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The Art of Impossibility

by Umair Haque on January 17, 2011


umair-haque's picture

The Art of Impossibility

Here’s a thought to chew on while you’re considering your new year’s resolution: if it’s not laughably impossible, hopelessly impractical, preposterously insurmountable—stop. Start over. You’re not doing it right.

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.

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bob-farey's picture
Many companies rely on producing a standard product for their customers - think automotive parts,  think fruit juice tetra paks - think electical and plumbing components. Such companies need to see if they can improve effectiveness and efficiency. They need a new pair of eyes. They need help. I Emailed 30 companies offering one days consultancy totally free with no tie in contract. Not one reply. The offer was too good to be true,  obviously,  in their eyes.
ellen-weber's picture

Hey Bob - your comment challenges us all to rethink how we relate change opportunities in innovative ways (to inspire the art of impossibility premises).  Thanks.

What if you surveyed a few marketing or sales people in a few companies to see what they already do well currently -  in the areas of your expertise or proposed innovations? What if you facilitated a few leaders (from the 30 you emailed) to collaborate with you and think outside the box, so they can get to know your approach and join you in the act of impossibility?

These were a couple of questions that came to me when I read of your offerings to 30 companies. What approach might spark incentives change -  and how could you partner with others already there - to improve business?

What do you think?

How could you innovatively help organizational leaders to spot finer value in your offer?

Best of luck! Ellen

maureen-kelsey's picture
Dear Umair,

There are already many folks worldwide building strategies for sustainable innovation, doing what was previously thought of or believed to be impossible.

Perhaps, it might be a good idea to engage expansion; then, it would be apparent that what you have called for is already happening.

Thus, many people are already part of new ground-breaking solutions.

In another posting, i extended a hand to you and offered another experience in which innovators in business, education, research and development from 18 countries are already collaborating, learning and sharing new paradigms.

Quite frankly, rather than talking about the problems as there is already an enormous body of evidence, I always choose to participate in solutions and abundance. 

By the way, Albert Einstein said something like we can't solve our problems with the same thinking that got us there.

My best and warmest regards,

Maureen Kelsey