The Possibility-Plausibility Chasm

Every founder has a vision of his product or company. A fully fledged brand, beloved by its masses of customers and admirers. It could be the amazing AI-enabled SaaS platform that is taking the world by storm—or, the dream of opening a bar that becomes the local watering hole, full of neighbors and friends!

Some visions leave us breathless with wonder and awe. In 2002, when Elon Musk founded SpaceX, for some, it was a moving and likely next step for humanity. For others, it was a fantasy.

Of course, Musk has succeeded in achieving milestone after milestone over the years, and so, the credibility of his vision has grown along the way. There are now far fewer doubters.

But we have all heard scads of inspirational visions for which an eye roll truly was the apt reaction.

So what is the difference between an inspirational vision and a pipe dream?

The vision of WeWork seemed compelling for some. You can hear the inspirational language in this clip, where Neumann describes the vision of WeWork as being “…to bring people together….for people to make a life and not just a living …to humanize work”. That language transformed what was a basic real estate business into a compelling funding juggernaut.

Why Bother With Visions?

A vision that inspires and excites is an important component of crafting a strategy. The language of inspirational vision can unite a group and catalyze action. That’s true at the United Nations, in a presidential campaign speech and in the locker room before a match final.

When you are out to create unprecedented results, you need to evoke powerful emotions. Big visions do that. In the absence of strong emotion it’s difficult to move people to take extraordinary action.

Not surprisingly, many strategies fail on this count. They offer uninspired visions—or no vision at all. Instead, maybe there are some “stretch goals”—sales targets that are a tad higher than last year’s actual sales. It’s so uninspired that few can be bothered to rally around it.

But there’s danger on the other extreme too. If the vision is so huge and awe-evoking that it borders on fantasy, it will likely spark dismissal instead of action.

Still, without visionary goals, most of the breakthroughs of the last two millennia would never have happened.

As humans, we live largely through the power of imaginative narratives. And we crave the experience of —if not transcendence—at least awe. Like the magical feeling of watching the sun rise, holding your newborn baby, or hearing a virtuoso concert, inspirational visions lift our hearts and make us believe that something extraordinary is imminent. They are the linguistic form of pure possibility.

A huge possibility is seductive and evocative. It makes us feel better and bigger. It gives us energy and quells our anxiety.

But possibility is unlike reality in every important way.

A vision has neither constraints nor costs; no competitors or cashflow; no bugs or budgets. It is pure potential but no significant probability. That is what makes it compelling.

In the same way that a Quidditch broom is magically unimpeded by gravity and the lack of an engine, possibility is unencumbered by reality.

The Visioneer’s Dilemma

As engrossing as visions are, they usually evaporate like the fairy dust they’re made of. For example, consider this vision of the future. It began with President Obama’s 2016 Inaugural address at which he announced that then Vice President Biden would lead the Cancer Moonshot:

We’re building a world where the word ‘cancer’ loses its power, a diagnosis isn’t a death sentence, we prevent cancer before it starts, we catch cancer early so people live longer and healthier lives, and patients and families don’t have to navigate their cancer journey alone.

Having had 5 cases of cancer within my immediate family (one of which killed my mom), this vision moves me. It is both almost unthinkable and utterly transfixing that we could all possibly be free of the looming specter of cancer every time we see an odd mole, feel a strange lump or experience mysterious pain.

Just recently, the Biden administration relaunched the Cancer Moonshot. That made me wonder what happened to it in the intervening years.

Like so many grand visions, there is not much there there. They did little more than aggregate existing programs and information, and create an all-star committee. Since there was no actual strategy, the initiatives range from smoking cessation programs to HPV testing, and have no direct connection to the vision—or even to each other.

The Cancer Moonshot was a beautiful idea. But it remains essentially, only an idea. The actual work done to fulfill it is scattershot and post-hoc. There is no clear, logical plan to achieve the vision.

It has been languishing in the possibility-plausibility chasm for years.

Will the “relaunch” change that? I’m skeptical.

Plausibility Paucity

Whether an organizational vision to explode growth—or the UN’s 2015 sustainable goals—most of these inspirational imaginings never get off the ground. They languish somewhere between fantasy and a general sign-post—but never make actual progress.

But what is missing? Do they crafters of inert visions want them any less than those whose visions are fulfilled? Since I can’t see into anyone’s soul, I assume the desire is the same in both sets of visioneers.

But something is different about visions that never manifest in reality, and those that do.

When you begin to compare them side-by-side, the distinctions become clearer. The visions that fail to launch are aspirational and inspirational. But they lack plausibility. They read like fantasy.

  • They have no strategy to propel them.
  • They account for nothing of the current reality.
  • They consider nothing of needed resources.
  • They fail to quantify progress indicators or milestones.
  • And they never speak of their own grandiosity with either humility or responsibility.

It’s hard to read or listen to most visions without feeling one’s cynicism rise.

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The Path to Plausibility

Yet, in the course of history, humanity has accomplished extraordinary, unimaginable things.

We have created sci-fi-like high-speed rail, seen subatomic particles, traveled faster than sound, catalogued the knowledge of the world –and built algorithms that can reason. Just like pipe dreams, feats like these also began with visions.

So what distinguishes them?

When President John F. Kennedy shared his vision to put a man on the moon within 10 years, it was easily as outrageous a claim as any of the failed visions above. In 1961, the Soviet Union had just sent a man around the Earth’s orbit. That was the greatest space achievement to that point. But consider how far short it is of sending humans outside of earth’s orbit, to the moon, ONTO the moon, and back to Earth. The difference is easily an order of magnitude.

Nonetheless, from the moment when he requested the funding of Congress in 1961, Kennedy wasted no time before brandishing the plausibility of his vision —not its emotional impact.

Within the speech itself (which I strongly recommend listening to), Kennedy sows the seeds of plausibility.

He is not crafting an inspirational pipedream, but a plan. His speech includes:

  • Distinguishing the current reality and the basis for his claim that this can be done.
  • Citing the obstacles.
  • Detailing the process to develop a lunar-worthy rocket.
  • Defining the milestones.
  • Acknowledging the cost in money, time and effort.
  • Nodding to its uncertainty without casting doubt on its high probability.

It is a veritable recipe, complete with the list of ingredients, cost, steps, time and testing protocols.

The vision had so much inspiration AND plausibility, that it galvanized Congress into action and persuaded them to fund the highly unlikely project of sending men to the moon and bringing them back alive. As testament to the plausibility of Kennedy’s vision, Congress provided $531m in 1962 and $7b more over the subsequent 5 years

That’s $72 billion dollars in today’s money.

Kennedy’s message was: This is hard, expensive and unprecedented—and here is exactly how we will do it.

8 years later—years after Kennedy’s death, but ahead of schedule— on the 24th of July, 1968, Apollo 11 landed on Earth with 2 living astronauts who had walked on the moon. The vision had been fulfilled.


So many visions lead nowhere. But, does it matter? In a world of constant hyperbole, aren’t we immune to disappointment? Perhaps. But if so, only at the most impersonal and generic level.

When a group of leaders starts with a grand and inspirational vision, they each relate to it through their own respective biases. A few may be skeptical or even cynical. Another daunted. And one or two likely want to quibble (and quibble) about the wording.

If the vision remains conceptual and the rest of the strategic work fails to conjure the argument and logic necessary to create tangible plausibility, the group will remain exactly as they started: Cynical, daunted, opinionated.

The vision will languish on the website or the annual report, and eventually it will be like white noise. Unnoticeable.

That’s only a problem if anyone is actually counting on that vision being fulfilled.

WeWork failed to change work as we know it—and moreover, failed to deliver on the business results it had promised. That was costly; both to the funders who lost so much money—but also to the hundreds of employees whose jobs disappeared, and the economies of the communities in which commercial real estate was negatively impacted.

As each successive set of UN sustainability goals expires without any measurable result, the world loses out on what might have been.

And future cancer patients will never benefit from the rich possibility framed in the Cancer moonshot vision.

The Loss of Faith

A daunting and inspirational vision that never answers the question, “How?”, is offensive. It leaves everyone feeling bamboozled.

For organizations that is deadening. Employees may continue to do their work but they are faithless. How can they be other than simple taskmasters when the context for their work is an empty promise.

The ultimate cost is to the organization’s results. The very best you can hope for is simply continuing on the same trajectory. Nothing unprecedented will happen.

Crossing the Chasm

But, there is another option.

Inspirational visions can launch extraordinary change. But not while refusing to confront the gaping canyon between inspiration and action. It’s in the crossing of that chasm that magic happens.

The same group of leaders who encounter the vision with skepticism can alter both the organization and themselves given the chance. How? By working together to grapple their way to a clear, logical and testable strategy to achieve the vision.

That starts with the most obvious question of all:

How will we do that?

Then the work is clear. Devise a strategy: A clear theory about how to achieve this extraordinary future.

  • It’s a theory that takes into account the full complement of real circumstances.
  • It anticipates the obstacles.
  • It proposes a theoretical approach and order of operations.
  • It considers costs, and resources, and the discoveries/inventions needed to move forward.
  • It acknowledges the uncertainty of the mission even as it stacks the deck for success.

It is, in every way, like the recipe that JFK gave Congress in 1961.

If its logic is compelling enough, it will transform that unlikely pipe dream into a plausible destination.

The Human Dividend

But here’s the most extraordinary part of crossing the chasm:

Along the way, each and every individual in the room will change. They will use their unique perspectives to add ideas, and their commitment to the mission to create third ways out of conflict. And they will grow themselves into evangelists for the plausibility of the vision.

The group of individual leaders will transform into a team.

Having built a logical strategy, the vision no longer feels like an abstraction. It is, instead, a plausible destination. One for which you have the map. [Click to tweet this thought]

The team becomes bound together, pulled forward by the vision–and by the internal logic of the strategy to achieve it.

They have become an interdependent force dedicated to bringing that vision into reality.


Let me now say something hyperbolic. This transformation from atomized and cynical individuals, to a hyper-focused, unified team is as remarkable as weaving straw into gold.

It represents a state change. And witnessing it is revelatory.

In the hundreds of strategic planning retreats I’ve led over the last 30 years, I’ve seen it over and over.

The very act of bridging the possible to the plausible changes people. And those people transform organizations.

Taken together, all of us gain access to different possible futures with each journey from the merely possible, to the compellingly plausible.

The notion that if you can dream it, you can be it is nonsense.

But, if you can dream it, AND, you can strategize it, then, perhaps you have a better-than-even shot to become it.

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