The more things change, the harder it is to tell which end is up an interconnected enterprise.
In the Industrial Era, things were tangible and heavy. It was relatively easy to design systems for education and work. Children, for the most part, were likely to either become factory workers or managers in the future. The captains of industry mined metals and coal, drilled for oil, or produced or moved goods of all kinds, from tobacco to sugar. In the Intelligence Era, which isn’t yet here, the emphasis will shift toward the intangible: algorithms, code, processes. Objects will be increasingly interconnected through digital layers linked via the Internet, the cloud, analytics and mobile. Automation will increasingly take over jobs and maximize efficiency. Smart machines will become smarter, function by function, than the humans who created them.
Our brains are great at understanding solid, visible objects like those in the Industrial Era, but not good at making sense of the abstract, invisible concepts that will compose the coming Intelligence Era. In the Industrial Era, the main barrier was speed. In the Intelligence Era, transformation will happen quickly. The Industrial Era is fading but not yet gone, and the Intelligence Era is coming but not yet here. In between, we have the Imagination Age. In the Imagination Age, we have an opportunity to prepare for the shift. In the Imagination Age, the only constant is change.
We still perceive ourselves as human and our technology as machinery. For now, technology still sits outside us, but speed and miniaturization will soon change that. Even now, we have a universe of information at our fingertips in the form of an electronic, outsourced brain. Imagination is required to make sense of the many implications of such a reality. Imagination is not a whimsical abstraction. It is how your neurons make connections between ideas.
Your brain is hardware that hasn’t changed much in the hundreds of thousands of years since the earliest humans etched symbols on cave walls, beginning our creative journey toward conscious evolution. Culture, however, is software, and it gets constantly upgraded. The modern speed of business and the constant appearance of new challenges and threats is extremely jarring to our brains, which evolved to identify anomalies in the landscape--a predator behind a tree, an unfamiliar face in the encampment--to protect us. To our brains, safety was largely based on familiarity.
This works against us in many ways now. Most people fear or resist change, even when they aren’t aware of why. Even people who embrace change have a hard time in the midst of it. Imagination is a tool that lets us hack reality and reshape it to our vision. Imagination is often viewed as a solitary activity, but it is most powerful when a group of people can stand together behind a shared mission and make it real.
What kind of leader does it take to lead in this new environment?
Futurists are really just radical presentists, meaning that they pay attention in real time and begin to spot themes, details, and future realities that are seeds today. Part of mindfulness is being fully aware of as much in real time as possible. Meditation also leads to increased mindfulness.
An Imagination Age leader knows how to make sure that each person involved in the achievement of the art of the possible understands why he or she is important, and how his or her top performance contributes to the success of the mission. An Imagination Age leader is an inspiring storyteller and invests in the development of this ability in his or her leadership team so that the message doesn’t get diluted or misrepresented as it gets shared.
Smarter is the New Faster
An Imagination Age leader understands the need for simplicity, especially when dealing with the development, understanding, management and transformation of complex systems.
Imagination Age leaders understand that smarter is the new faster. They pay attention to changes in the outside world, within and beyond their own areas of expertise.
Imagination Age leaders are curious, exploratory, open-minded and comfortable being uncomfortable when necessary. They see solutions. They believe in the art of the possible. They make the invisible visible.
Imagination Age leaders are equally comfortable with a stranger, a child, a Nobel Prize winner, a person who lives far below the poverty line or a billionaire. As we become more collaborative with machines, we need to understand what it is that makes us truly human. Flattening perceived hierarchies is the best starting place for this journey. An Imagination Age leader knows that someone in the room can teach her something she doesn’t already know.
Valuable strategic partnerships are found in the most unlikely places.
A great Imagination Age leader understand how the layers together form the whole ecosystem, and stays connected to each. This requires a willingness to be of service to each in order to form genuine connections as well as to spot problems before they escalate and identify opportunities.