Counterfactuals

There are days when you all really want is to inhabit an alternate reality. For many, the easiest way to approximate this experience is by engaging in a little counterfactual thinking. Wikipedia tells us that

Counterfactual thinking is a term of psychology that describes the tendency people have to imagine alternatives to reality. Humans are predisposed to think about how things could have turned out differently if only…, and also to imagine what if?

If we’re serious about innovation, a little counterfactual thinking can be powerful — provided it doesn’t slip into the realm of delusional thinking.  For purposes of innovation, examining the “if only” question can help you understand what happened, and help you understand what might be improved the next time.  If you approach these “if only” questions regularly and wisely, you can help foster a process of continuous improvement with powerful results — all because you took the time to consider an alternate reality.

Equally,  asking “what if” can free you from mental ruts and ossified business processes.  This ability to step outside your routine to consider alternatives is critical to innovation.  Holly Green describes the process in her post, What If You Asked “What If?”:

It involves examining your own thinking process to understand why you think the way you do. More important, it involves pausing your thinking process every now and then and contemplating how to change perspectives, how to challenge your own assumptions, how to consider the opposite of what you normally think, how to ponder multiple right answers, and how to do things differently.

Not only can this type of counterfactual thinking help identify new directions, it can also help you avoid bad ones.  Jack Vinson writes that asking “What if I’m wrong” is a great way to prevent the painful consequences of implementing a half-baked idea. To be clear, Jack is not recommending that we become paralyzed by doubt:

This is not a suggestion to kill ideas simply because there are negative ramifications.  It is a suggestion to verify that those negatives could really happen, and decide how to prevent those negatives from happening while still getting the benefit from the original idea.  This might be part of a risk management practice, or it could be part of being smart about deciding how to do things.

So counterfactual thinking need not be delusional.  In fact, it can help with innovation and risk management when done correctly.  On that basis, counterfactual thinking seems like sound thinking to me.

[Photo Credit: ChernobylBob]

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