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Excerpt: The Power of Impossible Thinking: Transform the Business of Your Life and the Life of Your Business

Are you having trouble making a needed transformation?

Are you stuck in your career?

Is your organization stalled in its progress?

Are you lagging behind competitors in innovation?

Are you having trouble making your diet and exercise program work?

Are you overwhelmed by information?

It could be that you need to change your mental models.

Transforming your mental models can help you think impossible thoughts and overcome the barriers to change in your life, work and society. This book will show you how.

It's almost midnight.

You are walking down a dark city street toward your car parked several blocks away, when you hear footsteps behind you. You don't turn around, but you quicken your pace. You remember a news story from a few weeks ago about a robbery at knifepoint in the neighborhood. Your pace quickens. But the footsteps behind you are also moving very quickly.

The person is catching up to you.

At the end of the block, under the street lamp, the steps are immediately behind you. You turn suddenly. You recognize the familiar face of one of your colleagues, heading to the same parking lot. With a sigh of relief, you say hello, and you and he continue on your way together.

What just happened?

The reality of the situation didn't change at all, but the instant you recognized the face of your colleague, the world in your mind was transformed. The image of the pursuing attacker was transformed into that of a friend. How could so little have changed in the situation, yet so much have changed in the way you viewed it?

First of all, you had created a complete picture of what was happening based on a tiny bit of information -- the sound of footsteps behind you at night. From this mere suggestion, you drew upon memories of news stories of crimes, together with your personal fears and experiences, to conjure up an image of a potential attacker. You changed your actions based on this assessment of the situation, walking faster to escape an assailant. This could be a great survival instinct, but in this case, you were fleeing an assailant who did not exist.

Then, just as quickly, in the flash of the street lamp, you gained a little more information -- and the entire picture shifted. In a split second, you recognized the face of a colleague -- again based on the vaguest hints. You didn't take time to stare or think deeply about it. There might have been other possibilities in the situation. Could the person have been an assailant wearing a mask to look like your colleague? Could your colleague be an assailant? These possibilities were so remote that you didn't consider them, and by the time you thought through them, you might be dead. You saw the face, and the footsteps quickly switched categories from "foe" to "friend."

Only a small part of this drama happened on the sidewalk. Most of it was created within your own mind.

Working on transformation initiatives with leaders of major global corporations, we have recognized a simple lesson with profound implications: To change your world, you first have to change your own thinking. Neuroscience research shows that your mind discards the majority of the sensory stimuli you receive. What you see is what you think. The ability to see the world differently can create significant opportunities, as companies such as Southwest Airlines, FedEx, Charles Schwab and others have demonstrated. But even successful models can ultimately become a prison if they limit your ability to make sense of a changing world, in the way that major airlines failed to fully recognize the threat of upstarts such as Ryanair or that music companies, locked into a mindset of selling CDs, failed to see the opportunities and threats of music file sharing.

From driving organizational growth to improving personal health and fitness to fighting international terrorism, your mental models shape your responses in every area of your life. How do you become better at recognizing and using mental models more effectively? This book provides specific insights and strategies to help you understand the role of mental models, and know when to change them -- so you can transform your organization and your world.

Surely the human mind is not so malleable.

Are you saying we all have lost touch with reality?

We know what we see, right?

Why don't we ask the folks who saw Bugs Bunny in Disneyland?

The "wascally wabbit" from Warner Brothers would be turned into stew if he actually showed up to cavort with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in the theme park of rival entertainment company Disney. Yet when test subjects were shown mocked-up images of Bugs Bunny shaking hands with tourists in Disneyland, some 40 percent subsequently recalled a personal experience of meeting Bugs Bunny in Disneyland.1 They "remembered" a meeting that was, in fact, impossible. It turns out that many of us are not much more astute at avoiding the rabbit's tricks than his befuddled archrival Elmer Fudd.

How often in your daily life do you find yourself shaking hands with Bugs Bunny in Disneyland?

OK, so we might be fooled by some sleight of hand in a theme park, but we certainly won't miss the signals that are truly important in our environment.

How about overlooking a gorilla?

Researchers asked subjects to count the number of times ball players with white shirts pitched a ball back and forth in a video. Most subjects were so thoroughly engaged in watching white shirts that they failed to notice a black gorilla that wandered across the scene and paused in the middle to beat his chest. They had their noses so buried in their work that they didn't even see the gorilla.2

What gorillas are moving through your field of vision while you are so hard at work that you fail to see them? Will some of these 800-pound gorillas ultimately disrupt your game?

What you see is what you think.

Just as we can believe we see the "impossible" -- such as Bugs Bunny in Disneyland -- or fail to see a gorilla striding across our field of vision, our mental models shape the opportunities and threats that we can see in our lives.

To change, you must first see the possibilities. By understanding the power of mental models and the process of changing them, you can think impossible thoughts. These thoughts can transform the way you approach the life of your business and the business of your life. On the following pages, we'll explore a process for unlocking the power of impossible thinking.

Rabbits and gorillas may be interesting, but why should I care about mental models?

Mental models shape every aspect of our lives. If you are stuck in your career, if your organization is stalled in its growth, an underlying mental model may be holding you back, or a new model might open opportunities for progress.

If you are lagging behind your competitors in innovation, it may be your models that are constraining your creativity. If you are overwhelmed by information, perhaps the models you are using are not up to the challenge of making sense in our information-rich world. If you are trying unsuccessfully to lose weight, increase exercise or improve your health, the mental models you use to understand these activities will have a dramatic impact on the outcomes you achieve and the quality of your life. If your personal relationships are strained, your mental models, and those of others, could be at the root. And if you want to change society or the broader world, you need to begin by looking at the mental models that shape your world and challenging them.

In any area of your life where you need to change and transform yourself, your organization or others, mental models play a central role. Yet we often have little awareness of what our models are and how they shape what we can see and do. Mental models can appear simple, and are often invisible, yet they are always there and have a significant impact on our lives. Changing the world begins with changing our own thinking.

The world we live in is not out there on the street.
It is in our own minds.

Until we recognize this, we will always be running away from ghosts and moving toward mirages. In our business and personal lives, we often fail to see the true threats and true opportunities because of the limits of the way we make sense of the world.

This book is designed to creep up on your view of the world and shake up the way you see the world. It will help you understand how your mind uses only a small part of the outside world it perceives, filling in the rest of the picture to make sense. Your mental models shape your vision and actions. Knowing how this process works will help you challenge the way you view the world and the way you act.

This idea may seem quite simple and self-evident, and it is. But if you truly consider the implications, as we will on the following pages, it is a powerful idea. This transformation of thinking is where all the transformations of our personal lives, our organizations and our society begin. That's the power of impossible thinking.

Do you hear footsteps behind you?

Some of the early reviewers of the manuscript liked the way this book opens, because they thought it drew the reader into the core issues. Others, operating from a different "mental model" (the way we make sense of the world), wanted instead a concise summary of where the book was headed and a diagram showing all the key points we'll be making. Others wanted more of an academic description, relating the discussion to what has been written in this area.

This is probably a good time to point out that your own reaction and experience is probably due as much to the mindset you bring to these pages as to what is written on them. The concept of a "book" is quite different when it refers to an extensively footnoted academic work versus a popular novel. Peter Drucker and Stephen King both write "books," but beyond the fact that they both use words, what they mean by "book" is completely different.

What did you expect when you picked up this book? Because it is coauthored by a university professor, were you expecting something more academic? Because it is coauthored by a former chief technology officer at a major corporation, were you expecting to see some opening tales from the trenches of business? Both these elements appear later on, but the opening is designed specifically to challenge your current thinking and perhaps make you more receptive to the ideas you will encounter here.

A fundamental message of this book is that what you see in any situation depends in very large part upon what you bring to the table. What you see in this book is no exception. You are involved as much as we are in the process of making sense of the ideas presented. More than what we have written here, your own experiences and mindsets will shape what you get out of this process.

If you think this isn't the way to start a book, we ask that you set aside your existing model and give us a little time to win you over. We also invite you to let us know your reactions so we can challenge ourselves and our own mental models (contact the authors at


1. Braun, Kathryn A., Rhiannon Ellis, and Elizabeth F. Loftus. "Making My Memory: How Advertising Can Change Our Memories of the Past." UW Faculty Server. January 2002. http: / ; Gould, Ann Blair. "Bugs Bunny in Disneyland?" Radio Nederland. 7 May 2002. http: / .

2. Taylor, John G. "From Matter to Mind." Journal of Consciousness Studies. 9:4 (2002). pp. 3-22. This experiment has also been mentioned in various other papers.