Imagination and agency

When I was seven or eight years old my two friends and I would spend our lunchtimes teetering along the line of rocks that bordered our playground. I remember one girl who I had a crush on would pigeon-step — that is, walk placing one foot exactly in front of another — from one end of the ground to the other. Sometimes at my behest we would follow her instead of walking our line of rocks.

While we walked we made up worlds, as children do. We had a place we naively, unabashedly called “Imagination World,” not suspecting the ridicule that that would have drawn from children only a few years older. We spent our lunchtimes and breaks populating it with strange races and unusual characters. We could dive into it as easily as slipping on a glove, becoming entirely oblivious of the real world around us, letting our feet tread autonomously over the playground rocks, our arms flying out now and again to steady our balance. Every sentence in our conversation began “Yes, and then what if…”

I have been returning to these memories more often lately, which is in itself a cliché but one I have chosen to embrace. There is an intense creativity to this kind of world building. More and more I try and make decisions that allow for that kind of creativity in my life. “Yes, and then what if…”

Few companies offer this capacity to their employees, which is tough since we all have to eat. But when I look at when I have been happy at work, or unhappy, it seems obvious that without the capacity to say “Yes, and then what if,” it won’t work for me, or for the company.

If we’re lucky, as we get older we gather the resources to not only imagine things, but also make them happen. We acquire skills, and relationships with people who might want to help us. This feeling of agency is almost as intoxicating as the feeling of imagining. You can actually go into the world and change it, in however small a way, to fit something in your head.

Companies are perhaps fractionally better at giving their employees agency versus creativity. Agency is after all necessary for any kind of productivity. In practice though companies trend towards being so dysfunctional that they offer little real agency. Perhaps their decisions are short-lived, such that work is often undone or redone with no lessons learned. Perhaps they can’t make any decisions at all, so that the organisation becomes trapped in limbo. Perhaps their business is operating so well they are only optimising, and have little need for meaningful decisions at all. Or perhaps they pay lip-service to a bold direction but fail to change structures or commit resources, resulting in a sort of prolonged, intractable cognitive dissonance.

It can take a surprisingly long time in life to find the words and phrases that describe the things that make you happy. For me, presented with two paths, I strive now to take the way with the greatest potential for imagination and agency. “Yes, and then…”

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