” So do not overlook information that is obvious or accept information is true without having checked it.

Points to note here:

  • By using a PIT at the right level for your Focus of Innovation, you ensure that this Step 1 is not too lengthy – a narrower focus (lower level) produces fewer features
  • It may be that you can use information from the exercise you did at Stage 2 of the Inn8 Model so this will make the compiling of the list easier
  • The knowledge should be written as facts, not judgement. For example, write, “Accepting banks pay 1.1% transaction fee” NOT “Accepting banks pay too much in transaction fees to card issuers.”  Otherwise, people can become defensive when you start the next step
  • Write what happens, not what doesn’t happen
Part 2. Share Your Lists

Everybody shares what he or she knows:

  • Capture one point at a time from one person and record this on to a flipchart, then capture one point from another person and so on. This involves everyone and prevents the boredom of people reading out long lists
  • It is important for people to listen; questions to understand are welcome
  • Do not argue over facts. If two people have different views, capture them both and move on
  • Diagrams are very valid, especially of processes

The advantage of this part is that it can reveal misunderstandings and new perceptions. I recall in one meeting, a manager explained a feature of the current system. This took the managing director aback. “Can we really do that? I never knew that,” he said. This information led to the breakthrough moment in the meeting.

Part 3. Choose an Aspect / Feature to Work on

Have your team (or teams) choose an aspect or feature that may be of interest. I arrange small teams of four to work on different aspects so that the process is efficient and they can manage the process without a facilitator, if this is necessary. Let curiosity be your guide.

Part 4. Ask, “How might this be different?” or “How might we build on this?”
  • From the list, have the small team take this one aspect and ask, “How might this be different?”  or “What if?” or “How might we build on this?”
  • Have individuals write down their ideas for a brief period and then begin to share.
Part 5. Have an Open Minded Discussion

Allow the conversation to flow. As people discuss ideas, this triggers further ideas and so on until perhaps the new “proposition” arrives. (Look out for closed minds!).

Part 6. Choose Another Aspect / Feature

Once you have exhausted the flow of ideas, go back to Step 3 and choose another feature.[2]

[1] With thanks to Dennis Sherwood who sourced this quotation originally

[2] Whilst the above is a development of the original “What If” technique, my stimulus for the Parts was the InnovAction Approach developed by Dennis Sherwood of the Silver Bullet Machine Manufacturing Company. I would like to thank Dennis for his support.

Hope that helps!

John Brooker I Facilitate, Innovate, Transform.


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