Probing the Possibility Paradigm

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From Problem Solving to Possibilities

Problem-solving is an almost universal paradigm/approach to address issues in business. Behind the concept (sez me…) is the idea that we have created this ideal business system; it addresses a need in the market, and we’ve devised this plan to create and deliver a product/service that fulfills the need, will make us money and provide employment, and will possibly bring us joy and satisfaction in the process.

So as we design and implement the plan, problems come up. Many people think of their jobs as “problem solver”. What is a problem?

Problem prä-bləm, prä-blem
a : an intricate unsettled question
b : A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
c : a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation
d : difficulty in understanding or accepting

Problems “shouldn’t be”.

In the planning process we convene, wired with our personal and collective assumptions about “the world”. We may have problems in this process; coming to agreement, having adequate information, conflicting priorities, other problems, etc. Then we implement. Other problems crop up. We didn’t think of some contingencies, we misread the environment, suppliers or partners don’t come through as expected, the game changes (or already changed and we didn’t know it), weather, politics, personnel changes, miscommunications, etc. Now we have problems to solve.

Possibility pɑs·əˈbɪl·ə·t̬i
a : something that can be done or achieved, or that can exist
b : potential or prospective value

The possibility paradigm is a distinct frame of reference in that we understand that it’s all invented, and we can invent and create things that we didn’t think were possible before by conceiving new possibilities and living into those. It’s about context. Context is our personal and collective mindset/frame of reference. We all have one. The cool thing is that we can consciously shift our context and define one that works for creating what we want to manifest. We shift our context by changing internal and external conversations.
Great leaders lead from context.

In their book The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander say: “In the measurement world, you set a goal and strive for it. In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.”

One ground rule for possibility is that you accept things as they are, present in the “now”. When you accept that things are the way they are, instead of complaining and resisting, you’re in a position to make the best of the situation. You’re allowed visions, dreams and appreciation for your current place. You’re more open to finding solutions or to making the best of the situation in your mind.

Another character of possibility is that it is something that one lives into that is not based or constrained by the past. I had a context that I developed in grade school: “I’m not good at art.” I had data to support it—grades in art classes, comparing myself to others that could draw or paint well, etc. At some point I realized, “I can make whatever I want, and have fun doing it.” Total shift. I had a similar story about writing. I got mediocre grades; doing writing projects was like forced labor; I was trying to imitate others. When I read Richard Brautigan (introduced by a friend) when I was a teenager, I had a similar realization, “You can write whatever you want—I can write whatever I want.” I started writing in journals to amuse myself, and it opened whole worlds of creativity and understanding me in a new way.

Here are some contrasted features of problem vs. possibility frames of reference:
Problem Orientation Possibility Paradigm
Deficits Strengths
Fixing what’s broken Building on assets
Defense Creation
Based on past Create the future now
Eeyore Pooh
Reactive Proactive
Try to play the music score w/o mistakes Jamming, improvising
Resistance Acceptance
Scarcity Abundance
Treating illness Generating good health

The possibility paradigm is where true creativity and innovation happen. To "jam" is to improvise music without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements. A jam session is a gathering where musicians collaboratively improvise music that is fun, innovative, in-the-moment, feeds to and from each of the participants, and has an underlying structure that everyone doing it understands. It’s exciting and engaging, and teams can also “jam” together. Creativity is generating and developing ideas, refining them, and adding value with details and synergy. Innovation is translating those ideas and inventions into the real world—products, services, and processes that define the future of your work and business.

Certainly there is a need to have problem solving skills in your business. In our experience most leaders over-use problem thinking and under-use possibility thinking. Ask yourself, “Where am I at as a leader?” [You’re a leader wherever you are…] The next time you have a “problem” come across your desk, ask yourself, “What’s possible here?”


5 Ways of Living Life Through the Context of Possibilities

Here are 5 ways to become an expert in living life from a context of possibilities rather than as a set of problems; or as Reverend Moore wrote: “Life is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved.”

1. Welcome adversity
I interviewed a musician who’s currently touring the East Coast of the USA and encounters adversity on a daily basis. He is welcoming of the unexpected in any form it comes in. Misfortune, difficulty, hardship, etc. can be used as a motivating force. Not panicking and assessing what resources you have in the moment is key.

2. Improvise
That word that smells funny--“Jazz”--has much to teach us about life. As musicians create music in the moment, an interesting thing can happen. When hitting a “wrong note”, if the musical inner ear perceives it as opportunity rather than a mistake and figures out a way to resolve it, new beautiful music can be explored and created.

3. It’s how you look at it
A therapist who works in the mental health field, talks about what happens when the medical world gives a patient a diagnosis--the label of “schizophrenia”.

The medical world sees schizophrenia as an intractable problem, a death sentence with little hope for a full life filled with possibility. Often the patient begins to sees themselves as “sick”, without hope. “Only when they can understand that their condition is not the problem, that it is only how they look at it that is important, will they be able to take control and determine their own wellness.”

4. Play little games
An actor friend said she creates games. When dealing with life’s challenges she likes to break them up into bite size palatable games. Set a timer for 5 minutes and read the latest tax law, or do half the dishes. Then the creative approach: a director is making her angry and not giving support. Instead of focusing on that anger she will maybe count the hairs on the director’s ears to get herself through the moment to focus on the bigger picture.

5. Keep it positive
This one has been coming up since beginning of time, and I’m sure you already know the power of positive thinking, but just in case… Did you ever see the Monty Python movie Life of Brian? Brian Cohen (played by Graham Chapman) is sentenced to death by crucifixion, and a character on a nearby cross tries to cheer him up by singing this song: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
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