Envisioning Possibility

Posted on May 24, 2013 by Tara Thiagarajan in Blog, Inside Out, Writing. 2 comments

One of the very first steps of successful entrepreneurship, in any context, micro or macro, is to envision new possibility. Possibility of something that has not yet been created; something that adds a new dimension or element to the status quo; and every so often, something fundamentally different that topples an old paradigm and ushers in a whole new era of capability.

This requires a trick of the human mind to span multiple timescales at once. To stand in the present, reach into the past to access one’s accumulated knowledge and experience, and churn this into something that looks beyond to the future. This is perhaps one of the most remarkable feats that distinguish human beings from other species. To imagine a new context and future is certainly not sufficient to guarantee its realization, but without it the chances are virtually non-existent. It is the first seed of change.

Here in India we are a country of largely subsistence entrepreneurs, ‘entrepreneurs’ who operate at micro scale in India’s subsistence cash economy. These folks outnumber the population employed in the formal economy by 3:1. The subsistence paradigm virtually by definition is about short timescale, immediate survival. It’s about today and perhaps tomorrow but rarely next year or even next month. Are these folks envisioning possibility but simply failing to execute on it due to lack of resources? Or is the problem more fundamental than that?

Envisioning a possibility in the future is essentially an abstraction, which has been defined as connecting related concepts as a group, field or category or a thought process where ideas are distanced from objects. Over the last few years we have interviewed several thousand microentrepreneurs to understand what abilities predict their success, and the ability to abstract is one of them.

At the core, envisioning something new entails the ability to step into a context that is different from your own experience and different from your current moment in time. Our field experiences have offered startling insights into this kind of abstraction. Many folks, we found, even though educated until the 10th standard, struggled with simple questions like this If you make 10 samosas and sell them for 2.50 each, how much revenue will you make? This was a curious thing, especially since they were not struggling with the numerical operation of 10 X 2.50. However, as we probed, we realized that the difficulty was posed by the context. As one person revealingly said, but I don’t make samosas. If samosas were instead replaced with tea, which he did make, the problem became simple. It turned out that a larger percentage of people were able to solve ‘in context’ word problems than one’s that referenced objects or situations out of their realm of experience. It is not trivial to ‘suppose’, to dissociate the ideas of selling and the particular numerical operation from the object itself (here the samosa). And yet, it is ‘supposing’ that creates the future, and is the very centrepiece of entrepreneurship and human progress itself.

The big question is what gives us the ability to ‘suppose’, and can it be acquired? The brain is an open system with enormous potential for plasticity. What this means is that it is constantly sculpting itself in response to the barrage of sensory input that it receives each day. The ability to abstract is likely to be a reflection of the possibilities of pathways that have been created in the brain’s network and is a core aspect of what people have called lateral thinking or fluid intelligence. Some companies believe that they can you train you in it with games that require a working memory of diverse events N steps back in the game. However, games like this are no substitute for real life and we have found that the ability to abstract in an entrepreneurial context relates strongly to the diversity of experience that the person has had. Not more of the same but new places, new contexts, new circumstances, new situations. The more you experience, the more a particular object gains multiple associations, and opens up new pathways of possibility, within the brain and for your life. How then do we get more of that, as an individual and as a country?

Retitled as ‘Create something that challenges the Status Quo’ in Entrepreneur magazine

2 thoughts on “Envisioning Possibility

  1. Hi,

    Good article that provokes thinking!

    Envisioning Possibility is a challenge to human minds because we are only accustomed to see what is there and not what is not there before us. And, what makes matter worse is that “possibilities” don’t present themselves in any obvious ways, usually.

    Hence, to get a glimpse of possibilities, people advocate ‘dream or imagination’ as an alternative that can help to reveal possibilities that don’t exist yet in reality.

    Albert Einstein’s “Imagination is more important than knowledge” is a relevant quote here. For instance, knowledge of engineering technology translates into a ‘dam’ once someone ‘imagines/dreams’ (or “hallucinates” – to borrow the words of Richard Bandler) a dam between two hills where no dam exists…

    Interestingly, the more someone is educated (in India), the less one becomes capable of dreaming! Our culture in educational institutions kill the natural gift children bring with them to school to dream. Imagination is discredited in exams.

    If someone still manages to imagine possibilities, he/she needs to go to the US to find the other two types of partners needed to translate dreams into business: a financier, and a technological agency that translates dream into a reality. The silicon valley is a place where dreamers find these promoting agencies: financiers and technical supporters.

    In India, dreams are least appreciated in business and the least paid for; and when one’s dreams are used, they are not even acknowledged!

    In the Microfinance Industry there certainly is a great lack of ability to dream possibilities to: (1) offer loans at 12 per cent or less and still make a profit; (2) to lead the poor to raise standards of their products to make it fit for international markets, and more importantly, (3) to help them enter new models of cooperative production without which all their tiny enterprises will be wiped out by cheaper and better products from China and other nations.

    From a Neuro-Linguistic Programming point of view, we need to question our (educated) assumptions about Microfinance industry, its environment, the capability of the people it serves, etc… and try new assumptions, at least experimentally, with all the risk involved.

    Hope an article like this will awaken the minds of people to envision possibilities, to transform Microfinance as one that truly helps the poor break free of poverty: making capital available at less cost than what obtains for the rich who borrow from banks, and also one that provides them opportunity to succeed in a Globalized Market!