Imagination is a scary word in business. It raises images of finger painting and story time. It threatens business people with the onus of being creative – a place that may be out of their comfort zone. There is a constant search for repeatable formulas that can be brought to bear on business decisions; formulas that relieve business from the necessity of periodically re-examining the fundamental assumptions the form the foundation of their day-to-day activities.
Imagination, however, is the critical ingredient in business success. Imagination:
- Allows one to see past the existing context, the ideas and assumptions, that form the foundation of the many day-to-day activities of business. This is creative destruction.
- Allows for perception of the larger environment – the big picture. This shows the fundamental market and societal forces bearing down on the business.
- Allows for a synthesis of a new context, one that is more in alignment with the larger environment than the old context.
Let’s look at each of these phases. For each phase, we’ll see the both advantages of success and the risks of failure at that phase:
Destruction of Context
In the destruction phase, imagination means the act of questioning “Does this make sense?”. It is a periodic re-examination of the fundamental ideas and assumptions, the context, that provides a foundation for the every day activities that occur within the business. It can be difficult to not get so mired down in the details of the day-to-day that this questioning process never occurs. Furthermore, it requires great courage to admit that the existing context no longer works. This phase can be unnerving, because at its beginning there is a working context, and at the end there is not.
When destruction of context is achieved, there is a realization that the current context requires re-thinking; that it is not really a fit for the larger environment any more, and that sooner or later, clinging to the existing context will bring serious negative consequences. Destroying the old context clears it out of the way, allowing for a space in which new ideas can take hold.
If the necessary destruction of context is not achieved, whether through lack of perception or courage, then the organization risks being stuck in its ways while the world passes it by.
Seeing the Big Picture
Once one starts to question one’s existing assumptions, it is time to look at the world and to try to determine what is going on. Again, this is a fundamental quality of imagination. Seeing the big picture can be accomplished by looking at a number of events over time and recognizing the underlying pattern, or it can be done through examining other industries and drawing parallels. In any case, a recognition of the larger environment means that an understanding of the fundamental forces bearing down on the business can be achieved.
When one is unable to see the big picture, then one doesn’t understand the reasons for the long term success or failure of their business. This lack of knowledge can lead one to believe that the status quo will last forever, or that the environment is completely random – neither of which are true.
Synthesis of a New Context
Finally, in light of the perception of the greater environment, the final phase of imagination is to create a new context – one that is more in alignment with the prevailing winds of the world. A working context is essential in order to be able to get anything done – we need assumptions in order to operate.
Frequently this synthesis requires a cognitive leap – a new way of seeing things, to take the place of the destroyed old context. This is imagination at its purest.
Even if one can achieve the first two phases of the cycle, if one can’t synthesize a new context, then there can be no plan to deal with the world. Ideas and assumptions form the foundation on which plans, goals and tasks are built.
Imagination is the bridge which takes people from one context to the next, so that they are able to deal with the fluid and changing world around them. Leadership draws from imagination: it is the act of bringing other people across that bridge with you. Together they form the long-term mechanism of survival in business.