Research as creative practice – possibility thinking


The late Anna Craft said that possibility thinking is moving from asking what something is, or does, to asking questions about what something might be or do or become. Possibility thinking is wondering, imagining, asking the question What if….?

Possibility thinking is at the heart of creative practice. Possibility thinking is the way that ideas are surfaced. Once surfaced ideas can be played with, tested out, developed and realised. Possibility thinking allows for the something-new-that-wasn’t-there-before to emerge.

In and as research, possibility thinking opens the door to alternative, different and new ways of thinking about our research problem, design and analysis. That is why it is often possibility thinking, asking the What if question rather than using any specific technique or focus, which makes our research important and enjoyable.

What if questions are important for researcher reflexivity too, as they allow us to consider what we may have taken for granted, consider whether we have jumped too quickly to conclusions, relied too heavily on a particular text or approach, or worked rather too quickly through something that might have benefitted from slower contemplation.

There are numerous opportunities to ask What if questions in research. Here are just a few places where the What if question can be used.

Problem posing

A is usually understood as (in the following ways). What if it were not this? What if it were…

I always assumed that… What if this was thought differently? What if…

Designing research

B is usually researched by the following means. What if, instead, I …

What if rather than looking at B in this setting/with this group, I looked at/used… ?

I have tried generating data this way and it hasn’t produced much. What if ..? What happens when?

Analysing data

C doesn’t seem to fit the pattern of the other data? What if….

The literatures suggest that the way to group this data is this. But what if….

There seems to be something happening here that is interesting but I cant quite see it… What if I try… What if this is what is going on rather than …

I seem to have a new group of data here. It doesn’t seem to be in the literature and doesn’t yet have a name. What if…

How might this be connected with this other thing that also is important. What if?

Writing the text

I have presented my results in the following way. But what if instead…  ? How about … ?  Maybe I could try…?

You get the idea I’m sure. Of course, we aren’t all Jocelyn Bell Burnell and we may not discover pulsars during our PhDs. Or our subsequent research projects. But asking What if, as she did, can certainly pay off for us too.

Asking What if questions means that you give yourself both permission and time to re-think, to look for other options, to generate ideas, to play and experiment. You can admit what might seem bizarre, eccentric or even im-possible.

And if in the end you decide to stick with what you are doing, you have opened up the possibility that your first formulation is not the only way. You offer yourself choices and you consider what those choices might need and mean and where they might lead.

My own take on possibility thinking is that it’s a vital part of the research process. Possibility thinking, entertaining the hitherto un-thinkinkable – no matter how small – is key to making our research a contribution.  What if