What If?.

What If image

To kick off our Fit for the Future campaign we hear from Ian MacArthur our Chief Experience Officer, on lighting the spark of innovation that will help prepare you for the unexpected (or at least the new different).

Let’s talk about the ‘i’ word. You’re among friends so I’ll say it out loud. Innovation.
Like almost every word in the marketing and technology space, it’s rapidly fallen foul of the same overuse suffered by its cousins ‘digital’ and ‘transformation’, most quantified when it becomes part of someone’s job title (says the guy with ‘Experience’ in his!).

Even formally, its meaning spans a wide gamut of everything micro to macro but it's just as legitimate when McLaren launches its new car today, the Artura, or just last week when we discovered that Weetabix and Baked Beans was a game changer (who knew?).
In my experience the most innovative thinking springs from asking one big question made of two little words...

What if?

The amateur psychologists among you would be forgiven for thinking that these are the words of a worrier or simply remorse’s regret but for me, they are the seed of something exciting, an opportunity to do something different and innovative.

I’m not denying we don’t all have our own ‘sliding door’ moments that retrospectively may have pivoted us in another direction but let’s not dwell on that. Guy Kawasaki doesn’t cry into his soup about the start-up and majority share he shunned because the commute was a bit long (that start-up was Yahoo and his share would have been worth $2bn by 2010).
And on a far tinier scale, I don’t wallow in what could’ve been if my teenage self hadn’t turned down the design job at The Face magazine working under Neville Brody.

The concept I want to explore is ‘What if?’ for brands. What if you did something entirely different? What if you saw your strongest link as your most exposed vulnerability? What if you killed your cash cow? (before a challenger does!). If this already sounds like the emperor’s new clothes let me make it more real for you.

What if a global phenomenon or disaster forced the majority of customers online?
What if one-third of online purchases were via a business that often delivers within 24hrs?
What if the biggest watch manufacturer in the world has never engineered a single cog in a movement? What if a combination of all these things and more means the customer of 2025, with all their demands and expectations, has come back from the future and is engaging with your brand right now?

It's not long ago that these statements would’ve got you laughed off LinkedIn - branded a low rent Gary V or fittingly spanked by Mr Ritson. But as these once fantasy scenarios increasingly become fact the power of imagining ‘What if?’ gains momentum.

I was first introduced to bona fide ‘What if?’ thinking in 2008. During an intimate yet animated brains trust dinner alongside Edward De Bono, all-round clever bloke and inventor of lateral thinking and Robert Senior founder of Fallon and ex-global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. We were discussing innovation and how you must construct a creative space with no constraints, yet give it enough direction and purpose to deliver tangible results. Edward espoused the benefits of ‘What if?’ thinking to enable a brand and team to consider a completely different set of circumstances. I was immediately hooked and wanted to know more.

At the time he’d been hired by a well-known french aerospace company to give his view on a brief to make their passenger aircrafts safer. The internal team was busy coming up with the usual list of enhancements, but senior management was not impressed. So Edward got the call to see if he could parachute in and increase the level of innovation being achieved.

This is where ‘What if?’ thinking comes in. He asked the team to consider this statement in the application of their concepts. The narrow-minded immediately jumped to practical considerations like ‘What if materials were more fire retardant?’ or ‘What if the safety belts had a stronger tensile strength?’.

This is an important point to pause my story and ask yourself if this is what is going on inside the brand or business you are part of? Are your teams or those around you actually asking ‘What if?’ and if the answer is yes, are they simply caught up in just making everything a bit better? Incremental improvement is an honourable endeavour and it sure as hell beats going backwards as long as you keep in mind that somebody somewhere is using ‘What if?’ thinking and they’re coming up behind you to eat your lunch.

Back to the story. On hearing the team’s take on posing difficult ‘What if?’ questions to themselves it was obvious that he needed to assert himself and promote an entirely new way of thinking. So he tried to reframe the problem for them.

“What if the world's safest plane could do extraordinary things?” he asked the room. The studio full of expert designers and engineers looked bemused. “What if the world’s safest plane can land upside down? The room fell silent. This was the brief.

If a passenger aeroplane needs the ability to land upside down everything we know about the constraints of aeronautical design literally get turned on their head. From wing structure to glass thickness, from hatch hinges to cockpit design. The ‘What if’ concept is so far reaching that it forces a completely different set of rules on the creative output and for the French aerospace brand it transformed their next generation aircraft.

So back to the now for a second - the vast majority of businesses are having to think differently. There’s the big stuff like pan-organisation property strategy now that working from anywhere has proven to perform better than expected. Rethinking margins and reserves to ensure greater resilience during a sudden economic collapse and so on. But when you’re thinking about making your brand and business fit for the future, I'd encourage you to start small. Not with small thinking but by tackling small challenges. It's the corporate innovation equivalent of couch to 10k (which in itself is simply ‘What if I ran slightly further each day for 3 months?’). Just take one part of your role, or responsibility or budget or strategy and apply a dose of ‘What if?’.

What if you decided to make use of 25% of the customer data your business holds? What if you started an always-on digital Voice of Customer programme? (NB. Tim Cook spends the first hour of his day, from 4am-5am, reading VOC comments and Apple has done OK by it).
What if you removed the part of your sales process that creates the most complaints and automated it? What if you tested your ‘What ifs’ as part of your web experience to demonstrate the benefits of trialling a different way of thinking? The output of What if? thinking can be as big or as small as you decide to make it but it's the sentiment and commitment to a different ideal that gives it power.

I’ll leave you with another ‘What if?’ example from the archives of my memory - from a time when the internet hadn’t yet sprung into life. It was the late 80s when the UK and France started construction at respective ends of what became the channel tunnel. The British calculated the risks involved in some of their standard build processes and assessed that up to 10 site workers could die in their half of the tunnel. The French however asked themselves a ‘What if?’ question. What if no loss of life was acceptable when trying to bring these two great nations together? That felt inspirational like a guiding light or principle. They decided to innovate and alter processes and machinery in an attempt to all but remove the risk of death.

History sadly tells us that 10 lives were lost in the tunnel before its completion in 1994. Eight on the UK side and two on the French side. Now as much as that mortality rate may seem small for such a huge, complex and dangerous feat of engineering, for me it's a powerful illustration of how ‘What if?” thinking and innovation can make all the difference. The margin for error remained the same and both countries were just two fatalities out in their calculations. And although it may just seem small the French achieved a comparative 400% reduction in fatal risk. There is a world of difference between the team that says they can tolerate 10 deaths and sees eight versus the team that demands zero but suffers two.

Be the team member that asks yourself ‘What if?” your fitness for a future that nobody can predict depends upon it.

If your brand needs to get Fit for the Future or if you’d like simply want support with fresh thinking and making some of your ‘What if? ideas become a reality, then drop us a line.

Thumbnail Ian MacArthur
Ian MacArthur
Chief Executive Officer
Ian is a digital agency leader that’s gone from ECD to CMO to CXO to CEO. Delivering over 12,000 projects and £1bn raised for UK Charities, he’s been recognised in lists like The Guardian Future 50, The Drum Digerati, BIMA HOT100 and PRWeek Power Book. Winner of multiple Grand Prix for strategy, creative, marketing and transformation Ian is celebrating nearly three decades at the leading edge working with the world's biggest brands.
Thumbnail Ian MacArthur

Ian MacArthur

17 Feb 2021 - 10 minute read
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