Did you see it?
McKinsey has just released an excerpt from an upcoming book that forewarns the world of four global forces that are dramatically re-shaping the economic landscape.

What did they say?
They present the trends they see as 1) the shift of economic power to emerging market countries and cities within them; 2) the acceleration of technological innovation and the emergence of digitally–enabled disruptive business models; 3) the combination of population aging and lower birth rates giving rise to fewer people at work and many more requiring care; and 4) the flows and disruptions produced as a consequence of global connectivity.

Pragmatically, the authors challenge leaders to renew their intuition now, in anticipation of this future, so they are better prepared to navigate the radically different landscape these disruptive trends are sure to bring.

What did they miss?
The McKinsey excerpt offers more than a digestible précis of global trends. It offers advice to leaders on how to deal with them. With that in mind, we think there’s a missing piece that leaders should be prepared for: the massive increase in human imagination their organizations will require in order to thrive.

Imagination takes the stage
Knowledge used to be in the ivory tower. Now, everything we know is online and at our finger-tips. In our domestic, social and professional lives, when we have a question, we find answers just a few clicks away. Knowledge alone is no longer a competitive advantage (unless it’s the kind that’s owned and protected). Today, advantage comes from our ability to create value from the knowledge we all have. As more people in more economies get connected, the once rare value of knowledge alone reduces even more. Creative imagination takes its place.

How many leaders do you know who bring out the imagination of the people they lead? We need more.

Why it’s so critical
And it’s not just the universal availability of knowledge that makes imagination so critical. The growth of digital is rapidly displacing the human capacity currently deployed doing routine jobs. In the digital economy, the human capacities organizations will need to employ more are those that are hardest to automate. And the pinnacle of these is creative imagination.

But human imagination is slippery
Like all human things people bring to work, creative imagination is discretionary. And, in addition to what we already know about employee engagement and work performance, there are three, equally big, socio-cultural trends impacting employees’ inclination to let you have the product of their imagination.

The rise of social conscience
Informed by greater visibility of the world with all its difficulties and differences, many more people are united by a sense of social conscience and desire to do something good for society. Increasingly, employees in organizations that espouse a commitment to corporate social responsibility expect their leaders to enact that commitment, too. They want their leaders to stand for something good. And they want to feel free to stand for something good of their own, too.

Intolerance to unwelcome authority
Taken-for-granted assumptions about the inclination of employees to ‘follow the leader’ are already long past their sell-by date. Too many people have memorable experiences of unwelcome authority. The Occupy movement symbolizes it, globally. Touched by the impact of a harsh recession, today’s employees are more likely to give their creative imagination when leaders take time to listen, understand and empathize with their view, valuing decisions in which they are involved and plans they help to make.

The quest for identity
In a multi-media world that saturates the senses with infinite and impossible images of who we could be, we are culturally caught in a personal quest for identity, a desire ‘to be someone’. Aligning an employee’s intrinsic motivation to realize who they want to be, gives leaders more access to their creative imagination than anything else. Disrespect it and you get nothing. Leaders can’t and shouldn’t promise the earth. But, by engaging employees and caring for them personally, allowing them freedom and responsibility to be themselves at work, organizations have so much to gain from employees who are all connected to a massive, global trend – the quest for identity in a difficult world.

Implications for leaders
The trends identified by McKinsey pay attention to the macro-economic factors re-defining the global corporate landscape. We think there are some equally relevant social and culture trends, summarized here as the criticality and slipperiness of creative imagination, that corporate leaders should also understand and adjust their intuition to (as McKinsey put it), for their organizations to succeed in a world that’s already here.

So, how do leaders adjust their intuition?
Preparing for a new world is hard to learn from a book. Though it might be a good start. And nothing beats real experience. But before that happens, we have found that leaders learn most by getting together to address and resolve real and current business issues for themselves. They value expert input but more often appreciate the guidance of a facilitator to keep their conversation focused so it generates the ideas, decisions and plans they’re looking for.

In these conversations, as leaders apply their imagination to the realities they face, their intuition develops and their leadership mindset is enriched.

With the new and dramatic reality portrayed by McKinsey coming over the hill, we think John Lennon got it right when he said, ‘Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.’ Without it, it’s impossible to work out how to thrive. And that’s why we believe our approach can deliver the impact you really want.

Creative imagination is precisely the resource corporate organizations need if they are to overcome, adapt to and take advantage of the trends McKinsey are alerting us to.

‘Imagination is greater than knowledge.’ Albert Einstein

‘Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.’ John Lennon