“For the world is full of zanies and fools who don’t believe in sensible rules, and don’t believe what sensible people say,” wrote Rodgers & Hammerstein, in their lyrics to the 1964 movie Cinderella. “And because these daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day!”
While most of us are not concerned with turning pumpkins into carriages, our businesses and our lives could be transformed just as powerfully by thinking “impossible” thoughts.
Think about it: How can things ever change—how can business, science or society innovate solutions to world dilemmas; how can our personal lives change trajectories—if we can only imagine what has been possible up to now? We might try to fix problems through automation, motivation and process improvement. But ultimately these efforts will stagnate until we change our mental models.
Our perspectives—the lenses through which we perceive and understand the world—affect all that we see and do. Problems occur when those perspectives become rigid and function more like prison bars, keeping us locked in set mental models, routines and behaviors.
What would happen if we broke out of the prison of those perspectives? What new patterns and relationships would we notice? What new actions would we take?
“What we perceive as ‘the world’ is as much inside our heads as outside,” write the authors of The Power of Impossible Thinking, Jerry Wind and Colin Crook. “By realizing this and making choices about how we see things, we can become much more effective.”
Thinking impossible thoughts is not just the realm of fairy godmothers or eccentric inventors. We can all zoom in or out of our previous mindsets with a little practice. Wind and Crook suggest a variety of ways to begin to see differently—before a crisis or failure of the old model has made it too late. Here are a few:
• Listen to the radicals. What wisdom and opportunities are there in the sometimes “bizarre” ideas of the radical thinkers around you?
• Embark on journeys of discovery. Where can you travel—mentally or physically—to gain fresh perspectives on your organization? Your life?
• Look across disciplines. Often, “impossible” solutions develop at the intersection of several fields or departments. Crossing borders and moving into unfamiliar territory can help you see your situation from fresh perspectives.
• Question the routine. While routines create needed structure, they can sometimes lull us to sleep. Disrupting the routine, even in small ways, can help us awaken to new possibilities.
• Recognize the barriers. Becoming aware of the obstacles or fences that keep us from seeing new models is the first step to overcoming them.
• Practice flying upside down. Like commercial airline pilots, who are trained in how to react to unusual emergencies (such as flying upside down!), we can look for ways to prepare for outrageous scenarios.
• “Destroy” the old model. For example, imagining you will live only six more months can immediately obliterate all previous models of thought about how you would spend your days.
• Envision multiple futures. What are some potential scenarios for the future, and what will you need to succeed in each one?