Reality versus Possibility


In the last post, we talked about how language can both shape as well as describe our reality. This is vital when an organisation wants to create real and sustained change – visualising new possibilities, choosing one and moving hundreds or thousands of employees towards it successfully– so let’s explore the idea of reality a little further. Where do our embedded ideas come from?


We tend to create the framework for our own reality based on past observations, experiences and reflections. We do this using a language that has helped us understand this state, enriched with further meaning and credibility through dialogue, shared experiences, and discussions with others.

The limitations of this process are clear. If we remain in equilibrium, constrained by our own perception of reality, then where do breakthroughs come from? What must happen to break our own alignment with conventional wisdom and follow another train of thought, and then allow others to understand it and (potentially) embrace it? It is at this point some might begin talking about ‘creativity’ and ‘brainstorming’, but many attempts at creativity in problem solving or in innovation remain framed – and as such constrained – by existing ideas of reality. Before we look at creativity our next post, we first have to deal with the idea of paradigm shifts.

Breakthrough thinking requires challenging our acquired knowledge. Without getting too deep into theory, for now we will say that to experience a breakthrough, we must be open to questioning what we think we know and the way we view the world. We must also accept our personal or organisational ‘fog of war’ – the things we are as yet unaware that we don’t know – and that whatever is in there could potentially be exciting. Engaging with our ignorance as something positive allows us to unlock our curiosity, so that we may actively seek out novelty, experience and new interpretations, which gives us the power to embrace a new paradigm of ‘possibility’.


Possibility are the things that may or may not come to pass. In any one given situation there could be many different outcomes, but we limit our choices as human beings and as communities, often because we work on options grounded in our past and by a communal agreement on what is, and what is not possible.

Challenging a communal agreement opens up the challenger to risk, whether purely reputational or much worse than that… Consider, for example, that at a time when conventional wisdom assumed Earth to be the centre of the universe, Galileo Galilei reported his discovery that the centre of the universe was, in fact, the sun. In doing so he was stepping out of a community of agreement to introduce a new possibility – opening a dialogue that challenged ‘reality’. Unfortunately, Galileo’s new ‘reality’ fundamentally disputed established teaching, and his refusal to recant his theory meant he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for the rest of his life.

Many other eminent scientists have gone on to make discoveries that became accepted as natural truths, but were subsequently disproven. Isaac Newton’s theory that light was composed of particles, for example, was accepted as fact until 100 years later when Thomas Young discovered that light spread as waves and opinion changed. Subsequently, Einstein came along with his famous e=mc2 equation and told us that light travels in waves as particles. We do not ridicule Newton or Young for being ‘wrong’ of course; each scientist made his own contribution to our evolving understanding of physics, a discipline where the most renowned thinkers are constantly open to extraordinary and as yet unimagined possibilities. Other disciplines would do well to learn from this approach.

From reality to possibility

Practically speaking, how do you shift an organisation’s paradigm from one of reality to one of possibility? We firmly believe this is not the job of a single leader. Rather, leaders must harness the combined strength, intellect and imagination of their people. By bringing many voices together in conversation and collaboration, the realm of possibility is greatly expanded and the ground is laid for exploration, experimentation, inquiry, trial and error and ultimately, triumph.

Once you have assembled the right people – people who know, people who decide and people who do – and you know the questions you want to answer, the next step is to carefully design the conditions for having necessary conversations. There are many different kinds of conversations, each of which serves a different purpose. The conversations that can be had between two people are different to those had within a small group of eight, and different again to those of a larger group, different yet again to those held in person and, indeed, virtually. It is likely that a mix of all of these, carefully structured and using appropriate language, will move you from ‘reality’ to ‘possibility’. Design thinking helps establish which conversations must be had, with whom and how, in order to achieve the possible and to unlock the Group Genius that leads to breakthrough ideas.

Possibility, and knowing that there are in fact multiple options, also suggests the necessity of making choices. It is sometimes harder than we think to accept we have choices to make, as this also imposes the requirement of taking responsibility. The next question becomes, ‘how do we make the best decision?’ and the answer is creativity.

Once you have entered a paradigm of possibility, creativity is no longer the process of generating ideas, but the process of eliminating options.

The Systemic Perspective: The Complex Whole

The_Systemic_PerspectiveIn my last post I raised the question of reductionism versus holism in modelling the enterprise. So which kind of model is more useful to us, in terms of the reality it represents and our ability to work with it effectively?

One of the starting points for the development of Business Process Models is the use of the context diagram. The purpose of the diagram is to identify and document all entities that have a specific impact upon the process. In defining the ‘impact’ of a process, they are deemed as being either suppliers or customers of the specific process. The context, a static picture, sets the scene for the subsequent breaking down (‘decomposition’) of the process into discrete activities. In decomposing the model, we seek to reduce it to its constituent parts for more detailed analysis and so on.

As an approach, this method is particularly interesting. In creating this determinate view we also find ourselves at the very dichotomy (false or otherwise) of science. In the realm of science we find the reductionists and the holists.

Reductionism is defined as being an attempt or tendency to explain a complex set of facts, entities, phenomena, or structures by another, simpler set: “For the last 400 years science has advanced by reductionism… The idea is that you could understand the world, all of nature, by examining smaller and smaller pieces of it. When assembled, the small pieces would explain the whole”.

Holism, on the other hand, is the theory that living matter or reality is made up of organic or unified wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts.

The ‘whole’ refers to what I would call a complex system: “A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole”. We can bring this to life by relating how that translates to Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) we are familiar with such as the human body, natural phenomena like ecology, weather systems and migration patterns, as well as economies and indeed large, complex organisations.

Descriptions of complex systems are determinate and complimentary, entirely dependent upon the observer. Systems move and morph through points of equilibrium as they adapt and self-organise according to their environment or context and, in this sense, control and order is emergent rather than predictable. This makes modelling them a challenge.

The search for defining models of complexity is an inquiry to build fuzzy, multivalent, multi-level and multi-disciplinary representations of reality. When we think about trying to model an enterprise taking a systemic approach, it can feel overwhelming. But remember, holism is not necessarily mutually exclusive from a reductionist approach. The two can be complementary and there are disciplines such as cybernetics that can help us with that.

At Innovation Arts we understand and embrace the complexity in your organisation. Our approaches are designed to help you model your complex systems, and work with these models to rise to whatever challenges to face.

Modelling the Enterprise

Modelling_The-_EnterpriseWhenever we examine an enterprise with a view to addressing issues, seeking efficiencies or assessing the impact of change, we need a model of the business that is simple enough for us to understand, but accurate enough to be useful.

I’ve mentioned previously that I have a background in strategy consulting – transformation in particular. On many occasions, preparing a client business case would depend on mapping out the current reality and the proposed new way of doing things. Understanding the current state – or “As-Is” model would be vital as a baseline for the projected cost savings and added-value delivered to the customer in the future-state model known as the “To-Be”.

But where to start? For a functional viewpoint, Org Charts tell us who does what, where the reporting lines are and – in theory – who has what power in the organisation. In theory… We’ll come back to this in another post. And what about the process side of things?

You’ll have heard of time and motion studies. F.W. Taylor is linked to the ‘time’ component of these studies, but it is another ‘guru’, Frank Gilbreth, the father of ‘motion studies’ whose work interests us here. Almost a century ago now, he presented his ideas on how to describe processes. Gilbreth’s process chart – a device for visualizing a process as a means of improving itwas concerned with finding ‘the one best way to do work’:

 Notably, Gilbreth specified:

“Process-chart notes and information should be collected and set down in sketch form by a highly intelligent man… who need not necessarily have been previously familiar with the actual details of the process…To overcome the obstacles due to habit, worship of tradition and prejudice, the more intelligence shown by the process-chart recorder, the sooner the hearty cooperation of all concerned would be secured.”

So not only had the concept of process modelling been born, but so, too, it would seem, had the external expert with no prior knowledge of what he (almost certainly in those days) was looking at.

This poses an interesting question. Is it true that people outside your business should be the ones to model your future?

I believe there are some elements of truth in that supposition, but there is also something fundamentally flawed. Yes, external, impartial partners can see things about your business that have become so ingrained as to be invisible, and yes, they can cut through the politics of decision making. But at Innovation Arts we do not believe that the intelligence of those partners is the critical factor. Rather, it is harnessing the intelligence, knowledge, expertise and energy that already exist in your organisation, to create meaningful, insightful models of the current and future states, which go well beyond Organograms and process maps.

HR Summit 2014

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

This week, Innovation Arts attended the Annual HR Directors Business Summit in Birmingham. We were invited to ‘live scribe’ some of the inspirational talks from leading experts, with topics covering everything from discovering goldmines of talent to the role of robots in the future HR world! Scribing is a way of capturing complex conversations and discussions graphically (using huge whiteboards and very talented scribes’). Capturing information in this way brings a highly visual element to your meetings and conferences, and can really help bring your organisation’s most complex ideas, conversations or processes to life.

Alongside this, our scribes spent two days creating a ‘knowledge wall’ which visually communicated key insights from the talks that took place throughout the Summit. (See Fernanda and Eddie with the final outcome above).

We also introduced our new values and behaviours game; Dilemma™. The summit brings together 1000 Directors and Industry Professionals so it was a fantastic opportunity for us to demonstrate the new game. Gamification is such a current engagement theme and the enthusiasm at the event definitely proved this.