The Art of the Possible

I heard this phrase last week.

The Art of the Possible.

Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist for The Washington Post, uses it on a television program to describe the outcome of the Iranian Nuclear Arms deal.

We’re not discussing that deal here. But the notion of what’s possible is of compelling interest in every daily interaction. And the art of how we get there.

My colleague Indra Guertler, Professor at the Simmons College School of Management, introduces a class of 16 seasoned business leaders to a financial case study. It involves a contract between a business and the US Government. Divided into 4 teams, folks are asked to do a bit of financial forecasting, assess risk, and come up with a financial negotiation strategy with the government entity.

Each team conjures a clear financial negotiation strategy. And each strategy, Indra reveals, falls well short of what would have been attainable.

The possible eludes.

A skilled negotiation is invariably about The Art of the Possible. But I think of situations you and I encounter every day. A conversation with our boss. A dinner with a good friend. A team meeting at work. An unexpected encounter at a social event.

What is possible in such conversations? And what is the art of getting there?

Aim for the moon: The only way we ever find out what’s possible is by knowing what isn’t. Be bold. Take a social risk. Do it in a way that doesn’t offend but allows the other person an “out.” The art, in any conversation, is to not capitulate in the face of an “out” but seek to understand the WHY of the out.

Suddenly the possible gets closer.

Test your assumptions: They wouldn’t be interested. He’ll never go for this. It has worked elsewhere but it will never work here. The sort of assumptions that never get us anywhere. Turn your assumptions into questions. Is this something that might work here?

Suddenly the possible gets closer.

As part of their class, our 16 business leaders have a teleconference with the CEO of the company they all work for. When the CEO chats about the annual ritual of presenting strategic plans to the Executive Team, he makes one thing clear:

I will pull you aside for a private chat if what you propose is too timid.

Timid doesn’t get us to The Art of the Possible.

Testing your assumptions does. So does aiming for the moon.

In every conversation. In business and in life.