Turn It Inside Out

“Turn it inside out and see what it is like.” — Marcus Aurelius

One of the best thought exercises for any business is playing a game of ‘what if?’ and following the logic through. Think of it as paper prototyping with ideas.

If you’re at a point in your work or in your business where you feel stuck in neutral, with competitors (or your boss) seemingly on your neck 24/7, this exercise might make all the difference in the world.

Preparing for the thought experiment

The first step is writing down the problem as clearly as you can. Keep it simple: We can’t seem to grow the business.

Second, add a ‘because’ clause: We can’t seem to grow the business because our market is commoditized and customers don’t want to pay more. This is your best current thinking about what’s causing the problem.

Third, add a ‘how we know this’ sentence: We can’t seem to grow the business because our market is commoditized and customers don’t want to pay more. We know this because none of our competitors have been able to raise their prices in 3 years. This step is important because it forces you to take emotion out of the equation and stick to the facts as you understand them.

The fourth step is where it gets interesting. This is where you want to challenge your own reasoning with a ‘but’ sentence that includes at least one argument against your own thesis:

We can’t seem to grow the business because our market is commoditized and customers don’t want to pay more. We know this because none of our competitors have been able to raise their prices in 3 years. But this can’t be the real reason we can’t seem to grow the business because Business X in San Jose does what we do but charges a lot more. 

Then, as the fifth and final step, ask a question related to solving the problem you identified:

We can’t seem to grow the business because our market is commoditized and customers don’t want to pay more. We know this because none of our competitors haven’t been able to raise their prices in 3 years. But this can’t be the real reason we can’t seem to grow the business because Business X in San Jose does what we do but charge a lot more. Given this, what can I/we do differently to grow the business? 

You’ve opened the door, in your own mind, to the reality that there are solutions. You just don’t know what they are yet! Now you’re in a place to start asking ‘what if?’ questions.

Prototyping ideas through research

What you’ve started to do is change your thinking, but your reality (at least for now) remains the same. For example, in the example above you still haven’t found ways to grow the business — you just know that others have done it with their businesses, so it’s at least possible. Thinking something’s possible is a huge mental step.

This is the stage at which you need to collect ideas to help you make the possibility a reality. And how do you collect ideas? You start looking within your industry and even across industries for other companies with similar challenges. Read their blogs. Read analyst reports. Read industry commentators and forums. Become a sponge and keep an open mind. Look sideways. Look around the back. Turn it inside out. (For example: What if we did the exact opposite of what we’re doing now?)

As you read and ideas strike you as interesting, write them down. Trust your gut. Keep a list.

Now it’s time to sift through your ideas. Take a few that speak the loudest to you. For each idea, do a ‘what if?’ thought experiment and then think through the implications as best you can:

  • What if we adopted the idea in our organization?
  • What processes could we streamline or eliminate if we did so?
  • How would it solve the problem we’ve identified?
  • What new opportunities would it open up for us?
  • What are the risks in adopting this idea? Are we prepared to take those risks?

And so on. For each idea, run through these same questions, but add one more question:

  • Would this idea solve our problem better than the other ideas we’re considering? (Why or why not?)

It would be ideal to do this exercise with a trusted team. In many cases, teams can give birth to great ideas, as long as they’re asking the right questions and are free to let their minds stray beyond the usual questions and answers.

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