daily dispatches from the management vanguard
The Art of Impossibility
Let me explain, with a little parable. In 2007, Blackberry-maker RIM was king of the mobile hill. Yet when word of a disruptive new phone—from an industry outsider, no less—began to spread, RIM didn’t just downplay the news, it discounted it almost entirely. RIM seemed to think that Apple’s nascent iPhone was literally, well, impossible. RIM had access to the same chips and circuits, the same mobile networks and carriers, the same raw materials and currency, as Apple did. Of course, the iPhone wasn’t impossible—it was very real. And the rest, as they, say, is history.
So here’s the question: why do most companies have such a narrow, blinkered view of the possible? Why don’t they even attempt the impossible? And why, when rivals do attempt the impossible, do most organizations (like RIM) have a kind of organizational cognitive dissonance—why are they so mentally threatened by the sudden, stark violation of their own most cherished beliefs that they refuse to believe anyone else can attempt the impossible?
Here’s my guess. What most bureaucracies groan under today is the weight of their own colossal timidity. I’d guess that something like 80% of time and effort in most organizations is spent discussing why and how the awesome, the significant, the meaningful, the lasting—the impossible—can’t be done. And about 15% is spent debating—within the realm of the workaday possible—what can be. But probably only about 5% is spent single-mindedly actually pursuing the impossible, the impractical, and the unthinkable (and that’s by a handful of renegades, usually sequestered in skunkworks, think tanks, or other special initiatives). It’s time to wake up and smell the axle-grease: industrial age organizations are finely-tuned engines of efficiency and productivity—but the price is a smallness of ambition, a paucity of purpose, a terminal deficiency of daring to challenge the status quo.
The problem, then, of failing to attempt the impossible (or even believing anyone can attempt the impossible) might be fundamentally about believing that the status quo is all that is possible.
From an economic perspective, most corporations are more Napoleon Dynamite than Dark Knight. Result? A zombieconomy, where once-mighty titans of industry have turned into something like snoozing couch potatoes: ineffectual, indolent, vegetating. Without a willingness to take on the impossible, guess what happens? New industries and markets never get created—and the result is malaise, stagnation, and decline. On the other hand, it is the appetite to cultivate what the status quo considers thoroughly impractical and hopelessly impossible that is the cornerstone of enduring prosperity.
In this world of hyper-commoditization and deepening customer apathy, merely consistently rolling out the tedious, humdrum possible is worth about as much as a pair of old socks. And in this fragile, crowded world, facing a panoply of urgent, seemingly unsolvable problems, doing the impossible has never mattered more. And yet, the supply of the thoroughly predictable, me-too possible has never been more plentiful, while the demand for the “impossible”—discontinuous improvements in people’s quantity or quality of life—has never been greater.
So here’s my suggestion: this coming year, if it’s possible in the eyes of the status quo, it’s not awesome enough—go back to the drawing board. If your goal is creating an enduring, meaningful advantage, consider a new principle: if your rivals (and some of your peers) don’t think it’s impossible, don’t bother attempting it.
Here’s the catch: to get serious about conquering the impossible, yesterday’s competencies are essentially incompetencies. Instead of ruthless calculation coupled with rote obedience and passionless “dedication,” you’re going to have to get serious about the left-brained stuff—passion, inspiration, meaning—and above all, creativity. In fact, creativity—of the economic variety, not just the aesthetic—is so vital, as I argue in my new book, that it’s one of five new sources of advantage reshaping the economic landscape.
As the parable of RIM suggests, Apple’s biggest ally might not be marketing, design, or the Apple Store. Instead, it might just be the sheer smallness of ambition of its rivals—so satisfied with the status quo, they simply can’t believe that the impossible can be attempted, much less mastered. But my guess is that there are hundreds of mini Apples across the economy—and probably a handful inside most organizations. The real problem is that they’re trapped inside the whirling machine of the industrial age corporation, shackled by the very belief that the status quo can’t be bettered.
The most disruptive thing you can in 2011? It might just be giving those renegades-in-waiting the tools and the time to look the ridiculously, preposterously impossible squarely in the eye—and take it on with a vengeance.