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Not so inconceivable

The huge challenges facing society require new ‘possibilistic thinking’ that systematically challenges existing assumptions, says a new paper co-authored by Dr Matthew Grimes of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Suited woman gazes out of the window up towards the sky, deep in thought.
Matthew Grimes.
Dr Matthew Grimes

The “grand challenges” facing society such as climate change and inequality require fresh entrepreneurial thinking that pushes the boundaries of what is conceivable, argues a new journal article co-authored by Dr Matthew Grimes, Reader in Organisational Theory & Information Systems and Co-Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School.

To avoid mere incremental improvements over existing ideas and institutions, new practices must “encourage the systematic interrogation of existing assumptions,” says the paper published in the journal Organization Theory – which proposes the concept of “possibilistic thinking”.

The paper – entitled “Inconceivable! Possibilistic thinking and the sociocognitive underpinnings of entrepreneurial responses to grand challenges” – is co-authored by Matthew Grimes of Cambridge Judge and Timothy J. Vogus of Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, Tennessee.

Matthew here discusses some of the paper’s findings and conclusions:

  • There’s a need to revisit fundamental principles of how we respond to grand challenges. We need less conventional approaches that really push the envelope: some of these ideas might initially be considered “loonshots”, or ideas that are widely dismissed as being loony, but some of these may eventually hold the key to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems.
  • We argue that “possibilistic thinking” involves the systematic deconstruction of existing assumptions along with the subsequent development of new worlds. This new thinking involves a departure from existing categories that often channel information too narrowly. By reorienting attention through new ways of thinking, groups can collectively embrace new ways to challenge existing structures.
  • Entrepreneurs need to focus away from the mean and toward the outliers. They should “take their eyes off the proverbial ball” short term, and focus instead on longer time horizons and events occurring on the periphery – because attention on local anomalies can highlight the need for new approaches.
  • Possibilistic thinking is emotionally charged, and this can induce bold action. Research has shown that emotions and a focus on consequences tend to reinforce one another, so this can serve as a motivational mechanism that compels action to address huge challenges. Inducing fear or hope can boost the likelihood of translating this into change.
  • We acknowledge that possibilistic thinking can carry unintended consequences. Such thinking often involves “discontinuous innovation”, and this can disrupt cultures, markets and relationships. So it’s important for people engaged in possibilistic thinking to discuss and negotiate these issues with stakeholders, and to erect effective guardrails to minimise such risks.