Scott’s Thoughts: Shoulds vs. Coulds


“Problem-solving leaders have one thing in common: a faith that there’s always a better way.”

-Gerald M. Weinberg, American computer scientist.

Hands solving a Rubix cube.Recently I came across an interesting¬†article by Francesca Gino for the Harvard Business Review. The piece focuses on problem solving in what I thought was a particularly innovative–and yet simple–way. How does one generate creative solutions? How do you explore a full-spectrum of options?

According to Gino, it’s a matter of how you frame the question. Rather than asking “What should I do?” you flip one word: “What could I do?” Her research on the topic has guided her to an interesting insight:

“Approaching problems with a “should” mindset gets us stuck on the trade-off the choice entails and narrows our thinking on one answer, the one that seems most obvious. But when we think in terms of “could,” we stay open-minded and the trade-offs involved inspire us to come up with creative solutions.”

Could keeps things in the range of what’s possible, though it admits a broader range of options. Ideas which seem ridiculous are welcome to the table, for example, even if they don’t realistically present themselves as solutions. But sometimes it’s the fatuous which leads to surprising breakthroughs.

That word “should” is about speed. It’s about efficiency. And when it comes to creative thinking, speed can be the enemy. Should is ruthless. Could is kinder. Could suggests “you might not want to, but…” and opens things up for discussion. Could can help you explore consequences and assumptions.

Keep your ears open for “shoulds” versus “coulds” this week. Ask yourself when you hear one or the other if there’s any value to a quick substitution. A little trick of language might lead to some unexpected and delightful outcomes.

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