How to achieve impossible things

Just because magicians achieve impossible things, in the opinion of their audiences — doesn’t make their achievements impossible or even magic.

jellyfish in atlanta aquarium © ian beckett

In work every one of us operate at 100% capacity and have nothing left to give to additional tasks — we hide behind our busyness and resist change.

But what is impossible to achieve for you is easy for someone else — why?

Perspective limits us, and psychological biases preserve our beliefs that change is impossible — Leon Festinger who developed the concept of cognitive dissonance is to blame.

Cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort. Since we seek to avoid discomfort, believe we are a good person, and would do no wrong — we have a reason why we resist change which promises impossible things.

Companies strive to maximise profitability by serving their customers at minimum cost of inputs and outputs, required to deliver their product or service.

Henry Ford did this in 1913 to mass produce his Model T on an assembly lines, with tasks broken into small tasks to maximise throughput. It has been applied to company process and professional services ever since.

When my team of software engineers transitioned from traditional waterfall to agile methodologies, we achieved a 4x improvement in throughput, when we structured the team into support and development functions another 2x.

But cognitive dissonance limits the impact dependant on where the work is carried out. In Gateway Computers I had engineering teams in USA, Ireland, Malaysia, Australia and Japan. They localised products for their markets by creating software image components that could be downloaded to PCs in manufacturing quickly, based on customer selected configuration. In each country engineers were doing the same set of tasks, but there was an large variation in the time they were taking. Although wage costs were another variable there was still a 2x or 3x difference in productivity. This, I established, was down to the different levels of risk aversion between countries, and, was supported empirically by the cultural dimension studies done by Geert Hofstede.

The solution was to deploy different strategies of leadership in each country. Collaborative management approaches of “I get paid to take the blame for your mistakes, and you get the recognition for your achievements” worked well in risk averse cultures, whereas in cultures that needed more directive management, I added the caveat “,the first time”!

Every business requires a tailored strategy to achieve a desired business transformation objectives — what has been impossible for them, I may consider easy — but I can never say that.

The steps I use to achieve what is “impossible” are simple:-

· Identify with each function what they do now, and what they see are the barriers to achieving what they know must be done — the AS IS and TO BE.

· Document a mind map of this AS IS territory — for perspective, and agree specific interventions to generate the capacity to change by reducing rework. In many instances this has involved structured change management to avoid competition for scarce resources and elimination of time wasted by non-productive activities or people.

· The same cognitive dissonance that prevents employees and managers achieving what is “impossible” for them, is used to change beliefs,and change team conflict into collaboration.

· Small wins thereafter embed the change and make the impossible — possible.

Thereafter magic happens.



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Ian Beckett MSc

Ian Beckett MSc

Ian is a digital transformation expert who has saved companies over $200m by integrating technologies and diverse global teams effectively— he is a CEO and poet