Rethinking "Why not"

Nov 09, 2011
Glenn Korban

Certain phrases can be interpreted in very different ways.  Over the holidays, I shared a few laughs with two brothers-in-law, Will and Matt, over an old Saturday Night Live skit where a nuclear power plant operator retires and leaves his team with some parting words, "You can't put too much water in the reactor."  After he's gone, the team puzzles over the real meaning of his statement.  Did he mean that we can put as much water as we want into the reactor and it will never be too much?  Or did he mean that under no circumstances should we put too much water in the reactor?

Shortly after the laughs over the SNL skit, it occurred to me that another such ambiguous phrase is "why not".  In some circumstances it can start the discussion of why something can't or shouldn't be done.  "We can't do that, and here is why not...", or "Why not?  I'll tell you why not..."  In others, it can mean the exact opposite and affirm that some task should be done, as in, "Sure, why not?"

In the Web consulting field, our job has traditionally included a lot of "why not" in the first sense of the phrase - educating clients on the limitations of the Web and explain why certain things cannot be done.  Clients unfamiliar with Web technology naturally expect the same depth of interaction as experienced with desktop apps.  We have frequently been required to articulate to clients why certain features or UI concepts from the desktop world were not possible on the Web.

It's time we rethink our usage of "why not."  Before explaining to a client why seemingly outlandish ideas aren't possible, I think we need to ask of ourselves, "why not?"  A lot has changed on the Web over the last few years.  New technologies such as AJAX, Flash, Flex, and Silverlight, have exploded the world of what is possible on the Web.  Many things are now do-able that weren't before.  It's important that we think long and hard before we decide an idea isn't feasible.

It might be the case that some "crazy" idea from a client might be a fantastic opportunity for us to leverage these new technologies to create an innovative new experience on the Web that no one has thought of or attempted before.  Perhaps the crazier the idea, the better.  We should view our client's creativity as opportunities for us, as technologists, to push ourselves and to push the technology in exciting new directions.  

Why not?