And What Then?

The crucial second step on the road to creative strategic thinking

Last month, Marvel released a limited series posing the all-important question, “What if?” The month before, in July, I unpacked the value of What-if questions posed as strategic thought experiments. I led with a doozy: “What if we had to defend the entire US with a few dozen special forces troops armed only with crossbows and three Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons?”

In re-reading that provocative prompt, I’m reminded how important it is to take the next step. Just posing the What-if forces you to think different about the world in some way. To see the world a little askew, and profit from the new view. But it’s clear we have to take that new vision and run with it.

And what then?,” we must ask ourselves. What are the likely follow-on events and consequences that will follow our What-if scenario.

“A good science fiction story,” said Frederik Pohl, “should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

To do this we should look in three directions.

First, we examine the consequences created by the What-if.

Next, we consider the counter-tide or backlash to the What-if.

Third, we think through the adjacent ripples generated by the What-if.

Let’s use a pop culture example. The Apple TV show See starts Jason Momoa in a fictitious future world where humans have lost sight.

What if everyone was blind?

Let’s sort that out a bit. First, what consequences might come by extension of that What-if? Well, in the show, of course, there is no mechanical transportation (no flight or road vehicles) because detailed machinery is sight-dependent. There are no complex dwellings for that same reason. Writing is done by a form of knots on strings and ropes. There are no books, so knowledge is slow and orally-transferred.

What counters or backlashes to societal-blindness have raised up? In the show, sight is either feared and eliminated (killed as “witches”)—or as a powerful weapon to wield against enemies. The emergence of the sighted becomes a social and political wedge that causes serious fighting.

What’re the adjacent ripples? Rope is valuable not just for language but also movement in common areas (ropes hung above head height become “hallways” for people to use as a guide in navigating populated areas). Jewelry is beautiful not for its looks but for feel, and especially sound—the way it can be rattled and shaken. Combat is tactical, because troops must stay in contact to move together. Fighting is slow on approach, fast in contact, and always at close quarters. Hiding and sound-deception are important.

Sure, these are examples from a TV show. They’re not real. But they help lay out a way you might take that next step past What-if.

What if we did A? What if we tried B? What if we went for C?

And what then? Think the idea through. Push it forward, pull it back, investigate the ripples.

Remember, a vision without structure is a dream. Add a little structure to your What-ifs and you’ll make the good ones real.