How to release the handbrake on new ideas

Nick Davis
Nick Davis from Everyhow can help you solve problems.

Not-for-profits frequently face strategic challenges. From small hurdles to seemingly insurmountable issues, those problems may be financial, political, human, or organisational. “Breakthrough thinking”, employing new perspectives and ideas, can be part of the answer. Nick Davis, co-founder of Everyhow, a consultancy specialising in helping organisations do that very thing, explains the “What If …?” technique that can help you crack your toughest puzzles using just your people, pens and sticky notes.

What is breakthrough thinking?

Sometimes, breakthrough thinking is an open-ended process involving creating radical new perspectives about the future. In other situations, it will be more focused on developing solutions for more specific challenges. While dependent on the context, the process concerns the generation, exploration, and prioritisation of ideas.

The need for breakthrough thinking is urgent in the not-for-profit sector because it is the domain in which society’s most important challenges are being tackled.

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Problem solving can be a matter of activating creative ideas using open-ended questions, deadlines and reducing the pressure to come up with immediate solutions.

It’s also in this sector that new ideas are most needed to break through conventions, circumvent established frameworks and navigate red tape. Yet the not-for-profit sector is where we tend to see the most limitations in terms of time, capability, and resources.

At Everyhow we’ve been asking, “How can we help not-for-profits release the handbrake on new ideas”?

While there is no single solution, there are tools and techniques that can help.

The first of these is a shortcut method for rapid ideation that we call the “What If …?” method. It is a simple yet tried-and-tested technique that empowers any team in any organisation to generate breakthrough ideas in an hour.

We have used it to springboard to new thinking in recent times for several not-for-profits.

What If is the blue-sky moment of questioning, when anything is possible a time for wild, improbably ideas to surface and to inspire. - Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question

We have used this method to:

  • help Beyond Blue work through a new approach and process for digital projects
  • help Big hART generate ideas for a new arts-based Indigenous education program and,
  • work with both Orygen and Expression Australia to help break through the complexity of digital product development (designing websites and apps from the ground-up).

In every case, the “What If …?” method has paid dividends. The good news is that all it requires is a small group of people, each charged with a pen and a stack of sticky notes.

How does a ‘What If …?’ session work?

Gather a small group of people and set aside 60 minutes. Between three and six people is ideal — any more can make for an unwieldy session.

Start with some form of problem statement. Don’t worry about the formatting of this too much. The key is to agree on the thing you’re trying to solve and write it down in a relatively pithy, accessible way. Ensure the statement is clearly visible to all participants. Stick the statement on a wall.

Each participant should next grab their pen and sticky note stack. It’s time to generate some questions.

The brief is simple: everyone has five minutes to generate as many ‘'What If ’ questions as they can in response to the problem statement. "What if…?" questions can be framed and posed in any way you like, so long as they start with the words ‘what if’. They can be inquisitive queries, snappy provocations or initial ideas. The only rules are to keep the questions punchy and write one question per sticky note. Off we go.

What happens next is (usually) amazing. Through asking questions, people come up with great ideas. Here are three reasons why.

First, writing questions using the "What If…?" format has the effect of instantly opening your mind. It urges you to explore the boundaries of your imagination. It leads you to enquire about things that might not be possible and that might be nigh-on outrageous.

Second, writing questions is far, far less loaded with pressure to perform than being briefed to come up with new ideas. When you ask someone to come up with a funny joke on the spot, they tend to fail! It’s the same with ideas. They’re hard to come up with at the best of times, so it helps if you can free people from the pressure to generate them.

Third, the feature of time constraint works a strange trick. In any setting, received wisdom suggests that people benefit from having "time to think". However, the opposite shows itself to be true in our work. When you get people to go with their gut and use their instinct, they question themselves less and generate better questions. And sometimes the best questions are the ones that spring to mind when the well has seemingly run dry.

Once you’ve generated your questions, take time to share them; each participant should run through their questions in turn. You might stick them on a wall as you go and/or place them in thematic groupings so you can see emerging “thought clusters”. By the end of the session, you’ll have a number of really interesting thoughts that could become big ideas, plus you’ll have some clusters that will reveal the key themes and “centres of gravity”.

What happens next?

Generating questions is the first part of any ideation exercise. Beyond the "What If…?" session, you may need to explore the groupings in more detail and prioritise them in line with some key criteria before you can decide which are the breakthrough ideas.

We hope to share some handy shortcuts for these activities in a future help sheet.

How can we get started?

Everyhow has documented the "What If…?" method on a virtual whiteboard (Miro) template. It contains all the instructions you need to get started, plus is set up as a virtual session complete with blank sticky notes in case you want to run it remotely. See the attached PDF for the link and some notes on how to access and use the template.

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Everyhow has hosted its What If sessions on the virtual Miro whiteboard.

Everyhow is a resident at Our Community House, a co-working building for social change organisations in North Melbourne. It helps organisations make breakthroughs using a co-design methodology. Find out more about the team and its approach here

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