thinking like a customer

thinking like a customer

The Impossibility Question

By on December 16, 2009

You have a vision to transform your organization into the most customer-centered player in your industry. The problem is convincing everyone else in your company that it's possible. Sound familiar?

Here's one approach that will help you. It's a successful, thought-provoking exercise that we use in our client sessions. In his book, Just Listen, Mark Goulston introduces The Impossibility Question--a technique for focusing on solutions to situations that, at first, seem like insurmountable challenges.


The Impossibility Question (IQ) helps when a person or group is wavering between fear ("this is a threatening idea, and it will fail and ruin me") and apathy ("this may be a good idea, but it sounds like too much effort on my part"). But if there is some interest, you can use the IQ to push them along. You can be the catalyst with two simple questions.

Question 1: "What is something that is impossible (or that we will never achieve)?"

Let's assume for this exercise that the answer is: "Our company will never become truly customer-centered."

In order to move the person from offering excuses to having a positive attitude about a possible future state, you must make them picture that future as a reality. It's time to ask the second question.

Question 2: "What would make it possible?"

This will get them to shift to a positive movement in a successful direction. For example, they might offer:

"We could interview customers, observe how they are using our product or service, and design new features that would make it easier to use."


"We could meet every morning to discuss how we make our processes easier for customers to understand and use."


"We could involve customers in the process of hiring new employees for our organization."

There are hundreds of such answers.

Questioning works better than telling when you have a challenge to overcome. It creates buy-in when the team with whom you're working figures out how to approach the goal more realistically--even if it is only by taking the initial steps in the right direction. It will help them define what the destination looks like and enable them to buy into the idea that getting there is possible.

The other part of the exercise is to have the team articulate how the ideas they offer will result in a stronger relationship with customers and how that benefits everyone. The shift in perspective starts to take on a life of its own as people believe they can do it.

Every business has some degree of distance from its customers, but rather than just looking at it, the IQ will start your company toward doing something, toward solving problems that were thought to be unsolvable.

Instilling customer-centricity into your organization's culture is not impossible, of course. The Impossibility Question is a powerful tool to overcome negativity and jump-start your efforts at thinking like a customer. It will dramatically increase your success.


One Response to “The Impossibility Question”

  1. Mark Price says:


    We have recognized for some time that change management is the hardest part of building customer-centricity into a marketing department (and eventually the entire organization). We have used the "small wins" and 10x communication approaches from John Kotter to begin to illustrate the consequences of not changing, pilot program wins to quantify the opportunities and 10x communication to continually reinforce the importance of the change.

    We also believe that, while the vision may be driven by the executives, the "how-to" must come from the line management team. Open brainstorming, followed by refinement, commitment and presentation to management, help to drive the change through different levels in the company. Finally, clear, visible measurements posted around the floors show the results in a meaningful form (what gets measured is what matters!)

    Excellent post on a pressing topic for all customer-centric managers.

    BTW -- nice site enhancements!

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