'Coulda Shoulda' Thinking: The Secret to Innovation?

Last Updated Mar 17, 2010 4:13 PM EDT

If you've ever thought that reflecting on what might have been is a waste of time, new research from Berkeley's Haas School of Business shows that "should have, could have" thoughts can actually be quite powerful.

The study, conducted by Haas professors Laura Kray and Philip Tetlock along with four other associates, says that asking people to reflect on "what if" scenarios (e.g., What if I hadn't gone to the party where I met my husband? What if I hadn't been asked to interview for this job?) leads them to see key events in their lives as more significant, perhaps even fated.

So how can managers use counterfactual thinking to their advantage?

Finding out which of your employees is willing to engage in counterfactual thinking can allow you to see which of them are the most open to new ideas. Conducting a simple brainstorming discussion in which you pose a question such as Was a Microsoft-like monopoly inevitable? will lead to a clear group division: "Some people are so confident they know how history would have unfolded, they try to shut the conversation down fast. Others are willing to mull over imaginative possibilities at great length, " Tetlock said in a Haas press release.
Those willing to discuss the possibilities more in depth could end up being your go-to people for bringing innovative ideas to your company: "I find that the more imaginative experts think about possible pasts, the better calibrated they are in attaching realistic probabilities to possible futures," says Tetlock.

The resulting paper, "From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning," appeared in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Image courtesy of Flickr user laurakgibbs, CC 2.0.

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.