Recently I was riding between London City Airport and the Tower Hill station on the train. Bored (or tired), I picked up a French magazine someone had left on the seat next to me. Biba, I think it was. Anyway, my rudimentary French was sufficient to read one of the big headlines: The One Question You Should Always Ask On Your First Date.
Sadly, I don’t know enough French to figure out what the vital answer might be to a 16-year-old, but it made me think. What question should you ask in a brainstorm?
I started making a list of questions over the next few weeks until I eventually reduced it down to the two most important questions for brainstorms. What if? and Why not?
What if? is a question of exploration. To ask what might be. The question is imaginative and receptive, if not two important qualities that people use to create ideas. In a world geared toward making all of us the same (corporations = values, religions = codes of conducts, societies = laws and rules), What if? dares us to uncover something different, something unusual, something else, something not the same. One of my university art professors loved to act exasperated after every weekly portfolio critique: “Why are you all trying to be the same as each other?” In fact, What if? was his signature: “What if you did this? What if you added that? What if you took a different perspective?”
That’s one of the reasons why I like this question as much as I do, because it’s repeating, as if to ask What else? And then what else? It’s a question that demands volume: more ideas, and more still. People typically come up with one solution, then implement it because it’s expedient. To me, being creative – asking What if? – means coming up with as many ideas as possible, even bad ideas if for no other reason than bad ideas are often the birthplace of good ideas.
Why not? is the spiritual brother of What if? Where the first question focuses on possibilities, Why not? challenges the limitations we perceive about the idea itself. Limitations fall into two groups: real or perceptual. Real limitations might be logistical (an idea can’t be implemented for a variety of reasons), environmental (it might work in place, but not another), or situational (an idea doesn’t fit with the status quo). ‘Perpeceptual’ issues are more common: they are imposed by clients, by the audience, or by an individual – sometimes ourselves.
Whether real or perceptual – and in the end, it really doesn’t matter what kind they are – it’s vital to acknowledge and understand these issues and problems raised by Why not? because it’s why the idea can’t be put into action. Why not? asks questions about what’s getting in the way. At the same time, be careful of the answer. It might be negative (“That won’t work”) or unconstructively critical (“That’s a bad idea”). The question challenges the status quo, so it’s no surprise that Why not? is sometimes confrontational. But without knowing the answer to Why not?, you go nowhere.
Another way of looking at these two questions: What if? uncovers future. Why not? uncovers what’s going on right now.
In a timely bit of serendipity and parallelism, I came across this quote by Alex Osborn when while unpacking my office on Friday. From his book Applied Imagination, Osborn reminded me the two questions I was debating were in fact ying and yang. “Our thinking mind is mainly two-fold: (1) a judicial mind which analyzes, compares and chooses, and (2) a creative mind which visualizes, foresees, and generates ideas. These two minds work best together. Judgment keeps imagination on the track. Imagination not only opens ways to action, but also can enlighten judgment.”
What questions do you like to ask to inspire your brainstorming?