Research News

Owen faculty encourages new cognitive processes and bolder solutions to address grand challenges

Tim Vogus (Vanderbilt University)
Tim Vogus (Vanderbilt University)

Vanderbilt-led research encourages entrepreneurs to embrace new ways of thinking to address grand challenges facing society like climate change and inequality. Tim Vogus, the Brownlee O. Currey, Jr. Professor of Management at Owen Graduate School of Management, along with co-researcher Matthew Grimes, PhD’12, associate professor of organizational theory and information systems at the University of Cambridge, propose that the idea of possibilistic thinking—prioritizing the scope and scale of potential consequences relative to their probabilities—would promote more innovative responses to global challenges than the traditional cognitive processes used by entrepreneurs and problem-solvers.

“In the past, solutions to grand challenges have been limited by a constrained set of cognitive processes focused on historical feasibility,” Vogus said. “To increase innovation, entrepreneurs addressing these challenges must confront their preexisting assumptions and propose bold solutions, unconstrained by prior understandings of what is likely, especially in the short term.”

In new research published in the April 2021 edition of Organization Theory, Vogus and Grimes detail how prior research about problem-solving and entrepreneurship is limiting, and that the largest societal problems require deconstructing existing assumptions and engaging in world-building.

Alternately, possibilistic thinking encourages an attention shift to the outlying responses as the key to true innovation. “The most successful entrepreneurs are able to shift the paradigm,” Vogus said. “Instead of solely paying attention to the most likely outcomes, they are able to focus on possibly outlandish ideas and imagined futures.” Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have proposed such radical innovations in response to growing challenges around environmental degradation and climate change. One such solution—the terraforming of Mars to sustainably host humans—has often been overlooked by other entrepreneurs due to the possibility of severe negative consequences. The disruptive processes that can follow possibilistic thinking do need to account for the substantial risks by negotiating them with stakeholders and ensuring guardrails are in place.

Moreover, research has shown that focusing on meaningful, transformational consequences is emotionally engaging, and this energy can induce bold action that matches the scale of grand challenges. The researchers point to studies demonstrating the devastating impacts of the animal agricultural industry. They say that fear for the future and hope for the emerging science of laboratory-grown meat has led to monumental innovation in the field. “Possibilistic thinking encourages narratives that, by inducing fear or hope, increase the likelihood that such thinking translates into systems change.”

The researchers ultimately advocate for increased investment in entrepreneurial solutions grounded in possibilistic thinking. They suggest that unless proposed action is accompanied and even preceded by more thorough exploration of possibilities, we are likely to see a pattern in which countries, organizations and cross-sector partnerships set ambitious and even public goals to address grand challenges and yet fail to deliver on such ambition. “We believe that such shortcomings illustrate the need not only for innovators to move beyond conventional cognitive foundations, but also for researchers to begin to examine the cases in which innovators are clearly doing so.”