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Play the “What If?” Game

This fun game stimulates the creative process

With the publication of my humorous children’s novel, The Annoying Ghost Kid, I have had the opportunity to go into elementary schools and teach kids a game that shows them how the creative process works. It’s a great way to come up with story ideas for books and movies. But, it’s not just for kids, adults can use it as a powerful innovation tool to make their businesses more competitive.

In the classroom, I begin by asking the students, “What if you found a hundred dollar bill?” That usually gets some “Oohs” and “Ahs.” I follow up with, “What would you do with it?” That question usually gets me bombarded with a hundred answers at once. The next one I ask is, “What if you woke up this morning and a cuddly lion cub was sleeping at the foot of your bed?” The kids are excited by that idea, so I ask, “How did he get there?”

“What if everything you touched turned to chocolate?” Several kids always yell out, “Yum!” Then I ask, “What if you accidentally touched your best friend?” Oops! I continue to ask Who, What, When, Where, Why and How questions until they begin to see a story forming.

I then explain that this is how story ideas for books and movies are formed. So, they can see it for themselves, I ask them to identify the books and movies when I ask several more “What if?” questions. “What if a tornado picked up your house and carried it away while you were still in it?” The kids yell out, “The Wizard of Oz!” “What if your toys come to life when you’re asleep at night?” And, they all answer, “Toy Story!”

I call it The What If? Game, and it can be used by both individuals and groups. I first started using it many years ago to write fiction. I would begin a story with an intriguing scene; for example, I might ask, “What if I woke up one morning, the birds singing outside, the warm sunlight coaxing my eyelids open to a room I’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE?” I continue to build the scene by asking a few more, “What if I rolled over and found a DEAD BODY lying next to me?” and “What if there is A GUN in my hand?”

Once a suitable scenario is set up, I go back and fill in the blanks: “How did I get there? Who am I? Where am I from? What do I do for a living?” and, so on. Before long, I’ve written a book.

Now you can use this same Innovation Tool to generate new ideas for making your company more profitable or productive. Begin by considering one aspect of your business such as your typical customer, your location, or your products, and then change things around with your What If questions: “What if all my customers were Chinese?” (Maybe the demographics of your customers are already beginning to change, and this will help you project where it might go.) “What if a twister picked up my building and dropped it completely intact on the other side of town?” (Maybe you’re already thinking of expanding, and this will help you visualize the details.) “What if my product became obsolete overnight?” (Maybe you’re already feeling the pinch of competition.)

Then answer the question as fully and completely as you can. See where it takes you. Do some research if necessary: “If all my customers are Chinese, then I’d better start learning their language and customs. I’ll probably have to modify the way I market my business. I may even have to change things like my hours of operation...”

Are you seeing the beginnings of a new trend in your industry, the economy, or the population? Take it to the extreme with your What If questions and see what ideas pop up that you can use.

If your building landed in a new neighborhood, what would you have to do differently? If your product or service suddenly became obsolete, how would you stay in business? These two scenarios remind me of a story.

In the early 1980s I met a man who had bought a failing dry-cleaning business for very little money. It was failing because the demographics of the neighborhood had changed from white-collar to blue. With fewer business suits to be cleaned, the need for a dry-cleaner was shrinking. The enterprising new owner, noticed -- not unexpectedly in a blue collar neighborhood -- that blue jeans were the pants of choice. He further noticed that when the residents dressed up, they still wore blue jeans... however, these were designer jeans (of course it was the fad at the time). Perhaps he asked the question:What if the only thing to be dry-cleaned around here are blue jeans?”

How would you answer that question? This creative entrepreneur answered it by advertising special discounts on dry-cleaning for designer jeans. He put up signs suggesting that washing machines prematurely wore out jeans. And, before long business was booming and people were bringing in all their denim: shirts, jackets even non-designer jeans. I visited the store once and the motorized oval rack, familiar to all dry-cleaning establishments, spun solid blue.

Try some more What If questions. “What if there were no clocks?” How would you know how long to stay at work? “What if you couldn’t advertise?” How would you inform prospects about your business? “What if all your customers were blind?” How would you show them your products?

Try the game different ways. Here’s one you can play it while sitting at your desk. Select two objects from your desk top... or two products that you sell... or two objects at random from a catalog, then invent something new by asking, “What if I combined my can of Diet Coke with my Mont Blanc pen?” (Would you have a fizzy fountain pen with drinkable ink?) Hey, weirder combinations have been made! After all, somebody once asked, “What if I combined a squirt gun with a butter plate?” and a thousands of Presto Hot Toppers® butter sprayers were sold at Christmas.

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is also the author of the humorous children’s book: The Annoying Ghost Kid. For more information on Robert, please visit

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