I don’t buy lottery tickets. Perhaps I should. When it’s the huge MegaMillions® I think about it, but I don’t. Why? Because, while it is definitely Possible that I could win, it’s not highly Probable.
We interchangeably use Possible and Probable or view them as ‘either/or’ options instead of ‘and/both’. Let’ break down this artificial distinction! One way I try to get clients, entrepreneurs, and students to look at the world differently is by challenging them to look at what is Possible AND Probable, no matter how Probable it is. Unless we are defying the laws of physics, more things are Possible than we think. They may not be highly probable, but that’s a different issue.
Possible means “able to be done, within the power or capacity of someone or something.” It comes from the Latin possibilis (that can be done) and from posse (be able). The meaning of the word has nothing to do with likelihood… probability. Possible has to do with whether something CAN be done, happen or be true, not IF it will be. Possible doesn’t address likelihood (probability) or difficulty.
Probable means [how] “likely something is to be the case or to happen”. It comes from the Old French probable (provable, demonstrable) and Latin probabilis (worthy of approval; provable; credible; testable). The meaning of the word may assume a level of possibility (e.g., if it’s impossible, it’s not probable), but it does not define what is possible.
Possible is usually based on the laws of science – physics, chemistry, and biology. It’s pretty hard to break the law of gravity while on earth. But, is it possible for a man to lift an elephant? It is actually possible depending on the size of the man, the size of the elephant, angles, centers of gravity, etc. Does what is possible change over time or is it our knowledge of what is possible that changes as we make discoveries and advances in technology and science? Both?
Probable is a bit trickier. Improbable things happen all the time. Cancers suddenly disappear without a plausible explanation… it was always possible, just not very probable. I win the lottery – it is possible, just not very probable (of course buying a ticket helps). You’d be surprised how often our definition of what is probable has little to do with real statistical data. You’d also be surprised at how we tend to shy away from things that are not very probable. We also tend to define what is probable based upon our own worldview, perceptions and experiences. Think of the Gambler’s Fallacy – if something happens a lot, we start thinking it’s going to happen a lot (e.g., I flip a coin 5 times and it’s always heads so I think the next time has to be tails, but it’s still a 50/50 chance). Dan Ariely’s TED talk shows our subjectivity on probability.
This summer, as you work on existing and new projects, start asking if potential solutions are Possible AND Probable. Then ask why doesn’t something seem probable? Is it your worldview? Biases? Experiences? What would it take to be more probable? This may require you start rushing to discover instead of solve and it may open up new Possibilities! Give it a try.
Thought Leader Profile – Deborah Mills-Scofield [USA]
Deb Mills-Scofield helps companies create and implement actionable, adaptable, measurable, and profitable innovation-based strategic plans. Deb has been doing this successfully for 25+ years with service, manufacturing, and high-technology companies from large global companies to early-stage. She has also done some carve-outs, start-ups and start-downs. Deb asks her clients to match 10% of her fee to improve lives in their community. As a Partner at Glengary LLC, an early-stage Venture Capital firm in Cleveland, Deb asks her clients to mentor an entrepreneur.
Deb is a co-creator of Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder, a contributor to Steve Denning’s book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, Trust Inc.: Strategies for Building Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset, and several other books. She blogs on various sites in addition to her own, including Harvard Business Review, Switch and Shift, Innovation Excellence, etc. and is recognized as one of the top 40 bloggers on innovation. Deb is also a regular at the Business Innovation Factory and a storyteller at BIF-9.