As I mentioned in my recent post “Reflective Reduction Sauce”, returning to my work universe after months at sea has led me to reflect upon some themes I encountered as a result of my attending the Learning 2009 conference. One theme I’m delighted to see more attention on is “What if the impossible isn’t?”
This theme is about the need to understand that we are living at a time where almost anything is possible. While I would still wager that the majority of people are not quite believers yet, I continue to have great fun exploring what is the current “state-of-the-art of the possible” with others in my presentations and conversations.
What makes something possible includes such factors as:
- Does it exist? (invented/discovered yet?)
- Am I aware of it?
- Is it available to me? (out of private beta, out of the research lab, etc.)
- Is it ready for me? (good enough for my use)
- Can I afford it?
Fundamentally, my sense, my message, and my belief is that the only thing holding us back anymore is our assumptions of what it possible, what we should be demanding and expecting as consumers, and the overall attitude we need to take that if something is not possible today, it will be tomorrow—almost literally.
Living in the Age of Abundance
But I am not suggesting that just because something is possible or available, you need to use it. Quite the opposite actually. Our choices should be driven by our needs, our passions, and our curiosity. Yet this habit of trying anything new is a holdover from the previous era of scarcity whereby we would often feel a need to use something just because it came to our attention, arrived on the market, or was pushed at us as new and improved.
As we transition into the age of abundance, I believe we need to assume that everything and anything is available and possible, and work from there. In doing so, I find it necessary to invert these earlier approaches and avoid the tendency of starting with a solution in search of a problem.
As many of us* start living in an era of abundance where anything becomes possible, it puts a wonderful pressure on us to think and focus more on:
- What do we really need?
- What are the essential characteristics we are looking for?
- What are our top priorities?
In grossly oversimplified terms, the way we have historically planned and designed is:
- To start with some ideal end state in mind and then develop back from that based on what is impossible.
- To build a solution based on what we think is possible and accept what is often a very significant degree of compromise in the process.
In doing so, most of our sense of what is possible is quite dated and is based on unconscious assumptions. Both of these problems are causing us to squander opportunities to improve and do things we believe are still only dreams, and the way to change this is to go after both of these problems.
Learning to Adjust Our Sense of What is Possible
With the rate of change increasing exponentially, our sense of what is possible and what is impossible requires almost constant real-time updating, and necessitates a new planning and project management model. This new model allows for dynamic updating when something that was impossible when the current plan was developed becomes possible. When this happens, the project should start using it and taking advantage of it.
This kind of updating can largely be addressed through technical means if all such requirements are well-articulated in the initial planning process, such that the needed capabilities and other requirements are quantified and stated and can thus be tracked for relevant changes.
However, our unconscious assumptions are a much more troubling and challenging problem because they lurk below our level of awareness and because they become indelibly ingrained into our habits, behaviors, and thinking. For example, my focus on the Snowflake Effect—the transition from an era of mass production to one of mass personalization—includes many such assumptions. Mass production is not reserved for the domain of manufacturing, but rather has permeated most societies and our overall way of thinking.
When I talk about this meta theme of the Snowflake Effect, one of the most common and provocative questions that I ask is, “If we all seem to agree that each of us is unique, and furthermore that each moment and situation is unique, then why do we live in a world that is designed for sameness?”
When we design something, we typically start by identifying the “target audience”, a group of people who are defined by a set of common characteristics. The larger this audience, the better. Think about this for a minute. Imagine you are designing and developing any new product, such as a lesson for students, a book, a website, a car, or service. Do you find that designing all of these involves the same basic model based on an assumption of sameness?
And I get it. This model used to make complete sense. Mass production was a brilliant model in its time and we largely got to where we are today because of it. However, the great news is that most of the conditions and constraints which made mass production such a successful model have changed or have been eliminated, yet the model persists. Add to this the equally wonderful dynamic that truly amazing new capabilities, products, and services are becoming possible and available every day. We are increasingly moving to the point where the impossible isn’t.
It’s Time to Get Good at Believing in the Impossible
What to do? What needs to change? First and foremost I think it is we who need to change—our thinking and our assumptions. We need to get good at believing in the impossible. In true synchronistic fashion, I recently received this quote from my good friend Murry Christensen which resonated strongly and added to my sense that this meta theme I’m discussing here is growing:
"We must learn to deal with possibilities instead of probabilities."
-- Verna Allee
And one of my favorite thinkers and writers is Kevin Kelly and he has been making these same kinds of observations for many years now. One of my favorite Kevin phrases is:
“Impossible in theory, possible in practice”
Kevin makes this observation in light of the many capabilities we are now immersed in yet which only a few years or months previously we would have regarded as impossible. You can read Kevin’s piece on “Believing the Impossible” or watch his TED talks such as “The next 5000 days of the web” (included here), and “How Technology Evolves”.
Still not convinced? Watch these other TED talks and see if you change your mind a little or a lot:
- Pranav Mistry demonstrating his “Sixth Sense” device
Believing that “the impossible isn’t” is what has led me to conclude that the dream of being able to seize every “teachable moment”, to have personalized learning experiences available for every person on the planet multiple times every day, and get to a “just the right” end state where we can get just the right stuff to just the right person at just the right time in just he right context, has become an achievable goal.
What about you? When it comes to capabilities, products, services, etc., what is on your “wish it were possible” list? What, were it to be possible, would make the most significant difference in your professional or personal life? My experience in pursuing these questions is that by articulating and sharing them, we will discover that many are already possible and those that aren’t can be put on our watch list, so that we will be notified in days, weeks, or months that it has just become possible.
Sound impossible? Just watch, it isn’t!
* Let’s keep in mind that in terms of world population (almost 7 billion), we are still the privileged few who live in in this era of abundance, and although this group is also growing exponentially, we all need to continue to work to distribute abundance.