Imagination will be the crucial element in navigating our new normal.

Canada has entered the first phase of its post-COVID recovery. With it comes both excitement and trepidation – the excitement of reclaiming some familiar patterns of life, tempered by the wariness of a second wave of infection and renewed lockdown. Premier Dennis King of PEI got it right when he recently warned that easing restrictions was “never a process to go back to normal” because he had no idea what ‘normal’ might look like.

In fact, no one does. The new normal, or the next normal, remains an evolving uncertainty whose basic contours have yet to be defined. What is clear, though, is that many personal and social norms have irrevocably changed, compounding business’s search for clarity.

There is an explicit acknowledgement that new work practices, reengineered processes and new roles are here to stay.

The outlines of a new normal for business can perhaps best be glimpsed through the lens of China’s experience, itself several months ahead of the North American curve. In recent reports the post-COVID recovery efforts of Chinese firms have been analyzed, and from that analysis the following key actions identified:

1.     Innovate business models to adapt to the new realities;

2.     Develop a technology-first mindset to respond to challenges;

3.     Review processes, work practices and roles;

4.     Strengthen resilience in supplier ecosystems.

Now, this sounds very much like the jargon of management consultants. To an extent, yes, but these actions are nonetheless valuable – nonetheless true – and assume even greater relevance as we ponder the truly unprecedented nature of events these last few months – the magnitude of the public health crisis, the economic devastation, the global disruption of daily life. After all, nothing about the response to COVID is standard, or scripted. There is no playbook (well, Obama did leave one behind). And the world will likely now be reckoned in terms of pre- and post-COVID. The mix of remedial actions taken by firms in China supports this notion, though crucially, it also implies a focus on THE NEXT – as in, a recovery toward the next normal, and a preparation for the next (and, now anticipated) crisis.

Something’s missing, though – more is required – if we are to meet the challenge of the next. The most finely crafted mix of prescriptive measures will be insufficient in shaping this new normal if not supplemented by that much rarer of ingredients – imagination.

“With imagination, we can do better than merely adapting to a new environment — we can thrive by shaping it.”

It is human nature – our first instinct – to defend against disturbance in the face of crisis and seek a return to the status quo. A hope-against-hope response is seldom sustainable, though, and in a crisis of such magnitude as now confronts us our first instincts must yield to the possibility of new possibilities. History has, in fact, shown how we have embraced the next normal many many times before, as past pandemics have sparked the rise of new attitudes, needs and behaviours.

In an insightful HBR article Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller suggest that, in the search for new possibilities beyond those well-crafted prescriptive measures, imagination “is the crucial factor in seizing and creating new opportunities, and finding new paths to growth.” As they write, “with imagination, we can do better than merely adapting to a new environment – we can thrive by shaping it.” In describing an effective response to the COVID crisis the authors urge organizations to move beyond the lower-order adaptive/planning strategies to engage in the more visionary/shaping strategies where, as it happens, imagination is the key ingredient.

To understand how western organizations are responding to COVID, a survey of more than 250 multinational companies was recently conducted to identify their current mix of actions. The results show reactive measures to be dominant among this group, with only a minority enacting some strategic initiatives.

This result is not unexpected – to survive is the first order of business. But to thrive is the imperative. How, then, to ascend the Maslow Hierarchy when imagination so often becomes an early casualty of crisis?

Reeves and Fuller to the rescue, as they offer suggestions to develop (or, perhaps more accurately, reignite) an organization’s capacity for imagination:

1.     Carve out time for reflection. It is difficult to keep imagination alive under conditions of stress and pressure. And leaders are never more central to an organization – and thus under greater time constraint – than in a crisis. However, the discipline to carve out time for reflection, to see the bigger picture, to imagine, is central to realizing the best organizational outcomes.

2.     Ask active, open questions. Arriving at the best answers is dependant upon asking the right questions. As Reeves and Fuller note: “Creativity involves reaching beyond precedents and known alternatives to ask questions that prompt the exploration of fresh ideas and approaches.”

3.     Allow yourself to be playful. Responding to crisis is serious business. But play can build the useful capacity to improvise and imagine, important skills when navigating the unknown. As Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, chairman of the LEGO Brand Group told Reeves and Fuller, “Creativity is the rearrangement of existing knowledge into new, useful combinations.”

4.     Set up a system for sharing ideas. The COVID crisis has forced organizations to do things differently (think: work from home). Reeves and Fuller suggest that the imaginative organization scales these innovations, while also “creating forums for people to communicate in a casual way, without hierarchy, reports, permissions, or financial justifications.” And where solutions are not readily apparent, it is vital to be open rather than constrict the funnel for new ideas.

5.     Seek out the anomalous and unexpected. As Reeves and Fuller note, “Imagination is triggered by surprising inputs.” In the context of our current crisis, they ask us to consider why some countries have avoided an exponential infection pattern; or why some cities have suffered more than others; or what stopped us from being prepared for this crisis in spite of precedents like MERS, SARS, and Ebola. In answer to that last question, Dr. Ali Khan, formerly of the C.D.C., was unequivocal: “This is about lack of imagination.”

6.     Encourage experimentation. In the face of diminished resources, Reeves and Fuller urge experimentation, if only on a shoestring budget. As they write, “Our ideas only become useful if they are tested in the real world, themselves often generating unexpected outcomes and stimulating further thinking and new ideas.”

7.     Stay hopeful. Hope is most urgent when it is least abundant. As the authors write, “When we lose hope and adopt a passive mindset, we cease to believe that we can meet our ideals or fix our problems. The outcome of the entire process can be determined by the initial belief. Pessimism can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

The possibility of new possibilities. The willingness to perceive the impossible. The culture of what-if-and-why-not. The magic of an exceptional experience. Imagination is at the root of all of these. And imagination will be the crucial element in navigating our new normal.

“We believe imagination — the capacity to create, evolve, and exploit mental models of things or situations that don’t yet exist — is the crucial factor in seizing and creating new opportunities, and finding new paths to growth.”

Martin Reeves & Jack Fuller

Reeves and Fuller make emphatic their views by closing with the words of Jim Loree, CEO of Stanley Black & Decker: “Never in our lifetimes has the power of imagination been more important in defining our immediate future. Leaders need to seize the opportunity to inspire and harness the imagination of their organizations during this challenging time.”

Recommended reading: I invite you to take a much deeper dive into the nature of imagination in business with Reeves & Fuller in “Competing on Imagination.”

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