Photo by Aeon



How to use ‘possibility thinking’

Have you hit an impasse in your personal or professional life? Answer these questions to open your mind to what’s possible

Photo by Aeon





Constance de Saint Laurent

is a lecturer in psychology at Maynooth University, Ireland. She works on social thinking and the impact of technology on people and organisations. This has included research on social media, artificial intelligence, misinformation, and collective memory. She is the author of Social Thinking and History: A Sociocultural Psychological Perspective on Representations of the Past (2021).

Vlad Glăveanu

is professor of psychology at Dublin City University, Ireland, and adjunct professor at the Centre for the Science of Learning and Technology, University of Bergen, Norway. He is president of the Possibility Studies Network and editor of the journal Possibility Studies and Society. His books include Wonder: The Extraordinary Power of an Ordinary Experience (2020) and Creativity: A Very Short Introduction (2021).

Edited by Christian Jarrett





Need to know

Creativity, or the ability to ‘think outside of the box’, is a wonderful gift. It helps you solve problems, create unique things, and live a life that is true to who you are. But it is easier said than done – for most of us, it takes time and effort not to follow the beaten path. In this Guide, we will introduce you to a mental practice that is central to creativity – possibility thinking – and propose a series of exercises you can follow that will help you get better at thinking beyond the box.

In simple terms, possibility thinking is the ability to conceive of what does not exist but could become real. Possibility thinking has only recently garnered attention from scholars, but the concept is not new. It was first proposed by Anna Craft in 1999 and she and her collaborators have since spent decades studying its development in children. As their research shows, thinking in terms of possibilities sounds simple but it is in fact a complex skill. Possibility thinking requires both imagining what is not there and creating paths to it, so that it can become a reality. For example, children might not be able to get to the Moon, but they can both imagine this possibility and create forms of pretend play to make the possibility ‘real’, at least for them.

To take another example, if we ask you to imagine that humans have three arms, you can probably do this easily enough. But if you cannot envision how this could be made true, then it will remain no more than a mental image. However, if you were to start writing about a dystopian future where humans have been genetically altered to have extra limbs, then you are entering the realm of the possible. Improbable, yes, but not impossible because now you have connected the imagined image to aspects of what is real. This is part of what makes possibility thinking so important. It helps us identify what could be made a reality and how. Thinking that it was possible to go to the Moon and envisioning that it involved something resembling a satellite launcher is what allowed humanity, ultimately, to make the trip.

When you apply possibility thinking in your daily life, it can give you a powerful sense of agency. It can help you find innovative solutions to actually do what you want to do, in one form or another.

In this Guide, we’ll take you through a series of exercises to show how you can apply possibility thinking to real-life problems you’re facing. The aim is not to find the one and only or best solution, but to map a wide range of options that exist, even if you are not aware of them at the start, and to reflect on how you could act upon them. Ultimately this will both broaden your horizon and get you thinking and doing things you would have never thought possible. In this sense, possibility thinking is about looking forward: recognising what experiences, relationships, objects and meanings may be useful to solve not only present but future problems.

The exercises that follow will involve drawing a possibility map, so make sure to have a notepad and a pen or pencil close at hand. Possibility maps can take many shapes, from a literal map to a tree of possibilities, or even lists. What all possibility maps have in common is that they can help you chart possibilities and impossibilities around an issue. You can then use your map to navigate beyond the box – and find unexpected solutions to a wide range of problems.

It is easier to start using possibility thinking and possibility maps for concrete practical issues that call for creative solutions – think designing an awareness campaign, redecorating a place, reorganising your workplace, etc. This is because these issues will have a broad range of possibilities, making them a good place to start. With practice, you will then be able to apply possibility thinking to more complex or constrained issues. In fact, the applications are limitless. For instance, it can be used to address relationship issues (such as how to deal with difficult colleagues, help your children potty-train, or organise the holidays with a large extended family); to navigate a career change (by charting what you could be doing); to plan a dream trip (through laying out all the options); or to design better products (by mapping the venues worth exploring and the roadblocks you will have to navigate around).

To make the most of this Guide, spend a moment now to come up with a specific, real-life problem you are grappling with – and then you can apply the exercises to this problem. It could be something mundane, such as how to redecorate your kitchen, or something more complicated, such as how to deal with a difficult boss. In fact, these are the two examples that we will use throughout the Guide, to help you see what possibility thinking looks like in a personal and professional context. However, for each step, you can swap out our example problems for your own.

What to do

An important note before we start: to engage in possibility thinking requires you to stay open to a wide range of options. That means not rejecting ideas even if they seem strange at first. But it also means not embracing a solution before the end of the process. Focusing too much on one outcome can result in tunnel vision – the opposite of possibility thinking. So try to keep an open mind until you reach the end of the process.

To help you to draw your possibility map, we will guide you through a series of questions. It is often easier to start by answering these questions on a separate piece of paper, and to begin charting the map on another sheet as multiple possibilities begin to appear. The map then acts as a way to keep all your findings in one place, and it will ensure you don’t forget to explore some areas in the later stages.

Ask yourself ‘What for?’

The first (and arguably most significant) thing to do when trying to solve a problem is to understand exactly what the issue is. So let’s start by spending time understanding the problem, including what makes it a problem, formulating and reformulating it; in other words, framing it.

Framing the problem may sound straightforward, but in practice it often isn’t. This is because we sometimes hide less noble intentions behind more socially acceptable ones. Or because obvious issues hide deeper dissatisfactions. Or, simply, because complex situations make identifying specific problems more difficult.

There are two types of questions that can help you there. The first is simply ‘Why?’ Why exactly do you think the current situation is a problem? For instance, if your problem was how to redecorate your kitchen, then let’s start with the question: why do you want to redecorate your kitchen? Is it because you find it unwelcoming? Because you feel bad when guests come over? Because it is not practical?

Be honest with yourself, even if it is not always pleasant. It might be easier to convince yourself that you want to redecorate because you prefer a cosy home, when the reality is that you’d like to be able to show off to your friends when they come over. Knowing yourself and your needs and motives will help you frame the problem in terms of the right goals and, thus, find more effective solutions: if you want to show off, focus on the first impression your kitchen gives. If you want something that feels cosy, think of places that make you feel that way and try to emulate them.

The second question is ‘What am I hoping to achieve?’ What would my ideal end point be? Let’s say your problem is that you have a difficult boss, who tends to micromanage you in unproductive ways. Is your aim to be able to work better so their attitude doesn’t affect your career? Or is it to stop the micromanagement because having someone breathing down your neck constantly is unsustainable?

There most likely won’t be a single and simple answer to ‘What for?’, and that is actually a good thing. It means there are multiple potential end points that could be desirable. The role of the what-for game is primarily to help you visualise where you would like to go, so you chart paths to get there. The more options, the better.

‘What for?’ is a good question to start thinking about possibilities, but it is also one to keep in mind throughout. It will help you make sure you focus on the right things. Possibility thinking is most effective when it helps you realise new things about your own intentions. If you arrive at a good solution for your problem and yet remain unsatisfied, chances are that this is because it doesn’t fully match what you are, deep down, hoping to achieve. Let’s say, for instance, that after going through all the steps below you find the perfect solution to get your boss off your back, yet somehow it feels wrong. Then maybe what you really want is a career change.

Ask yourself ‘What if?’

Now that you have defined your (actual) problem, let’s start mapping your possibilities. The first method for doing this is called ‘what if’ and involves counterfactual thinking – an effective way to cultivate creativity and innovation.

To play the what-if game, start by choosing what you think is the biggest constraint on the situation you are in. For instance, in the case of the kitchen renovation, your biggest constraint might be your budget. Then, imagine the constraint wasn’t there. Ask yourself: ‘What if money wasn’t an issue? What would you do?’ List all the potential solutions you can think of that might exist in the absence of that constraint. For instance, perhaps you’d choose to install a beautiful wooden countertop? Keep this list of solutions for the next exercise.

While completing this counterfactual exercise, you might realise that, actually, it doesn’t make much difference. Perhaps you still can’t think of (m)any solutions even with that constraint removed. Don’t worry – this can be illuminating too. Realising this can help you reframe your problem – for instance, maybe what you need to do first is figure out what styles of kitchen you like, or maybe you need to identify other constraints that really are relevant to the situation.

Applying the what-if game to the case of a micromanaging boss, you might identify the constraint of not being able to talk to them openly. Removing this constraint, you could ask yourself: ‘What if I could openly talk to them about how they treat me, without being afraid of what they will do?’ You might come up with a list of things you’d say. But perhaps not – you might realise that the main constraint is not actually how your boss reacts or would react, but figuring out what you would want to tell them.

Ask yourself ‘What would someone else do?’

At this stage, if the what-if game was fruitful, you might have a map full of possibilities. But, as we saw, it’s often the case that you won’t, and that’s OK too – that’s why you engaged in possibility thinking in the first place: because you didn’t know what to do. This next stage should help you add new territories or branches to your map. It involves perspective-taking – seeing the world through the eyes of someone else. Having multiple perspectives on an issue has been shown to help solve problems – after all, that’s why diverse teams are often more creative.

How can you harness the power of diverse groups even when you are on your own? Through the use of imagination, by envisioning what someone else would do in that situation. There are two categories of people that can be useful here: other actors who are in the same situation, and people who aren’t involved, but who you think would easily find a solution if they were.

In the case of a difficult boss, other actors could be your colleagues or your supervisor. For instance, if your colleague had to work on a close project with your boss, how would they deal with them? It’s important at this stage to recognise that what works for others may not work for you, without letting this stop you from exploring other perspectives. For instance, your coworker might be much more assertive than you are comfortable being. Or they might not be very involved in their work and not care enough to be bothered by a bit of micromanagement. We cannot flip assertiveness or conscientiousness on and off like a switch, so ‘turning’ into your coworker is not going to be a viable solution on its own. But it can help widen your perspective.

You can also take the perspective of someone not directly involved, but who you believe would easily solve the issue. For example, in the kitchen redecoration scenario, what would your friend, who always has amazing ideas when it comes to decorating her own home, do to redecorate her kitchen? Or where would Martha Stewart start? As with the first type of imagining, this can help you map both possibilities (how they would solve the issue) and apparent impossibilities (what would not work in your situation). Let’s say your friend is really good with power tools and does everything herself, whereas you can barely use a glue gun? In that case, you might add some modest DIY options to your growing list of possibilities, but you could rule out complex DIY projects as an option for you.

There’s another type of perspective-taking that involves directly asking or looking at what others do. The key here is in not taking this as advice on what you should do, but as an example of what could be done. It can sometimes be tricky to ask people you know what they would do. They might have such a different understanding of the situation that their advice isn’t useful. And they might expect you to apply what they suggest and be hurt if you don’t.

This is where the internet is an invaluable resource: people who have dealt with issues similar to yours have most likely posted about it online, sharing their strategies and receiving more feedback than they bargained for. Yes, what you will find online is to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Pinterest is filled with unrealistic tutorials on how to paint your own ‘marble’ countertop, and Reddit will most likely tell you your boss is a psychopath. But the diversity of perspectives you will encounter can help you map possibilities you would have never thought of. And other people’s experiences can also help you determine what is unlikely to work.

Ask yourself ‘Why not?’

You should by now have an extensive map of possibilities. The aim of this stage is to look at each in turn and ask ‘Why not?’ Let’s say you mapped as a possibility that you could look for a mentor in your organisation to help you find the best way to communicate with your boss. Why is this not a solution for you? Maybe your organisation is too small, and it would be hard to find someone you can truly be open with. Or, maybe, you wouldn’t know who to approach.

The aim at this stage is not to be negative just for the sake of it, but to better understand the limits of each possibility and identify what needs to be changed to make it a workable solution for you. Remember to make notes on your map as you apply this exercise to your various branches and possibilities.

For possibilities that seem more distant – you find it hard to believe you could implement them – try reversing your focus by asking ‘Why would it not work?’ For example, perhaps one solution on your map is using DIY to renovate your kitchen, but you can’t for a second imagine doing that? Turn this around: why not use DIY on your kitchen? Is it because you lack the skills? OK, but you could learn. Or is it because you think power tools are too expensive? OK, but you could rent them.

(To give you an approximate idea for how your map might look at this point, check out an example map one of us – Constance – created for the kitchen scenario.)

Image supplied by the authors

The aim of the why-not game is to help you refine your map by understanding better what is truly possible or impossible, and why. At the end of it, your map should have multiple, developed branches – if not, go back to the previous exercises and expand some of the possibilities. The ‘What would someone else do?’ question can be particularly helpful here.

For instance, in the case of dealing with a difficult boss, branches could include: trying to talk to them about the issue, finding support in your organisation, finding support to help you understand what triggers you in their behaviour, relocating to another team, changing organisation, changing jobs, etc. For each branch, you should have a list of associated possibilities (eg, for the second branch focused on finding support, one possibility could be contacting the mentoring programme in your organisation) and impossibilities (eg, for the first branch on communicating with your boss, you have already tried direct communication and know it doesn’t work, so you could rule this out).

At this stage, you can try repeating the what-if game and see whether it alters your map. Think of another potential constraint and imagine it didn’t exist. If the answer to ‘What if constraint x was removed?’ is that no new solutions are forthcoming, then it is not really a constraint. If it only generates a few new solutions, then it is a partial constraint and not the core one that should be addressed. For example, if imagining you have amazing DIY skills doesn’t significantly change your map then it is not the main issue. Perhaps that’s because the real constraint has to do with money and the cost of materials.

You can also apply the what-if game to the existing possibilities on your map. If the answer to ‘What if I implemented that possibility?’ is that it would not solve the situation, then it is not a possibility at all. For example, let’s say you identified earlier that your main aim is to make your kitchen more practical. One of the solutions on your map is changing your cabinet doors. But applying the what-if test here shows that it is not going to solve the problem – no matter how much you want an excuse to splurge money on the doors, it won’t help solve the key problem at hand.

Going through your map, applying the what-if game to different constraints and possibilities will help you grow the map in places and prune it in others, ultimately broadening your understanding of what is possible.

Ask yourself ‘What else and how else?’

The aim of this last exercise is to chart even more possible paths to your aims. Think of it as adding even more alternative branches for each possibility. This could help you find a way around constraints or you might find a backup plan that turns out better than the original solution.

Looking at the possibilities on your map that you marked as unsuitable for you (in the why-not stage), ask yourself how else you could you achieve a similar result. Let’s say your aim was to make your kitchen more inviting and one solution you came up with was to install a wooden countertop, but you marked this as impractical earlier on because you don’t have the budget to afford this solution. Asking yourself ‘How else?’ could prompt you to realise an alternative could be sourcing a cheap wooden countertop by going to a salvage yard that sells reclaimed timber. Or you might think of an alternative solution that involves fitting wooden shelves – benefiting from the natural warmth of wood, but more cheaply than via a new countertop. Asking ‘How else?’ might sometimes slightly change your aims. (It might be useful at this point to go back to what you found in the what-for game to make sure these changes still align with your goals.)

Wondering about alternatives is not just a way to bypass constraints. It is also a way to expand on existing possibilities, so that you don’t miss out on great options. Look at each of the possibilities you have charted and ask what else could you do that achieves a similar aim. For instance, an alternative to finding a mentor to support your career in spite of your difficult boss could be to locate a group of peers in your organisation, where you could both meet likeminded individuals going through similar things and network to create new opportunities for yourself. Or working on why your boss triggers you so much could involve therapy, but also activities that encourage mindfulness such as yoga or meditation.

Use your map

As it probably became clear as you worked through the preceding exercises, possibility thinking is not a linear process. It often involves going back to earlier stages and, with practice, asking all the question prompts almost simultaneously. Hopefully, by the end of this Guide, you should have a wonderfully detailed map of possibilities and be able to identify those you would have never thought of before.

The problems we used in this Guide are real problems that confronted one or both of us. How did the possibility maps help us solve them? Exploring how to improve our kitchen made us realise that our biggest constraint was that we didn’t want to spend much money on our kitchen because we knew we wanted to move house soon. So we covered our cabinets in colourful contact paper, added a curtain to the window, and changed our lights. It worked a charm, and good it did because the COVID-19 pandemic made us stay in the house longer than we’d expected.

As for the terrible boss? One of us (Constance) tried all the options on the map, from mentors and support groups to reading guides on effective communication. In the end, counselling helped the most. I identified some of my triggers, but mostly it made me realise that I hated that job. Focusing on my manager was a way to hide how disappointed I had been by what sounded like my dream job. So I made another map to help me figure out what to do with my life. And I couldn’t be happier with my choice.

This is what possibility thinking is about, ultimately. Yes, it can help you solve problems and be more creative. But it also invites you to think beyond the problem in front of you, to explore a whole universe you did not even realise existed, and find your own path within it.

It can sometimes feel vertiginous, and you might not know where to start. If that’s the case, look in turn at each branch on your map. How does it feel? Can you see yourself doing that? Why? Why not? Which options could you explore first? What about as a last resort?

Solutions that work for others do not have to work for you, and what looks good on paper can sometimes just feel plain wrong when you start thinking of implementing it. Emotions and subjectivity can be powerful tools for making decisions – although it can always be useful to reflect on why some areas of your map can make you feel a certain way.

More often than not, exploring a possibility map is a joyful experience. Even when we have to restart or go back to the drawing board, we do it with the realisation that the world is always more open than it seems at first sight. This is the first (and last) lesson of possibility thinking!

Key points – How to use ‘possibility thinking’

  1. Possibility thinking can help you in your personal and professional life. Applying possibility thinking to everyday problems can help you create a map of possible solutions that are not yet apparent but could become a reality.
  2. Ask yourself ‘What for?’ The key to solving any problem is to be clear about what you want to achieve. Before creating your map of possibilities, explore what your aims truly are.
  3. Ask yourself ‘What if?’ Now get a pen and paper and start creating your map. The what-if exercise will get you started and involves exploring what solutions become available if you imagine that certain constraints or obstacles are removed.
  4. Ask yourself ‘What would someone else do?’ This exercise involves imagining what others would do if faced with your issue – or you could ask them directly. Don’t gather opinions as advice on what you should and shouldn’t do. Instead, look at them as alternative paths that you can use to widen your map of possibilities.
  5. Ask yourself ‘Why not?’ Look at the solutions on your map and be your own opposition – argue with yourself about why you believe some solutions are possible or impossible. Debates, even with yourself, are a wonderful way to expand your horizon of possibility.
  6. Ask yourself ‘What else and how else?’ Find even more alternative solutions by looking at the possibilities on your map and asking how else you could reach the same goal, then expand on these answers by asking what else you could do instead. Turn your impossibilities into opportunities and your possibilities into a host of new and original solutions.
  7. Use your map. Reap the benefits of your hard work: explore your map, imagine what it would be like to implement each possibility, make a plan for what to do next, and start experimenting. After all, possibility thinking doesn’t take place in the head but in the world.

Links & books

Visit the website of the Possibility Studies Network for more information about possibility thinking and the growing international community of researchers and practitioners invested in its study and cultivation. You can also find a series of tools and methods there as well as information about monthly events and annual conferences. We hope to meet you at one of these in the future!

Watch this video from Arizona State University which features the psychologist and creativity expert Ronald Beghetto describing his approach to a group possibility thinking exercise or ‘protocol’.

Watch the interactive seminar ‘Cultivating the Possible’ (2021) on YouTube produced by Dublin City University and hosted by one of us (Vlad) that focuses on incorporating possibility thinking and creativity into education.

Access the Sage journal Possibility Studies and Society to read a short manifesto that outlines the what, who and how of possibility studies.

There are several books that can help bring new perspectives on the possible and possibility thinking, such as Ronald Beghetto’s book Uncertainty x Design: Educating for Possible Futures (2023) and the volume The Art of Serendipity (2022), edited by Wendy Ross and Samantha Copeland.

And, for those rare readers who haven’t had enough of our views and advice, the book The Possible: A Sociocultural Theory (2020) outlines the approach that one of us (Vlad) uses to guide his own thinking about possibilities.





3 April 2024