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  • Writer's pictureNick Smith

W is for 'What If ...'

What if cats could swim under water? What if your body was a bright colour - which would you choose? What if you woke up tomorrow and could only hop everywhere you went? These, you might not be surprised to know, are among the 127 best 'what if' questions (what if there were only 126?) to ask your friends. 'What if' questions have a long history: Collins Dictionary tracks their usage over the past 300 years (slight growth in the past 50 years, but way below levels in the early 18th Century, apparently). And, if it's a sign of current interest, Netflix has a 2019 miniseries called What / If in which the consequences of people making seriously 'unacceptable' decisions are explored. And I've only just managed to resist the temptation to buy the book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (so I don't know the height from which you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked by the time it hits the ground).

Getting beyond the fun, it's clear that there's something compelling about 'what if' questions - we like them. Why? I think fundamentally it's because they open things up, rather than closing them down. By pointing us towards something that is not (yet) the case, there's connection with, and prompting of, our imagination and creativity. That's why, I guess, the 127 best questions referred to above are specifically for ice-breaking. It's why, too, 'what if' questions are a great teaching tool (see the science book above, or this BBC site).

We think, too, 'what if' questions can prove very useful in leading and facilitating Business Change, not least in developing and casting vision. Here's some reasons why, and ways how:

  • First, obviously and critically, 'what if ...' is a question, not a statement. The more we employ 'what if ...' in engaging those impacted by change, the more we're effecting change with them, not doing change to them. We're not telling people, we're asking them, and (assuming we're listening) their answers can matter

  • Linked to that, 'what if ...' questions, by appealing to the imagination and creativity are invitational questions. They lend themselves to a tone presupposing that the person asking the question does not have all answers - and that they're inviting those of whom the questions are being asked to participate in developing the answers. So they're a great tool for creating and sustaining an approach to change which is more about collaborating, enabling and facilitating rather than about delivering and managing

  • So, 'what if ...' questions are great for working with those impacted by change to develop and flesh out change visions, drawing out what matters to them about the future state, what about it will engage them with passion ...

  • ... and similarly, they're great for drawing out obstacles to change as they're perceived by those impacted. So the things that will get in the way of people embracing change are identified by those impacted by that change, not merely by their leaders.

  • And the involvement of those impacted by change in identifying what's going to be difficult about effecting the change, means we can move on to a second level of 'what if' questions relating to how challenges and difficulties will be addressed: 'what if we did X, or provided Y?'. So change interventions can be designed that really do envision and equip for change to be embraced, in ways that reflect the reality of organisational life.

  • And finally this all takes pressure off organisational and change leaders to come up with all the answers themselves. Leadership is about listening, not just telling - and it makes a difficult role more difficult still and more prone to error where that's not understood.

So, what if we looked to ask one (or more) 'what if' question each working day - of ourselves or others? What if we developed and cast change vision with 'what if' questions to the fore in each? What if our design and validation of change interventions always involved asking 'what if' questions? What if we accepted we didn't have access to all the best answers from ourselves and the leadership groups of which we're part? What if ...?

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