Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
What is it about the “impossible” that seems to inspire, to call us to extraordinary effort, and almost by magic compel us to attempt what might seem unreasonable, unlikely or irrational?
We are wired to achieve, it seems, and calling out to that inner drive is what may distinguish the innovative, dynamic organization from the staid, somber one. Goethe famously said: “There is genius in bold action.” Genius, yes, and much more besides. Inside of bold action you may very well find the magic formula for innovative behavior and values. Nothing will kill innovation and creativity faster than a placid status quo. And few things can more rapidly transform an organization than an outsized, borderline-irrational call to action. The “genius” that resides in us all will respond to “bold action,” and innovative leaders recognize this as a foundational characteristic of individuals and organizations.
There are unlimited examples of how individuals and large-scale social organizations respond to a call to achieve the impossible. Apollo 13 and WWII come to mind as obvious examples. But you can find the extraordinary all around you, in any organization, at any time where there is a call to action that is audacious. The audacity to ask for the impossible — the urgent – will create effort that is totally disproportional to the likelihood of individual reward. This is because when we are invited to be part of the extraordinary, we are also called to believe, and belief seems to grow proportional to difficulty.
That is, of course, when we are authentically called.
Asking for the impossible, the outsized achievement, is not the same thing as setting arbitrarily difficult goals. Making the distinction between an authentic call to action and an arbitrary call is critical. If you’ve spent any time in a corporate environment, or any large organization, chances are you’ve come across one of those posters hanging on the wall. You know the ones. They say things like “Soar with the eagles!” Or, maybe, “Nothing is impossible if you believe.” Or some similar inane platitude. No one really buys into the sentiments expressed, and the net effect is more often a vague feeling of oppression rather than inspiration. A poster is not a call to meaningful action.
What is a real call to meaningful action can be as varied as the organizations doing the calling. Quantifying the difference between an authentic, inspirational call to the impossible and an inauthentic, superficial call to the impossible is as difficult as quantifying authenticity itself. But most people can sniff out the stench of the inauthentic pretty quickly. And there is no organizational magic in the inauthentic.
But when we are in fact called to do the impossible, to be engaged with something that occurs as bigger than ourselves as individuals, some genuine cultural magic occurs:
Organizational Barriers Go Away: Big problems tend to diminish or even destroy the more mundane limitations that can thrive during ordinary times. When teams are working on critical, time-sensitive, “big” challenges, there tends to be less tolerance for institutional drag of any kind. Most barriers to speed of execution reside in organizational structure, and if you want those to be diminished, encourage impatience as a cultural value. No one wants to fill out forms when they are in a hurry. And nothing renders the routine form less relevant than a big, urgent goal.
Urgency Eliminates Silliness: Most organizations will have their share of what can only be called silliness. Silly rules, silly legacy operational quirks, silly procedures, and silly expectations. Every single member of any organization with greater than one member can list a dozen in the space of ten minutes. Somehow, though, organizational silliness, once established, tends to persist. But urgency and commitment to achieving important things has little tolerance for silliness. Institutional silliness will weaken in the face of the truly important.
Speed Encourages Risk: Where there is leisure there is seldom the need to risk. Urgency creates an environment where risk is necessary. Operating with a sense of urgency means that information may be incomplete, and that decisions and judgments must be made with less certainty. A fast-paced environment, where individuals and teams are aligned to an outsized goal, is a risk-based environment. And as a consequence, more trial, more experimentation and more invention occurs.
Judgment Becomes Critique: In a challenged and challenging work environment, there is simply no time for judgment and blame. Belief in a “big goal” and alignment to urgency reduce the cultural value of judgment and of blame. Risk-taking will create mistakes; speed will create institutional friction; and the dissolution of barriers can cause territorial disputes. But when these occur in a highly aligned and committed environment, they are no longer cause for blame, but are instead opportunities for learning. When time is short and goals are elevated, the focus will be on efficiency; and casting blame may rank as the most inefficient use of time imaginable.
So, if you are looking to cause dramatic change in your organization, to be more innovative, to be more creative, to be more high-performance, think about the power of the impossible. Reflect on the value of calling for “bold action” and taking your organization away from the stultifying status quo. Think about the energizing and powerful alignment that can come from big ideas and big risks. And give your organization the gift of the impossible.
Oh, and take down all those silly posters.