Cultivating Organizational Imagination

Type: Article
Topics: Curriculum & Assessment, District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2021

What does it mean to systematically harness imagination in a work environment, and what can leaders do to build imaginative capacity?
Martin Reeves
Martin Reeves is co-author of The Imagination Machine, a leader’s guide to harnessing creative
thinking across an organization. PHOTO COURTESY OF PENN STATE

We might think of imagination as a mysterious power possessed by celebrated artists or entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. We might balk at the idea that it can be managed.

While some individuals may be better endowed with this talent than others, it’s hardly helpful to large organizations that must increasingly reinvent themselves in rapidly changing circumstances to wait for the right individuals and moments to show up.

Elementary and secondary schools too must compete increasingly on imagination in a world where knowledge has become a commodity and humans are being increasingly substituted by artificial intelligence for routine cognitive tasks.

In writing The Imagination Machine, my co-author Jack Fuller and I tried to create a playbook for organizations to systematically harness imagination, based on what we know about the science of imagination and our experiences working with imaginative organizations like LEGO and Alibaba.

What, then, can leaders do to build capacity for imagination?

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Martin Reeves

About the Author

Martin Reeves is chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute and a senior partner with BCG in San Francisco, Calif. He is co-author of The Imagination Machine (Harvard Business Press, 2021). 

Organizational Obstacles to Imagination

Turning an organization, such as a school district, into an imagination machine requires that superintendents focus not only on imaginative individuals but also on the entire collective imagination cycle.

In my work with various groups, I have identified several points at which collective imagination often fails in big organizations.

  • Limited exposure to the outside world. We can think of organizations as spheres: the greater the radius, the lower the ratio of surface area to volume. Larger organizations there-fore have proportionally fewer people connecting with the outside world, which is where surprising information is most likely to come from. When there is less exposure to what is surprising and unpredictable, there is less to feed the imagination.

  • A focus on averages rather than exceptions. Many organizations report in averages — such as aggregate student grades or standardized test scores — so that higher-ups and community members can get an overall picture. However, this means that anomalies or outliers are smoothed out and not given attention. This can inhibit imagination because future trends or promising new ideas are often first found as anomalies.

  • Sticky mental models. The mental models of a successful organization tend to become uniform (a downside of overemphasizing alignment) and entrenched. For example, an officer in the British army before the Second World War, J.F.C. Fuller, tried to introduce the concept of tank warfare, but because everyone was used to more traditional tactics, the idea was poorly implemented and neglected. He insightfully imagined what warfare would look like with tanks, but his vision couldn’t be taken up because it didn’t fit with the prevailing way of seeing things.

  • The tyranny of metrics. When there is a clear, standard way to measure and reward success, efforts in any other direction can look like failures or a waste of time. We account for the things that are easily accounted for at the expense of important things that are not, like imagination.

  • Tightly specified rules. In bureaucratized institutions, people often are deterred from acting outside what they are expected to accomplish. But imagination often works by following up on serendipitous moments, which can lead you far from what you or others expected you would be doing. It is challenging for organizations to give people autonomy to explore.

  • Lack of social transmission. Even if individuals are imaginative, there might be problems with the transmission of ideas across a group. One can imagine an organization full of people with strong abilities to think imaginatively, but where people don’t work together or collectively consider new questions and ideas. Communication can be impeded by a high bar for proposing new ideas, a fear of failure, a lack of incentives to share, restrictive reporting and communication protocols, or organizational silos.

A crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, actually creates a window of opportunity for imagination. Entrenched patterns of behavior are unfrozen and innovation is required to adjust to new post-crisis realities. No surprise, then, that many new business models are born in the wake of recessions, pandemics and wars.