Why Not Ask “Why Not?”

The organizational culture influences the way that companies see the world and the manner in which they seek new opportunities and how they deal with those opportunities once they appear on the doorstep.  While much time and angst is devoted to decisions made by senior management that did not turn out as planned, consideration should also be given to the consequences of failing to pursue opportunities that may have been a good fit for the company’s core competencies.  Senior management is not likely to be criticized for sins of omission since it is obviously more difficult to pinpoint when and if a company was too conservative in striking out into new areas.  Nonetheless, a company should attempt to institutionalize a mindset that is open to new ideas regardless of how crazy they might seem at the beginning.  One way to do this is for senior management to make a practice of greeting each opportunity that it sees by asking “Why not?” rather than by challenging advocates with “Why would we want to do that?”.  This is a good way to build in a cultural bias toward risk taking, rather than staying the course, that is more likely to encourage managers and employees to search far and wide for opportunities to innovate.  Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that companies will go down every path; however, it does force an evaluation of how the risk/return ratio on new ideas compares to the current deployment of resources.  At the end of the day the company may decide that while the new idea has promise it just does not make sense to pursue given current resources and/or the existing projects that the company has already launched and must still be closely managed to see if previous investments have been worthwhile.


Obviously one of the risks of expanding the notion of what might be doable for the company is that too many ideas will be accepted and the company will soon find itself overwhelmed with projects.  In order to temper this approach and make sure that sound resource allocation decisions can be made senior management should work on finding ways to engage in “intelligent experimentation” that allows the company to efficiently test as many proposals as possible to gather more information before a decision must be made about whether a major investment of resources will need to be made.  In many cases it is impossible to really tell whether a new idea has promise until certain key assumptions have been tested.  If companies can find a way to conduct these tests quickly and accurately then senior management can place a large number of small bets based on the instincts and gut feelings of those most closely involved with a particular market or technology.  If something doesn’t work out the cost is limited to the testing stage; however, the chances of identifying a breakthrough are substantially increased and the higher number of “winners” will more than offset the resources that will need to be diverted to the experimentation teams.

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