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Seeing Differently - Asking 'What if?' to power thinking | Nomensa

Seeing Differently – Asking ‘What if?’ to power thinking

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6 minutes, 37 seconds

Whatever you might be doing, you always have a choice.

Right now, it’s between reading this article or going off and doing something else. But, not all choices are necessarily so obvious to us.

But what if this choice was less explicit?

For example, such as between ‘Choosing to do nothing and carrying on doing things as they’ve always been done?’ and ‘Choosing to explore a different path or approach to a task or challenge instead?’

The first-time we realise that there’s always a choice, however apparent it may or may not be, is precisely the moment when we begin our journey towards ‘seeing differently’. ‘Seeing differently’ therefore starts effectively with a question. This question belies a sense within us that things needn’t necessarily continue to be as they’ve always been.

This question can often start with two simple, but powerful words: ‘What if?’

Using ‘What if?’ to power thinking and build momentum for change

‘What if’ expresses our intolerance to accept the status-quo, and therefore our intent to approach challenges and opportunities from a different perspective. History is full of stories about these transformative moments; moments when someone challenged the prevailing conventional wisdom by posing the question in their own head, starting with the words ‘What if?’

Take Copernicus for example.


His proposal of a heliocentric system in which planets (and, with them, the earth) orbit around the sun turned Ptolemy’s centuries old geocentric way of thinking, wherein the earth formed the centre of universe, completely on its head. In turn, this gave rise to the birth and modern astronomy and paved the way towards a revolution in scientific thinking.

As they say, ‘The rest is history.’

But, asking ‘What if?’ doesn’t always need to be exacted on a such a colossal scale. It’s equally applicable to smaller worlds, worlds in which asking the question has no lesser transformative influences on the prevailing modes of thinking and action which flow through it.

Whilst many of us may already know this, we often inadvertently (or sometimes willingly) forgo taking the chance to start seeing when appropriate opportunities arise.

Don’t wait for others, start posing the question to yourself now

Starting points often take the form of semi-constructed problem statements or wider more general questions, such as:

‘How can our website, apps or services appeal to a broader range of users?’

‘How good is the experience we offer our users right now, compared to others in the market?’

And then more pertinently:

‘What if we were able to offer our users something better?’

‘What if a new entrant was to march into our market tomorrow and take us head on with a new approach towards meeting our core users’ wants and needs?’

Asking the ‘what if?’ question also starts to turn the question onto ourselves and those we work with. It causes us to challenge exactly what we are really seeking to achieve.

The chances are you already have access to an instant pool of insight you can start to dip into. That is, if you know which way you need to orientate yourself in order to see it. To avoid spurning these opportunities, we therefore need to start by drawing on our existing insight, and cultivate a frame of mind that creates the appropriate cues for us to engage with said insight when the right time comes flashing by.

The value of insight

‘Seeing differently’ means being able to engage with insight in all its forms and on all its multitude of levels.

As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’

The greatest value of insight is being able to open our eyes to see differently.

Seeing differently ultimately means being able to look more widely and consequently, see more deeply and holistically about what we need and why to move forward with confidence.

i. We’re always craving a sense of surety and reassurance

ii. We all need to show a return on what we do and spend

It doesn’t matter at what level we engage or the types of organisation we work with; be they FTSE-100, government departments, Education institutions to medical and healthcare providers or Not-for-Profit organisations. These needs and concerns all coalesce around similar themes:

As a senior business decision maker and influencer seeking re-assurance that you’re making the right supplier selection decision, as you feel it will reflect badly on you if you don’t;

As a board level manager feeling uncertain that your digital services and channels reflect the business you want it to be in the future, and the commercial uncertainty which comes with all of that; and

As a digital communications or service manager who needs to compile plans and strategies on how best they might meet new competitor threats and deliver your annual goals and targets.

Then, there’s the colder, harder and more ‘rational-based perspective’ built on wanting to see returns on site visits and financial value for research, insight and everything that could logically be conjured from it.

One great way to address this is to think about insight from a probability perspective. To do this we start by proposing a choice question. This question typically pits greater chance against greater certainty, opening with ‘What would you rather have?’

Option A: An outlay or expenditure of £150k on a new website without any clear guarantee of success?


Option B: A £50k outlay now with a much higher probability of helping to deliver success outcomes in the future?

Okay, so it might not be a like-for-like comparison, but the essence of this comparison shows the true power and potential of insight, and the decisions it pushes you to make.

Option A

  • Immediacy of impact
  • Looks like we’re taking the initiative and ‘getting stuff done’
  • But carries a much higher degree of uncertainty and risk of future failure, loss of trust and unfilled expectation.

Option B

  • Will take longer to deliver
  • Be harder to get buy-in potentially
  • May cost more money in the long run
  • But carries a much higher degree of success and will create the platform upon which to build, grow and scale successfully in the future. And, foster trust and credibility.

So which option would you ultimately rather have?

If you can see beyond the potential short-term hardships and challenges, you’d almost certainly be opting for Option B.

Your organisation’s future success rests as much in your users’ hands as anyone else’s

Don’t wait for others to make the first move. Realising there is a choice and asking an opening question, without knowing the solution or where it might lead, may take guts, but it’s also deeply empowering.

Louis Kahn, the American Architect, is quoted on the subject, ‘The question is infinitely more powerful than the answer’ and ‘I think that striving not to be afraid when you are confronted with the unfamiliar is a wonderful thing.’

At the end of the day, it’s your users who will determine whether you achieve your objectives, not you. So, having the best insights which allow you to understand them and the world they inhabit better than they do, is a very powerful thing to have in your possession. And, it can be a tremendous force for good.

Without this you’ll never get close to realising the true potential of what you have or could have had.

Naturally, this begs the following question around how can you start applying seeing differently to understand the problems and opportunities you need to address: Where now?

That’s the purpose of the following set of articles in this ‘Seeing differently’ series.

In the next article we’ll start looking at how the process unfolds and how and why it does. Chances are you’ll already have a few questions already formed or forming in your mind as you read this.

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