Sunday, July 1, 2012

Planning for the Impossible

 Could thinking about the impossible be useful for nonprofit organizations?

I'm enjoying reading Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku.  Will we ever have Star Wars-style light swords?  What about a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak?  Discussing these questions, he manages to teach me a lot about electromagnetism and optics and the state of technology that I didn't know, and make it fun.

Kaku says there are three orders of impossibility.  Class I impossibilities are impossible today but "might be possible in this century, or perhaps the next, in modified form."   Class II impossibilities "sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world" and might be possible in "millennia to millions of years in the future."  Class III impossibilities are "technologies that violate the known laws of physics...If they do turn out to be possible, they would represent a fundamental shift in our understanding...."

What if we applied this framework to the challenges we face in running our organizations and achieving our missions?  (Of course the time scales wold have to be very different!)

Ask yourself: if what we want to do seems impossible now, what would it take to make it real?  If it's just funding, or a change in regulations, that might be a Class I impossibility--meaning not impossible at all for people as hopeful as people who work in nonprofits tend to be.  Figuring out the steps to get there and setting ourselves an attainable deadline might  embolden us to change what's possible, financially or politically.

If it's a change in society, it's a Class II impossibility: it might take the rest of our lives and then some.  But historically speaking, that's a very small time.  Ask yourself: Is the mission worth that kind of concentrated, persistent effort?  What will make that kind of effort possible?  What will sustain it for the time it takes?

And as for Class III impossibilities, it's good to be reminded that even things Einstein once thought impossible have been proven to be true.  Don't bet the organization on changes that violate the way you believe things are at a fundamental level.  But be hopeful, and be prepared.

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