The Central Problem Affecting Work: The War on Imagination, and How I Lost My Creative Courage
Creative courage is the mind-set triggered by the decision to embrace the unknown without having all of the answers. Because this condition is inherent to life itself, we have in all of us the potential to activate our creative courage. It’s also an umbrella term for a set of practices and activities aimed at supporting an environment fertile for holistic creativity and innovation.
Creative courage opens routes to move through the fear of failure toward the joy of bringing something essential to our life and that of others. To our conventional concerns about our bottom line, we add a high line that considers relevance, meaning, and resonance for the people that we create for and ultimately benefit from our work. Relevance becomes the ultimate currency. Through the practice of leading with creative courage, we realize how precious valuing the bottom line and the high line of our organization is. Profit and relevance unite.
One of the greatest challenges of our time lies in the tension that emerges from the dialogue between the past and the present. This pressure is one of the most important sources of creativity and innovation. Although the potential for innovation rises when that tension is exacerbated, the risk of confusion, isolation, and conflict rises as well. Coupled with an autocratic or a myopic leadership (focused on the necessary bottom line but not on the vital high line, the visionary work), the risk of a war on imagination, a war on the potential for creativity, innovation, and breakthrough at work, is high. But this is not inevitable; there are ways to fight back, reclaim our sacred and innate sense of imagination, and courageously transform or reinvigorate our work into a well of meaning and a source of real value, for us and for those that we work for and with.
In a few words, the war on imagination has these characteristics:
Clash of the past and the present at work, making your brand unclear to manage and grow
Speed anomaly: little or no time to think, reflect, and step back
Deliberate unawareness: organizational denial or refusal to address facts and perceptions about itself
This book offers a sequential, incremental, evolving path and framework to transform work:
Stage 1. Care first
Stage 2. Secure safety
Stage 3. Foster trust
Stage 4. Play with danger and limitations
Stage 5. Dream
Stage 6. Discover breakthroughs
Stage 7. Grow
The order of the practices suggests the beginning and the end of a loop that keeps growing, within you and with your business, and that you can review or update whenever you need to. In other words, there will never be a time during the life of your organization when you will be able to say that you have cared enough, dreamed enough, or grown enough. It’s also an incremental path that proposes a relationship between what precedes and what follows.
Secure Safety: No Safety, No Trust
We are not securing safety just for the sake of it, just because it’s nice and humane to do so, although this alone would be a good reason. We want to secure safety because to accomplish extraordinary things and create incredible products, memorable services, and outstanding experiences, we have a better chance of reaching for the stars when a safety net protects us and our team. Obstacles and failures, big and small, are inevitable along the way to great achievements, so setting a net is smart. Pushing innovation and brand relevance further takes creative courage, guts, and practice knowing that every time we jump, the net will be there. We won’t be let down.
Securing safety has a number of benefits:
It puts in place visible, concrete devices, tools, and protocols that act like a virtual net. That net protects and helps people push their limits because they feel safe to be vulnerable in their pursuit of excellence.
It helps to defend your team against harm, physical and psychological, and from the danger that comes with leading, changing, and transforming aspects of the world.
It helps you see mistakes, fears, and doubts as part of most innovation processes rather than as anomalies to eradicate or hide.
It’s an invitation to everyone in the organization to walk with creative courage toward trust because of the power of caring first and its extension in securing safety.
When we care first and, by extension, secure safety, respect emerges naturally. And when we foster enough trust, respect becomes an expression of appreciation. Here are a few examples of ways to help secure safety at work, evidence that a net of safety was installed:
An HR manager reminds a worker of the absolute confidentiality of the session before a meeting starts.
A workshop on what to do in the case of harassment, how to recognize it, and who to reach out to shows genuine care.
An anonymous way for team members to send real and honest feedback provides a fundamental door to the soul of your organization and to your team. It shows that there is space for improvement coming from anywhere inside the organization. It’s hard work because you need to acknowledge the input but it’s also a great extension of caring first for your audience, inside and out of your organization.
Foster Trust: The Natural State of Silos
Fostering trust is hard but rewarding work, as is collaboration. It requires us to let go of the remnant of our cynicism, a vestige of the war on imagination, so we can embrace more of our vulnerabilities and what makes us real and human. We all respond to what is real or what we perceive as real.
Fostering trust has four dimensions:
Trust is the foundation of great collaboration and critical to superior innovation. Separating the activity of collaboration from being in a collective, on a team, or in a group helps in understanding the importance of fostering trust. We can design our environment with collaborative work and trust in mind.
We yearn for the universal. Fostering trust in those around us often reveals that what we yearned for, others yearned for too.
Expand trust in your role’s potential. Foster trust in your work, your role, and the fact that it’s a platform for you to expand your ability to influence positively.
Create with compassion and fierce originality for those you serve. Foster trust in your clients, customers, and audiences, as often as you focus on internal growth, but do not use clients merely as instruments of that growth. Nobody wants to be a target or a demographic. If you ask most people what label they’d prefer if the only choice available was between customer and human, human would probably win. Therefore, you should ultimately create for humans and create in the name of life.
Don’t be fooled by teams, even by people all dressed the same and sharing the same logo and name. Being on a team doesn’t mean being in a collaborative environment.
Act as if you only have influence but no authority so you can favor more dialogues, listening sessions, and activities where you genuinely learn from your constituents, leaders, employees, and colleagues. In other words, act as if you have no authority and an infinite amount of influence.
Play with Danger: When the Stakes Are So High That We Just Want to Play It Safe
Playing with danger and limitations is a fun path to discover breakthroughs.
Everybody wants to have a constructive emotional reaction to what they experience, from buying toothpaste to choosing a new house.
If they must choose between knowing a story and feeling one, most people choose to feel.
When the war on imagination reduces our vision, we focus only on the bottom line. We forget the high line or think that it’s not important, and playing safe creeps into everything that we do.
Creators from various disciplines and backgrounds have suggested that everything we create, we make twice—first in our head, through plans, visualizations, drawings, and discussions, and then through realizing our vision in the physical world. In that spirit, I’d say that we start to innovate when we are willing to play with our limitations and the danger of working with uncertain outcomes and find ourselves dreaming effortlessly before a breakthrough emerges. It’s a call to live like tight-wire artists, dancing at times on a low line, just a few feet from the ground, and then soaring to great heights, wire still tight, still dancing, with creative courage in their hearts. They show us how to dance on the bottom line, but they also invite us to live on the high line of vision. It doesn’t matter how hard we try, we won’t find in an Excel spreadsheet what moves our teams, employees, audiences, clients, and customers. It’s not that spreadsheets don’t matter; they are just not what the ultimate focus should be. The minute your ultimate focus is on the spreadsheet, you are close to dead. What moves people and mobilizes them is always composed of dreams.
Dream: Spreadsheets Don’t Dream Yet
Innovating by discovering breakthroughs in the field of constructive emotional reactions is often overlooked, neglected, or leveraged in unethical ways.
Beyond live shows and live entertainment, we increasingly seek and expect constructive emotional reactions from experiences covering a wider range of activities not associated to entertainment.
Breakthroughs in entertainment cover three main areas beyond story, and they always involve making something disappear: transitions between scenes, separation between the stage and the audience, and filters around the experience of the show. Breakthroughs and discoveries in those areas improve the constructive emotional reactions from the audience.
An example of where live experience could go in the future when you innovate on transition, separation, and filters is illustrated in the story about the vase and the server.
Think in terms of magic and emotions what you consider breakthroughs. In any field, a new source for breakthrough and innovation could come from leveraging magic that moves, in addition to technology, business models, and value propositions.
To make magic that moves people, five dimensions frame our work through the metaphor of the creation of a show: the stage, the audience, the promise, the space around the work, and the magical space.
Magical space is a space of connection and the greatest trigger of magic that moves. This is a space of tremendous potential for innovation.
Three principles can make breakthrough more concrete for live experiences:
Exchanging as opposed to demonstrating: the more doors, stairs, bridges, ramps, ropes, and trapezes between the stage and the audience, the better.
Weaving together the beats of an experience that are the invitations, the welcoming, the intermission, and saying good-bye.
Moving away from addictions to rigid operation and business models. Resist the temptation to imitate your past success to the point of becoming a caricature of what you were. Cherish the past and understand what worked, but don’t dwell on it.
The most fundamental encounter is that of your audience and your work.
Inspiration time or unplanned time is valuable for breakthroughs. Adding an extra day to a business trip could help you see new perspectives.
Commit after dreaming. At some point, choices need to be made and commitments articulated.
Creativity, imagination, and innovation should characterize the entire organization rather than be constrained to a department. In start-ups and growing structures, the opportunity to cultivate this spirit rather than playing catch-up later is a compelling case to invest time in making the innovation process and mind-set open to all, even with specialists leading.
Grow: What If It’s Not about the Logo?
Details are supremely important, but they can prevent us from seeing a more important picture. Developing that awareness when we are going full speed with our work can help us grow meaningfully. This practice of bringing even the most challenging problems under the light of our collective awareness is at the heart of working with creative courage. Ultimately, creative courage represents the willingness to transform our conditions and grow meaningfully.
Live experiences that we can host move us and our audiences, inside and outside our organizations. The UN and world leaders have established seventeen goals that point to profound innovation and growth with the goal of ending poverty by 2030. What if we added another goal? What if the boldest innovation was finding new and compelling answers to the following questions:
- How do we move the people we serve and the ones we work with?
- What if the most important question to help find new solutions to our greatest challenges and greatest opportunities to innovate was to ask how love grows? In our communities, our workplace, in the heart of our drive to innovate and to orchestrate breakthroughs?
- What if technology and business models partnered in that quest?
- What if the most advanced field for our innovation dreams was the field of love?
- And what if answering that unusual call was meeting exactly what our clients, employees, customers, and audiences value the most?
In any case, just bringing more awareness to the state of proficiency and mastery you and your organization have for each dimension or practice can help bring clarity on what to do next and have the best payoff.
Start to Dance: When Is It Too Late?
It’s never too late to start dancing after all. With the right conditions, dance can even end the war on imagination.