The Possibility Process

A Proven Method to Achieve Breakthrough Business Results

Sink the S.S. Soul-Sucker Before It Sinks Your Business

Chapter 6

In this chapter:

We are all just prisoners here, of our own device

Imagine a public arena with entrances on each side of the building. Signage on the north end promises a country music headliner. The south entrance promotes a classical pianist. The east side is washed in graffiti to celebrate a local grunge band. The west entrance is decked out for a classic rock band. Anticipation has been building for weeks. Line-ups are growing outside each door. People are excited to hear their band play.

It’s show time, folks! The doors swing open and people rush into the building, filling the stands from every direction. Black tie formal wear meets Stetson hats and cowboy boots. People sense something is off. An awkward silence deadens the air. Tensions rise as a wave of disbelief washes over the crowd. Disappointment escalates to anger as people realize their expectations will not be met tonight.

Like the concertgoers, stakeholders expect the system to serve their needs and get the job done. It’s a soul-sucking experience when expectations, personalities, and values clash. Workplaces and social networks buzz with horror stories and complaints. Yet to varying degrees, people who work in unhealthy organizations are impacted by these kinds of emotional disturbances every day.

Entrepreneurs who have mastered a craft have high expectations for performance. They often struggle with delegation, jump to action when others falter, and are quick to judge poor performance. They tend to deal with issues of trust unfairly, fearing that others cannot perform as well as they can.

Look back on the development of your technical expertise. When you mastered your craft, that special thing you do so well, you achieved a level of proficiency by paying attention to details and anticipating challenges in advance. Accomplishment felt great!

But here’s the rub. When you are proficient at “doing the work”— especially if you are self-taught—it’s difficult to release the reins. Small business owners with great technical skills (a carpenter, a home inspector, a clothing designer, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker) often have trouble conveying their needs and expectations to employees.

This challenge leads to soul-sucking systems in three ways.

Soul-Sucking System 1: Structure is nonexistent. The business is struggling and reactionary. People fly by the seat of their pants.

Founders who are jacks-of-all-trades stall business growth by doing too much themselves. They continue to work in the business when they should be putting systems and processes in place to empower their staff to do great work. They rationalize having to do the work themselves because other people don’t meet their expectations. The operational patterns and leadership challenges they face are cast in place by a fixed point of view they believe to be “true.”

Soul-Sucking System 2: Structure is incomplete. Systems are transaction oriented and intended to get people to operate a certain way for the
benefit of the company.

Everything is based on tangibles. Staff know that the owner is buying their time, not winning their hearts. As I mentioned in Chapter 2, Invisible Barriers, recurring habits and behaviours solidify over time like carbon builds in an engine. Positive or negative, people respond to situations in predictable ways and norms are set. Culture is a measure of cumulative social practices and their impacts on people. We either design the culture of our organization with intention or it forms by default, as a byproduct of neglect.

Soul-Sucking System 3: Structure is overbuilt. Bureaucracy and red tape stifle innovation and creative thinking. Left unidentified, Invisible Barriers manifest unintended consequences for customers, staff, suppliers, and stakeholders.

When problems arise, authoritative directives and reams of paperwork are created to solve problems. These reactionary solutions give rise to additional barriers to innovation in the form of structural impediments and bureaucracy. The excess gradually smothers employee commitment, impedes decision-making, and inhibits business success.

Learning about business mechanics adds to business owners’ repertoire of knowledge, but it won’t solve the two biggest challenges they face:

  1. Relaxing control and trusting employees with more responsibility and autonomy.
  2. Putting systems of service in place so people (and the organization) have the foundational structures needed to learn and grow quickly and effectively.


You don’t need more academic theory or conceptual knowledge. Learning “about” business will not take you where you want to go. Put your head in the lion’s mouth. Mastery comes from experience.

Steps 2, 3, and 4 of the Possibility Process address the first challenge and lay the groundwork for addressing the second. Steps 5 and 6 are all
about implementing systems of service.

A New Playing Field

If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business with you

Q: How do freighters the size of three football fields stay afloat?
A: Displacement.

Displacement is the change in the position of an object. Deep sea ships push water out of their way so they can take its place. You need to push out the old—the nonexistent, incomplete, or over-built systems—to make room for the new. Use displacement to innovate and re-engineer your business systems with minimal chaos and confusion.

Displacement is about creating a new playing field and establishing new rules for how people work together. Having a big vision is an important starting point, because this alone can start to displace little voices and insecurities (individual concerns), not to mention conflict and morale issues (little voices amplified as a collective).

In Start with Why, Simon Sinek says, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is
called passion.” It’s not enough for people to know what to do or how to do it. People need to understand why before they’re genuinely inspired to act or to follow you. We’re hardwired to fear risk and uncertainty, but a clear picture of the outcome cuts through uncertainty.

Then, to catapult engagement and high performance, you need to establish trust and credibility.

To build trust and group ground rules, with operational customizations specific to the project or business operation, one of the tools I use within my own team, and with clients, is the Code of Honour.  The Code of Honour is an agreement we co-create at the outset of a project to define how we will work individually and collectively, including how we will address incongruence and system inefficiencies.  No one likes being told what to do, so the code’s language contains no fix or change statements (“thou shalt not’s”).

Each person is responsible for honouring the agreement and for drawing attention to where team actions are inconsistent with the code so we can get back on track. Seniority and authority have no bearing. All parties are equally responsible for maintaining high standards and for observing when we have allowed things to slip, reverting to old habits and patterns.

The first part of the Code of Honour was inspired by bestselling author Brené Brown’s research into trust. In her book Rising Strong, Brown uses the acronym BRAVING to describe the seven elements that have emerged in her research as useful in trusting others and ourselves:

  1. Boundaries: We respect one another’s boundaries. When anything is unclear, we ask. We are willing to say no.
  2. Reliability: We do what we say we’ll do. We stay aware of our competencies and limitations so that we can make good on our promises and balance competing priorities.
  3. Accountability: We own our mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
  4. Vault: We don’t share information or experiences that are not ours to share. Confidences are kept.
  5. Integrity: We choose courage over comfort. We choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. We choose to practice our values rather than righteously profess them.
  6. Non-judgement: We can ask for what we need and talk about how we feel without judgement.
  7. Generosity: We extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.

The Code of Honour is a line in the sand to establish trust and adopt new ways of working together. It signals the start of new empowering practices and is generally applied to one specific project.

Trust, in turn, fosters support, loyalty, authentic connection, and the possibility of inspired action in your workplace. The possibility of emotional resonance. This skunkworks project will naturally grow to displace old practices and business-as-usual as more and more people want to be part of this effective new process.

Instead of creating a bunch of “thou shalt not” statements, or demeaning and demoralizing prescriptive policies, build trust. With trust as a foundation, it’s much easier to leverage the power of systems to create structures that keep people focused on the bigger picture and reinforce how you want them to work together.

Like water, concerns flow along the path of least resistance. If you have not created formal channels to express concerns in productive and mutually beneficial ways, informal channels will sprout that you can’t see. Attitude, resistance to change, grudges, and chronic complaints will flow freely in the work environment. You’ll feel the impact like an undertow but won’t know where the negative influence is coming from.

It’s your job as business owner and leader to create an environment where people are comfortable sharing ideas and concerns. When you introduce a new idea into a silent room, do you want to know what your staff, co-workers, and colleagues really think? How they really feel? Preparing the environment starts much sooner than the meeting.

Larry and the Intangibles

People ignore design that ignores people

Policies, procedures, and best-laid plans can be introduced through top-down power structures of formal authority. But if you’re expecting your shiny new practices to be embraced by independent thinkers, you had better understand how credibility and trust move through informal peer networks.

Let me give you an example.

I was scheduled to meet with the directors of a commercial fishing industry association to discuss the possibility of a project management contract. My travel arrangements had already been booked when the association president called to cancel. When pressed for a reason, he said, “I’m afraid my directors will eat you up and spit you out.” I told him I was willing to take that risk.

At the meeting it was clear that although the president held the membership’s respect, Larry, a director, was a key influencer. Larry wielded enormous power and influence among the membership. He possessed informal authority, something that doesn’t show up on an organizational chart. He had serious concerns about my ability to help at all. He gruffly asked, “What does a woman from the mainland know about getting out of a skiff at Roller Bay?”

The question was irrelevant. Getting out of a skiff had nothing to do with the topic at hand. He posed it to demonstrate in front of the other directors that I knew nothing about salmon fishing. To that point, Larry was right. I’d never caught a salmon in my life.

As much to Larry’s surprise as my own, I replied, “Roller Bay is located on Hope Island in Queen Charlotte Strait. It’s in Fishing Area 11. The rollers are huge. The waves toss your boat leeward as your feet give way under shifting pea gravel.”

Larry looked stunned.

I tried to play it cool. I felt like I’d just won the jackpot. I can name and describe only a handful of beaches on the Pacific coast. That Larry would pinpoint Roller Bay, my most treasured spot in the world, was outrageously serendipitous.

In that moment I earned credibility in the eyes of the association directors. I sensed, from the body language in the room, that it was because I had stood my ground with Larry.

That’s when I realized how risky it had been for the president to invite me. Had I stammered and back-peddled in response to Larry’s question, the meeting would have been a failure, probably followed by backroom ridicule of the president for inviting me. I passed the test by demonstrating operational knowledge that could only be learned in the field.

Larry had me jump through an intangible hoop. Intangibles are the root of upsets, withheld communication, and unfulfilled expectations in the workplace. They are also the root of trust and credibility, the preliminary sniff test people use to determine if they are going to open up to you. Which way the needle points depends on how well you understand intangibles and account for them in your way of being and systems design.

Months later, when we began collecting field data, the numbers being reported via satellite transponders weren’t adding up to counts provided by onboard observers.

Grand ideas tend to fall apart during implementation. Efforts generate friction instead of momentum. You won’t see it. No one will tell you what happened or what’s going on. Resistance is intangible; it runs through informal networks.

A process had been put into place that bypassed the association members. I recognized the disconnect in numbers to be human resistance, not equipment failure or technical issues. But with the future of the association’s fishery at stake, we needed to get everyone on board. Fast.

I went straight to Larry because I know that people listen to people they trust. If I could get Larry on board, he would be a lever to get the membership on board. I explained to him the problem and what the ramifications would be if our field data weren’t accurate. This conversation was about the “why.”

“Leave it with me,” he said.

Minutes later, Larry’s booming voice echoed across the fishing grounds over marine radio. By the next test set, and for the next three years, the timing, accuracy, and scientific credibility of our field data mirrored the data collected by independent, onboard observers.  Accurate data gave the industry association members credibility. No longer rebels resisting change, they were now industry leaders in fishery management.

Displacement involves movement; the water must go somewhere. People can feel when things are flowing well (or poorly) but often can’t pinpoint what is happening because they don’t understand intangibles.

Function alone doesn’t bring out the best in people. Using power and authority to introduce a new procedure can backfire on you. Only trust has the power to neutralize negativity, expand the group’s capacity for being uncomfortable, and bring out the positive aspects of collaboration.

Draw a line in the sand and invite those who are ready and willing to change to practice working in the Possibility Zone of your skunkworks project. Use the Code of Honour to clarify what it takes to be a part of your high-performance team. Participation in your ground-breaking initiative is a privilege and a responsibility, not a right.

Human connection is not achieved through manipulation, strategy, or striving for a desired outcome. Communication must be straightforward and open. Until you’ve made an authentic connection with someone, you can’t be certain that person is on board.

Authenticity, a technical term used in psychology, is the degree to which you are perceived to be true to your own personality, spirit, or character—despite external pressures. People can sense the difference between someone making a genuine connection from passion or purpose and someone reaching out to connect because of an ulterior motive. Don’t invite people into your displacement project who will passively or aggressively undermine performance. Start small, with one specific project, and invite your A-team to practice using the new tools and demonstrate how it’s done.

Possibility is everywhere. Lucrative opportunities abound. Money is flowing through your industry in the billions. If automatic, reflexive responses and reactions are clamping down on your business growth, lay the groundwork to displace negativity.

People want to be part of a winning team. Most are willing to change their ways to get in the game. Start something small and workable, and allow positive momentum among the pioneering team to grow. The Code of Honour makes the ground rules of participation crystal clear. People become internally motivated to bring their A-game.

In the next chapter, you’ll discover how this intrinsic motivation spreads.

Breakthrough Boosters

  1. Seeing systems and tracking them across multiple disciplines requires us to remain open and objective. Be straight with yourself. Look at the evidence and let results speak for themselves. Your best performers have a systematic way of producing consistent results. Get curious about how they manage their work volume. Ask how you can support them in expanding this capacity.
  2. What missing or broken systems have you been blaming on interpersonal conflicts or external influences? Where have you been tolerating excuses and stories that rationalize lack of performance? What impact might your tolerance of low performers have on your high performers? Put yourself in their shoes and give it some thought.
  3. Do you reward people for identifying lucrative new market opportunities? Do you offer bonuses to solve recurring problems and find simpler, more effective ways of doing things? Do you acknowledge and reward the kind of workplace behaviour you want to encourage, or do you merely count years of service? Where your attention goes, energy flows. Reward more of what you want.
  4. Visit www.possibility.ca/bonus-materials.html (account login required) to download a free copy of the Code of Honour for your business.

Remember: Once we understand one another and are crystal clear about the work we’re undertaking together, it’s easy to get revved up. Keep checking in to test the accuracy of your assumptions and interpretations.

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