Issue 4.4 | September 2013

In this Article: success factors for achieving a truly great ambition.

by Jonathan Wilson 

If you have concluded that the major change you have in mind (whether it be for your organization, your customer or even, for all of society) is too big to pursue, you should think again. Some of the great achievements of our time were considered impossible, not only by nay-saying onlookers, but by those in passionate pursuit of them. “We believed it would fall, but not in our lifetime.” So said South African colleagues to me about that most ugly system of racial oppression, Apartheid.  It was entrenched.  It was in every institution of society.  It was powerful, and tens of thousands suffered, even died, for resisting it. My friends spent their entire careers pursuing a just society, but the objective was so immense they believed they would never personally witness the end of Apartheid.

But they did.

It is the nature of the best ambitions that, because they imagine something so extraordinary, they seem impossible, and therefore pointless to pursue.  It is far easier, rather, to focus on the manageable: clever product upgrades, better processes, career promotions.  And herein lies the deceit about big ambitions.  They are in fact the result of a thousand ordinary, manageable initiatives that accumulate over time into one single result.  Year on year.  Decade on decade.  In fact, it takes between three and four decades to achieve major systemic change.

In other words, within a lifetime.

Towards the Impossible

The primary obstacle to achieving the impossible is not its daunting scale, but our human instinct for immediate and self-gratification.  Here’s what we have to overcome, and how:

1. The impossible will remain impossible so long as you are motivated by glamour

We are understandably stimulated by creative marketing campaigns and breakthrough product launches, glittering career opportunities, ideation events chock full of clever delegates, slicker and smarter processes, and so on.  But each of these is simply an input, a means to an end, a single building block towards the impossible. They should be treated soberly for what they are: necessary, but ordinary. Your company’s strategy should therefore explain the contribution of multiple ordinary things – every resource and activity – to the ultimate outcome.

If you pursue the glamorous for its own sake, you defer the impossible and maintain the inevitable (if perhaps a glossier version of it).

2. The impossible will remain impossible so long as you desire instant gratification

The impossible ambition may be your ultimate objective, but it also has to be taken seriously as a distant objective. To lurch from initiative to initiative (usually driven by short-term pressure or ambition), as companies too often do, is equivalent to the house builder randomly switching from laying bricks, to building window frames to innovating a superior wood screw, without any sense of how each relates to the other. To strategize for the impossible, a plan should anticipate a succession of accumulating impacts over time, some sequential, some parallel: scheduled in terms of months, years and decades.

Apple has of late been the subject of concern by onlookers and analysts who measure success by glamour and by quarter.  They see the absence of another ground-breaking product as indication that Apple is in trouble. This negative analysis is simply not based in fact: Apple just ranked as the top most innovative company in the world for the ninth year running in the Boston Consulting Group’s detailed assessment. At the same time, the eyes of most analysts are fixed on time-horizons that Apple simply doesn’t think in. In response to markets’ negative response to the launch of the (in fact superbly better engineered) iPhone 5S, CEO Tim Cook says, “I don’t feel euphoric on the up, and I don’t slit my wrists when it goes down.”  Instead, “You have to bring yourself back to, ‘are we doing the right things?’”

When you pursue the impossible, you can’t take your cue from market watchers, analysts and spectators, for they will steer you towards the inevitable and thus render your impossible ambition … impossible.

3. The impossible will remain impossible so long as you avoid hard thinking

The product of a lazy mind is a fuzzy ambition. The more fuzzy your impossible ambition, the harder it will be to pursue it, the harder it will be to accurately align your resources and activities with it, the harder it will be to measure how close you are to achieving it, and the harder it will be to know if you need to change your assumptions about it.  This will show up in your strategic plan, which is far more than just a plan.  It is a description of your logic.  It is, implicitly, a statement of assumptions: about what matters most, and about which causes generate what effects. To implement a plan is to test those assumptions.  What metrics are used is therefore crucial.

Too often, companies rely on performance indicators that speak only to the company’s immediate viability and not to where it is on the journey to major systemic achievement.  Rely only on operational metrics and you facilitate the inevitable.

4.  The impossible will remain impossible so long as it is about you

If your impossible ambition is about you, it’s too small, and it’s probably not impossible. More importantly, you cannot build a systemic change movement around you (as a rule. Some manage it. They go on to ruin the world).

Nobody Saw it Coming, But it Did

For a great part of the journey, major systemic change appears a long way off.  All of a sudden, though, momentum picks up, and the envisioned change can come quite swiftly, astonishingly so. On the day in 1994 that Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Butheleizi agreed to cooperate and go forward with South Africa’s first ever full participatory democratic elections, the language of the world’s news media was full of the miraculous.  It seemed nobody saw it coming.  It was, after all, impossible.

Another soul insight from

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