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posted: 5/10/2016 1:00 AM

Applying ‘What if?’ thinking to business may yield dramatic results

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  • Bill Bartlett

    Bill Bartlett


"What if?" thinking is a powerful driver of success as it challenges our beliefs and heightens our curiosity. Unfortunately, most of us never ask that question and continue to rely upon comfortable patterns of thought and behavior that severely limit our ability to grow.

"What if?" thinking additionally challenges our comfort zones which can be, admittedly, both a blessing and a curse. The blessing occurs when a previously unexplored path is taken that works and effects growth and the curse, when facing the discomfort that alternatives present.

I have a client, Jim, who has built a fear-based company. No, this was not his intent, but it was the result of his leading from a risk-adverse and defensive mentality. He and his staff try "not to fail" rather than attempt to reach the outer marker of success. All decisions are driven with a, "What happens if this doesn't work?" versus "Watch this, it's going to be great!" perspective. As part of a coaching experiment, I had Jim take two nontraditional actions that would put his comfort zone to the test.

The first behavioral change was his commute home; he was to take an alternative route I mapped out for him. He asked "why" and I responded with, "Just do it." He understood he would share his experience at our next coaching meeting. When we met, he shared that he was intent upon rushing through it to get home. However, after about a mile, he slowed down and began to observe and enjoy the scenery. Prior to becoming a business owner, he used to grab coffee and leisurely drive through a local arboretum. Because I had "forced" him through the park, he began to relive many pleasurable memories and felt relaxed and peaceful. A Little League Baseball field followed the park. Seeing it reignited his love of baseball and deep regret that he hadn't been to a game in longer than he cared to admit. There were other visuals he shared along this route, but, the message was crystal clear. Instead of hurrying through his "old" route, Jim had been challenged to slow down and experience an excellent example of "What if?" thinking!

Jim's model of habitually driving home and running his business are identical. It reflects low risk, comfortable thinking applied to both where the outcome or results feel "safe" and expedient.

The second behavioral change I asked him to undertake involved his dinner time routine. He usually arrived home at 6:30 p.m., greeted his family, washed up and sat in "his" chair at the dinner table. This time, he was instructed to sit at the opposite end and offer no explanation of this radical move to the other four family members. He was then to just observe their reaction, saying nothing. After several awkward moments, he found the conversation took a more satisfying direction than usual, also, the food tasted remarkably different as well. When he asked his wife how she prepared the meal, her response was "The same way I always do."

Just by breaking a few simple habits, he proved to himself that he could look at both his professional and personal lives differently. Applying the "What if?" thinking to his business yielded dramatic results. He began to conduct what he called "180 degree thinking workshops" where he challenged employees to think of doing the opposite of any ineffective patterns of thinking and behavior. These sessions energized his employees who generated a wealth of new ideas that Jim was willing to evaluate and incorporate into their operations.

How can you explore "What if?" thinking today by simply being curious and willing to be "comfortable with your own discomfort"? I challenge you to be bold and test new waters. Go conquer your worlds,

• Bill Bartlett owns Corporate Strategies, A Sandler Training Center.