Allow me to transport you back to 2nd grade for a moment, and the immortal words of Shel Silverstein:
Last night while I lay thinking here
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?…
Now fast-forward to today and think back to your last brainstorming session. Chances are you heard Whatifs sporting corporate attire: What if no one follows us on Twitter? What if everyone does? What if people leave negative feedback on our blog? What if our customer service folks are flooded with calls? What if the phone doesn’t ring at all?
You see, Whatifs know no age limit, no gender preference, and offer no immunity to MBAs, PhDs or even White House Chiefs of Staff.
The best defense against Whatifs was taught to me a few weeks ago by Tina Seelig, Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), the entrepreneurship center at Stanford University’s School of Engineering. This woman has one very cool job. And she deserves it.
Ms. Seelig led an entrepreneurial group of 70 women through a brainstorming exercise. Broken into 7 groups of 10, we were instructed to brainstorm the best business ideas we could. Then, presented as an afterthought, Ms. Seelig gave us a couple minutes more to think up the worst business idea we could.
Can you see where this is going?
Each group then inherited the worst business idea of the group next to them. We had 10 minutes to turn it from a clunker to a gem. My group was bequethed with a doozy: the Convict Dating Service. (This led to a funny misunderstanding in the noisy room when one of my teammates began talking about nuns, thinking it was the Convent Dating Service, perhaps an even tougher sell.)
But guess what?
Just ten minutes later, we sold our idea to the group as a great way for relationship-burned women to safely work through their issues. “Why meet men IN bars when you can safely get to know those BEHIND bars”?
Another group smartly positioned their Used Underwear Club as a place to obtain stuffing for dog beds — the stinkier the better!
Every single group did the impossible: found a grain of promise in what appeared a lost cause and transformed it into a solid idea.
So the next time your team is brainstorming and the Whatifs start sucking all the air out of the room, remember the Convict Dating Service. Then turn those Whatifs on their ear and imagine the best-case scenario for every idea presented.
Oh, and one more secret to great brainstorming: a very big bowl of M&Ms.