The Art of Possibility

"Our joint conviction is that much, much more is possible than people ordinarily think."

- The Art of Possibility, page 2

Whether you’re in business or running a household, part of a team or working alone, you’re operating with a set of assumptions and beliefs – a framework – about how the world works and how people are likely to behave in any given situation.  That framework informs your behaviour, your decisions, and your attitudes toward others.  Sadly, many of our frameworks have evolved over time based on our negative experiences and so are by default designed to protect us and keep us safe from being wrong or losing face.

Not surprisingly, these negatively-based frameworks get in the way of us achieving greatness and overcoming obstacles, not to mention creating difficulty in our interactions with others who have their own frameworks in place.

Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, the authors of The Art of Possibility: Transforming Personal and Professional Life, posit that the world could be entirely different if we all adjusted our frameworks to focus on possibility.  Based on their respective experiences as the renowned conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and as a family therapist, they suggest that the frequent conflict between the good of a group (whether it’s an organization, an orchestra, or a family) and the interests of the individual need rarely occur.  Rather, by changing our frameworks, barriers disappear, extraordinary accomplishment becomes every day, co-operation is easy and possibility comes to life.

Relying heavily on musical metaphors and examples from Benjamin’s conducting and teaching experiences, The Art of Possibility suggests eleven “practices” that are intended to shift the reader’s framework and, by extension, change the way we see the world and others in it.  Through the use of stories and examples, the authors demonstrate that the leader of any group has the power to change the group’s dynamic and direction simply by adjusting their own framework toward the art of possibility.


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Be a Contribution

"In the game of contribution you wake up each day and bask in the notion that you are a gift to others."
- The Art of Possibility, page 58

Of all the eleven practices offered up in the book, I think that this one has the potential for the most significant impact on its own.  The idea is to consider how you can serve – be a contribution – rather than succeed or fail, or compare yourself to others.  If you are playing a competitive game, then by definition you cannot trust anyone who might not be oriented toward the same objectives you are.  If, on the other hand, you think in terms of your own contribution, you throw yourself into whatever you’re doing on the basis of making a difference – which changes your perspective on who you are as well as who else is involved.  Your worldview changes from one of scarcity to one of abundance – there’s enough success for everyone because it’s defined differently than the typical win/lose.  Viewing yourself as a contribution shifts your perspective away from self-concern toward being in a relationship with others for the purpose of making a difference.  If service and contribution are the goals, then the interests of the individual are by default aligned with the interests of the organization.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Giving an A

"The freely granted A expresses a vision of partnership, teamwork, and relationship."
- The Art of Possibility, page 36

In the practice of “Giving an A,” Mr. Zander bestowed an A course grade on all of his students at the beginning of the term, thereby taking competition and fear of failure off the table.  In order to qualify for the A grade, the students had to write a letter describing, in the present tense, what they would have done by the end of the term to have earned the A.  They all demonstrated an ability to envision great personal growth, to overcome beliefs and behaviours that might have hampered their progress, and make major shifts in who they were as people – and none of it had to come at the expense of another student’s own success.

The practice of “Giving an A” can, for example, be incorporated into the workplace by overriding the quota in the performance review system and granting every employee an “exceeds expectations” rating – provided they draft a description of what they’d have done to deserve that rating by the end of the year.  Imagine what removing the dysfunction of the rating Bell curve would do to the level of motivation and engagement in an organization that was previously system-bound?  The impact is potentially staggering.

“Giving an A” is an amazing concept which can apply in any environment where any one person’s success can only occur if someone else fails or falls behind.  It replaces judgment with possibility, focuses on standards and process rather than outcomes, and eliminates the anxiety over performance measurement that can’t help but get in the way of taking risks and expressing real creativity.  This practice is an extraordinary concept worth implementing in any environment where genuine innovation and team behaviour are desired.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Rule Number 6

"When we follow Rule Number 6 and lighten up over our childish demands and entitlements, we are instantly transported into a remarkable universe.  This new universe is cooperative in nature, and pulls for the realization of all our cooperative desires.  For the most part it lies a bit above our heads.  Angels can fly there because, as you may have heard, they take themselves lightly. But now, with the help of a single rule, so can we."
- The Art of Possibility, page 97

Rule Number 6 is “Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously.”  What are rules 1 through 5? They don’t exist.  The practice here is to lead by example, lightening up, and not trying to change others but setting a tone that others can relax into.  The authors distinguish between our “calculating self” – the aspect of our frameworks that judges everything we do in terms of our ability to succeed, and that takes itself VERY seriously – and our “central self” which is naturally generative, abundance-oriented, and creative. “Rule Number 6” asks that the “central self” be allowed to guide us, rather than allowing the downward spiral that accompanies the “calculating self.”

The Art of Possibility is a guidebook for mindset change.  If you adjust how you see yourself, give others the tools to see themselves differently, and tread lightly through it all you will discover ease and inspiration that were previously hidden behind expectations, beliefs, and pre-conceptions.  But if accessing possibility is just that easy, why do we grip so tightly to those expectations, beliefs and pre-conceptions that only create limits and barriers?  Why can’t we let go?

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Karen Wright

ABOUT Karen Wright

I am a Master Certified Coach and recent author of my own book, "The Complete Executive - The 10-Step System for Great Leadership Performance". I work with game-changers, innovators and entrepreneurs to catalyze their best leadership capabilities such that they're fully equipped to do their great work...
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