Einstein is quoted as having said that imagination is more important than knowledge. That’s truer now than ever as organizations face challenges in a liminal age. New unprecedented problems require new answers, for which there is no data. Many “best practices” were best for former conditions and norms which either no longer exist, or are phasing out.
Yet, the common anxious responses are to gather data that ensures guarantees of outcomes, and to stick with the practices that are familiar and ensured former success. For many, the desire for safety outweighs the necessity of risk.
Author Edwin Friedman argued that organizations often become “imaginatively gridlocked,” or, conceptually stuck. To Friedman, imaginatively gridlocked systems cannot change on their own by getting more information. He said what is needed is “a shift in the emotional processes of that institution. Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena.”
In order to imagine new possibilities, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.” Unfortunately, most organizational systems tend toward “homeostasis”–-desiring stability and the illusion of safety rather than adventurous exploration. Few embrace the risk characteristic of imagination and innovation required for success.
David Campbell, in Take the Road to Creativity and Get Off Your Dead End, identified seven blocks to creativity and imagination in organizations. Check to what extent these are true for your organization:
Fear of failure.When people are pressured for immediate success and pressured for predictable outcomes they are rewarded for safety rather than risk. People will set the bar low in order to be rewarded for “meeting the goal,” even if the (safe) metrics do not advance the organization.
Preoccupation with order and tradition.Order and tradition are good and necessary, but they can squelch innovation because innovation invites disruption. When order and tradition become the prime corporate values, calcification soon sets in, and that’s a certain condition toward becoming obsolete.
Resource myopia.Campbell identifies this as a failure to appreciate the strengths in the system. Especially, when the talents and capacities of people are not allowed to fully flourish. Narrow job descriptions restrict people from using the full range of their talents to contribute to the whole.
Overcertainty: the specialist disease. This happens when leaders in the organization over focus on their past success and assume they have nothing new to learn. They’ll continue to do the things that helped them succeed to this point and loose sight of the realities of change around them. The pace of change means no one can be an expert for long. Lifelong learning, re-tooling, and innovation is the key to continued success.
Reluctance to exert influence. Too often, the most innovative people in your system are reluctant to push for change or risk. This is especially true when the organization does not reward the risk, and disruption that leads to innovative change.
Reluctance to play. Campbell said, “Organizations that prohibit play are probably prohibiting creativity. If they don’t need creativity, this is no problem, but if they do, the absence of play may eventually be lethal.”
Excessive reward for success. When the goal is guaranteed success, there is little incentive for innovation and risk-taking. When people in the organization learn that success is rewarded and risk only brings anxiety, they’ll set the bar low and “succeed” every time. Measured risk that results in failure is not in itself failure—it comes with being innovative and creative.
Ultimately, an organization that is so risk-averse that it squelches innovation for the allure of safety encourages its own demise.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).