The world’s biggest problems can often be traced back to a complete lack of imagination. We fail imagine a better future. We see broken systems as unchangeable.
We fight over the meaning of history (in books, politics, immigration, economies, gender and so much more) because we don’t have the capacity to imagine the systems for living together in abundance.
Organizations, businesses and governments should prioritize the practice–the skills and work–of imagination.
Perhaps writing about imagination seems irrelevant. An act of decadence or privilege. We have so many real problems, after all. Why dabble in imagination, a space often seen as the realm of fiction?
I’d say that our lack of imagination – our growing unfamiliarity with the art and science of imagination – grinds us down, dampens our creativity and leads us to believe we should expect, even deserve, to be surrounded by discomfort and horror.
The world needs huge doses of imagination. 2022 offered little of use. This year, sitting as it does between two American election years, can deliver the hope and organizing power of imagination. Or it can continue our fights over history that only serve to dim the horizons of imagination.
2022 saw the start of a tragic and wasteful war in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine only serves to propel Russia, Ukraine and the world away from the potential of new ideas, intelligence and creativity. It is a war of small ideas – authority, money, disinformation. It is a war against hopeful futures and imagination.
The U.S. is fighting its own battles over the limits of imagination. The “Make America Great Again” slogan, white nationalism, and organized fights to ban books all use language that removes possibility and potential. These movements want us to ignore, even forget, that human difference has ever existed. It is a future without the possibility of multi-racial communities and queerness.
Organizations don’t typically consider themselves to be in the imagination business. We equate imagination and the “work” of imagination with telling stories of fantasy or science fiction. We should not leave imagination to books and movies.
Imagination fuels culture, creates possibility and lays out the framework for solutions to known (and unknown) problems. Imagination is essential to cultural and social progress.
Why prioritize imagination?
Imagination offers value to nonprofits, businesses and communities. The work and results can also be fun.
COLLECTIVE. Imagination isn’t just an individual or solitary space. It can, at its most powerful, be a collective act that fuels shared purpose and vision. Imagination is a process that can happen alongside others. It is generative and iterative. We can build on the ideas of others. Imagination is an act of abundance, not scarcity.
CREATIVE. Imaginative work isn’t bounded by the limits of expectation and practicality. Organizations are used to planning. But we most often iterate. We’re not used to reaching high and creating something new. This stasis and risk aversion leaves us flat-footed when circumstances (a pandemic? climate change? insurrection?) change quickly.
Most organizations – from neighborhood group to national government – could benefit from more creativity. And most leaders ask their teams, boards and supporters for creativity. Imagining the unknown builds the brain’s creative powers, Jane Porter reports in The Neuroscience of Imagination:
When you call to mind something you’ve never actually seen, it’s a lot easier to think creatively than if you try imagining something that’s familiar to you.
Want to dig deeper? Check out The Science of Imagination below (5 minutes):
ENGAGING AND EXPANDING Imagination creates stories and process to bring those stories into reality. These stories and their possibilities need not be restricted to your community or audience. In fact, the creative process relies on growing community. Imagination is about who could and should be there. And how to reach them, plug them in, give them footholds to climb on and how to extend arms to pull them into the conversations.
Imagination is essential to growing a community. With imagination, we can adapt and evolve. We can hone a collective and collaborative resilience. Climate change, economic shifts and technological progress are asking, and will demand, that organizations adapt, evolve and be resilient.
ACCESSIBILITY. One reason imagination expands community is its accessible nature. Done well, anyone can participate in and be valued by imaginative processes. One does not need to have gone to the right schools, lived in a particular place, have normed physical abilities, or possess a certain race, gender or values. Imagination is abundant. It wants all to engage at the level and in the form they can.
SKILL. Imagination is not exclusive, exotic, or only for academics, writers and designers. Imagination is a habit, skill, a muscle. It can be taught and practiced.
In Reversing imagination atrophy, Suzette Brooks Masters, reflects on how imagination can shrink when not used. The result is more limited policymaking, less ambition, smaller campaigns. Masters spent 2022 talking with people working in democracy to find the big ideas and opportunities.
I spent 2022 talking to dozens of these visionaries and realizing, painfully, just how small my dreams had gotten, how narrow my aperture of the possible had become. I needed an exercise regimen for my atrophied imagination muscles. Desperately.
If we can’t imagine functional democracy, peace, multiracial societies, climate stability, zero-carbon energy then, oh well, we’re never going to figure out how to get them.
BUILDS COMMUNITY. The work of imagination is open to all. Through content, events, workshops and more you invite people in, connect people and build relationships.
DEFINES COMMUNITY. There is a part of imagination work that identifies and describes what’s needed to turn possible futures into reality. This is a time for identifying who is in community, who isn’t, who could/should be there, and how to connect to others. In other words, we see our current and potential networks in new ways and can identify the connections between networks.
The work of imagination
Here are few ideas for bringing imagination into organizational programming. Some go big. Some are simply ways to bring creativity and forward thinking into the community.
10, 20, 50
It’s not unusual for leaders to talk about what an organization should look like in three, five or even 10 years. But rarely does that conversation look further into the future (20, 50 or more years) and rarer still is the broader community engaged in a meaningful way. There may be polls or surveys or even “town hall” events but the boundaries of possibility are already set.
Imagine what the community (not just the entity or organization) can look like in 20 or 50 years. What does it do? Who does it help or serve? What is it able to accomplish? Who is part of the community, leading it, participating?
Now describe what happened to get to that imagined future. Who got involved? What other communities and organizations were part of the process? What skills, experiences, resources and knowledge was acquired and used? What do we not know now that we’ll need to discover? Who helps with that discovery?
These are the themes of conversations and programs that use imagination.
How to get started with imagination
There are a thousand and one ways to bring imagination-centered conversations, plans and programs into your organization. Here are a few ways I’ve seen:
- Use the I-word in serious conversation from top to bottom. Like I said up top, imagination is a word associated with science fiction writers. It’s a word, and process, that is all about creativity and even fun. But it can be serious work, spark big and positive change, and generate new ideas. Bring imagination into the organization lexicon.
- Don’t use the word imagination if you can’t handle it. Talk about vision, big ideas, future, creativity, or, if you must, innovation.
- Launch an imagination program. I don’t expect many groups to go full Pixar and hire a VP of Imagination. But seek out ways to embed imagination into different teams, cost centers, and programs. Minimally, give imagination more than a one-off or ad-hoc shot of attention.
- Work big ideas about the future into your community conversation. Get people used to the concept of imagining what could happen. This is the ground needed so they can do the work of planning how to get to that future (or work toward a better alternative).
- Create imagination-centered content. This could look like a section of a newsletter devoted to imagination – a section called “50 Years from Today” with a Facebook-esque ‘on this day’ image and description. It could be a one-off newsletter series imagining a future community. Do a podcast talking to community leaders and other members about their ideas. Create videos, animations, reading lists. Set up online or offline discussion groups.
- Run imagination events. Host webinars. Set up tracks in your conferences that focus on the future.
- Teach imagination and futures skills. Content and events engage people in imagination. But there are approaches, curriculums and frameworks for developing and using these skills in work. These can be explored, learned and shared.
I suppose the reality is that our nonprofits, governments, businesses, communities, schools and even our social movements are under extreme pressure to show progress, results and return on investment. The money invested is too great are the threats faced are too big to mess around imagining things.
But we close ourselves off from hope if we shirk possibility, potential and imagination for the perceived security of the way things were or should be. If nothing else, organizations should be intentional about imagining a better future for their community. Those that can’t imagine that future, describe it and map a path to it are wasting everyone’s time.