Imagination in Practice: An Interview

 Imaginization in Practice:

An Interview With Gareth Morgan

Interviewer: Joe Katzman
Date: November 13, 1996

Joe: The first question has to do with the overall structure of consulting assignments that revolve around Imaginization and Images of Organization. I know each consulting assignment is different and unique but have you found in your practice that there are certain stages, or certain phases, through which a consulting process moves as you do these things.

Gareth: The key to implementing imaginization in practice is to recognize that the aim is to create a new context in which new things can happen. It starts with the recognition that there is a need for people and the organization in question to think and see themselves in a new way. If you’ve got that need and people want to explore possibilities – then it’s quite easy to go from there and use creative images and metaphors to explore issues of concern – such as new modes of organization; fresh approaches to the management of change; new forms of teamwork, and so on. The aim is to find new understandings and insights that will open the way to new actions with high leverage on problems of concern.

Joe: Is it your experience that there has to be an acknowledged need for change?

Gareth: Yes, otherwise you’re not going to go anywhere. But if there are real issues and problems that are not openly acknowledged, the process of imaginization can also be used to help create awareness of the issues and the need for change. In some situations it may be that one key person – the one that’s brought you into the project senses the need of change. But no one else does! You only need that one. You need someone that is convinced of the necessity for movement. Once you’ve got that one you then adapt your style to the situation you’re dealing with and create a broader awareness of the issues of concern. This means that you have to be able to identify with their experiences and the problems they are facing so that people will get on board the process.

Joe: I guess once you’ve moved beyond that stage it comes to the point of exploring various images and of trying to find the one that not only fits but creates some kind of leverage.

Gareth: Right.

Joe: Is there more to that phase than just an intuitive process and waiting until somebody comes up with something that just sort of feels right to everybody involved?

Gareth: Yes, but it is difficult to describe as a linear method. That’s why I find it best to illustrate imaginization in practice through the medium of stories. Take, for example, the chapter on Political Football (Chapter 5 of Imaginization). From the moment I get involved with an assignment or intervention, or whatever you want to call it, I automatically begin to “read” the situation and the reading becomes more and more detailed as it goes along. From the very beginning I’m formulating a strategy around what is going to work…. Is this a situation that needs to start slowly? If so, I may find a way of helping them to play with some basic insights that contrasts their organization through, for example, the lens of “structure,” as opposed to “culture” or the “political” metaphor.

Recently I did a very interesting intervention with a marketing team, using this simple method. Fifteen minute provocations: Think about your organization as if it’s a structure. Describe it to me. Describe it to me as a culture! As a political system!

The process creates three complementary analyses highlighting the importance and significance of the different dimensions. It helped them to create, recreate and change their own perceptions of their situations – within just forty-five minutes in this case. It created the basis for further creative exploration using the techniques described in Imaginization.

Joe: You create a basis for the process of imaginization?

Gareth: Yes. You have to before you can get a group thinking creatively about the generation of new images for creating new futures. Usually you’ve got to be able to push them through an understanding of their current situation before they are going to be prepared to imaginize an alternative one.

That’s what my next step would be. When I’ve got people analyzing where they are at the moment and understanding it, I might then say “Well, let’s put ourselves in the future.” I might then move into a more creative imaging exercise along the lines described in the Picture Power chapter of Imaginization (Chapter 10), or in the chapter on Teamwork (Chapter 9) to create an understanding and a “buy-in” that there are many creative ways of thinking in addition to the three simple metaphors that they have already examined.

Joe: That’s when you can stretch them a bit ?

Gareth: Yes. The process really begins when they recognize that each metaphor that they use to think about their organization has both strengths and limitations and that it is a question oflearning to use metaphor in an open-ended way. This allows them to discover and own the value of the process and move forward into this newer territory. The process really builds in impact when people come up with similar metaphors for capturing a similar problem. This has enormous resonance.

Joe: I guess after that it’s just like a bag of golf clubs – you pick the metaphor that fits the situation.

Gareth: I never know which metaphor is going to work. For example, last night I did a visiting lecture for the Law School for corporate lawyers who were in mid profession. My challenge was to show them the art of re-framing. I only had about an hour and a half to do this, so I invited them to the concept of imaginization by sharing three different ways of reframing. The first used metaphors from Images of Organization to create different understandings of an organization. The second used my image of “The Pig” as a way of developing a stakeholder view of some of the paradoxical dimensions of a phenomenon. The third invited them to “look for flowerpots” (from my “15% approach” to change) – by which I mean transforming actions or understandings that can get you into a new context.

Then what I did was put them into an exercise where they applied these three methods, with various groups applying the ideas to different problems – like the problem of “accountability in government,” or the problems facing a law firm, and dispute resolution. They came up with their own images. Some were more resonant than others. But they found powerful metaphors that created a strong “Ah Ha” resonance among those present.

Joe: You sort of look for the ah-h-h

Gareth: Exactly. You look for what is obviously hitting home. It’s in the smiles, or in the agreement, the consensus, the shaking heads. They say, “Ah-h this is the way it is.” Then you begin to work with this. It’s not a threatening thing, because I don’t have the answers. What I seek to do is to get them to find answers to the issues that they are facing. They’re the experts on their problems. I just use creative ways of helping them get into this new context. It’s all about context creation.

Joe: There’s an old military maxim that says “No plan of battle survives contact with the enemy.”

Gareth: Exactly. plans are great until you’ve got to do something. That’s a wonderful image! You do need a plan of battle. But it’s only a starting point. You’ve got to have a rough idea of where you’re going, and how you’re going to get off to a good start. Then you’ve got to ad lib along the way.

Joe: Is that just something that just comes from experience, from seeing a lot of situations?

Gareth: Definitely.

Joe: Is imaginization, therefore, something that is better applied by an experienced consultant who has been in enough situations that he or she has a reservoir to draw on?

Gareth: We do what I call imaginization naturally, believe it or not. People have a natural tendency to generate images and metaphors that reframe situations with which they are dealing. People don’t recognize it, though. And they don’t take it seriously. If you start to point it out they often dismiss it saying “ah, that’s just a metaphor – it’s an analogy.” They dismiss it. People are quite skilled in using images and metaphors. The challenge is how do you get them to be more open to the process and take it seriously and do it systemically. When they do, it flows. The acquisition of experience rests on our ability to develop this skill that we all possess to some degree.

Joe: It’s really the ability to systematize that turns this into a productive process and unlocks what is already there?

Gareth: Precisely. That’s what you have to do. You see if there is a creative way of getting people into a new way of thinking. People can’t change their situations by thinking about them as they always have. They just get locked into the status quo. If you can get them into a creative space, and better still, if you can get different people doing this simultaneously – so that they come up with parallel insights the effect is very powerful. This is what happened at this intervention last night. They came up with similar metaphors and ran with them an incredible distance – people can come up with very creative reframings.

Joe: Because they got to listen to each others related perspectives.

Gareth: Yes. It’s an organic approach not just a recipe or mechanistic one. But there is a skill base here, and there is a strategy here. Ultimately it is quite a simple strategy of creating the context where people can somehow move in a direction that is going to be appropriate. I’ve developed this skill through sheer experience. I didn’t just jump into my first project as an expert in this kind of transformational change. Actually, I started off very conservatively with a few simple experiments. They have led to the method that I now call imaginization. The process has self-organized.

Joe: Let’s stay with the process for one more round. You’re looking for ways of helping people reframe situations through new images. People have sort of acknowledged that there is a need to change. You’re still in this area of looking for new images and you find that for some reason a number of the participants don’t seem to be taking well to the process. Either they don’t consider it serious or whatever. I’m sure these experiences have come up. What ways have you found successful in dealing with this?

Gareth: You’ve got to recognize the resistance and find a way of engaging it.

Joe: OK, say we have a situation where someone says “This metaphor stuff is bullshit. I can’t possibly see any use of it for in our business situation.”

Gareth: Well, what I would do here is go to an area of knowledge or activity that seems very solid, and show how it is metaphorical. Take science, for example, as a solid, foundational, objective kind of knowledge. I would show how science is basically about metaphor. I may invoke Einstein here saying that you can’t have any observation which is free of theory, and that theory is metaphor. In other words, you try to move the discussion into something much more concrete because that’s what the person is looking for. Show them that the concrete “objective” understandings are metaphorical. Show how the objective world of the bureaucracy is based on the image of a machine. Try and win them to a more open way of thinking.

Joe: Now for the next stage of the process. OK so we’ve had a good creative session and people have begun thinking about things in new ways. Now, in a sense, comes the hard part in that they all have to go back to their jobs and the environment they’ve been in up until now and try to do something with that.

Gareth: Right

Joe: What sorts of interventions can be used to help that process along? Is there something that they just have to do for themselves? How do we move them into implementation?

Gareth: You’ve got to move straight into that. The whole point of metaphor and creative thinking must not become an end in itself, and it must not become ritualistic or just a process of inventing metaphors. What I do, is to get them to confront and explore the strengths AND weaknesses of their favored metaphors, so that they can become completely pragmatic in implementation. It works dialectically. If I offer a metaphor or someone else offers a metaphor, someone will modify the metaphor or offer a contradictory one because they don’t quite agree.

Joe: Like thesis, antithesis, synthesis

Gareth: Yes. This makes the process organic and capable of tapping into the pragmatic realities of implementation.

Joe: So, it snaps together in various pieces as opposed to emerging full blown? You start people thinking about the action steps involved – recognizing the downsides, as well as the positive aspects of their favored metaphors…

Gareth: Yes. When you create a good understanding of an organization’s problems solutions tend to emerge. I never have to push. If I am working with a really engaged group I never have to find the solutions. I might have to help them to be creative and to go a bit further than they are used to. But they are in the driving seat. The 15% idea (based on my “Finding Your 15%” approach to change) is very, very powerful here, because it can help to get them in an action mode. When you link the process of creating “new contexts” through metaphor to the “15% principle” (which is just another metaphor to get people into an action mode) you drive right into the heart of implementation.

That’s what I like about imaginization. It is creative, yet extremely practical.

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