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Delighting in the possible

In this unpredictable world, executives should stretch beyond managing the probable. 

Today, the pandemic crisis, during the worst economic crisis in 90 years, “delight” is in short supply among aquaculture businesses. How to make decisions under prolonged, pervasive uncertainty—in a global food economy is now uniquely relevant. Regionally not enough fingerlings, feed, proteins, not enough polyunsaturated fatty acids?

In ordinary times, aquaculture business executives are “managing the probable”: finding clear answers to clear questions or manipulating tools to control uncertainty. Then they limit the number of alternatives they consider by asking questions like “What’s the expected return on this investment?” That approach can work well if the right course is to limit the number of alternatives.

If it isn’t, if you face a future of known and unknown unknowns (!) you need a different process: “leading the possible”: trying to expand the universe of alternatives. You pose different questions, such as “What do I expect not to find?” You use a more diverse group of decision-makers and external professionals to consider more diverse perspectives. You might even entertain the ideas of people you dislike or explore the impossible, widening your scope. To learn more about how your company can rise above the muddle and uncertainty; proactive confronting competitors!

Long ago, shamans performed intricate dances to summon rain. It didn’t matter that any success they enjoyed was random, as long as the tribe felt that its water supply was in capable hands. Nowadays, late nights of number crunching, feasts of modeling, a pandemic and the familiar rituals of industry presentations have replaced the rain dances of old. 

But often, the odds of generating reliable insights are not much better.

Perhaps that’s because our approach to the hardest problems like biosecurity and diseases —and the anxiety those problems create—is fundamentally misdirected. When most of us face a challenge, we typically fall back on our standard operating procedures. Call this “managing the probable.” In much of our education, and in many of our formative experiences, we’ve learned that some simple problems have one right answer. For more complicated problems, accepted algorithms can help us work out the best answer from among available options. Even impossible options, only a ‘fool’ could propose. 

“Everyone knew it was impossible until a fool who didn’t know came along and did it.” — Albert Einstein 

We respond to uncertainty with analysis or leave that analysis to the experienced hands of others. We look for leaders who we think know the way forward and offer some assurance of predictability.

This way of approaching situations involves a whole suite of routines grounded in a mind-set of clarity if not outright certainty. To that end, they are characterized by sharp-edged questions intended to narrow our focus: What is the expected return on this investment? What is the three-year plan for this venture? At what cost are they willing to settle? But asking these kinds of questions, very often legitimate in business-as-usual settings, may constrain management teams in atypical, complex situations, such as responding to a quickly changing market. Our tendency to place one perspective above all others—the proverbial “fact-based view” or “maximizing key stakeholders’ alignment”—can be dangerous.

All too often, we operate with an excessively simple model in enormously messy circumstances. We fail to perceive how different pieces of reality interact and how to foster better outcomes.

Moving from “managing the probable” to “leading the (im)possible” requires us to address challenges in a fundamentally different way. Rather than simply disaggregating complexities into pieces we find more tractable, we should also broaden our range of interventions by breaking out of familiar patterns and using a whole new approach that allows us to expand our options, experiment in low-risk ways, and realize potentially outsized payoffs. Five types of people we surround our self with: the inspired, the passionate, the motivated, the grateful and the open-minded.

When our work and passion are in sync, we are a force of nature. Unstoppable.

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