Why do we believe things are impossible?
There are good reasons behind believing some things are impossible especially when they have been built into the societal or organisational psyche. Greg Satell, a Forbes journalist and unconventional thinker explains, “We spend a good portion of our lives learning established models. We go to school, train for a career and hone our craft. We make great efforts to learn basic principles and are praised when we show that we have grasped them. As we strive to become masters of our craft we find that our proficiency increases, so too does our success and status. A new idea, whether it be a scientific principle or an operational model, gains power through its capacity to solve problems. As it proves its worth, it gains acceptance and becomes established.”
Achieving the impossible therefore requires challenging established paradigms and principles that are generally well accepted. This is not an easy task because as we learn and experience behaviours, they become hardwired in our brains through a process that neuroscientists call Hebbian plasticity. The expression “neurons that fire together wire together” is attributed to neuropsychologists Donald Hebb and Carla Shantz. The phrase essentially explains the chemical reaction going on in our brains as we learn.
Over time, specific neurons become associated with each behaviour, emotion and feeling. Alvaro Pascual-Leone another neuroscientist, gives a brilliant analogy in the book, The Brain That Changes Itself, in which he compared the brain to a snowy hill in winter: “When we first go down a hill in a sled, we can be flexible because we have the option of taking various paths through the soft snow each time. If we begin to favour certain paths they become speedy and efficient, guiding the sled swiftly down the hill. Changing these paths becomes increasingly difficult, as we literally become stuck in the ruts that we have created.” Human behaviour and thoughts operate on the same principle. Our behaviour creates preferred chemical pathways in our brains that eventually make these behaviours so efficient that they are difficult to change, we become “stuck in a rut”.
As we learn a particular way of doing things in our organisation, profession or industry, it becomes accepted “best practice”, which, in turn, is hardwired in our brain as the correct way to do things. We are encouraged, rewarded and controlled into complying and conforming with accepted best practice and to deviate from these accepted paradigms actually violates and offends our intellectual sense of how the world works.
The difficulty, therefore, in going against the grain to prove the impossible possible, is that the resulting behaviour threatens to upset the applecart of accepted wisdom and places in question the validity of the paradigms that have given power and prominence to the establishment. Hence, people on quests get a lot of pushback. The reason why few people or organisations embark on quests, is that they are hard strategies that involved breaking down and unlearning established paradigms and then rewiring the brain to change behaviours. Essentially when you embark on an organisational quest you need to rewire the way parts of your organisation thinks! But as Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Organisational models work in much the same way. In 1975, Steven Sasson invented the digital camera. Kodak was his employer at the time, however, his bosses who clearly felt the new paradigm offended their senses of the world, told him that that camera would never see the light of day. Sasson believed that two million pixels would be capable of competing against 110 negative film. His first digital camera produced only ten thousand pixels so the quality was not great. Executives asked when digital would compete against film, so using Moore’s Law, which predicts how fast computing technology advances, he estimated 15 to 20 years. “When you’re talking to a bunch of corporate guys about 18 to 20 years in the future, when none of those guys will still be in the company, they don’t get too excited about it,” said Sasson in an interview with the New York Times. Unable to shift with digital photography Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
In a world of disruptive change, embarking on quests as a core strategy is imperative for success and competitive advantage because: firstly, the rewards are massive when you are at the forefront of creating a new paradigm; and secondly, if you do not, you will be disrupted by someone else who figures out how to make the impossible possible. Just take a look at Brian Chesky’s Airbnb, which took under a decade to disrupt the hotel industry. Uber, the transportation company, started by Travis Kalanick disrupted the taxi industry worldwide in five years. The trend where questers reshape the industrial landscape is not an aberration that will go back to normal, it is now the normal.
During the Age of Quests the speed at which businesses and industries are being disrupted is increasing. The world is changing and moving too quickly to stick with trusted old paradigms. The only way to keep up with the pace of change is to identify the quests in your world of influence that will have a meaningful difference. Constant adaption is the only viable strategy and people on quests are capable of adapting because they understand the importance and the value in shifting paradigms. A quest by its very nature is worth making the necessary sacrifices to rewire behaviour because people become passionate about the meaningful difference the quest will deliver.
About the Author: Dean van Leeuwen is an author, TEDx international speaker and expert on leadership, future trends, strategy and competitive advantage. He is a faculty member of CEDEP – The European Centre for Executive Development located on the INSEAD campus near Paris and is a guest lecturer at the London Business School. He is also a successful entrepreneur and the co-founder of TomorrowToday Global, a consultancy that helps leaders and successful organisation to navigate turbulent times. His book Quest: Competitive Advantage and the Art of Leadership in the 21st Century, is available from Amazon in print and kindle.