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“What If” Rather than “Yes, But”

“What If” Rather than “Yes, But”

In the realms of thinking about creativity and innovation, many experts believe that an individual’s attitude is all important and in this regard there are two broad “types” –the person who generally tends to say “Yes, but…” when thoughts are put to them and the person who generally tends to say “What If?”  and build on people’s suggestions. So let’s look at these two types in a little more detail.

“Yes, But” people

Our world has long been ruled by what we can broadly call “conventional wisdom” or acceptable standards of conduct and thinking. The conventional wisdom of our ancestors has often been passed on for decades in phrases such as “the world is flat”, “man cannot break the 4 minute mile”, “this is the war to end all wars” etc. All of these kinds of statements are often made dogmatically and tend to be closed to other alternatives (even though we now know that each of the beliefs stated here proved to be incorrect). Put another way, the people who make these types of statements are mentally thinking “yes, there may be other views but I believe I am right”.

Although we are perhaps more wary of dogmatic beliefs today, too many of us still do not question conventional wisdom or question what is fed to us as so-called “truth”. Instead we simply go along with the prevailing attitudes, accept the status quo to be better than changing things and even learn not to think for ourselves in many cases. We may even make matters worse by starting to adopt a fear of the new or to different ideas when they are put to us. It is in these situations that we can start to mentally say “yes, but, that must be wrong”, or “yes, but that would never work” or even “Yes, but why fix things when they are not broken?”

The author Mark Twain believed that “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect”. For people with the “yes, but..” attitude this is the main problem-they take comfort in the views of many being the same and simply do not take the time to pause, reflect and look for the positives in what they hear about new ways of thinking or doing things.

“What If” People

We all know that most children are inquisitive and ask a lot of questions. Even when given an answer they continue to ask further questions, as they seek to get the heart of the issue, not being content to just accept an answer as final. This inquisitive behavior is illustrative of natural creative thinking at work and of people who as adults continue to maintain a “what if” attitude.

“What if” people tend to keep asking probing questions even when it’s easier not to question things. Society doesn’t always encourage questioning because it can be time consuming, reveal flaws in the “system” or cause other people to also start questioning (sometimes with embarrassing consequences). This is, of course, in stark contrast to most people (including those with a “yes, but” attitude) who can be so concerned with looking stupid or being made to look stupid that they don’t ask questions at all!

Creativity consequently requires an inquisitive nature and capacity to think “what if” whenever necessary. When you see yourself as “what if” person you are really saying that you are a seeker of information, a person who is eager to know more about anything and everything. As Eleanor Roosevelt said “when you are genuinely interested in one thing it will always lead to something else”. Being inquisitive can lead to new ideas, thoughts and opinions. It is about opening up your mind to the possibility of new things (and eliminating “yes, but” from your vocabulary).

How can we adopt more of a “what if” rather than “yes, but” attitude?

When looking to adopt a “what if” attitude we simply need to be less closed-minded and prone to look for problems and more open-minded and prone to look for opportunities. In this regard “why” and “how” questions are more revealing than other types of questions. A “why” question is designed to uncover the causes or underpinning assumptions of an issue, while the “how” question seeks information on the possible alternatives or outcomes. To be creative you need to question assumptions, to ask “why” and “how” often and to not settle for incomplete information.

Another useful approach to adopt is to let your mind roam or wander more (and judge less) when you are in conversation (with one or many people in a group). By allowing yourself to spend time wandering off, daydreaming if you like (and not just thinking what you are told or expected to think), you give yourself the opportunity to be creative. This means giving less attention to our conscious thinking, logical the, detailed oriented and systematic left-brain, and giving more attention and free reign to our subconscious, random and creative right brain.

In summary, if your conscious mind is always in charge and looking to reject most new ideas or thinking before its had a chance to be properly considered you will miss out on what might be useful inputs even valuable breakthroughs. In other words, sometimes you have to “let go” , ask “what if” more often and see what happens.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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