All the exercises that I use when I'm interviewing people-'imagine this, imagine that, draw this, picture that'-are simply ways to get people to give me some indication of what their ideal would be.
I'll say to people, 'Oh, the real reason we're here is, I'm a wealthy venture capitalist, and I'm going to start my ideal fill- in-the-blank company.' I'm always intrigued by the results I get when people start thinking about what the ideal might be (rather than simply responding to what already exists).
I did this with my students at Northwestern University. I asked them, what would be the ideal food company for grad students at Northwestern? Right now, either they're captive to what's in the vending machine in the basement or they have to walk 10 minutes to go to the student center, where the people are rude, the food is greasy, and the lines are long.
They said, 'Well . . . the food would be fresh.' 'It would be convenient.' 'It would come to us.' Then one student said, 'It would be on wheels.' Remember the technique of listening for energy? This was the comment that got the discussion crackling.
So then we started thinking about what's on wheels, and the image that evolved was a cart, like a tea cart. Somebody would come at class break times, every hour on the hour, and there would be smoothies and bagels and sandwiches and salads and fruit and baby carrots and every kind of healthy stuff. That was their ideal.
And then I had them talk about the current reality-what's really here? Well, it's greasy food and long lines in a dingy and noisy place with rude employees who don't listen and turn their back on you, or else it's packaged cookies and candy bars in the basement.
Judging from the excitement and energy in the room while the students brainstormed about their ideal company, there's a huge business opportunity waiting for someone to take advantage of it. Maybe some of my students will; who knows?