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Play The "What If?" Game
By Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
© 2000, Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

Here's a fun Innovation Tool™ that can be used by both individuals and groups. It's called the What If? Game, and I first started using it many years ago to help with writing fiction. You can use it as a powerful creative thinking technique to make your business more competitive.

As a writer I would begin a story with an intriguing scene by asking a question such as, "What if I woke up one morning, the birds singing outside, the warm sunlight coaxing my eyelids open to a room I'D NEVER SEEN BEFORE?" I might continue and ask a few more What If questions, "What if I rolled over to find a DEAD BODY lying next to me?" and "What if there was A GUN in my hand?"

Once a suitable scenario was set up, I'd go back and fill in the blanks. "How did I get there? Who am I? What is my name? Where am I from? What do I do for a living?" And, so on. Before long, I've written a book.

Now you can use this same Innovation Tool to generate new ideas for making your company more profitable or productive. Begin by considering one aspect of your business such as your typical customer, your location, or one of your products, and ask questions: "What if all my customers were Chinese?" "What if a twister picked up my building and dropped it completely intact in Kansas?" "What if my product became obsolete overnight?"

Then answer the question as fully and completely as you can. See where it takes you. Do some research if necessary: "If all my customers are Chinese, then I'd better start learning their language and customs. I'll probably have to modify the way I market my business. I may even have to change things like my hours of operation..."

If your building landed in Kansas, what would you have to do differently? If your product or service suddenly became obsolete, how would you stay in business? These two scenarios remind me of a story.

In the early 1980s I met a man who had bought a failing dry-cleaning business for very little money. It was failing because the demographics of the neighborhood had changed from white-collar to blue. With fewer business suits to be cleaned, the need for a dry-cleaner was shrinking. The enterprising new owner, noticed -- not unexpectedly in a blue collar neighbor -- that blue jeans were the pants of choice. He further noticed that when the residents dressed up, they still wore blue jeans... however these were designer jeans (of course it was the fad at the time). Perhaps he asked the question: "What If the only thing to be dry-cleaned around here are blue jeans?"

How would you answer that question? This creative entrepreneur answered it by advertising Special Discounts on dry-cleaning for designer jeans. He put up signs suggesting that washing machines prematurely wore out jeans. And, before long business was booming and people were bringing in all their denim: shirts, jackets even non-designer jeans. I visited the store once and the motorized oval rack, familiar to all dry-cleaning establishments, spun solid blue.

Try some more What If questions. "What if there were no clocks?" How would you know how long to stay at work? "What if I couldn't advertise?" How would you inform prospects about your business? "What if all my customers were blind?" How would you show them your products?

Try the game different ways. Here's one you can play it while sitting at your desk. Select two objects from your desk top... or two products that you sell... or two objects at random from a catalog, then invent something new by asking, "What if I combined my Diet Coke can with my Mont Blanc pen?" (Would you have a fizzy fountain pen with drinkable ink?) Hey, weirder combinations have been made! After all, somebody once asked, "What if I combined a squirt gun with a butter plate?" and a thousands of Hot Toppers® were sold at Christmas.

Robert Wilson is an advertising consultant and speaker, contact him at www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.

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