In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice encounters the White Queen. The Queen explains to Alice how you can’t do two things at once, but the conversation takes a unique turn.
Alice laughed, “There’s no use trying.” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast…”
When I can’t see how a situation can improve, this simple exchange between Alice and the Queen reminds me that possibilities do exist.
Like Alice, I might first accept challenges as insurmountable obstacles. Soon, a sense of hopelessness consumes me, and I see no way to change the situation.
Have you ever felt this?
Making a difference, changing what is to what can be, depends on my willingness to believe in “as many as six impossible things before breakfast…” or lunch or in the middle of a meeting.
Despite those feelings, I remind myself to look for the possible. How have others tackled a tough problem or found a better way to improve their lives, school, or office? We can always do better.
Possibilities don’t hide, waiting for only the brightest to find them. The power to look at problems or the mundane in new and creative ways lies within us. But are we willing to take that leap of faith into the unknown?
Unleashing creativity requires stepping out of the comfort zone that keeps us safe from change. In reality, that comfort zone may have become the walls that close in around us and suck out all the enthusiasm in our lives.
Paying attention in new ways
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull (Co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios) tells the story of how Pixar created a culture of possibilities. He believes excellence emerges when we have deep conversations and value the creativity in each person and our collective work.
As Ed explains . . .
“This book . . . is about the ongoing work of paying attention — of leading by being self-aware, as managers and as companies. It is an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”
The examples, the tools, the story of the people who create provide steps, possibilities of what can be in our organizations. I realize a school or a manufacturing plant is not the same as a creative studio. But these strategies apply to many situations and contexts, including our personal lives.
How do we allow creativity, inspiration, or our voice to open the door to possibilities? Here are just four of the ways Pixar believes in six impossible things every day.
Lessons for changing the impossible to possible
Dailies or Solving Problems Together
Dailies are a central element of the Pixar culture.
“Participants have learned to check their egos at the door—they are about to show incomplete work to their director and colleagues. This requires engagement at all levels…Dailies are master classes in how to see and think more expansively…The result: We see more clearly.”
Ongoing dialogue, feedback, and collective problem-solving engage the entire team to support projects. Even as the lead on the project, the entire team contributes to the leader’s success by candidly providing feedback, insights, or a perspective that he may have missed. The output creates a more innovative, creative, or practical product or solution.
Children have interesting problem-solving capabilities. On a rainy afternoon, my children wanted to build a tent. They didn’t want a tent made by simply throwing a blanket over a table. Their design involved multiple rooms and an escape door.
Rather than giving my children the solution, we sat down and brainstormed the possibilities—not as mother and children—but joint problem solvers. No egos here because we wanted the best tent.
The tent never materialized quite as they had envisioned. Rather, success came in sharing ideas, considering constraints, and trying different coverings and anchors. Legos, pillows, and children spent the rest of the day and evening in a world they designed and imaginations took over.
“Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration.”
For the film, Ratatouille, the team went to France and ate in the best restaurants, talked to the chef’s, and observed what happens in the kitchen. Their research added a level of authenticity to the storyline that the team might otherwise have missed.
You can’t always find the solution in the conference room. How many times have you sat in meetings solving problems for people and situations that you do not fully understand? Get up and go to the source. See the challenge first-hand.
I was leading a team to design the logistics for a major reconfiguration of people, materials, and furniture. We found ourselves stumped and stuck in our perceptions of the resources available to execute this rather complex task.
Since I wasn’t as familiar with the locations and storage facilities, taking a field trip with the team became my excuse to move them from the table and into the reality we faced. Taking our ideas into the buildings and tracking the distances between them brought ideas on paper to life.
Suddenly, we could see the gaps we had missed. More possibilities to streamline the logistics appeared where we had given up. We couldn’t see what could be — until we looked at the challenges from a fresh perspective.
Integrating Technology and Art
“‘Art challenges technology, technology inspires art.’ This is not meant to be some clever catchphrase—it articulates our philosophy of integration.”
In a creative environment like animated film, Pixar maintained the balance between technology and art. One does not drive the other. You need both. Sometimes technology advancement allows the artist to achieve effects not previously possible. But, using technology only because it exists may not produce the best art.
In Daily Life
In our daily lives and in the workplace, we forget that balance. We chase after the newest shiny thing only to find out that the new app or software doesn’t make it faster, better, or solve the problem.
I’m always looking for ways to streamline my writing process. As a techno junkie, I can be a sucker for the newest app or software. After more than one disappointing purchase, I’ve learned that new doesn’t make it better, and price doesn’t guarantee quality.
If I don’t understand my process and what works for me, no technology will magically put words on paper and publish my best work. I must know the problem I’m trying to solve and then look for the tool that will address the need.
Far too often, companies fall victim to promises of solutions for problems they don’t have. In the meantime, the underlying causes continued to stymie progress. Sometimes, the problem didn’t even need a technology solution. It needed a people and teamwork solution.
“We explore what did and didn’t work and attempt to consolidate lessons learned. Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding they ways in which they aren’t exceptional.”
When you finish a project, do you step back to ask a few questions? What worked? What didn’t work? Why? How could we do this better? What obstacles did we face, and how did our actions facilitate solutions or create bigger problems? Without an ongoing tool for self-assessment, we miss opportunities to learn and ultimately continuously improve.
In the Garden
Every spring, my husband plants a garden. Along the way, he makes mental notes of which vegetables did well and which varieties produced inferior specimens. Seeds from this catalog performed well, but the ones purchased at our local box store gave him little for all the effort.
When the season ends, he conducts his own postmortem of what worked and what didn’t. Why didn’t the zucchini produce? Was it the plants or a lack of pollinators? Bees are essential to gardening, and he saw very few of them this past spring.
Possibilities are all around you
What possibilities will you find for today? While you may explore many sources of ideas, I offer a word of caution.
Look first within yourself.
You have many tools. However, if you do not begin with honest, transparent dialogue in your head or between your colleagues, you will miss the inspiration of the most essential possibility—your ability to create.
No. 1: Believe in the impossible —even before breakfast.
“We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” —Marie Curie
No. 2: Consider how you can use one or two of Pixar’s approaches as a starting point for looking at what seems impossible.
“The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.” —George Bernard Shaw
No. 3: Whether you are tackling tough issues or revving up your creative juices, never give up on the potential within you.
“We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” —Thich Nhat Hanh