The future is ours to imagine. Strategies drawn from brain science show how to change people’s mindsets about who they are – and what they could become.

Ask yourself this: have you ever hired a candidate without carefully assessing their experience and history? For most leaders in major businesses, the answer will be ‘no.’ Organizations traditionally hire people based on their past record. On the surface, this makes sense: prior experience implies that people have the know-how needed to perform in a new role. Yet research increasingly indicates that this approach is becoming outdated.

When Jacob Morgan interviewed more than 140 top chief executives from around the world and surveyed more than 14,000 LinkedIn users, he found that the past is of decreasing relevance in a world that is constantly changing. Preparing leaders for the future is key. (See his book The Future Leader, and Dialogue, Q3 2020). Understanding, developing and amplifying a leader’s greatest possibility is a powerful way to ‘futurize’ the leader and the organization: that is, to develop a future-oriented perspective and help people develop into the best version of their future selves, relevant to emerging business realities. It replaces a view of people as static assets that never change.

It is time for leaders to tap into the power of ‘possibility thinking’: a mindset and way of being that is future-oriented and uses the future as a goal and a guide to one’s current choices.

Possibilities, here and now

‘Possibility’ often gets a bad rap. Despite the obvious importance of living up to one’s greatest possible future, possibility is often seen as a ‘soft’ variable: unknown, uncertain and not in the here-and-now. People often feel lost when thinking about it. Yet our brains are wired to hypothesize about the future, through a network known as the default mode network (DMN).

Called the “crystal ball” of the human brain by neuroscientist Stefano Sandrone (2012), the DMN helps leaders predict and act into the future. But it is also partly responsible for self-awareness: for who you think you are today. Your notion of ‘who you are’ strongly overlaps with, and influences, your idea of ‘what you could be.’

The relationship is neatly summed up by Warren Bennis in On Becoming a Leader (2009), who wrote: “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.” Leaders in particular can truly become themselves by contemplating the best possible version of their future self. When leaders develop a relationship with their greatest possible future selves, they give themselves, and their businesses, the greatest chances of success.

Can you really change yourself?

The brain has 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections. The DMN is part of this web of activity, and there is tremendous evidence to show that the connections to the DMN are not fixed. This network – and one’s sense of self – can be disrupted (including by psychedelics, by meditation and by creativity), and that disruption can make it possible to reconstitute our sense of who we are. Put simply, ‘who you are’ is not fixed at all. You can change. So why not change to be your greatest possibility? And why not help others do the same?

An operating system for the future

Another way of understanding possibility thinking is to consider it as an operating system for the mind. Specific inputs provide outputs that enhance possibility – and can help leaders harness their best possible future self. There are seven dimensions to possibility thinking that leaders can use as inputs for their own self-development, and to help others understand their own possibilities.

1. Change is possible

Tell people that they can be different, because the brain can change. Change often starts in the imagination.

2. Imagine a desired future version of yourself

As opposed to probability thinking, which is rooted in the past, possibility thinking is anchored to a vision of the future. People can learn to ‘let the future use them’ – to model themselves and make choices based on their projected future.

3. Raise the bar

Once the possibility is established as a clear vision, the next step is to raise the bar in believable ways. The aim is ‘self esteem optimization.’ Simply coping without changing, such that you feel the same every day, is self-esteem maintenance. But it is far more motivating to raise the bar on one’s goals and expectations of one’s self. Self-esteem optimization is a process of advancing who you can be.

4. Address obstacles

When you hit a wall in imagining what you could be, address the obstacles to possibility. Burnout, feeling lost, being stuck in a difficult task, being caught up in old habits, being depressed or anxious, worrying, having already given up, and having trouble imagining – all are factors that limit possibility. At Duke Corporate Education, we use a ‘possibility index’ to measure a person’s sense of possibility and identify any blocks; programme managers can then address those blocks in a very targeted way.

5. Positively disintegrate

If, after identifying and addressing any obstacles, there are still limits on the imagined goal, assistance may be needed with ‘positive disintegration.’ This requires us to consider being someone entirely different, based on the best and most worthy version of ourselves. The 20th-century Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski noticed that gifted students naturally advance in this way. They activate an ‘over-excitability’ – an inborn intensity that keeps them together, despite being fragmented, so that they can reconstitute themselves to a higher level. We can all adopt that technique.

6. Stay motivated

To stay intrinsically motivated on this path, focus on competence, autonomy, and social relations. How much do you have of each and how can you increase them? In self-determination theory, these three areas are critical: they may influence how motivated you are to persevere in the journey you are on.

7. Never cap your achievement

Plateaus in business are often a reflection of a syndrome described by management consultants George Parsons and Richard Pascale (2007) as “crisis at the summit.” They are a result of losing touch with a winning formula, or one’s core purpose. According to Aristotle, purpose is not necessarily about a goal, but about the opportunity to express one’s greatest virtues. By identifying plateaus, we can reconnect with our winning formula or core purpose.

Implementing the possibility paradigm

Possibility thinking can be applied in a wide variety of settings in organizations. To optimize the flourishing that it can allow, we use a technology called Reulay, an online platform that engages people in a sense of possibility and a self-authored journey, assisting them in achieving this frame-shift. It also helps to personalize interventions.

The most obvious starting point for using possibility thinking is at onboarding. Asking people questions about their future selves will give you a sense of how far they are open to change, and whether they can be coached to reach that place.

Possibility thinking should also feed into the identification of high potential leaders. High potentials are often identified as ‘Next Gen’ leaders based on their past performance and actions. But a different way to help talented individuals grow is to introduce them to possibility thinking. There are a number of key questions to consider.

  • Are you open to change? Do you believe you can change? Are you committed to change? People typically say they are open to change, but being committed requires us to track progress and ensure that change is happening. It is important to help people make the distinction between wishful thinking – a hopeful stance without much commitment – and possibility thinking, which is a commitment to manifesting what one is imagining.
  • What is the greatest possibility you can imagine in your current role? What is your greatest possibility in this company? What is your greatest possibility in life? People often respond to these questions with very limited answers, as they want to sound reasonable. They may need help to think big. Counterfactual questions can help, such as, “What would you consider a breakthrough in your role right now?”
  • Now that you’ve established a possible future, how can you raise the bar? If a person said that their greatest possibility was to make enough money to leave and become an entrepreneur, you might ask, “What about the social and physical aspects of your life?” It is important to consider the upper limits of one’s possibility thinking. Mark Bonchek, who specializes in catalysing innovation, emphasizes the need to avoid incremental thinking. What one strives for should be vastly different, rather than simply better (‘How to Create an Exponential Mindset,’ Harvard Business Review, 2016). If the possibility goal feels familiar, it’s a sign that you have not raised the bar far enough.
  • What are the limiting factors to possibility? You could administer the possibility index to identify the blocks and help a person or team work on them. A good start is to find the greatest limit and work on that.
  • What is the gap between who you currently are and who you want to be? How does this betray your basic values? These questions may help with positively disintegrating. If someone values the Olympics, for example, they might have stopped short of a winning mentality. Alternatively, if they wanted to be a better all-round person, husband, or father, they might think about working more efficiently to free up time to do other things.
  • Are you doing what you are best at? What improvement would excite you most? Following self-determination theory, think about competence. Are you in a place that fits your competence, where you can excel? Move on to focus on autonomy: examine the levels of hierarchy shaping people’s control over their work, and how they might be flattened. And finally, consider social relationships: help people to connect authentically with their teams and build team spirit.
  • Are you getting chances to express your greatest virtues? Huatian Wang from the Eindhoven University of Technology and her colleagues from Utrecht University describe job crafting as the action of changing the task, relation or cognitive boundaries of a job. It can help decrease the staleness that saps a sense of possibility. For example, a product engineer may want more of a say in design. As a leader, you can help them explore ways to do this.

The cultural shift

When all is said and done, possibility thinking is really a cultural shift. It will not work best if used only when onboarding or working with high potential leaders. Rather, when a culture engages with the best possible future, then the organization shifts from ‘knowing’ to ‘discovering’ the best path forward.

In a world where knowing what will happen tomorrow is impossible, a culture rooted in possibility thinking encourages striving, openness and creative solutions. It’s why Jeff Bezos always aims to think two to three years ahead. And it’s why Steve Jobs said, “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They know what you want to become.”

Fulfil your possibilities by letting the future guide your decisions today.