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What If You Took the Time to Ask “What If?”

By Holly G. Green

Recently I was doing a keynote presentation on innovation when a member of the audience, a senior manager at a large company, posed this question: “What’s the difference between individual and organizational innovation? We have plenty of people who come up with good ideas, but nothing new ever seems to get done in our company.”

This particular manager happens to work for a well-known company that likes to consider itself innovative, so his question momentarily took me by surprise. But one thing I have learned over the past few years is that our assumptions and beliefs about what goes on inside an organization versus its public persona are often two very different things. And there is no shortage of misguided ideas and assumptions about the innovation process.

In business, innovation is the act of applying knowledge, new or old, to the creation of new processes, products, and services that have value for at least one of your stakeholder groups. The key word here is applying. Too many people assume that innovation consists solely of coming up with good ideas. That’s part of it, of course. But in order to have true innovation, you must implement. You have to actually do something different that has value.  Brainstorming or chatting about new ideas does not qualify as innovation.

Individual innovation has to do with the content of innovation. It involves examining your own thinking process to understand why you think the way you do. More important, it involves pausing your thinking process every now and then and contemplating how to change perspectives, how to challenge your own assumptions, how to consider the opposite of what you normally think, how to ponder multiple right answers, and how to do things differently.

Organizational innovation is all about the context for innovation. Context includes the culture, leadership styles and norms, competencies of individuals, teams and functions, business processes, performance measures and strategies. Have you created a context in your company that encourages, inspires, and fosters doing things differently? Do you have systems and processes in place that operationalize doing things differently on a regular basis?

Most organizations operate from a “control and manage” mindset. When people bring up new ideas, the leaders smile and say, “That’s nice. Now go back to your job and get me that report.”  In other words, keep doing the same things in the same ways. Organizational innovation involves developing the spirit, tools, processes, and attitudes that encourage people at all levels to every now and then pause and think differently.

Not about everything, of course, because you have to do some things the same way in order to be effective. But every once in a while it pays to stop and ask “What if….?”  For example, “What if our biggest competitor purchased us? What would they see? How would they approach our market differently?”  Or, ”What if we didn’t know what we already know about our customers? How would we go about determining their wants and needs? How would we use that information to add more value than anyone else in the industry?”

Like everything else, fostering organizational innovation starts at the top. People pay far more attention to what you do than what you say. So if you want to encourage innovation at all levels, you have to model it. Practice the concepts and tools of innovation. Practice screening in (rather than screening out) more data so that you can look at things differently. In particular, learn how to look at things outside your industry and make new connections to your business.

When I worked for The Coca Cola Company, every year the chief marketing officer flew to Paris for the fashion shows. Why? To see the fashion trends and get ideas on how new styles could be applied in the beverage sector. It is easy to look around your own sector, at similar companies and get ideas. Part of your job as a leader today is learning to look in new and different places for ideas that can be applied to your business.

Every time you have a thought bubble that says, “I am right!”, deliberately pause and ask, “What if I’m wrong? What if there’s a different way to see this?”   Innovation doesn’t mean you walk around wondering if you’re wrong all the time. The idea is to force yourself (every now and then) to open your mind, suspend your assumptions and judgment, and simply ponder, “What if…?”

When you learn to insert the “What if?” pause once or twice a day, you’ll come up with more new ideas. You’ll model an important behavior that will help set the context for innovation in your company. And you may be very surprised at the answers you get.

What is your next “What if?” question?

Read other articles and learn more about Holly G. Green.

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