Imagination is our muse. Creativity is our medium.
Inspiration, vision, creation are all part of the creative process. And the lifeblood of transformative work.
As a regular matter of course, we accept that what we aim to do, does not yet exist, and can mobilize artists and communities and donors and board members to join our to-date non-existent dream. (Shout-out to Seth Godin for his brilliant “It’s almost impossible to sell the future” post, which could be fodder for a thousand subsequent blog posts here).
That is magic! And something we are really good at.
And yet, when we put on our manager hats, we often forget that our work is also creative. Instead, we usually zoom ahead to the practical. How do we get it done? In Seth Godin’s terms, we forget about what we are really good at (powerful vision), and become good at “now.”
“But how can that be done?”
“We can’t afford it.”
“That will never work.”
“Let’s get real. What can we actually do? Let’s scrap this and move on.”
As managers, we can best do justice to a compelling vision by allowing its execution to flow through a process that is as thoughtful as the work that went into creating the vision.
Why is that important?
Most entrepreneurs will tell you that your first few ideas are usually terrible. Or at least, that those will likely not be the ideas that will actually get you on the path toward success. The first few ideas you come up with are obvious. And the obvious answers are typically obvious because they are known.
Look around. Is the known getting us to more success, better fundraising, more engaged and diverse audiences, more engaged boards?
(Letting that sink in…)
We don’t often allow ourselves an opportunity to get beyond the known. But to find new solutions and better ways of doing our work, eventually, we must accept that eventually, it is necessary to venture into the unknown. This is the only pathway to sustainability.
(Spoiler alert: while it may be scary for some to accept, our dynamic, ever-more-quickly-changing environment is pretty regularly immersing us in the unknown, perhaps far more than we may be comfortable recognizing.)
This brings up the power of choice. Proactively, deliberately embracing the reality of our immersion in the unknown means that we also have the choice to imagine that the unknown may hold undiscovered, beautiful and incredible, elegant solutions to everything we seek. We can choose this perspective, which places more power in our hands, or we can choose fear or resistance to the unknown. I personally think embracing the unknown (and its untapped potential) is worth exploring and often very satisfying.
Innovation: this is a common word in grant proposals. But because in its pure form, it involves delving into the unknown, innovation is a phenomenon in which few cultural organizations are currently and authentically engaging. My personal take on innovation is that it is an active embrace of the potential of what does not yet exist (such as a vision, a set of goals, or a solution to a challenge), paired with a calculated series of steps or experiments intended to realize that potential. It is not random and it is not magic. Much like the artistic process, it is non-linear and embraces experimentation. The insights gained along the way may not be desired or intended, but these help refine the vision and usually enrich the outcome, far more so than could be expected. And going through the process itself – not merely fast-tracking to the end product or result – is a powerful creative tool that can shape us, our work and our organizations for the better.
So how do we innovate? How can we venture safely into the unknown, to where the new creative solutions exist, when it is not part of our practice? I believe that artists are masters of process, and it’s helpful to start by taking a page from their book.
1) Ignore reality. Pretend no boundaries exist. Imagine extremes (shout-out to Tim Ferriss and his “negative visualization” technique). Spend some time digging in and exploring them with your teams. Better, fresh ideas will begin to emerge. Explore them. You can always come back to reality when you are ready for the “how.”
2) Dive in. Get hands-on and see what starts to develop. You can do this figuratively or literally, with good results either way. In fact, the design thinking modality often engages people effectively in problem-solving through making hands-on prototypes with crafts materials that force participants to access non-linear, nonverbal thinking. I’ve used it with terrific results
3) Improvise. Look at the possibilities, “say yes” to what comes up, and that will open up even more ideas.
4) Observe, reflect, discuss. Whether you do one or all of these activities, or invent new techniques, take the time to debrief with your teams. This is where you make sense of what you have gained from the exercises – where the process, and not skipping to the end, yields dividends.
a. What are areas of commonality or consensus? What is surprising or notable?
b. What new ideas have emerged, that feel resonant or exciting? Why? Is the vision clearer? Are new pathways clearer?
c. What areas deserve further exploration? Who else needs to be involved?
d. Which of these ideas deserves to and can be put into play in the next 30 days? How?
5) Prototype and test your ideas. Give yourselves time to see what sticks. Define a period of time you can stick with an idea, come together to assess it along the way, tweak as needed, and assess again at the end of that period. What works? What doesn’t? Why? What might work better? What surprised you? What more do we need to know now, and how can we find it? Which elements of this model are worth pursuing further?
6) Implement. Improvise and recalibrate along the way. Notice what happens and keep your ears open to opportunities and collaborations that arise. Most of all, stick with and continue to develop and refine your process.
In the words of Venture Café Miami Executive Director Leigh-Ann Buchanan, “Innovation is a social process that is fueled by conversation, collaboration, and storytelling.” Embed your innovation practice into your everyday work. You, your team and your organization will benefit most from these processes when they become part of your regular work flow. Start by committing one hour per month to this type of divergent thinking exercise and see how far you go.
This is practical dreaming.
Be bold. Be playful. Be fearless. There are no right answers. You cannot get it wrong.