What bathtubs can teach us about business creativity, by Mark Chussil

You have a bathtub in your house. It’s filling up with water. How many ways can you imagine to stop it from overflowing? They don’t have to be practical; use your creativity. Seriously: conjure up as many ideas as you can before you continue reading.

How many ideas did you come up with?

I ran a two-day workshop on business war gaming, and asked the attendees to come up with scenarios that might cause the CEO of an airline to lose sleep. One by one, the attendees said they’d exhausted their imaginations and written down every idea they could think of. I then asked each person to come up with five more ideas. All of them did.

Now, come up with five more ideas for the bathtub.

How many ideas do you have now?

I’ve heard about 50 solutions in discussing bathtubs with many audiences.

Knowing that, can you devise even more ideas?

True, strategists aren’t often called upon to imaginatively prevent bathtubs from overflowing at corporate headquarters. The concept matters, though, because it illustrates availability bias. Imagine asking people to create a fault tree, a diagram of paths to some specific fault or problem. According to professors Jay Russo and Paul Schoemaker, availability bias makes people “assume that the causes they have listed will account for almost everything that could go wrong, and they dramatically underestimate the impact of events in the final category of ‘all other’ causes.” (“Dramatically” underestimate is right. Their experiments are stunning. See pages 112 and 114-5 of their book Winning Decisions.)

There are three bottom lines.

One: You probably came up with lots more ideas than you thought you could. Have more confidence in yourself and your creativity.

Two: You probably found that one idea would lead to others. Even impractical ideas can lead to useful ideas.

Three: The farther you go, the farther you get. More ideas means more opportunities and fewer surprises.

So: How many new ideas can you generate for your business’ strategy?

This post was adapted from an exercise in Nice Start, by Mark Chussil, forthcoming.

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