“What if” vs. “What is:” a Tale of Complementary (brotherly) Mindsets
Growing up, I learned a lesson about the power of differing perspectives from a childhood memory. As kids, my brother Alan and I couldn’t have been more different in our approach to the world. Alan embodied “what is” — relying on facts and numbers, while I wandered the realm of “what if.” Alan lost himself in the real-time data of Stratomatic baseball, and I drew Sistine Chapel images all over our shared bedroom walls.
This came back to me again when I recently shared with him what Midjourney was capable of doing. I thought he’d be astonished to see a “Movie quality poster of an ocean liner flying above the clouds. The dramatic image held no magic for Alan. As far as he was concerned, the six smoke-stacked ocean liner was an abomination, ai generative art be damned.
For Alan, ocean liners held a deeply emotional connection. Not only did he have a visceral connection to ships (he got dreadfully seasick during his first cross-Atlantic journey), he also can recount every detail of the ships that had been a part of our family adventures, from the US President Cleveland to the SS Constitution, and the Enotria and Messapia voyages through the Mediterranean, to the majestic SS United States. I was a grateful hanger-on during each of these journeys but lacked the forensic eye my brother had. He extended his learning further into adulthood with collections of ship artifacts, deck plans, and associations with other ship enthusiasts.
The Alan-Gary partnership that spanned our childhood was a study in opposites. There was minimal overlap in our talents. I remember a time when Alan’s meticulously detailed drawings of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, seemed to threaten my creative prowess. However, I soon realized that his drawings were more a record of specifics — tiles, structures, objects — than a flight of imagination.
Our partnership inadvertently made me adept at a skill that would prove invaluable later in life: collaborating with analytical minds. Our early experiences shape how we perceive our value in the world. Through my interactions with my brother, I learned to engage with analytical thinkers while bringing a playful and imaginative touch. Even the most diligent builder needs to add some oxygen to their unique mix of concrete. And I discovered individuals who appreciated this unique blend of “what if” thinking amidst their “what is” mindset.
In the journey of product design, finding the right balance between the concrete and the creative is paramount. I worked up this chart to think this through a bit…
“What is,” as described is the foundation upon which most product development endeavors are built. However, this mindset can sometimes lead to stagnation or a lack of fresh perspectives.
Conversely, the “what if” mindset represents the realm of imagination, innovation, and uncharted possibilities — a space where audacious ideas take shape and groundbreaking solutions are born. Yet, just as with my brother Alan’s aversion to the unconventional six smoke-stack ocean liner, there’s a risk of intolerance for “what if” thinkers within teams. They can often be dismissed as impractical dreamers, and face challenges in environments that prioritize hard data and proven strategies.
This intolerance can create a roadblock to creativity and stifle innovation. Similar to the skepticism some hold towards the hallucinations of ChatGPT vs. proven factual sources, the “what if” thinkers might found wanting due to their deviation from conventional norms.
The liveliest place where these two mindsets can productively meet is what I call, a “liquid liminal space” — a transitional zone where uncertainty and experimentation coexist. Just as Alan’s discomfort with the unconventional ocean liner pushed him into a liminal state (actually one of, “Gary, I literally have no interest in looking at that thing!), product teams can also be nudged into this space when they find themselves thinking too linearly or resistance to new ideas. In this space, the discomfort of the unknown can prompt team members to seek something tangible to hold onto, driving them to explore fresh perspectives. This is uncertainty that fuels creativity. It’s in this zone that novel connections are made, innovative solutions emerge, and new infrastructures of thought and strategy take shape.
In the world of product development, a harmonious interplay between “what is” and “what if” thinking is essential. While “what is” ensures a solid foundation rooted in facts and realism, “what if” stretches the boundaries of imagination and opens the door to innovation. Alan’s concrete approach and my creative flair allowed us to create a synergy that enriched our childhood partnership (We still get along!). Similarly, in product teams, individuals who embrace both perspectives can unlock unparalleled opportunities for growth, transformation, and success.
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