"What if..." --The Sexiest Topic in Leadership, Part 4


We’re in the midst of a multi-week exploration of the most favorite son of leadership theorists: strategic thinking. Last week we looked at the first of three practices for fostering the discovery of paradigm-shifting improvements. This week we’ll continue that process by looking at the remaining two. To start, let's take a moment to consider a list of questions...

--What if you could store food in a box that would allow it to be preserved for extended periods of time? --What if you could ride in a machine that would take you half way around the world in 16 hours? --What if you had a device that could play, on demand, nearly any song ever recorded? --What if you could send a message or document anywhere in the world in mere seconds? --What if, whenever you had an idea, you could write it down and stick it to your computer or desk without having to use glue or tape? --What if there was a machine that you could put your clothes in and after about 30 minutes they would come out clean?

The refrigerator. The airplane. The smart phone. Email. The Post-It ® note. The clothes washer.

Each of these innovations was unimaginable at a point in the past. Now each is a commonly accepted part of the world. And each answers a compelling ‘What if…”

What Are Your What If’s

A very simple practice for making us more strategic leaders is to begin to ask ourselves and others compelling “What if…” questions. The most compelling “What if’s” change from industry to industry, company to company, and department to department. But the need for strategic leaders to ask “What if…” never changes.

One of the keys to being able to ask “What if…” is the ability to suspend all the reasons for why what you’re dreaming about can’t be done. There will always be a day and time to figure out how something can be achieved; however, when dreaming about game-changing paradigm shifts, the mind needs space to both wander and wonder. Leaders who are drawn to what is immediately practical may need to put their why-it-won’t-work self in timeout in order to effectively lead the process of asking "What if...".

What are the What if’s of your industry, company, or department? To what would you say, "Wouldn't it be great if..."

...we could do same day delivery at zero additional cost? ...our reputation as a subcontractor was so pristine that it actually helped those we partner with win their bids? ...our voluntary turnover dropped by 50% over the next five years?

The variety of "What if..." questions and their subsequent answers is endless.

Another valuable question for strategic leaders to pose is “What are…” as in “What are the biggest needs, hurts, challenges, pains, opportunities, or frustrations of each of our stakeholder groups?" Exploring the answers to these "What are..." questions can help leaders be more effective in the hunt for strategic, paradigm shifting improvements.

Once Again, It’s Time

A couple of weeks ago we noted that regularly prioritizing time to look for incremental improvements was the biggest key to finding them. Likewise, the hunt for game-changing paradigm shifts also requires periodic pauses. Perhaps these pauses happen less frequently than the search for incremental improvements, but if we never pause to ask ‘What if…” it’s unlikely that we’ll find the big improvements we desire.


One of the interesting consequences of regularly prioritizing time to search for both incremental progress and paradigm-shifting improvements is the reaction it produces within our teams. As we make a habit of setting aside time for ourselves and those we lead to look for  improvements, we condition everyone involved to consistently look for new ideas. For example, if we host a two-hour meeting every other month to discuss potential incremental improvements, our teams will begin to think in advance about ideas to bring to the table. If we pause with our teams for half a day once every six months to explore paradigm-shifting possibilities, they will, over the course of time, plan their participation in those conversations by thinking about new ideas in advance. In both cases, it is the consistent prioritization of time to hunt for improvements that conditions those we lead to regularly be on the lookout for them. When we do this, we raise the strategic capabilities not just of ourselves, but of our teams as well.

The point is simply this: if we Prioritize the Hunt for Better in our schedules, we give ourselves the opportunity to be more strategic thinkers than if we don’t. We can try to make it more complex than that but, ironically, it really is that simple.

From Ideas to Implementation

Thus far in this series on strategic thinking we’ve explored the first of strategic thinking’s three actions, Prioritize the Hunt for Better. In the gray box above, notice that the definition of Prioritize the Hunt for Better identifies the strategic leader as an agent for positive change with a bias against the status quo. Therefore, before we move on to look at the remaining two actions of strategic thinkers, we would do well to consider the truth about how new ideas make their way through organizations. To come up with great innovations without a road map for getting them implemented is a little bit like making a pie without having an oven to bake it in. So our next two blog postings are going to focus on answering the question “How can strategic leaders with new ideas make sure those ideas get implemented?" Stay tuned.

Share Your Thoughts: Have you ever followed leaders who regularly challenged themselves and others to ask "What if..."? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.