The Simple Question That Can Spark Innovation for Your Business

Use a series of "what if" exercises to spark unexpected innovations for your business.
The Simple Question That Can Spark Innovation for Your Business
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Founder and Business Coach at Atkinson Consulting
9 min read
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Imagine if you could transform your with a simple two-word phrase: “What if?”

It’s a powerful phrase, especially in the realm of or creative thinking. Our issue? As business owners, we get caught up in real-world constraints and the practicality of making something happen, so it’s hard to let our minds wander freely.

Related: 3 Ways to Innovate Like an Artist

A “what if” sentence can challenge those. Take a look:

  • What if a customer subscribed to your business offerings?

  • What if we need new core competencies? 

  • What if what your customer value wasn’t based on money?

  • What if you looked at the problem from someone else’s point of view?

  • What if you partnered with a competitor?

  • What if how people worked in your company changed?

  • What if nobody had to travel?

  • What if a customer sold for you?

  • What if price was no object?

  • What if it was customizable for a personal experience?

  • What if you didn’t have employees?

You might be surprised at how much can filter through a “what if” sentence. When you come up with a brand-new , don’t immediately start dissecting it for the impractical reasons it won’t work. Instead, focus on your idea’s positive, most useful, and attractive elements and see what you can do to make them functional later.

The replacement strategy for innovation

Another way to use “what if” is the Replacement Strategy. Here’s how it works: If your team member doesn’t like a new idea, their job is to replace it with something better or add onto it. For example: “I don’t like that, but what if we did this?”

Are you ready to unleash the power of free-thinking? Write down 10 quick “what if” statements about your business.

Related: To Really Innovate, Think Like a User

Here are some examples of how “what if” can help transform your business:

1. Play off your strengths.

For example, let’s say your business primarily has a retail location.  But now, using the “What if nobody had to travel” statement, how would your business change when more people than ever before are going to be shopping online or from an app on their phone?  

Take that idea and see if you can reinterpret how your business would work for your company’s strengths with the “what if” idea.  What would need to change?  Again, don’t worry about the practicality of these; just spin up new ideas and see what you can discover.

2. Combat your weaknesses.

Of course, you’ve identified a few weaknesses in your business. It’s good to know and understand the opportunity for improvement.

If you use the “what if” filter, your weaknesses might change. Will they still be a weakness, or maybe create a new opportunity we can explore later?

For example, let’s say your company sells ice cream, but you’re concerned about the problem of plastic and recyclability. What if the spoons were made from edible materials that tasted like chocolate?

Or let’s use “What if you partnered with a competitor?” as a starting point. Maybe that company is in the same boat. 

Taking a look at what’s left of the two businesses a merger might make sense. If that doesn’t work, what about an agreement to pool or share resources?  What else could you do with that idea?

3. Fulfill your needs.

If there’s a true need in your business, that’s something you need to act on immediately. 

For example, let’s say that you need to update your website immediately in order to capture more online . This is going to be a crucial part of your business going forward, as more customers are scrambling to handle business online.

In this case, let’s use the “What if you looked at the problem from someone else’s point of view?” as the filter for this need.

Related: How Three Innovative Tech Companies Are Tackling the Common Fight Against Coronavirus

For this work, you need to use your customer’s point of view for a new perspective. What do they want in a website?  How are they using it?  Could you build a better and more frictionless experience for someone to shop and use the website?  What if every tiny detail was focused 100% on the customer’s perspective, rather than what was necessarily how your company might build or show something?

You’d probably make different decisions, right?

4. Explore your wants.

Wants are the “nice-to-have” items that are important to your business, but not mandatory. 

For example, let’s say that you want a better . Here we’ll use the “What if a customer sold for you?” as the lens.

How could you get more referrals? To get more referrals, you have to first be referable. What do you need to change to do that? Are you asking for referrals? Is there software you can use?  What about ratings or testimonials?

5. Consider changing one major thing about your business.

Let’s say you wish that sales weren’t so much like a roller coaster with seasonal swings. You hate that feast-or-famine cycle. 

So, “What if a customer subscribed to your business?”

Building a steady stream of monthly repeat sales that are delivered on a schedule just might be the trick. What could you do with that? Do you have an existing product that might make sense?  Would you have to develop one? What if you didn’t ship a product at all, but developed content instead that was delivered online like a “how-to” series or podcast?

6. Turn a negative into a positive.

Nobody likes to dwell on negativity. However, you can look at some of your business delta to see if you have an opportunity for change.   

For example, let’s say that the cost of labor has skyrocketed in your area lately. Not only that but finding skilled workers has become almost impossible without overpaying for what the actual job is worth. Sorting through the “what if” statements above, let’s use “What if you didn’t have employees?” as a place to start.

It may seem ludicrous to have a company without employees, but it’s possible. General contractors build houses or buildings all the time without having electricians, plumbers, roofers or carpenters on the .  They simply outsource this work to other businesses. Could you do that? What would it take? Or instead of people, is there some software that could do the work for you with some automation?

Or, what if you rely on customers to come to a location and buy? That means selling online is difficult due to your product.

Let’s use: What if selling online was customizable for a personal experience? 

Instead, what if you pivoted to a completely customizable and intimate personal experience for your customers? Everything you do is tailored to their choices. You aren’t selling at a commodity level, as the value is in the personal experience and working with an expert.

Here’s one more example: You’re worried about running out of money before you can get your business back on track. That certainly is a fear that a lot of businesses probably share right now.  Try: “What if how people worked in your company changed?”

Traditionally many companies have grown used to having a “place of business” to actually reside and do the work. The coronavirus pandemic gave us the perspective that it’s possible to work in untraditional ways. The hours that we work changed. More people relied on for communication and online meetings. How much money could businesses save if the traditional office space didn’t exist? What would it take to shift that idea into reality? Would it work for your business?

Use the “what if” framework to rethink your biggest problem you face and see if you can unlock a solution or two that will push you into a new direction. Where will you go?

7. Make your company’s nirvana a reality.

You’ve got something in mind. It may seem like a dream, but what if it was a reality?

What if you dream of growing your sales to the point that you could expand into another location?

Let’s use, “What if price was no object?” as the starting point. What could that mean? What if your current customer base isn’t the right one? Instead what if you focused on serving a higher-level customer who was more profitable?

What would it take to work half as hard for twice as much?  

I know you’ve seen people offering products or services similar to what you do but at a much more elevated price point. What if you researched and explored what it would take to focus on that type of customer instead? Focus on bottom-line profitability, not top-line sales.

Your bottom line

By dreaming big and challenging the status quo, you’d be surprised at the ideas you can generate to challenge your problems and enhance your strengths. 


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