My colleague Brian Reich has just published a new book, The Imagination Gap. I’ve known Brian for over ten years and he is a brilliant strategist for executive leaders and global brands – nonprofits, startups, and political organizations. He has done a lot of work recently in innovation processes, especially to solve big social change issues. So, I was excited to dig into his most recent book and thinking.
The big idea in the book is that imagination is the greatest natural resource available to humans and organizations and it is a muscle that we are not exercising regularly. Brian says that in our work we are too often just doing what we know and have always done. In other words, taking the easy way out. Imagination is achieving something that has never been done and explore new ways of thinking and doing that can move beyond what we know and have always done.
Before you begin thinking that only geniuses have permission to use imagination, Brian gives us permission to use it. It isn’t a special skill or talent. It also isn’t the same thing as creativity or innovation. Above all, imagination is about big NEW ideas.
The book gives us an introduction to imagination and the important role is plays in all aspects of our lives – personally, professionally and as a community. The book also describes the barriers and challenges to using our imagination and provides some steps that we can take to close the imagination gap. What I like is that each chapter includes a good summary of the content, plus an imagination challenge where we can work our imagination muscles.
My favorite chapter is called “A Different Kind of F-Word,” and it is about the role that imagination plays in supporting a culture of failure. Brian and I once shared a keynote plenary at the NTEN conference in 2012 – titled “Failure is not an F-Word,” and Brian dropped a few F-bombs on the stage. So, I wasn’t surprised to see a chapter on this important topic, but appreciated how Brian’s thinking about it has evolved.
Brian talks about how popularity of “failing” has faded from our conversations over the past few years. While the decline of failure as a meme may be linked to a downturn in the economy or an increase in political rancor, Brian says that the reason is that we’ve gotten lazy and stopped using our imagination. He says it is because we’re just more comfortable with the status quo.
He reminds us of the value of failure: It leads to change when we can remove the stigma and understand how to improve something. He also reminds us that when we’re comfortable with failing, it becomes easier to do. And while there may some tension to encourage failing, Brian says it is only way to unlock imagination.
The imagination challenge for this chapter is to analyze a mistake. After you apologize, think about what went wrong and try to understand how it could have gone differently. As Brian reminds us, it is not the act of making a mistake that invites learning, it is the process of sitting with it, and feeling the pain of discomfort that it causes that will motivate you to learn how to improve it.
This book is a wonderful walk through learning how to use your imagination. The chapters are well-researched and engagingly written. At the end, there is a bonus exercise or two to help you apply the idea. Imagine the problems we could solve, if the nonprofit sector collectively used its imagination every day!