The pandemic has changed our definition of “impossible.” For all the difficulties, trials, and tribulations, we’ve been able to mobilize at a global level to confront a global threat. We’ve radically changed how we work and how we live, almost overnight.
As we focus on restoring our systems, our spirits, and our planet after a marathon of a year, our collective agility under all the crises of 2020 is noteworthy. And now, many innovators, leaders and entrepreneurs are wondering, “What else can we do?” Big, hairy, audacious ideas — on everything from climate change to public policy to societal issues — are surging to the forefront. We have an opportunity to rebuild better, and change is in the air.
But… how do you bridge that gulf between vision and reality? I’ve wrestled with this as the leader of a global ag tech company. Our mission is, in no uncertain terms, to change the world by transforming how we grow food and by changing the economics of agriculture, including reducing synthetic pesticide loads globally by 80% in the next 10 years.
In the end, I’ve discovered that bringing big ideas to life requires toeing the boundary between two totally different mindsets — unflagging optimism and ruthless pragmatism. This is the heart of the now famous Stockdale Paradox, as Jim Collins detailed in his book Good to Great. Inspired by Admiral James Stockdale, who was held as a POW for seven years during the Vietnam War, it requires never losing sight of your intended outcome, but also staying grounded enough to confront obstacles along the way.
There’s no magic formula for achieving the “impossible,” but I believe there is a basic process. Here’s what I’ve learned about making my big ideas a reality.
As a leader, the most important stakeholder you need to persuade — from concept to execution — is yourself. This starts with a willingness to face your own limiting beliefs. There’s a folksy anecdote about a family whose tradition is to cut off both ends of a roast. A young child asking her parent “why?” leads them to discover that this venerable tradition started not for any culinary reason, but because great grandma had a tiny oven and the roast had to be cut to fit in the oven. The practices got adopted without question and carried down through generations (and larger ovens) for decades until a small child questioned it.
So many of our industries and systems operate by that pot-roast principle. As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, we overwhelmingly rely on utilitarian, simplistic — and sometimes just plain wrong — assumptions to make sense of our complex world.
At my company, we learned how stubborn conventional beliefs can be. As we started looking for natural, organic alternatives to synthetic pesticides, we came up against the (incorrect) perception that natural/biological solutions could not be as effective as synthetic chemicals. Public opinion has finally started to change, but biases aren’t easy to shift. One powerful way we address this is by using measurable, trustworthy data to challenge business-as-usual preconceptions. Equally critical is translating your ideas into concrete and tangible steps. Even if the numbers seem daunting, jot down actionable plans, create timelines, and cost each phase of what needs to happen to bring your idea to life.
Nurture Your Network
You’re not going to change the world by yourself. The adage, “to go fast, go alone; to go far, go together,” is what big, hairy, audacious goals are all about. Rallying support is critical, from having many minds to bounce ideas off, to mustering the momentum to push through difficult times. For entrepreneurs, it’s key to start with your own team. Think of your team’s energy like sunlight through a prism. When it isn’t focused, you get refracted and dispersed — albeit beautiful — light. But when focused, that same light becomes focused energy, so powerful it can cut steel.
Finding that focus starts with listening to dissent. My team was initially wary when I proposed doubling down and focusing on soil health and climate-smart agriculture. But that showed me something key: I needed to do a better job connecting the dots and framing the ROI, not just for our team but for all audiences. Ultimately, growing stronger, healthier crops requires understanding the stuff in which those crops grow. Soil health is critical to plant health, and critical to our business. Ultimately, creating a safe space for thoughtful critique strengthened our company plans.
Of course, your idea must be bigger than you and your company. Once you have your team on board, you’ll need investors and strategic partners to join. Too many entrepreneurs only network when they need something: money, resources, and advice. Big mistake — big ideas require true believers, and those kinds of relationships are not built overnight.
My philosophy is to meet (these days, virtually) with everyone — to the frustration of my support team. For example, meeting with a documentary filmmaker seemed a bit random at first, but his latest film has introduced me to a global community of regenerative agriculture enthusiasts. A diverse network also gives you access to multiple perspectives that will be invaluable for all your big ideas to come.
Embrace the Feedback Paradox
Your ability to listen to and adapt to feedback will dictate your company’s success — but not all feedback is created equal. For example, my company is developing tech to help reclaim carbon in the soil. Initially, we encountered a camp of experts who insisted it simply could not be done, pointing to research suggesting there is no capacity to store much more carbon in soil. Despite contradictory evidence, these kinds of misperceptions can have a chilling effect on even the greatest projects by narrowing minds on what’s possible.
My advice to others pursuing their own big, hairy, audacious goals: Take universal outlooks, like “impossible” or “it can’t be done” with a healthy grain of salt. When people say, “it can’t be done,” the real meaning is “it hasn’t been done yet.” At the same time, though, critics often raise valid points. Devil’s advocates can be your best allies if you know how to use their feedback. Often, feedback can lead you down a new line of questioning. Sometimes, yes, your efforts will run into walls and dead ends. But by rejecting “impossible” outright, we end up extending the range of possible — pushing our knowledge and our team’s abilities to new limits.
Never Give Up
The pandemic has brought profound uncertainty. But we’re also at a point where we don’t have to go back to doing things exactly as we were before. For entrepreneurs and innovators, there is an opportunity to reimagine what our world could look like — what great could look like. Big ideas can help us rebuild in a way that is good for people, the environment and society. Don’t give up on yours.