That’s impossible. Until it’s not
There was once someone who imagined it might be possible to place humans into a vehicle with wings, launch it into the air—and land those passengers back on earth, safely. This had never been done, please note, and it was widely viewed as a crazy, deluded idea.
And yet, humans now fly across the planet routinely and regularly.
Someone else went even further, imagining we can send a man to the moon—and bring him back alive. The moon, that far-off, mysterious glowing orb in our night sky? How can we possibly land there? But we did, and now setting off into space is no longer viewed as madness.
What does it take to do these things? A combination of attitudes and attributes. First, imagination. Someone has to start dreaming about things that seem not just improbable, but probably impossible. In this situation, what is being dreamt has never been done, there is no precedent, and to contemplate it is to flirt with absurdity.
To move on from imagination takes another trait: logicality. We can’t just proceed on the basis of dreams; we also have to apply logic. Is this supposedly crazy idea actually feasible? Do our calculations add up? Is there a rational basis for believing the unbelievable? Is there more than ambition and emotion driving us?
And then, when the dreaming and calculations are done, a final trait: courage. We have to gather the guts to proceed. We know what we are doing is remarkably difficult and the possibility of failure very high—but we do it anyway. We set our doubts aside, rely on the soundness of our analysis, and plunge into the unknown. Very few can do this last bit. Most of us live only in our comfort zones, surrounded by the tried and the tested, questioning every new endeavour.
Imagination, logicality, and courage. Every great human strategy and achievement is founded on these attributes being present in those involved in the adventure.
Without imagination, we stick to what is known and understood. Without logicality, we embark on wild escapades with no likelihood of success. Without courage, we stay safe and timid and breach no boundaries.
Throughout our history humans have contemplated the impossible, and used imagination, logicality, and courage to overcome it. And once the first such person or team breaches the boundary, others follow suit. What looked like madness is now common knowledge.
As I point out in my recent book, Up & Ahead, Kenya’s M-PESA originally looked like a nonsense idea—until it wasn’t. We now use M-PESA and its competitors regularly and routinely in our lives. A couple of decades ago the idea that we could have pan-African banking groups originating from Kenya seemed highly delusional. And yet, we now have several such players—once the first one was bold enough to cross a border. Netflix dreamt that it could stream shows and movies into our homes using the internet. We now consume streamed content as a commonplace occurrence. The likes of Uber, Instagram, and Airbnb were not founded by the unimaginative or the timid.
None of these things were commonplace before they happened, though. They all required leaders and teams that did the dreaming, did the reasoning, and did the daring. Once they were done and the case was proven, others came piling in. The pioneers, however, had no precedent, no historical lessons to draw from, no proven case, no track record. They had to blaze the first trail in the wilderness.
Do you and your team have these attributes, of being dreamers, thinkers, and doers? If so, some big strategic breakthroughs are likely in your future. A word of caution, though: no matter how strong your logic, acts of imagination and courage inevitably also lead to some failures and setbacks. That, after all, is why the rest of the pack doesn’t contemplate them. The setback is also the learning, however. All the organizations identified above encountered some pretty serious difficulties early on in their adventures. But they did not lose heart, they learned their early lessons acutely, they adjusted course, and kept going.
A good leader encourages and inculcates these traits in the team members. Dreamers have to be combined with doers, and critical thinkers have to ground the project in achievable reality. In my observation, the best teams have great diversity: in skillsets, personality types, intelligences, and viewpoints. The leader has a key role to play here. First, in seeking this diversity and selecting it; and then in deploying it to best effect. Great leadership involves asking big questions of big initiatives. Have we shown enough imagination here? Does our math add up, and is there a decent likelihood of success? And do we have the nerve to go to market with this and see it through?
As 2024 rolls out, I wish for you and your team much imagination, much calculation, and much courageous determination. Of these things great achievements are made.
(Sunday Nation, 7 January 2024)