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What's reality got to do with it?

To imagine a future that is wildly, creatively, excitingly different? Toss reality to the side. You’ve already extracted what reality has to offer.

28 July 2009

At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, an ice cream vendor was doing so well that he repeatedly ran out of bowls. The neighboring booth, selling Zalabia (a Persian, wafer-thin waffle), wasn’t doing well at all. Capitalizing on the neighboring booth’s success, the Zalabia vendor rolled his wafers into cones and offered them as an alternative to dishes for serving ice cream, and the ice cream cone was born.

It happens fairly often that we have something customers wish to buy, but it’s not the thing we think we have to sell. If you have paid a small fortune in trade show fees to make relatively undesirable waffles, and you are lusting after the success of the ice cream booth next door, you might just be jolted into a fit of creativity. But most of the time, we’re simply stuck in our offices, studios, or ideas, wishing things weren’t as difficult as they are, instead of imagining how successful we might be.

We find it very difficult to get past our acceptance of reality.

 Of course, we’re supposed to deal in reality, aren’t we? We’re supposed to accept the way things are, deal with the facts, lie in the beds we’ve made, and make silk purses out of unseemly materials. But from that mired state of thinking comes a host of assumptions about why things are the way they are, which ideas we should be committed to, how we should be doing business, what activities constitute the correct activities, and for whom we should be doing all this work. We make annoying little speeches to our eye-rolling teenagers about what it means to ass-u-me, but then we turn around and invest the majority of our energy into validating our own assumptions. Asinine? Yes. But my, we’ve been trained. 

Or rather, we haven’t been trained. We’ve been indoctrinated. From the dawn of our individual existences we have had experiences, become familiar with results, and drawn conclusions about how things work – even if the experience was that of a 2-year-old, or presided over by an elder 8-year-old sibling. Even if the experience was taught by an uneducated parent, a miserable or bored teacher, or simply stumbled into alone (I am already rethinking my offer of only paying half of any therapy my children may require . . . ), we have taken each experience and cataloged it in our subconscious as an answer to something. And even now, at an age at which you can run your own business, your hyper-efficient brain goes surfing through all those conclusions – the 2-year-old ones as well as the college-age ones – to help you resolve any puzzle you may stumble upon. This, dear reader, is the foundation of your reality. And it’s why your reality is different from mine, and each of our realities are different from everyone else’s.

So what does this have to do with what you have to sell? Only this. When you are confronted with a situation in which you are selling less than you would like to sell, capturing less profit than you require to maintain your desired lifestyle, or encountering less opportunity than you would like to achieve that desired lifestyle, you are confronted with a puzzle.  Your brain flips through the catalog of solutions you have developed for the past however-many years, and it comes up with solutions that are part of your present reality. The obvious solution is to toss aside reality and come at the puzzle from, what, unreality? Someone else’s reality? Virtual reality? Hey – as long as it’s different from your operating paradigms, it’s probably good. So how do you do it?

Any activity you choose that forces you to question and challenge your assumptions can work. It can be as straightforward as standing at a whiteboard or easel and making a list of every single “fact” you know about your business. Once the list is complete, return to the top of the list and indicate if each item is a fact, or an assumption. After you complete that pass, return to the top and challenge each item marked as an assumption. I have seen this process yield remarkable insights.

If you wish to make that exercise more powerful, invite someone with greater or very different knowledge than your own to participate with you. Such a person will likely challenge ideas you are less inclined to challenge and ask questions that cause you to think about things in a different way.

 Another activity is to create a list of each of the functions of your business (for instance, design, production, sales, marketing, accounting, inventory management). For each function, ask and answer the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of this function
  • How does that purpose align with my corporate strategy
  • How does this function serve that purpose
  • What are all the ways a different company, selling different products or services, might fulfill the purpose of this function?
  • If I were to consider this function strictly through the eyes of my customers, what would I think the purpose of this function was?
  • How might my customers wish I would change/improve this function?

As with the first exercise, inviting a person with greater or different knowledge than yours can lead to creative conversations you may not have had otherwise.

Some games are already enshrined in business management process. From Lean Manufacturing we get the “5 Whys,” a game in which we take a problem, ask why the problem exists, then ask why for each subsequent answer, drilling down to the core reason for the problem. In nearly all cases five whys are all it takes to get to the bottom of things.

I like any problem-solving or assumption-challenging approach that turns the effort into a game. At the very least games are fun, and fun is creative. Taking a problem and turning it into a game also helps us think about the problem from different angles. 

Whatever you do, try to remember that the way you have always thought about things (solved problems, earned kudos, even made fortunes) is reality, and reality isn’t the future – it’s the present, and it’s the past. To achieve a future that looks a lot like the present, keep thinking about things the way you already do. To imagine a future that is wildly, creatively, excitingly different? Toss reality to the side. You’ve already extracted what reality has to offer.

© 2009. Andrea M. Hill

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