Building an imagination practice

“I’m loving this new role,” Lisa shared during our first discussion since her promotion to a VP level role. She was leading a team of ten, whom Lisa described as “rock stars,” people at the top of their game in the industry.

“I’ve spent the first 60 days on the job evaluating this team,” she explained. “I want to understand what drives each person, where their talents for this business lie and whom I can count on to bring creative ideas forward.”

I watched then as the bright smile on Lisa’s face faded. She was pleased with the team’s technical capabilities but concerned that their focus on technical excellence would not be the source from which next level product ideas were generated.

“As I see it, we’re not bringing any new ideas to market that are creating a new need for the consumer. If we don’t, believe me, someone else will. And I don’t want to be the leader trying to hold on to the tail end of that dragon.”

Lisa’s team was composed of strong strategic thinkers, but they were working with current concepts and belief systems that had existed in their business for decades. No one was doing “edge thinking” as Lisa called it, including herself.

“I don’t even know how to begin with that,” she admitted.

I suggested to Lisa that the secret to building a creative team was to begin by first giving herself permission to be creative. She could learn a lot from famed music producer, Rick Rubin, someone who works with actual rock stars. In his new book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rubin, who has produced everyone from the Beastie Boys to Run-DMC, insists that we are all Creators. Creativity, he says, is a fundamental act of being human. Given he’s a guy who has won eight Grammy Awards and founded two record labels, I suppose he knows a thing or two about the topic.

Rubin has the reputation of providing to those with whom he works the most essential component for accessing the artist within. In a word, it’s called space — space to think differently about a challenge, space to consider that the old solutions aren’t the only answers, and space to imagine. The first step forward for Lisa, I advised, was to establish a habit of making space for imagination. But maximizing that space would require that she take the following actions:

Value the trinity

When most of us think about creativity, we view it as an end result. Someone came up with a creative idea or they didn’t. Or you view Person A on your team as naturally more creative than Person B. While these assumptions may appear to be true (there are certainly people with phenomenal artistic talent) creativity is but one element in a trinity of factors that allow us to innovate. It is the integration of imagination, inspiration and creativity that leads us to new ways of looking at the world and our work. We solve problems from a different mindset when we make space for imagination. It jump-starts a powerful cascade of events, with imagination triggering an inspiration and that inspiration leading to a new creative outcome. You can’t access creativity without making space for imagination.

Establish and value your process

It’s hard to get creative in the middle of a hurricane, so understanding the environment that provides you with unrestricted access to your own imagination is key. You’ll know when you’ve found that environment because the dominant emotion you’ll experience is freedom. You’ll feel no restrictions on what you must think about, or even the pressure to focus on a topic at all. There is no urgency to get to an answer of any kind. You are not solving for anything. Instead, you’re in a state of watchful receptivity.

Honor that each of us reaches that place differently. You can explore your surroundings or sit quietly. You can interact with others or get centered and still. For Lisa, taking solo mountain hikes on weekends offered an environment for her best thinking. She keeps a journal in her car and writes down the ideas that come to her on the hikes before starting the car to return home. Other clients cited activities like spending time in the gym, cycling, gardening, sailing, writing and meditation as their vehicle to imagination. You own the process, so figure out what works for you by trying different options. But remember, creativity happens when you consistently invite it to take a seat at the table. Establish regular time on your calendar to experience the environments that fuel your imagination.

Be judgment free

If you’re like many leaders, your days are filled with strategies to design, people to motivate and goals to achieve. In short, you get stuff done. So, it’s not surprising that the early stages of developing an imagination habit may feel different than your normal approaches to strategic thinking and problem-solving. It may feel that the habit isn’t yielding an immediate outcome. Am I doing this right, you might ask? Isn’t this supposed to provide some spark of insight that makes me a brilliant leader?

This feels different because it is. You’re developing an imagination practice, not a solutioning system. To invite the most innovative, engaging ideas to flow through, adopt a “judgment-free zone” around your imagination. Allow yourself to imagine, without attachment to an outcome.

Start small

When considering how to spark imagination on your team, resist the urge to “boil the ocean.” Begin by developing your own practice. Experiment with it, tweak it, get it right for you. Once you can describe your practice to others (and its natural ambiguity) you’re ready to include one or two members of the team and help them develop an imagination practice of their own. Start small, build momentum and then focus that collective power on something in your business that would benefit from a fresh approach. Most importantly, remember that your role is not to be the conductor of the creative act; it’s to collaborate with others in it. That’s how the most expansive ideas get birthed, and how the nascent artist within you and your team is unleashed to innovate.

This article was first published in SmartBrief, February 2023.

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