The key to sustainable business

Ideas_175px.jpgAs we head out of the dog days of summer, the transition to Fall brings more bustle to the rhythm of work and life for many of us.  It is easy to feel like the grind of our fast-paced business world will govern our every action and bit of our attention for the next 11 months. 

After all, our work is full of innumerable necessary tasks: prepare the sustainability report; develop the employee volunteer project; meet with the Green Teams to get the office recycling campaign going; create corporate citizenship talking points for your CEO’s next investor presentation; the list goes on and on…

Something’s gotta give, right?  Here’s one thing that you should never let slip off of your list:

Take time to ask, “What if…?”

Ask this question about lots of ideas and situations. This is a simple question that you can ask that will help cultivate and nurture your imagination. 

Imagination is a prerequisite for this job. All corporate citizenship work is change management and the first step to managing change is to imagine the alternative future that you are trying to create and then determine what has to happen to make that happen. It is about envisioning what can be made different and better using the assets of your company—people, know-how, effort, money.

The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship’s research tells us that corporate citizenship professionals are excellent at imagining and communicating a better future. According to the 2013 Profile of the Practice, most corporate citizenship leaders are working with small teams.  The initiatives that they lead require large numbers of people from across the company to contribute time, effort, and resources to the work. How do successful corporate citizenship professionals get others to jump onboard? They use their imaginations to a.) empathize about what might be important to those they are seeking to get involved and; b.) envision and communicate a vivid image of how things will be better if the change occurs—an image that is compelling enough to get folks to help make it happen.

Imagination is often neglected among business people as a behavior and skill to be cultivated. This has been the case since the beginning of our modern industrial system of business education—the legacy of which colors all of our educational experiences and many points of view about what it means to be ‘business-like.’ 

This was underscored for me when I recently came across a slim but remarkable volume of speeches by delivered by George Joachim Goschen in the 1800s, “The Cultivation and Use of Imagination.” 

You might be wondering, as I did, “Who is George Joachim Goschen?” A little research told me he was a very successful British statesman and businessman in the early industrial economy. He was initially a Liberal, then a Liberal Unionist before joining the Conservative Party. He served several British administrations over his long career and achieved wide fame by publishing his “Theory of the Foreign Exchanges” in 1861, which won the attention of financial authorities and business men all over the world. He negotiated successfully several key foreign policy agreements for the British Empire, including several debt restructurings and the successful implementation of the Treaty of Berlin, governing trade and boundaries with Germany, Turkey, Greece, and the states in the Balkan frontiers.

Given his significant commitment to and success in economic and political matters, I was surprised and delighted by his eloquent writing about the importance, value, and cultivation of imagination as a business skill. An excerpt of his remarks include the following:

“What I say to you tonight is that a livelihood is not a life…as a businessman, I will not admit that the cultivation of the imagination disqualifies men and women for the practical duties of life.  Indeed, I hold that the cultivation of the imagination is not only important to the young themselves, but to the nation as qualifying them to become better citizens…Johnston’s Dictionary defines imagination as the ‘power of forming ideal pictures’ and ‘the power of representing absent things to ourselves and to others.’

I wish you to be able to sympathize with other times, to be able to understand the men and women of other countries…I want you to feel more and live more than you can do if you only know what surrounds yourselves. 

I do not believe for one moment that the cultivation of (imagination) will disqualify you for your daily task …Now I have sometimes hoped that I might have claimed myself to be a businessman, or a business-like man…I will declare that it is prostituting the term ‘business like’ to confound it with a narrow minded view of (important) questions.  I reject the theory that regards as “stuff and nonsense” all that does not really bear on the immediate practical duties of life.  I do not believe that it is good for either men or women always to be breathing the atmosphere of the business in which they themselves are engaged.”

A great student of history, Goschen goes on to offer examples of how imagination contributed to key achievements in British history and how lack of it contributed to defeats and losses.

It turns out that Goschen had the vision and discernment to put his finger on a fact of human neuroscience. A recent article in Popular Science suggests that the process of imagination is critical to our ability to connect ideas that we have encountered in different domains. Other studies point out that different kinds of imagining (thinking about how to fit a square peg in a round hole vs. creating music or writing stories) activate different parts of our brains, which not only helps us to connect ideas, but to better understand individual ideas or concepts better and differently.  Research has shown also that putting space between ourselves and the problems we seek to solve (imagining vs. experiencing) actually improves our problem-solving ability.

Of course, we know that great thinkers including Einstein have valued imagination as a generative force. Creative thinkers are differentiated by their ability and inclination to ask the question, “What if…?” It is fair to state that not a single innovation, invention, or breakthrough has been created by accepting the status quo as the only possibility.

“What if...” is your domain. So do us all a favor and take time to sit with that question for your own sake and for the sake of us all. The world will be better for it.