Our obligation to imagine

Our obligation to imagine

In 2007, I spoke at a conference in China about courage, curiosity and dealing with change.  At that same moment, the first Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention in Chinese history took place in the country.  I was wondering why science fiction had been disapproved by the Chinese (government) for such a long time.  What had suddenly changed? 

The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans.  However, they did not innovate and they did not invent.  They simply did not “imagine”.  But one day, the Chinese learned that innovation champions at Apple, Microsoft or Google all had at least one thing in common: they had read science fiction when they were still boys or girls.  To spark their imagination.  Today, China is making technology innovation a major priority and the country's startups scene is thriving.  "Imagination" is now indeed part of the country's strategy. 

Do you know what I consider one of the biggest ambiguities in leadership?  The fact that effective leadership implies an ability to live in two worlds: the incoherent world of imagination, fantasy and dreams and the orderly world of plans, rules and pragmatic action.  However, in many companies there is an imagination gap: there is too much focus on the here and now and the short term.  In addition, the focus on data is perhaps also squeezing out imagination – which is especially dangerous when facing completely new challenges that need to be tackled.

I have always learned the importance of being responsible and realistic.  However, today I believe that imagination is more important than reality.  Because our “thoughts” can become “things”.  I believe that companies have an obligation to imagine. We can only create the future by imagining that things can be different.  If you always stay immersed in what is just in front of you, you will create the same challenges, problems and experiences over and over again.  Focus on the future reality that you want to experience and it will boost passion and energy.  

Of course, imagination should always be linked to execution: dream and do.  Many people have imagined a new future (whether professionally or privately), but few take the steps to make or to do the things they imagine.  Think of airplanes.  The brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright were not the first people to have the idea of building a flying machine, nor were they the first people to begin building one.  But they were the first people to fly.  So remember: first imagine and then just do it.

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