Tuesday, June 9, 2009

two simple words

I just bought a new notebook. A return to the Moleskine blank page journal model after an ill-thought departure in which a sketch book took its place. (No bad-bad against the sketch book, but there's something about that hard black cover, the size, the experience of it.) Ach. This is all beside the point.

When I open it up, I write the same two words on the first page as I've written on my notebooks for the past few years: "what if..." (the ellipses is optional)

I daresay these two words are potentially the most powerful two in all of the English language. They hold more potential energy than any I can think of. They ask us to consider. They go beyond the norm, expanding our sense of what's possible.

A much, much, much smarter man than myself, Sandy Goldberg, Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern likes these words too. When I met him at last year's Idea Festival, I was struck by our shared devotion to these two small words. He led a too-short discussion about the power of "what if..." in which he described the phrase as an important tool in a philosopher's arsenal of possibility.

The problem of not indulging our ability to wonder and allowing "what if" thinking to seep into our processes is that "we end up taking the efficient cognitive path in substitution for imaginative thinking." Professor Goldberg's words there. And his example was walking through a forest for the first time. We can either explore and take paths untaken or we can go where we clearly see others have been. Typically, we take the path we see others have been and soon our footsteps have worn a path through the woods that becomes visible and clear, which is helpful in some regards, but it is hazardous in others. You see, with a well-worn path through the woods, the next interloper tends not to consider a new path, and instead walks safely to the other side without a second thought.

Our brains work in similar ways. In thinking in ways that have worked well for us in the path, not only do we stop considering the untrod possibilities, but we actually have a hard time forcing ourselves to explore the non-path should we so much as force ourselves to try.

I work as a strategic planner. It's the dreaming of ideas that makes my job interesting. The past months in particular, I have had cause (good fortune) to offer up my thoughts about a couple of several brands' (to remain unnamed) current and future positions. As I presented the "what if" directions to them, they were met with various reactions. For the most part, they were received with "we like the way you're thinking about this", which is great, but a couple of responses were more like "no. that's not us." Which is fine. My ideas are far from perfect. My batting average on these things is somewhere along the Mendoza line, so I'm hardly in a position to disagree.

I think I'm not bothered by the rejection of the ideas as much as the velocity in which a couple of them were administered. I wish I could get clients to pause and consider. To ask "what if" a lot more. As I've said, rejection is not my issue. I'm fond of the ensuing conversation. I'm interested in getting us after the pursuit of the thing; the collaboration that whittles the idea down or morphs it or (yes, truly) sinks it altogether.

Here's my challenge to you: if you're on the agency-side of things, I dare you to include in every strategy brainstorm, creative brief, client presentation, and concepting session (yes creatives - you glorious, misunderstood geniuses too); I dare you to include one moment or slide or devoted, focused consideration to "what if..."

If you're on the client-side of the map, I implore you to contemplate. Have vision. Consider. Challenge. Discuss. But most importantly, allow. Allow "what if..." to have its moment. Give it a beat. Allow for the possibility of something different. Allow for magic. For "my god, I never thought of that." Allow for absurdities that translate into consumer consideration that translate into commitment that translate into staunch declarations and onomatopoetic rapture. But also allow for the unthinkable. The horrendous. The belly-flop. Give some space to experimentation. Not committed dollars. Not even a greenlight. Just allow for the idea that something not found in flowcharts, graphs, and telephone surveys might be alarmingly relevant and staggeringly effective.

To each of you, I say good luck. I hope you take me up on my "what if" challenge. I happen to think the unknown is where innovation lies. And I think you'd be surprised at what can be inspired by opening up a conversation with two simple words. If you'd like to see them again, they're written on the first page of my Moleskine.

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the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)