Some “What If?” Questions You Should Be Asking Right Now

Posted 05.26.2020

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post that made the case that we’re all at the beginning of Phase 2 in our response to the global pandemic. To recap, Phase 1 lasted for about 8 weeks, depending on where in the world you live and, for large organizations at least, was about quickly reinventing how work was going to get done with many people working from home. We’ve figured that out for the most part at this point and are now moving into the reimagination work of Phase 2. It’s not the “new normal” yet; it’s reimagining what the future could be and how we’ll do work in the new normal.

In this post, I want to take a deeper dive on one of the points I made in the Phase 2 post – the need to shift some of our agendas from the reactive “to-do” agendas that are set to deal with the urgencies of a particular week to the proactive “What if?” agendas that can help us reimagine the future for our ourselves, our customers and our organizations.

Before we get to some questions you can build your “What if?” agendas around, I want to talk briefly about the benefits of having these kinds of conversations in the first place. I can think of at least three:

Challenging assumptions – It’s interesting how, even in the midst of a global health and economic crisis, it’s hard to let go of our long-held assumptions about how the world works and will work. Taking time to get your team engaged in some challenging “What if?” questions can challenge those assumptions and perhaps point out some blind spots that need to be addressed as you shape your “new normal.”

Preparation – It’s hard to prepare for something you haven’t lived through yet, but considering the range of possible responses to what the future may present can help you be more effective when it arrives. About nine years ago, I had the opportunity to spend the weekend on a Coast Guard cutter off the Florida Straits. As I wrote about back then, my biggest and most valuable takeaway from that trip was being able to see how much time and effort the leadership and crew spent in preparing for things that could happen. When one of those big events actually did happen, the crew handled it flawlessly because they had spent several hours preparing for the possibility. Getting your team engaged in “What if?” conversations and preparation could do the same for you.

Innovation – The late, great Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen was famous for coming up with and exploring the idea of disruptive innovation – the impact a small upstart company can have on an industry when it disrupts the competitive landscape by doing something radically new that works. Right now, we’re all in the place of dealing with a disruptive innovator called Mother Nature. “What if?” conversations can help us come up with new and innovative approaches to dealing with something we’ve never dealt with before. 

So, with those benefits stated, here are some “What If?” questions along with some follow-ups you could pose for yourself and your team to work through:

  • What if we have to remain socially distant for another couple of years, how would we do business? What else could we do to flex? What changes would we have to make or could we make to sustain and grow our business in a socially distant operating environment?
  • What if we stopped doing 50% of the things that we’ve always done? What would they be? Why would we pick them? What would we do instead of those things that seem like a better use of time, attention and resources?
  • What if we were designing our organization from scratch today? What would we change? What do we know about the current environment that leads to those conclusions? What trends do we already see that, if they continue, would have a big impact on the way we design for the future?
  • What if we came out of this phase better and stronger than we were? What would have made that possible? If we assume our industry is going to still exist in the new normal, what changes will the winners have made to be the winners?
  • What if we want to be one of the winners? What will we need to do to be one? Who will we need to reach and serve? What will they want in the future?

These questions and others like them are best considered in dedicated conversations. I’ve been facilitating some of those for clients over the past couple of weeks and have been struck by how the answers to one set of questions can shape and influence the answers to other sets of questions. It’s really a process of unlocking assumptions to the point where creative thinking about different possible scenarios can truly begin.

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