How to work with the unimaginable

How to work with the unimaginable

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Something BIG happens in the world—a virus mutates, a forest burns, an autocrat invades Ukraine. The Internet explodes. Headlines reach toward record-sized type. Social media feeds overflow with heartbreakingly emotional content—lives destroyed, loved ones hurt, fear, fury, indignation, panic. Those of us lucky enough to not be affected count our blessings. We hold our children tighter. We make donations to the right causes. We promise others (and ourselves) that this will NEVER happen again.

Then, a few weeks go by. The unimaginable has become the mundane. We scroll past the headlines, telling ourselves that we can’t bear to look at the bad news. We get used to the way things are. We stuff our face masks into every pocket, we no longer ask our grieving colleagues how we’re doing.

As business people, we turn our attention to managing the side effects. We update systems. We conduct new kinds of trainings. We try to convince ourselves that we’ve got things under control again. Until a virus mutates, a forest burns, a cop kills a Black man, a middle manager gets too drunk at a company party and says something offensive… Something BIG happens in the world again.

How could we have known? Were we supposed to have seen it coming? It was unimaginable!

The New Normal is living and working with the unimaginable.

The unimaginable isn’t just bad. There are good things that are unimaginable. Emergent technologies, groundbreaking pieces of art, new leadership languages and capacities. New understandings, new hope.

For some of us, the unimaginable will be cryptocurrencies, decentralized autonomous organizations, equity, diversity, and inclusion policies.

For some of us, the unimaginable will be new job requirements, more virtual colleagues, new systems, new processes, new products, new angles to our work.

For some of us, the unimaginable will be more authenticity, vulnerability, creativity, curiosity, and professional exploration.

For some of us, the unimaginable will be a new line of work altogether.

The New Normal is living and working with the unimaginable.

How do you “live and work with the unimaginable”?

  1. Improve emotional agility. Change moves through predictable emotional patterns—for example, the Five Stages of Grief. Change resistance comes when we get stuck in those emotional patterns and don’t “complete the cycle” to emerge on the other side. It’s not enough to learn what these patterns are; it’s essential to be able to recognize how they feel inside of you. In the future, it will be impossible to be a change leader without having a deep knowing of yourself—and an ongoing contemplative/reflective practice to support you. In short, work with your inner world. If you don’t have a therapist/coach, get one. If your team doesn’t have a facilitator/coach/confidante, then hire me 😀

  2. Improve your imagination. How many of us actively practice our imagination skills by ourselves? In organizations, how many of us actively practice our imagination in our teams? I’d suggest very few, based on my wide experience with organizations. We rely on antiquated frames like “brainstorming.” We can do better. Prioritize your individual and team creative practice. Make creative practice an essential part of your daily work. Find at least an hour every week to “create” just by yourself with no intention of ever sharing what you make. Schedule regular workshop time with your team to create together—not once a quarter. Once a week. To be clear, improving your imagination doesn’t mean trying to analyze trends and deduce the future. By improving your imagination, you’re working on your ability to find a solution spontaneously in the moment. It will feel like a distraction—until you realize that you will be relying on this skill for the rest of your career. The future will be led by those who imagine it.

  3. Redesign your business processes to be more flexible. We all work with systems and tools on a day-to-day basis. Most of those systems are designed for control. Some very, very smart people spent weeks or months envisioning everything that could go wrong and wrote code to prepare for those eventualities. Of course, they couldn’t help missing what they couldn’t imagine. Interrupt systems that lean toward standardization, move towards tools that are modular and flexible. Create team leaders who can quickly facilitate transformative processes and empower them to lead their own change so it doesn’t need to come from the top. In the future, there will be at least one facilitator on every team—or, more likely, everyone will be a facilitator. Start stepping into that reality now.

  4. “Ritualize” saying goodbye to the Old NormalThese days, when change can arise in an instant, our first reaction is often a state of shock. For example, there are many people out there who are still shocked about the impacts of COVID. Those are the people who are still holding on to the idea that the future will be “Normal” again. They’re like the sadsack lover who was left at the altar and is still wandering around, convinced that their ex is going to change their mind. They’re not. It’s over, buddy. As an organization—and as an individual—it’s essential to “ritualize” the goodbye. Throw an Irish wake. Burn your old systems. Give people a safe space to wail and cry and cuss. Without a ritual, the underlying emotion will get distorted into anxiety, change resistance, and other less salacious stuff. Let them get it out, so it can be over.

  5. Stretch toward the margins. The old systems and structures have a certain gravity. They want to keep things as they are—at best, they will permit limited change. We all need to keep one foot in the old structures (as long as they’re paying our salary‚ but we can also reach for the new, unknown reality. Follow people you don’t understand. Not just people you don’t agree with, but people who care deeply about things that seem absurd. Read books that have nothing to do with your life. Try something completely new—for no other reason than you think that it’s weird. Challenge yourself to “be an artist” without defining anything else about what that could mean. Spend time on your own—maybe it’s only fifteen minutes a week. Find your inner weird.

The New Normal is living and working with the unimaginable.

Start doing it today.

See you next time,


PS Recently, I spoke on a podcast about “re-thinking facilitation for the future of work.” Have a listen here.