Where’s Your Imagination?

My granddaughter just turned 3 the other day and like any toddler she has a very active imagination—she can pretend just about anything and be happy as a clam while she’s doing it. One of her very favorite ways to spend an afternoon is to turn her little mini shopping cart on its side and pretend it is an ice cream truck. She steps in and out of the carriage beneath the cart like it’s the drivers compartment of the truck, takes our orders for cones or popsicles or cups of ice cream, and then proceeds back to the cart (oops–I mean truck!) and assembles our goodies. Back to each of us she’ll come with treats in hand, collect our pretend money, ask how it tastes, and then back to her truck she’ll go and head off down the road to her next set of customers. This can go on for quite some time and she is just a serious as can be, making sure each order is correct and that were enjoying our ice cream. And all it takes is a toy shopping cart turned on its side, a willing customer or two, and her very active imagination.

A few of us got together this year and bought her a tot sized kitchen along with plenty of pretend food and utensils. Now she has a fridge, stove, sink, oven and microwave and all the food she can possibly think of—maybe when we visit next week, she’ll have started a restaurant! Or with her imagination maybe it will have morphed into a factory or a space ship. At her age there’s no limit to what it can become or where she’ll fit in that imaginary world. Watching her this morning on FaceTime was a real joy, and I couldn’t stop smiling along in wonder while she morphed into a chef making pizza!

This got me to thinking about how we “adults” use our imaginations in our business lives. The cliché is that once you hit a certain age (usually somewhere in your early teens) we learn or are taught to suppress our imaginations and start consciously spending our time in the “real world” rather than our own version of make-believe. There are good and bad sides to this transformation, but for many of us imagination and creativity fade into the background and practicality and seriousness take center stage, especially in our career. We can tap into imagination and creativity a bit, but mostly we leave the creativity to our PR, marketing, engineering, and new product development folks while we’re working on strategy, finance, growth, continuous improvement, legal & regulatory issues, cost initiatives, board meetings, etc. We’ve got serious business to attend to!

But imagination and creativity play a huge role for you as a leader, and your organizational growth and success depends on you being able to tap into your imagination. You have to be able to “see” where the company can go, and what the company can be, over the next 5, 10, 20+ years. And most importantly you as a leader must be able to articulate and communicate what you “see” in order to get the full set of stakeholders on board with you on this journey. Of course, you will have to involve others on your team in setting the Vision and Mission of your firm, and their input and buy-in are critical. But this has to start with you, and your ability to creatively imagine this future state is absolutely essential to get the process moving forward.

I often refer to the classic Lean/CI visual of a set of stairs leading upward from the Current State to the Future State. There is always a cloud on that stairway, representing all that must be accomplished and all of the “2 steps forward and 1 step back” lurching that will happen as you encounter change and the unknown along the path. But you have to have a real vision of what that future state is going to be, and you have to be able to get others to “see” that future state along with you. Once you can get the full organization to see where you are going and see the future state, then you can all get started on the work necessary to get there. To me this is the best picture, in the simplest possible form, of what must happen in any great organization. And this has to start with the imagination of leadership.

So, start stretching your imagination muscles—tap into your creative side. Maybe you can read a book (I recently read CreativeQuest by Questlove—the drummer and bandleader for The Roots [Tonight Show]), listen to a podcast on creativity and imagination, or take a creative arts class at your local community college. Anything to get those creative and imaginative juices flowing. Or you can just watch your granddaughter happily serve make-believe ice cream out of an upended shopping cart. She’s got more than ice cream in that truck—she’s got a leadership lesson for us all!

Use your creativity and imagination to develop and design your organizations future state. Then communicate and involve your team, letting them “see” this vision along with you, and get them together with you on the stairway towards achieving this future state. Make this discussion and the path through the “cloud” of uncertainty an integral part of your daily/weekly management routine. You’ll get happier, more relaxed and engaged employees as a result, and your team will have more skills and resources to perform the tasks that drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Photo: M. Hayes

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