Early in its history, the microprocessor company Intel found itself facing a difficult decision. The company had started out making computer memory chips and its success with that product enabled Intel to establish itself. But as the memory chip business began to slow down, Intel’s co-founders, Andrew Grove and Gordon Moore, were trying to decide whether to shift the company’s focus away from that core product and into more promising new areas. Yet they were torn: Chips were central to their identity—and Intel wouldn’t have gotten to where it was without them.
Then Grove posed an interesting question to his partner: If we were kicked out of the company, what do you think the new CEO would do?
Grove and Moore reasoned that a new leader would feel no emotional attachment to the declining memory chip business and would probably leave it behind. So they did likewise, as they shifted Intel’s focus to microprocessors—which set the stage for remarkable growth in the years to follow.
When companies are facing disruptive change (and these days, what company isn’t?), old habits and traditions can sometimes get in the way of progress. One of the things hypothetical What if questioning can do is remove those constraints, if only briefly, to allow for more fresh thinking.
You could ask, as Grove and Moore did, What if different leaders were brought in, but Clayton Christensen suggests a bolder version of this question: What if the company didn’t exist? That question allows you to take a clean-slate approach in thinking about the industry and your place in it.