Delighting in the possible

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McKinsey & Company | By Zafer Achi and Jennifer Garvey Berger  | March 1, 2015

Different perspectives - Delighting in the possibleIn an unpredictable world, executives should stretch beyond managing the probable.

Moving from “managing the probable” to “leading the possible” requires us to address challenges in a fundamentally different way. Rather than simply disaggregating complexities into pieces we find more tractable, we should also broaden our range of interventions by breaking out of familiar patterns and using a whole new approach that allows us to expand our options, experiment in low-risk ways, and realize potentially outsized payoffs. But be warned: leading the possible involves coping with our own anxieties about an unknowable and uncontrollable world. A few simple habits of mind presented here can prod us toward thinking and acting differently. These should not be considered a checklist of to-dos; indeed, the very point is to move beyond a check-the-box mentality.

Unexpected possibilities

We relish stories of unexpected possibilities—little bets that created huge and unforeseen benefits. Twitter, for instance, was born when its creators noticed how alive and engaged they felt when communicating with each other in real time over SMS. The concept was brilliant, and the platform has reshaped the way the world communicates. But the initiative arose from brainstorming rather than an elaborate business plan.

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Tweeting caught on, in large part, because it grants its users freedom. In fact, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams has explained that, in general, his rule is to do less. We can’t foresee how uncertain conditions will unfold or how complex systems will evolve, but we can conduct thoughtful experiments to explore the possibilities.

Ask different questions

The questions we ask emerge from our typical patterns of thought. We focus on narrowing down a problem so that we can find a solution. But we often fail to notice that in doing so we constrain the solution and make it ordinary. Asking different questions helps slow down the process. We begin to take in the full range of data available to us and in consequence have a significantly wider set of possible options. Examples of such questions include the following:

  • What do I expect not to find? How could I attune to the unexpected?
  • What might I be discounting or explaining away a little too quickly?
  • What would happen if I shifted one of my core assumptions on an issue, just as an experiment?

Take multiple perspectives

No one can predict when or where the next vital idea will emerge, but we can support an expansive view of our present conditions. We can start by pushing back on our natural inclination to believe that the data we see are all the data we need and by distrusting our natural craving for alignment. Considering multiple perspectives opens up our field of vision. Diversity might create more disagreement and short-term conflict, but in an uncertain environment, a more expansive set of solutions is desirable.

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We can try these approaches:

  • Take the perspective of someone who frustrates or irritates us. What might that person have to teach us?
  • Seek out the opinions of people beyond our comfort zone. The perspectives of, among others, younger people, more junior staff, and dissatisfied customers can be insightful and surprising.
  • Listen to what other people have to say. We should not try to convince them to change their conclusions; we should listen to learn. If we can understand their perspectives well enough, we might even find that our own conclusions change.

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