Pattern #62

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Possibility Thinking Card

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Possibility Thinking

Possibility Thinking Symbol
Credits: mama_mia – Max Sudakov –  Shutterstock

Pattern Heart

We are co-creators of all that is happening and will happen and life is filled with potential. So take responsibility in each new situation by thinking “What is possible now?” Prepare for undesirable possibilities but focus on positive developments that are possible now that things have become arrayed as they are at this moment.

Some related patterns:   20 Cooperative Ownership as Stewardship
31 Exuberance   37 Fullness of Choice  
39 Generative Interactions
87 Universal Participation   89 Visionary Attractors  
90 Well-Utilized
Life Energy

  • What is possible now?
  • What are all the good and bad possibilities dancing around in this situation?
  • How can we let our imaginations run wild more often? Would that make more possibilities more realistic or just take us off track into dreamland?
  • What might happen if, when confronted with a problem or crisis, we looked at what we could create out of it rather than how to avoid or defeat it?
  • What might happen if these two parameters (specific, X and Y) were strong or weak? Let’s explore possibilities in the quadrants they make.
  • How is scenario exploration different from strategic planning and backcasting? What are the best uses of each of these approaches to engaging with the future?

Possibility Thinking – going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

Whatever situation or set of circumstances exist at this point, there are lots of possibilities there. And very often we either don’t even bother to look, or we look at the downside, or we look at the bright side, or we look at how it’s impacting us. But we don’t look for what the possibilities are. It’s almost like there’s a skill that needs training and practice to look at positive possibilities.

I know I struggle with this. Part of possibly thinking also is, “Let’s be real, there is some really bad stuff that is possible now, too.” So part of being intelligent and wise is looking at the whole situation. We are not going to weed out just the positives or just the negatives. We’re going to take them both in the account, but we want to focus on the positive developments because that’s what we want, the positive developments. And we are going to take into account the negative things. And there may be ways to look at the negative things that suggest other things. If there is a particular kind of problem, that can direct our attention to looking at the things that cause the problem, so we can correct it.

This possibility orientation is something that needs to be developed. It is different from optimism. Optimism can just say, “Everything is bright,” and may not be actively engaged. It may be just observing: it may be a spectator variety of optimism or pessimism, optimism as a spectator sports rather than as living into the unfolding of things.  It may not realize that we are part of the unfolding of things.

Interestingly enough, as the first line in this pattern says, “We are co-creators of all that’s happened and will happen.” “The co-creators” is a really important label. It’s not one person’s fault, me or somebody else’s. It is not one’s groups fault, them or us. Fault and guilt are like thought terminating clichés; they end our exploration of the greater complexity which involves all of us and the systems that we create, the cultures we create and live in, and that shape our co-creation.

Part of possibility thinking is being aware of what is it that is involved in what’s happening now. And where my leverage, my agency, is and can be exercised.  Where can I play a role? Because a big part of what is possible now is what role am I taking:  Should I take action to make things come out better than they would otherwise? What role could we take, that would make things come out better than otherwise?

And sometimes it’s just deepening into a future landscape:  “If this happened, what would happen? Or if that happened, what would happen? If this happened, what would I do, and what would we do?” This is use of imagination, future orientation, having imagination and future orientation connected to the now, placing yourself in the future looking at “if it is possible that this happens what would be possible then?” Again, this is a totally different orientation from feeling, “We can do anything” or “we can make our plans happen,” or, on the other hand, “it’s all determined, we can’t do anything.”

Another part of possibility thinking is realizing the fundamental probabilistic nature of most of what’s going on.  The probability dynamics described in complexity theory (e.g., weather predictions, statistical projections, strange attractors, “the butterfly effect”, etc.) reflect the nonlinear, highly responsive dynamics we also find at the quantum level that underlies everything else. Holding all that in mind can help us think outside the box of seemingly predictable situations and solid “realities”, promoting our humility, hope, and engagement in the midst of dynamic uncertainty and flux. We add our most positive contributions to the uncontrollable, unpredictable, vibrantly alive scene, knowing that “anything is possible”.

Possibility lives in the moment of creating over and over again with us centrally involved.  Whoever we happen to be, and whoever we’re with, we are centrally involved in what happens next. Orienting ourselves to that and thinking in those terms, we can empower ourselves and others to do the things that make sense next. That is definitely a big part of collective wisdom.

Video Introduction (8 min)

Examples and Resources

Of all the methods and approaches, scenario work is really clearly involved with possibility thinking. “We’re going to look at this possibility and think about how we might deal with that, how do we relate to that possibility, how do we relate to some scenario, is this approach better than another?“ We’re just exercising our possibility muscles here by trying out different approaches.

Positive Deviance is looking over a whole field of activity where there are a lot of people not doing well at solving a particular problem, but here are some outliers who actually are handling it really well. So we’re going to help those outliers realize that they have a secret that other people in the system need. We are going to help those outliers go out and teach their secret to the other folks. It’s not that we’re going to find the answer and then we’re going to teach you. Rather, we are going to get one part of the system to teach the other parts of the system what to do.

Possibility journalism is Peggy Holman’s vision:  After the who-, what-, when-, where-, how-questions have been asked in a professional journalistic interview, you then ask the people involved in the scene “What is possible now?” and report on the things people say in response to that.

In Dynamic Facilitation, the facilitator is always asking, “What would you do about that?” – always shifting into a solution orientation.

The probability sciences – chaos, complexity and quantum mechanics – all deal with probabilities. They note that there is an essential aspect of reality that is associated with probabilities rather than certainties and specific linear laws. For example, there is a certain probability that it is going to rain in a particular place at a particular time.