Why put imagination back at the heart of the company?

Could imagination be the key asset of tomorrow’s company? The question may surprise some and set the teeth on edge for others. In today’s age of KPIs, artificial intelligence and data, imagination seems to have no place in a 4.0 organization. But are you really sure about that?

On our way towards a freethinking company
“Today’s company drives data flows with the ultimate aim of mathematizing reality, to the detriment of imagination.”
Jean-Philippe Pierron

Freeing up the company is an appealing prospect for a new organizational model, because it puts people and their imaginations back at the heart of the business. But this new perspective of management sometimes struggles to find its place in organizations constrained by standards...

“Industry has shaped its imagination around an organization that is seen as a machine-like body,” says Jean-Philippe Pierron, a philosopher and teacher at the University of Burgundy. “With gearwheels, mechanisms and friction points.”

The empire of standards

At the same time, over the last twenty years or so, the company has also forged its own identity, becoming a formidable machine for thinking, sorting and classifying. “Today’s world is dominated by the empire of standards, which aims to mathematize reality on the basis that it ensures reliability,” continues Jean-Philippe Pierron. The Covid-19 crisis only reinforces this trend towards ultra-pragmatism. Some people dream of governance by numbers, because they believe it allows them to measure risks more accurately and build better scenarios for the future.

Right-brain thinking

Although very useful to the organization, this fanatical pragmatism tends to compartmentalize the company into multiple organizational silos. By creating a ‘steel cage’, it has become locked into a culture of standards, nipping innovation and imagination in the bud. The agility promised by technical solutions then mutates into immobility. “At the extreme end of the spectrum, the logic-driven company drains work of its very essence,” says Jean-Philippe Pierron. So, how do you unleash ideas? The answer is simple: help the company to think using the other side of its brain! Yes, it’s true that our organizations tend to ‘think’ with their left brain, neglecting the more intuitive and emotional right brain. Freeing the imagination means daring to think in new ways that are ‘outside the box’.

Challenging organizations...

Having become aware of their own biases, many companies have introduced a raft of initiatives over recent years to generate new ideas and restore meaning to work. Based on the principle of open innovation, fablabs explore new working methods centered on cooperation. This multidisciplinary approach brings together stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds (academics, startups, etc.) to contribute their ideas and perspectives around a shared project. Open labs may challenge organizations, but they should never replace established processes. Their role is to contribute a new perspective and alternative thought processes that are more creative and more collaborative. To maintain their role as ‘agitators of ideas’, they should be neither too distant from the parent company nor totally subsumed in the organization. In this role, they create a new and freer workspace that promotes cooperation and collective intelligence in parallel. 

... And re-engaging every employee

Freeing the imagination within a company also means seizing the opportunity to re-engage every employee on the basis of his or her potential and qualities. This involvement is an essential precondition for employees to become actors of change who can then drive this freedom forward.
“In a diary driven world, we also need to learn how to free up space and time to allow ourselves the possibility of thinking long term,” insists Jean-Philippe Pierron. Taking a breather is not a luxury, and ‘slow working’ brings with it new ideas and the opportunity to step back and take a broader view.

Methods such as mind mapping (a graphic representation of connected ideas, tasks, words and concepts developed around a central topic) and design fiction (a practice that consists of designing possible futures) also promote this productive thinking that is free of censorship or control. Similarly, open and collaborative workspaces make it easier for ideas to circulate in words. So are we on our way towards a freethinking company? The idea is appealing, especially since the majority of species in the natural world operate on the principle of holarchy. In other words, governance based on collective intelligence. So could that be the key that unlocks the company of the future?

Credits: A_stockphoto/Shutterstock; Space_Cat/Shutterstock