There are good reasons in believing that some things are impossible, especially when they’ve been built into our societal or organizational psyche.
Greg Satell, an unconventional thinker, explains, “We spend a good portion of our lives learning established models. We go to school, train for a career and hone our craft. We make great efforts to learn basic principles and are praised when we show that we have grasped them. As we strive to become masters of our craft, we find that our proficiency increases, so too does our success and status. A new idea, whether it be a scientific principle or an operational model, gains power through its capacity to solve problems. As it proves its worth, it gains acceptance and becomes established.”
Achieving the impossible therefore requires challenging established paradigms and principles that are generally well accepted. This is not an easy task because as we learn and experience behaviors, they become hardwired in our brains through a process that neuroscientists call Hebbian plasticity. The expression “neurons that fire together wire together” is attributed to neuropsychologists Donald Hebb and Carla Shantz. The phrase essentially explains the chemical reaction that goes on in our brains as we learn.
Over time, specific neurons become associated with each behavior, emotion and feeling. Alvaro Pascual-Leone another neuroscientist, gives a brilliant analogy in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, in which he compared the brain to a snowy hill in winter: “When we first go down a hill in a sled, we can be flexible because we have the option of taking various paths through the soft snow each time. If we begin to favor certain paths, they become speedy and efficient, guiding the sled swiftly down the hill. Changing these paths becomes increasingly difficult, as we literally become stuck in the ruts that we create.”
Human behavior and thoughts operate on the same principle. Our behavior creates preferred chemical pathways in our brains that eventually make these behaviors so efficient that they are difficult to change, we become “stuck in a rut.”
The difficulty, therefore, in going against the grain to prove the impossible possible, is that the resulting behavior threatens to upset the applecart of accepted wisdom and places in question the validity of the paradigms that have given power and prominence to the establishment.
Hence, people on quests get a lot of pushback. The reason why few people or organizations embark on quests is that they are hard strategies that involve breaking down and unlearning established paradigms and then rewiring the brain to change behaviors.
Essentially, when you embark on an organizational quest, you need to rewire the way parts of your organization thinks! But as Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Organizational models work in much the same way. In 1975, Steven Sasson invented the digital camera. Kodak was his employer at the time; however, his bosses who apparently felt the new paradigm offended their senses of the world, told him that that camera would never see the light of day. Sasson believed that two million pixels would be capable of competing against 110 negative film. His first digital camera produced only ten thousand pixels, so the quality was not great.
Executives asked when digital would compete against film, so using Moore’s Law, which predicts how fast computing technology advances, he estimated 15 to 20 years. “When you’re talking to a bunch of corporate guys about 18 to 20 years in the future when none of those guys will still be in the company, they don’t get too excited about it,” said Sasson in an interview with the New York Times. Unable to shift with digital photography Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
In a world of disruptive change, embarking on quests as a core strategy is imperative for success and competitive advantage because: firstly, the rewards are massive when you are at the forefront of creating a new paradigm; and secondly, if you do not, you will be disrupted by someone else who figures out how to make the impossible possible.
A quest by its very nature is worth making the necessary sacrifices to rewire behavior because people become passionate about the meaningful difference it will deliver.