Imagination and Action
Imagination, or being imaginative, is one of the most sought after capacities in individuals and organizations. But are we clear what we mean when we use these words? And are we clear about the actions that need to be taken in order to make these words come alive in people? And here I must tip my hat to a belief I hold - words like "imagination" and "imaginative" are descriptions we ascribe to what people do. Meaning that I believe it is our actions that are imaginative not us as people. This may seem like splitting hairs but I think it is an important distinction, especially when we are exploring the ways we can develop this capacity in people or create a culture that promotes this ability.
So in exploring what nurtures our imaginative capacity I think the best place to begin is with the word. Most dictionary definitions of imagination reference the ability to form images, impressions, ideas and senses within the mind. As well the etymology of the word is derived from a Latin verb that means to "picture to oneself". I would suggest then that imagination is the act of bringing to mind images, impressions, memories, and ideas. What is important in this definition is that imagination is not passive – something that happens to us - but rather an active pursuit in which we engage. And when we actively bring to mind images, impressions and memories we create a bodily experience - we literally feel our imaginations. This is important since if we regard the imagination as an active process that creates a felt experience we can identify the things we need to do in order to develop an imaginative capacity; we can practice using our imagination.
The man who did the most work on the actions and practices needed to develop the imagination was Konstantin Stanislavski. A Russian theatre director and innovator from the late 19th and early 20th century, he developed the foundations for western actor training (please know that the “method” made famous in New York was a small, derivation of his early work, not a full expression of his thinking). For actors, imagination is a central skill required of the job. Up until Stanislavski people were content to believe that one was born with the skill (and many others) and that it was impossible to help people develop this ability (and many others). Stanislavski believed this attitude was a waste of potential and so developed systematic practices for developing the imagination (and many other skills). Central to his approach around developing the imagination was one simple idea: having people explore the question “What if…?”
“The secret of ‘if’, as a stimulus, lies in the fact that it doesn’t speak about actual facts, of what is, but of what might be …. ‘if’ … This word is not a statement, it is a question to be answered” (An Actors Work – Konstantin Stanislavski)
By asking “What if…” Stanislavski was asking actors to actively bring to mind the images, impressions, and feelings of a particular situation so that they might experience them. He would have them rigorously detail the information within the given circumstances. Stanislavski developed his famous five questions to ask of any situation: where is it, when is it, who is it, why is it, and for what reason is it? These questions would have the actor bring to mind all the images, impressions, ideas, feelings, etc associated with each question, gradually building a detailed understanding and richly felt experience of the situation. From within that imaginative experience of the situation the actor could discover insights about the character and relationships. And this is a key point: in this approach, being imaginative is not the goal but the process whereby insights can arise. For Stanislavski the imagination was a tool that aided the actor in discovery and insight. This is something that I believe most discussions on imagination and being imaginative miss. Having a deeply engaged imagination is confused with the products of that imagination. Being imaginative does not mean you can think up something no one has ever dreamt of before, but rather that you can place yourself in an immersed experience so that new insights emerge. Being imaginative is no guarantee that startling possibilities will be revealed; it is the practice we engage in to help bring forward fresh ideas.
Therefore practices that fuel the imagination are those which help people immerse themselves in the rich detail of the situations around which they need to have insights. When people engage in learning journeys to experience the lived reality, when they talk directly to the people they wish to serve, when they immerse themselves into the situation, they are fueling their imaginations and creating the conditions for insights and breakthroughs to occur. When facing a challenge an individual or an organization will become imaginative the minute they leave the office and begin to experience the given circumstance of the situation they face.
We can all be imaginative. It is difficult, hard work that requires us to become fully involved with the situation. But by becoming involved we will reveal possibilities. So this coming week take a situation that needs new insights and go out and get involved in it – feel it from the inside and see what possibilities emerge.