Think about the impossible before taking breakfast

Tuesday July 13 2021
New Content Item (1)

The impossible is where scientific and managerial breakthroughs occur. ILLUSTRATION | POOL

By Business Daily Africa

“You can never get enough of what you do not really want” Eric Hoffer

Is it time to shift from the warmth and comfort of what we know and practise, to thinking about what seems impossible – the domain of the “don’t know, we don’t know”? What can managers learn from the tale of Alice in Wonderland?

Let’s imagine all the knowledge, the things we know about management and business. In the first circle is the known: “What we know, we know” in all the various management disciplines. Let’s say this is 10 percent of the total knowledge.

“What we know, don’t know” is in the second circle, with the “don’t know” estimated at another 10 percent. Lastly, “What we don’t know, we don’t know” at 80 percent.

Yes, it’s important to master the basics. But one has to wonder; in all the things we know about business, don’t we risk recycling them? Eventually, the law of diminishing returns sets in, and we really don’t move forward.



No trying new things, no attempted innovations, no disruption, just playing it safe. Spouting out the liturgy of the ‘same old craziness’, very much ‘in the box’ thinking.

Very little room for possibility, or perhaps not even considering that possibility? Here it seems, ‘We can never get enough of what we really don’t want’ has limits.

In the ‘What we don’t know’ folder is still the realm of the known, just that we can’t quite put our finger on exactly on the facts and figures.

Is it impossible to think about what we can’t imagine? Things get tricky in the area of things we “don’t know, we don’t know”. Isn’t this a Catch 22? Just about impossible to try and map out what we can’t even imagine?

Yet, this large chunk of knowledge is where the scientific and managerial breakthroughs occur. One way to think about it is — the first two circles of what we can define are the transactional, yet it is the large 80 percent circle, that the management and business transformations exist.

More formal study of management is just a little more than a century old. For one of the fathers of scientific management a good worker was someone whose job was to do “just what he is told to do, and no back talk. When the foreman tells you to walk, you walk, when he tells you to sit down, you sit down”.

These are the words of Fredrick Taylor, one of the fathers of management thinking in the early 1900s. It’s always a mistake to judge the past, by the standards of today, but while Taylor’s focus on efficiency, making every task discreet and specialised, was useful then, his more authoritarian stress on time and motion today seems antiquated.

Imagine Taylor would have been told in 1900 that in the future, in 2021, one of the dominant business models would be platforms such as Facebook, Google and Amazon that don’t own their means of production, they have no machinery, stock or inventory. No bricks and mortar.

But instead they allow buyers and sellers to connect, exchanging services, content, money, information, and more.

He would have been astounded that the linear model of creating value, going only in one direction that evolved from the Industrial Revolution had been knocked off its pedestal.

For Taylor, a platform business model, would have been in the realm of the ‘Don’t know, don’t know’.

For the engineer obsessed with efficiency and productivity of tasks, it would have been impossible for him to even imagine a platform business model.

The one thing that has not changed from Taylor’s time is that management and business have one constant: the focus on how to create tangible value for the producer and the consumer.

So, how is all of this useful? One suggestion would be from the perspective of your business, or organisation it’s helpful to be quiet and sketch out what fits in each of the three circles.


Yes, the 'Don’t know, you don’t’ know’ is a teaser, a bit like ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’. But in any case, give it some thought. Try and tackle the impossible.

Clues about approaching the impossible come from Charles Dodgson, whose pen name was Lewis Carroll.

Although Alice in Wonderland is considered a book for children about Alice who falls into a rabbit hole, it was also written for adults to challenge their thinking, penned by Dodgson, an Oxford-trained mathematician and inventor.

For instance, what if a manager began to focus on things that one has come to believe are impossible, or improbable, and start believing in them?

The Queen has just asked Alice how old she is. Alice answers, “I’m seven and a half exactly.”

“You needn’t say ‘exactly,’” the Queen remarked. “I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”

Alice said: “I can’t believe that.”

“Can’t you?” the Queen said, in a pitying tone. “Try again; draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.” Alice laughed. “There is no use trying,” said Alice. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Is this all fluff, as we are talking about the world of ideas ?

Look around you, ideas are things, everything you see and touch, began first as an idea.