IMAGINE: 5 Steps Toward the Strategic Power of Impossible

Why are so many breakthrough strategic possibilities killed off before they see the light of day? Years of research have provided us insight into the mistakes teams make that tend to kill off the most exciting ideas.

To counter those mistakes, we’ve developed the IDEAS framework, which takes you through five phases – Imagine, Dissect, Expand, Analyze, Sell – that will enable your team’s big, seemingly impossible ideas to make it past the conversation stage so that you can launch them into the world.

We’ll break down this framework for you over the coming weeks, starting today with Imagine – the step that encourages you to set an impossible goal.

We’ll also share an invitation to a special no-cost Outthinker webinar that reviews the IDEAS framework and allows participants to ask questions (see below).

Imagine the impossible

Great strategies are born out of impossible questions. How can we organize the world’s information (Google), how can we create an affordable, high-volume [electric] car (Tesla), how do we make it easy to do business anywhere (Alibaba)?

Starting with “impossible” is critical because it forces different thinking. By “impossible,” we mean a goal that is unattainable by the solutions already in hand. In contrast, “possible” goals are those we know we can achieve. Starting with “possible” questions, then, encourages an execution conversation. That is, you already have a solution that almost gets you there so the easiest path seems to be to discuss how to tweak that existing solution to be a little bit better.

If you set a goal that is not attainable by ideas you already have, you force yourself and your team to start thinking differently. Greg Hale, the Disney executive who invented the FastPass, for example, did not set a goal of shortening the lines outside of Disney’s attractions. Instead, he set the seemingly audacious goal of erasing lines altogether. The idea of “shorter lines” allows incremental thinking. The idea of “no lines” demands new thinking.

An effective way to get your team to set an impossible goal is to work backward from the future. Just as great chess players envision checkmate then work backward to plan what to do next, you step your team into the distant future, imagine an ideal outcome, then work backward to define what would have to be true in the near term to feel confident you are on the path to achieving your ideas.

You can do this by following five steps:

1. The mess

Step out ten years into the future and image the “mess” — the undesirable but realistic future that would occur if you continued on your current path.

At Disney, the “mess” might have looked like this: “As the popularity of parks grows, the lines get longer and longer; then guests grow frustrated and complain to their friends; the parks get a bad reputation; that reputation grows until Disney loses its desirability as a destination.

2. Long-term trends

Still standing out ten years from now, think about the trends that will impact the future in which you will be operating. Think about new technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence, augmented reality), socio-demographic shifts (e.g., new generations of users and how their needs may be different), macro-economic trends (e.g., interest rates, the emerging middle class in developing countries), and regulation.

3. Long-term ideal

Envision your ideal outcome ten years from now. If ten years feels too distant a period in which to plan, note that this reaction is precisely what makes it so powerful. Since competitors resist thinking that far out, there is less competition in the long-term.

Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have explicitly underscored this fact as central to their thinking process. What do you want to be true? What do you want customers/users to feel? What will people be saying about you? For Disney this might be, “There are no lines; guests are able to effortlessly step into attractions without a wait.”

4. Near-term ideal

Then ask, what must be true for us to know in 18-36 months, without a doubt, that we are on the path to realizing our long-term ideal? Since you have already committed yourself and your team emotionally to the long-term ideal, you now force them to go beyond what seems possible now.

You stop asking what’s feasible and instead answer “what must we achieve?” For Disney this might be, “We have piloted a solution that entirely removes waiting for a portion of guests for the attractions in which we apply the solution.”

5. Strategic question

Finally, you convert your near-term ideal into a strategic question. Simply rephrase it as a question. By placing a question mark at the end of your near-term ideal, you activate curiosity.

Drive toward a solution

Apply those five steps to your strategy, whether you are defining the next era of your business, this coming year, your quarter, or whatever immediate strategic challenge your team is wrestling with today, and you will drive your team toward big, innovative, solutions.

In our next article, we’ll delve into Dissect, the second phase of the IDEAS framework, to learn how to closely examine what’s holding your ideas back and focus your team on the less-obvious points of leverage.


On August 29, from 7-8 AM ET, you are cordially invited to a breakthrough webinar that will review the Outthinker process, with 30 minutes of Q & A. There is no cost associated with this webinar.

In the webinar, Outthinker outlines the five mistakes teams often make that tend to kill off the most exciting strategic possibilities. Based on years of research and my book Outthink the Competition: How a New Generation of Strategists Sees Options Others Ignore, this discussion will cover a way to counter each mistake, called the IDEAS framework (Imagine, Dissect, Expand, Analyze, Sell).

This highly interactive program is for participants who want an introduction or review of this powerful approach to finding new strategic options and pursuing new innovation ideas with their clients.

Participants will review this world-class approach to landing innovative ideas in a company and a toolset that will enable them to identify the most relevant barriers that they need to focus on now to advance an idea in an organization.


If you have any questions about this course or any of our Outthinker programs, we’d love to talk with you. Please feel free to call my associate, Soyini, at 404-643-7643.

Best Regards,

Kaihan Krippendorff