What if?

It seems there is a time and a place to ask, “What if”?

My husband sells kites. As well as the kites most would recognize from their childhood, he sells large traction kites that are used for snowkiting, kite surfing, or kite buggying. Not a sport for the faint of heart or those in less than stellar physical condition, this past December he received a query and subsequently sold and shipped a kite harness to a guy in his 50’s who appeared to fit that description. Normally that would be the end of the story.

However, this week my husband received an email asking if the harness could be returned for a refund. The email went on to explain that the harness had been purchased by her husband but that he had died in January before having a chance to use it.

Floored by the email, a quick Google search told us that both her husband and his brother were killed in an avalanche while skiing in south west Alberta. Both men were loving husbands and fathers and experienced backcountry hikers and skiers who shared a deep passion for the outdoors. Their family reported they owned avalanche locator beacons but left them in their vehicles because they weren’t going any place where there was any risk.

I just can’t imagine how devastating that must be for their families and loved ones. I pictured them asking over and over again, “What if? What if they had chosen a different trail? What if they had worn their locator beacons? What If? What if?” Of course there is no answer to any of those “What if’s” because it was a horrific accident and nothing can be done to bring them back.

Yet, I was also reminded this week that there are times when it is important to ask “What if?”

In his new book Disrupt, Luke Williams, describes how offbeat “what if?” questions, or what he calls “disruptive hypothesis”, prompt innovation or breakthrough thinking.

Many of the best stories of innovation start with a question that might often be considered naïve or even a bit wacky. As young children we typically ask endless “why” and “what if” questions. Unfortunately, as we get older too many of us are reluctant, or perhaps even afraid, to question the status quo or conventional wisdom because we think it makes us look less intelligent.  Typically our educational system, and the world in general, teaches us that it is the answers that are rewarded rather than asking a good question.

However, it is those who remain curious and willing to ask the questions who are more likely to become innovators, inventors, and leaders. Their inquisitiveness and ability to examine reality from different perspectives provides a path to answers that lead to innovation. But unlike the quick answers provided by Google, a more in-depth search, experimentation, lateral-thinking, and refinement will be required. Bottom line is that with hard work and time there is potential to get answers to the questions.

Sadly for the family of the unfortunate skiers asking, “What if?” even all the perseverance in the world isn’t going to get them a satisfactory answer as to why they lost their loved ones.

But, somewhere along the road, if we were to apply “disruptive hypothesis”, we could begin perhaps to ask a different kind of question such as, “What if the beacon locators were built into ski helmets, skis, lift passes, or ski clothing?” or “What if we made beacon locators mandatory?”

In the meantime, there weren’t a lot of “what if’s” for my husband to answer. All he could do was express his deepest sympathy, provide a refund, and send healing thoughts and prayers.     

Posted on 03-20-11

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