Catherine Woo is Cranlana’s Director of Partnerships and Engagement. After participating in the May 2024 Cranlana Colloquium, Catherine captured her thoughts on the ethical imagination and its unsung value for authentic and innovative leadership.

‘We all have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.’

– Neil Gaiman.

It’s Monday. You sit down to work on a long-term project, your mind focused and ready. Suddenly, your phone, inbox or chat dings with notifications: a client needs a new brief turned around urgently, an ops problem requires a quick decision or there’s a media inquiry on an inflammatory issue.

Scrolling through messages, your heart speeds up and cortisol levels rise, shifting your mind from creative openness, to hazard perception and firefighting mode. You scramble to address the immediate crises, sidelining your strategic work for the day.

Sound familiar? Many leaders we speak with feel stretched thin. In the simultaneous ages of polycrisis and the attention deficit economy, they’re navigating a world that’s increasingly complex and time-poor. In a hyper-connected workscape, where every notification demands attention and every decision feels fraught with potential division, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

Recent years have brought intersecting challenges: the climate crisis, covid-19, economic pressures, geopolitical polarisation and social fragmentation. Each has tested our resilience and nudged us towards an increasingly reactive culture that foregrounds immediate reactions and definitive answers.

It’s in this environment that the ability to reflect and imagine emerges as a difficult yet essential skill. Imagination is the exercise of forming concepts that are not currently in front of us. It allows us to ask ‘what if’ and ‘why not’ through visualisation, creative thinking, scenario building, role-playing and daydreaming. It helps us break paradigms and prevailing mental models to make change. In envisaging alternative futures, imagination can move us from merely reacting to crises to contemplating how better systems can enable collective flourishing within a diverse society.

Image: Catherine and fellow Colloquium participants with Moderators Professor Leslie Cannold and Cressida Gaukroger.

Last month I had the opportunity to join our five-day Executive Colloquium in Melbourne.

I’d previously attended our two-day Executive Ethics program: a practical primer for ethical decision-making and action. If Executive Ethics gives participants a toolkit, then the Colloquium provides a canvas- a space for leaders to consider the world we live in and the implicit and explicit choices that make it. The Colloquium also offers a vital opportunity to recognise our own agency as leaders in shaping a non-deterministic world.

The Colloquium is an opportunity for leaders to imagine how ‘different’ might look.

Imagination is a defining characteristic of our species, driving landmark shifts, from the enlightenment to the industrial revolution to the advent of the digital economy. In the last two decades we have seen the meteoric rise of tech ‘disruptors’: hectocorns like Amazon, Facebook and Apple that have fundamentally transformed the market.

Arguably, the VC patter of disruption and innovation is really a proxy for the act of applied imagining. At their inception, these disruptive companies didn’t think defensively but focussed instead on imagining a different way. Recognising this in their 2021 book ‘The Imagination Machine’, Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller argue that in a marketplace where the competitive fade rate is only accelerating, imagination is the new execution.

Of course, in recent years such companies have rightly come under increasing scrutiny for the implications of bringing their imagined worlds into being. They’ve revolutionised ways that we live, work and connect but at the cost of social value, leading to issues including privacy violations, misinformation and community fragmentation. For me, this underscores a fundamental point on applied imagining – it must be through an ethical lens.

The power to imagine and create must be coupled with, or even curbed by, a responsibility to ensure that new systems are equitable and sustainable, placing all people at their centre. We’re not without examples of organisations and systems that have done this well:

The Body Shop, founded by Anita Roddick in 1976, was revolutionary in its centring of ethical practices, community engagement and the environment.

By the 1990s, The Body Shop had expanded globally, with thousands of stores in over 60 countries. The Body Shop’s influence extended beyond its own model; it catalysed a shift in consumer expectations, pushing other companies to adopt similar ethical standards around animal testing and ethical sourcing.

Closer to home is our Medicare system, introduced in 1984, at a time when healthcare was seen as a private matter and access was largely determined by an individual’s financial means.

The architects of Medicare, along with others behind international universal healthcare schemes, imagined a radically different approach: a system that provided free or subsidised treatment to all Australians. This ethical imagining of healthcare as a right rather than a privilege, transformed national wellbeing, driving accessible care and reduced financial stress. Today it’s an institution we wouldn’t wish to be without.

Giving attention to ethical imagining is hard, even if we understand that it’s not at odds with performance and instead offers an opportunity to change the game. As anyone with an ever-ballooning list of ‘strategic work I’ll get to once I’ve cleared the clanging notifications of my inbox,’ can attest, the bias towards short-term issues management over long-term change can keep us on the hamster wheel.

Equally, there’s an increasing cultural tendency towards ‘anxious’ imagining and doom-scrolling rather than generative imagining. Finally, there’s the cognitive and logistical stretch of how a single person or organisation can alter complex, interdependent systems and incentives. However, it’s here that we can invoke the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever does.’

Because ethical imagining is not just a solo act but a social one too. Whether it’s across your community, organisation or with other leaders at a Cranlana Colloquium, collective imagining and reimagining is a powerful step along the journey towards better. It’s not the last step of course: courage, compromise, trust, application and collective action are all needed too. But it begins with imagination.

Developing an ethical imagination capability across your organisation requires a deliberate shift from a reactive to expansive mindset. As someone recently said to me: ‘make the problem bigger.’ And imagine the solution bigger too. Reeves and Fuller offer some ways we can build an imagination capability in our workplaces including:

  • creating intentional spaces for reflection and exchange;
  • centring imagining as part of everyone’s role;
  • exploring the unfamiliar and anomalous and encouraging counterfactual reasoning;
  • most importantly, they focus on play and the creation of playgrounds as a way to encourage collective imaginative thinking.

In working with partners, Cranlana often uses back-casting as a way of creating this space. This imaginative practice allows us to envisage new possibilities in a de-risked way before translating them into the systems and behaviours that we need.

As our cohort reached the Colloquium’s end, we each spoke about how regenerative the experience had been. We noted what a gift it was to take time to reflect with one another and the Cranlana curriculum: to pay attention to the worlds we live in and aspire to as well as our role as leaders. It’s a sentiment I hear often from leaders – time out and attention given as luxuries. And while, as an individual with my own post-program backlog to clear, I absolutely get this, I also believe one of the highest duties of a leader is to make space to imagine: to find new ways of being and doing.

Successfully imagining can mean making space, scheduling, prioritising, delegating, letting go and changing our behaviours. But it is to our leaders, without and within, that we look to, to drive change for a future that is not only different but better. It all begins with imagination.

What could this look like in your context?

If you think it’s time to let the light into your leadership practice – we’d love for you to join us at the next Colloquium, or speak to our team about our custom ethical partnership options.

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