Innovation is The Art of the Impossible

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation is The Art of the ImpossibleYou’ve perhaps heard the saying that politics is the art of the possible. Otto von Bismarck said that over a hundred and thirty years ago. He was the chancellor of the German nation. You’d think that a guy with that much power would have been able to push almost anything through, no matter how harebrained. But he realized and accepted the limitation foisted on him by the political system.

Otto was interested in what could be accomplished within the framework of his political situation, which was bounded by the bureaucracy of the government, the expectation of the people, what his treasury could fund, and a number of other constraints and barriers. What he wanted was the best possible outcome based on these constraints. Unfortunately, a lot of people who want to be innovators think this way as well.

Whether you are in government, in a not-for-profit, in academia or in a commercial enterprise, there are constraints that will be applied to any new project or initiative. Resource constraints, funding constraints, resistance to change, the expectations of customers, shareholders or constituents. These are realities we all face. However, if we allow these constraints to frame the way we think about innovation, and constrain our thinking to achieve only what we believe is “possible” within those constraints or boundaries, we’ve lost the innovation war from the start. Rather that take as a starting point our existing situation and all of the constraints as givens, as innovators we need to think about innovation as the art, not of the possible, but of the improbable or even the impossible.

I’ll use an example to illustrate my case, once again from my home state of North Carolina. In the 1950s a number of leading executives and government officials decided to create a research park in what were farming communities between Raleigh and Durham. They had a long term vision of North Carolina as a center for serious scientific research. At that time their ideas must have seemed impossible. North Carolina was primarily known for agriculture – tobacco especially. There were few high tech firms here, and building a research park that required the cooperation of several universities, in a state that had few high tech firms, must have seemed daunting. If the executives and politicians in that day had begun from the “art of the possible” they would have never made these investments. There were many reasons and many constraints that would have stopped the creation of Research Triangle Park. The park was a huge bet on the future, on technology and research, in a state that had traditionally focused on furniture, agriculture and textiles. But those folks had a vision, and decided to think about the “art of the improbable” to make a significant investment that still pays dividends today.

My point here is that if those leaders had allowed the constraints and barriers to get in the way, the teams would have whittled down the concept of Research Triangle Park to a small office in an existing facility with little resources and no funding, and North Carolina would be far less evolved in technical research. If they had worked completely within the “art of the possible” then IBM and the pharmaceutical firms that use the park would never have moved here. Instead, they chose to see the possibilities and shrugged off the constraints and barriers to reach for the art of the improbable.

Far too often I hear people who are the “innovation” leaders within their firms talk about innovation and then temper their goals and aspirations based on what’s possible. If you start your effort with what everyone agrees is “possible” then you’ll only achieve incremental improvements at best, and everyone will be disappointed and frustrated by innovation. If you’re going to innovate, please stretch your thinking. Consider what would be improbable or even impossible and use that as a starting point or goal. In any initiative the scope gets watered down and reduced, so starting with an impossible goal will eventually be watered down to an improbable goal, which is far better than starting out constrained by what’s possible.

Here’s a simple test for your would be innovators. State your innovation goals loudly and often within your firm. If people don’t stop and gasp, and tell you that your goal is impossible, you are settling for the art of the possible, which won’t be innovative. And rest assured there are people eyeing your market or customers who are willing to attempt the art of the improbable, to disrupt your offerings and services and take your customers. Don’t start on an innovation project that is hemmed in, constrained and bounded by the “art of the possible”. It will only end in dissatisfaction and recrimination as the results simply aren’t interesting or unique. Start with the “art of the impossible” and force people to confront the barriers, challenges and issues, and create a vision that helps them understand why reaching further will create so much more value.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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  1. I love this approach. It reminds me of the arms race in WWII, though I’m not certain how true it is: The USA beat Germany to the atom bomb because the former underestimated it’s difficulty while the latter overestimated it. That encouraged the USA to push on while Germany effectively abandoned it. An interesting analogy.

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