In our book, Cooperative Wisdom, my co-author and I write about five essential social virtues. One is called Intentional Imagination. When we face problems that are likely to result in conflict, we can often change the dynamic by challenging premises. One of the practices we recommend involves “what if?” questions. Deliberately asking “What if” helps people let go of preconceptions and imagine alternatives. Suddenly, ideas start to flow.
That’s what happened the other night. It was our fall networking meeting for my local chapter of the Association of Women in Communications. The organization includes women from many fields—entrepreneurs and small business owners, journalists and authors, marketing mavens and life coaches, photographers and filmmakers. The thread that ties us all together is communications—how do we get ideas into the minds of other people?
The facilitator for the evening was Dr. Minette Riordan, a woman who embodies many of the qualities I love in AWC members. She’s articulate, smart, ambitious, funny and very generous with the insights she’s gleaned from running a successful business.
Minette gave everyone 30 seconds to describe what they do. Sharing our descriptions quickly revealed a room full of talent. Then Minette made the pivot from accomplishments to problems. Everyone has them. She asked us to focus on one place where we were stuck—a problem we couldn’t solve, a goal we couldn’t meet, a colleague who seemed disruptive. Each person got one minute to talk about the problem. And then the other people at her table would ask “What If” questions.
The rules were simple. Once a person explained her problem, she had to stop talking and listen while the other people at the table generated as many ideas as possible–What if, what if, what if?—for exactly three minutes. The tight timetable didn’t leave room for embellishment or critique. We designated a timekeeper, and we were off!
The problems people brought to the table were familiar—one involved negotiation with a partner who always wanted the deal to work in his favor, another was about an organization that wanted to attract more members, another was from a woman who was trying to raise awareness about a disability, another was about finding funding to finish an advanced degree.
In every case, the people around the table were able to ask “What if” questions that revealed new possibilities. Sometimes they uncovered resources or technologies unfamiliar to the person with the problem—What if you tried Periscope? Other times they extended something the person had already tried—What if you made presentations to service clubs? Sometimes the “What if” questions intersected in interesting ways—What if you devised an app that helped people understand disability? What if you worked with afterschool learning centers?
The ideas flowed fast and furious, often bouncing off each other, sometimes spinning off into territory that the person with the problem had never considered. Everyone was surprised by how many ideas we could generate in three minutes. And everyone left the event with promising new possibilities and the energy to pursue them.
That’s what we promised in the Intentional Imagination chapter of Cooperative Wisdom. People sometimes assume that imagination is a gift, but intentional imagination is a commitment. When we face problems that seem insoluble, we can make a deliberate effort to shed assumptions. The things that stand in the way of better cooperation are usually things that people do. They may have worked really well in the past, but they aren’t working now. The good news is that because people devised these policies and procedures, people can change them.
Often, when people have been struggling with a problem for a long time, they feel that they simply need to buckle down and work harder. Not necessarily. Fixating on the problem may make it more difficult to see alternatives. That’s when it helps to gather a group of capable, generous people in the same room. Describe the problem and let them pepper you with possibilities. What if? What if? What if?
The power of this process was on vivid display at my meeting the other evening. I still get a jolt of energy just thinking about the Cooperative Wisdom in that room. If you find yourself stuck with a problem that just won’t budge, give What if? a try. And if it yields results for you, please share so we can spread the word about Cooperative Wisdom.