In a recent presentation to a group of chief executives, I was struck by how many of them felt that they were losing their capacity to imagine new possibilities for their companies. At a rational level they understood the importance of making time to envision ideas for the future, but at a pragmatic level they found themselves trapped in the tyranny of the present.
Their daily routines mimic the old arcade game, Whack-A-Mole, where players are rewarded by bopping the furry creatures as they popped up from their subterranean burrows. The better one gets at whacking moles, the higher the score. These executives were getting more rewards and bonuses (points) by handling the ever-emerging problems (moles) of the present. This emphasis on today is suffocating the opportunity to grow the business through innovative offerings that create value for the customers as well as uniqueness for their brand.
These leaders felt trapped in a time paradox: If they neglect the present they will sabotage the future, but they if they neglect the future they would eventually deplete their good present.
How could we then effectively unleash ourselves from today to conceptually create a vibrant vision for tomorrow? In our hyper-dynamic and complex world it is tempting to try to do more, work longer, and multitask our way into instant results. However, the future is never urgent so shortcuts or impatient approaches to deal with it will not yield valuable insights. To be effective in planning for the future, first slow down.
It is counter intuitive in our fast-paced culture to go slow in order to make progress, but it is essential. The most important activity to initiate the exploration is contemplation. Contemplation is not about being innactive. As Aristotle put it, contemplation is the highest form of human activity.
The following activities will help you start the practice of contemplation for the future:
1. Take time and listen to the silence: Disengage from your distracted busyness. If you are constantly thinking about where you have to be next or what you have to do next, there is no hope that any significant insights about your desired future will emerge. Start or finish each day with the passive engagement of contemplation. Think about how would your future look like if you had no excuses. Finish these sentences: “What is keeping me from doing…? What one thing have I been postponing but always wanted to do if I only had time?”
2. Do not “meter” your life: When you park your car in a two-hour parking zone you are constantly looking at your watch to avoid being ticketed. Anything you are doing will feel rushed, thus allowing the chronology of time to saturate the quality of your time. Don’t imagine or envision on a tight schedule.
3. Nurture your creative courage: Dare to imagine the future that you would like to create even if you feel that you are outside your expertise. Imagination can speak to us in areas foreign to our expertise because we are not constrained by rules of the field or assumptions, protocols and paradigms of a given discipline. Thinking and acting based on expectations of others is also confining. Unleash your rebellious sense of wonder and complete questions such as: “Wouldn’t it be nice if…? What possibilities would emerge if I …?”
4. Trust your thoughts but not your memory: Imagining is an ephemeral experience and at any given moment you can experience the “flash of insight,” the discovery of a possibility worth looking into. Without capturing it, it will dissolve and you may only remember disconnected pieces of your thought and be unable to recreate what seemed to be great about it at the time. Capturing your ideas in writing will help bring them to the physical world and help you show them to others to build on and refine them.
5. Accept ambiguity; the future has multiple right answers: Through imagination we transcend the way things are and explore how they could be. This exercise can be exhilarating and inspiring. Embrace all the possibilities and avoid discarding an idea too early if you see a roadblock ahead. Keep the exploration flexible; there are multiple pathways to any given destination.
These foundational activities will put you on the course to cultivate the process of imagination. Michelangelo noted, “That which I desire, I must first imagine. That which I imagine, I create.” Go forth, imagine, explore and strengthen your creative confidence every day.
J. Gerald Suarez is professor of practice in systems thinking and design at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business and author of “Leader Of One: Shaping Your Future through Imagination and Design,” Amazon 2014.