How to generate breakthrough ideas

The best way to come up with big ideas is to not come up with ideas at all.

Nick Davis
Published in
5 min readFeb 14, 2021

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We spend much of our time at Everyhow helping others make breakthroughs. It might be a bold thought that can take a business in a new direction, or it could be a small-but-important adjustment to a product or service experience. To stimulate new thinking, we lean on a collaborative design framework and a trusty set of tools and techniques that enable critical and creative thinking to happen.

Within this set of tools, there’s one that is more likely than any other to lead to breakthrough ideas. It’s also the simplest to pick up and run with. It’s also the one that requires the least stagecraft and stationery. It requires only a small handful of humans, each charged with care of a pen and a stack of sticky notes.

What if it really was that simple? Well it is.

In fact, it’s as simple as asking ‘What if…?’

“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

Here’s how it works.

Gather a small group of people and set aside around an hour. Between 2 and 6 people is ideal — any bigger can make for an unwieldy session.

Start with some form of problem statement. Don’t fret about the formatting of this too much. The key is to agree on the thing you’re trying to solve and write it down however you like. It helps if it’s articulated in a somewhat expansive way. “The TV is broken” won’t help open people’s minds as much as “We are in need of new lounge-based entertainment options”. Get the statement written down and make it visible to all participants.

Each participant should next grab their pen and sticky note stack. It’s time to think up some questions. The brief is stupidly simple. Everyone has 5 minutes to generate as many ‘What if…?’ questions as they can, in response to the problem statement. 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. People come up with great ideas.

Why is this?

Firstly, 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. Which tends to lead to interesting thoughts.

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

Thirdly, 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 at the last, when the well has seemingly run dry.

Back to the format: once you’ve generated your questions, take time to share them with the group. Each participant should go through theirs in turn. You might stick them on a wall as you go and play around with some affinity mapping 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 bigger themes and centres of gravity.

How might we make a habit of asking ‘What If’?

The ‘What If..?’ technique has proven so productive for our business that we have started to ritualise our own use of it. We’ve embedded ‘What If..?’ sessions into our working rhythms. We use them on a day-to-day basis when we’re stuck for ideas: anytime we’re stumped on something, one of us will wave a stack of stickies in the air and say “Ok, let’s ‘What If’ it…”.

We’ve also instigated a monthly ritual in which we schedule a ‘What If Night’. This has become a designated time to generate ideas for our business. Not for us loose brainstorming sessions, nor reliance on randomly-occuring shower-based lightbulb moments. We take a pile of sticky notes to the pub, order some wine and start asking some big questions of our business, our mission, our methodology and more. Some of the more outrageous questions from our earlier sessions have become real initiatives. And some of the sillier ones we’ve logged in our common book for posterity and laughter value.

Here are a few ‘What If’s we’ve actioned recently:

What if we created a totally unique output every time?
We followed through on this and killed the presentation template. Good riddance, generic looking documents.

What if we created a ‘circuit breaker’ format for client work, to accelerate to answers more quickly?
We did this last year and devised a sprint especially designed to smash through a strategic stalemate.

What if we sent inspiring rally calls and mission briefing packs out before gathering people in sessions?
We recently mocked up a fake front page of the AFR for a client’s leadership group and sent it out the evening before our first session. Some of them arrived genuinely worried about the ‘imminent takeover’.

And here are a couple of our all-time favourites:

What if we became a cause, not a company?
We find this inspiring and keep coming back to it. It keeps us on our toes as a provocation to keep looking at the bigger picture.

What if it was like the best bucks party ever?
We do like this as a thought but haven’t quite figured out what to do with it.

Before I forget…

If you’re interested in the full What If Nights method, give me a shout and I will send you a link to a virtual whiteboard with all you need to get started (either virtually or in-person).

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Nick Davis

Co-Founder at Everyhow — helping teams make breakthroughs together. https://medium.com/everyhow