What If...

Lightly challenge rules and norms to spur innovation
Contributed by

Jerry Becker

Published March 29, 2021

What Is What If...?

The "What If..." practice is a team activity that seeks to identify the current "rules" or "norms" surrounding a particular challenge, then eliminate one of those rules or norms to broaden the spectrum of innovative ideas. This practice was created by former Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney, Duncan Wardle.

Why Do What If...?

This practice is a proven activity for lightly challenging peoples' mental barriers surrounding a particular business challenge. These mental barriers, or "river of thinking," form over time as we work in a particular industry. Through our experiences, we subconciously begin to form patterns in what we think something should look like, and these patterns begin to form boundaries for creativity. The "What If..." practice seeks to identify those boundaries and experiment with removing one of them so we can find even more creative and innovative ideas to problem solving.

How to do What If...?

Step 1: List the rules

  • Choose a challenge topic to focus on for the session (a problem statement, customer journey, industry you're operating in, etc)
  • Using wall space, a whiteboard, or your favorite digital whiteboarding tool, draw lines to form 3 columns and label them "Rules," "What If...," and "Imagine If..." (from left to right)
  • Give everyone on the team a pad of stickies and a sharpie (if running this in person)
  • Set a timer for 5 minutes and have participants list out all the rules, norms, and barriers related to that particular challenge (1 idea per stickie). Place ideas in the "Rules" column
  • After the timer goes off, read through all the ideas, then give everyone 3 dots for voting

Step 2: Pick a Rule to Break

  • Set timer for 2 minutes and have everyone vote on the rule(s) they think that, if eliminated, would most broaden the spectrum of ideation. Take the top-voted stickie and move it to the "What If..." column
  • Ask the team to think to themselves "What if this rule didn't apply?" On a separate stickie, reword the rule to create a provocative "What if" statement

Step 3: Imagine If...

  • Set a timer for 10 minutes and have everyone write down ideas for what a future solution might look like if the selected rule didn't apply. Place ideas in the "Imagine If.." column
  • (Optional Step) If you have a large group or LOTS of ideas created and are running short on time, set a 3 minute timer and have participants select the top 2-3 ideas they generated that they feel are the most ambitious
  • Have participants present their ideas to the group
  • Conduct another round of dot-voting (again with 3 dots for each participant) to have the team vote on what idea(s) they want to experiment with

Step 4: Create Next-steps

  • Take the top-voted idea and list out action items/next steps to create and run an experiment with this idea. Assign ownership to someone (ideally the person whose idea it was)
  • Have the team run with the next steps and follow up at a later date (1-2 weeks) to check in on progress

Look at What If...

Links we love

Check out these great links which can help you dive a little deeper into running the What If... practice with your team, customers or stakeholders.

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