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“We tried that before and it didn’t work.

Have you heard about the grown elephant and the rope?

Perhaps you’ve heard about the elephants.

Elephants, like humans, have wonderful memories. This is both a strength and a weakness. A superpower and kryptonite. 

Look at this picture of an adult elephant tied to a small bar, with a lightweight rope. A grown elephant can easily bend that bar or break that rope. 

But, sadly, they don’t.

The trainers start tying them when they are little. They learn that they can’t break the rope and as they grow they never again test that theory. To them, it’s not a theory at all – it’s just the truth.

“We tried that before and it didn’t work.”

But it’s worse than that. Bring the human equivalent of adult elephants together to envision possibilities and not one of them will even suggest tugging at that rope. It just won’t come up. They will focus on solving the problem of how to achieve their goals within the range that the rope allows them. The rope length will define their limits. I’ve watched it happen hundreds of times. I’ve been part of it hundreds of times. 

There is a difference between an epiphany and a habit. Talking about possibility and feasibility together is a habit. In most places, it’s just the way things are done. There is a strong taboo against separating the two. Someone may suggest something foolish! Unprofessional! Incorrect! Impossible! Embarrassing!

But, breakthroughs don’t come from doing the right things. Breakthroughs come from doing brave, incorrect, inspiring things.

Twenty-five years ago, I developed a process that has driven my career and life ever since. It’s a process I built off of all I had learned in my career to that point, comparing successful projects to less successful projects, and a system for realizing possibilities that I learned from the pioneering executive coach, Trisha Scudder. 

I had seen her breakthrough process shift the culture and results of a team from ordinary to extraordinary in just a few days. And, while Trisha taught many powerful concepts and processes, one stood out to me as the most powerful of all.

The brilliant sales and marketing consultant and author, Mark S. A. Smith says that, “We are in the epiphany business.”

Trisha’s most powerful idea struck me as an epiphany, and that epiphany has fueled my career ever since.

Here it is: 

Discuss Possibility and Feasibility separately. Start with possibility.

Perhaps this doesn’t seem like very much to you. It didn’t strike me as Earth-shattering either when I first heard it. Trisha made it fun, so I was engaged. The results of the process she led us through, starting with Possibility, then moving on to Feasibility, led to some surprising breakthroughs. This stimulated my curiosity, always curled up like a cat ready to pounce. I committed to playing with this process and to keeping my eyes wide open.

Here’s what I noticed. People come into conversations about the future weighed down by the past and the present. 

We’ve all heard the classic, “We tried that before and it doesn’t work.”

We’ve all seen that little chestnut over-applied.

“Are you sure it was THIS that you tried?”

“Are you sure we are proposing testing exactly the same thing in the same way?”

We’ve all witnessed this idea-killing malpractice. But, what I noticed is that most possibility killing is much more subtle. It’s the ideas that people don’t even bring up in the first place. It’s the invisible limits that people bring to these conversations.

By insisting that the first phase of the conversation be entirely focused on Possibility, while reassuring everyone that the next phase will focus on Feasibility, you will find you develop breakthrough results.

While possibility is all about what might be, feasibility is about, “What can we really get done.” Feasibility is important. Hell, it’s essential. But don’t let it get all mixed up in your discussion of the possible. Don’t let it cloud your vision.

Looking back, I see that this principle is so powerful when practiced that it has played a part in every breakthrough I’ve seen in my career. And, though I built my agency’s process around this epiphany, it is like a brain of which I’ve only used about 10%.

There is a difference between an epiphany and a habit, between having a process and using it. I see the possibility of using this process ALL of the time. I see that I can do so much more good if you use it too.

Let me know how it goes! I’m happy to help. You know where to reach me.