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(Preparing For) A Failure of Imagination

With organizational failures, the imagination is often at fault. We can’t imagine things going wrong, so we don’t plan for them. Organizations can’t imagine that their employees would do something unethical, so they don’t have policies in place to prevent it. Owners can’t imagine that a natural disa

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
7 min read
dropping thru as a result of a failure of imagination
positive and negative impacts from failure of imagination

With organizational failures, the imagination is often at fault. We can't imagine things going wrong, so we don't plan for them. Organizations can't imagine that their employees would do something unethical, so they don't have policies in place to prevent it. Owners can't imagine that a natural disaster could destroy their business, so they don't have a plan to recover from it.

It's what some would call a failure of imagination.

It is not always negative. When things go right unexpectedly, we have a failure of imagination. We can't imagine that our new product will be an enormous hit, so we don't make enough to meet the demand. We can't imagine that our company will be acquired, so we don't plan for what comes next.

The key is to have a balance of imagination. We need to imagine both the best and worst-case scenarios. We need to imagine the future and plan for it. Otherwise, we're just setting ourselves up for failure.

History of the term — Failure of Imagination

The term “failure of imagination” was first coined by author William Golding in his 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. In the book, Golding argues that the biggest problem with society is that people cannot imagine alternatives to the way things are currently. He says that this lack of imagination leads to conformism and results in people blindly following the status quo.

The term has been used in a variety of contexts since then. Some have used it to describe the failure of politicians to come up with new ideas. Others have used it to criticize the education system for not teaching students how to think creatively.

Whatever the context, the term “failure of imagination” is used to describe a situation where people cannot see beyond the current state of affairs.


Before discussing the failure of imagination, it is important to first understand what we mean by imagination.

At its most basic level, imagination is the ability to create mental images of things that do not exist in reality. It is the ability to see beyond the here and now and envision possibilities.

Most people think of imagination as something that only artists and writers have. But in reality, we all use our imagination every day. Whenever we daydream, make plans for the future, or even just remember a memory, we are using our imagination.

So why is imagination so important?

Well, without imagination, we would be stuck in the present. We would have no hope of ever achieving anything beyond what currently exists. It is imagination that allows us to see the potential for change and progress.

And yet, despite its importance, imagination is often in short supply. We can be so bogged down by the day-to-day details of our lives that we forget to dream about what could be. Or we may be so afraid of failure that we become to risk-averse to try anything new. As a result, our ability to imagine different possibilities can become stunted.

Imaginative Grandkids

My grandkids are always coming up with new games to play. They never seem to get bored. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with their imaginations.

A few weeks ago week, I was traveling with my grandson (9), and he asked me to play a game called “Coolest Invention.” He explained that the object of the game was to see some ordinary objects and then invent something new.

At the airport, he saw a sign that said “No Loitering.” To him, this meant that you weren't allowed to stand around without moving. So his invention was a “No Loitering Machine.” It would be a machine that you could put on your back and it would shock you if you stood still for too long.

I have to admit; I was pretty impressed with his invention.

I'm always amazed at children's power of imagination. It's something that we should never lose as we get older. It's what makes life interesting and exciting. Thanks, Liam, for reminding me of that!

Is Imagination a Uniquely Human Trait?

Some try to claim that imagination is a uniquely human trait. They argue animals can not imagine different possibilities.

But this is simply not true. In reality, all animals have some capacity for imagination.

For example, dolphins are very playful and creative, often coming up with new ways to play with one another. Some scientists believe that this creativity results from their imaginations.

Similarly, dogs have engaged in what we know as ” scent play.” This is when they will take an object, such as a toy, and roll it around in something that has a powerful scent, such as dirt or another dog's urine. They are thought to be doing this in order to create a fresh scent for the object, which is an example of imagination.

What Is Our Source For Our Imagination?

They credit the subconscious mind as the source of our imagination. It is the part of our mind that is not bound by reality or logic.

The subconscious mind is constantly taking in information from the environment and our experiences. It then stores this information in the mental unconscious.

The mental unconscious is like a vast library where all of our memories, thoughts, and feelings are stored. From here, the subconscious mind can access these memories and use them to create new ideas and possibilities.

While the conscious mind is focused on the here and now, the subconscious mind is constantly working in the background, piecing together information and looking for patterns. It is this ability to see connections that allow us to imagine different possibilities.

For example, when you have a sudden inspiration for a new invention or a new way to solve a problem, your subconscious mind has been working on the idea for some time, piecing together different bits of information until the solution suddenly pops into your conscious mind.

Thus, the subconscious mind is the spark for our imagination.

Innovation and Failure of Imagination

One of the most significant issues affecting society is that individuals cannot conceive of alternatives to the current state of affairs. That's where innovation comes in. In order for a society or business to make any progress, change has to be made by innovators and inventors who use their imaginations to come up with new ideas and introduce solutions.

So while the failure of imagination can be a problem, it is key to innovation because you cannot make progress without new ideas, and it's been argued that without the capacity for imagination, people would never come up with new ideas.

The world is changed by imagination, not by fact.

Phil McKinney

Examples of When There Was a Failure of Imagination

On the one hand, there are cases where people have used their imaginations to come up with new and innovative ideas. For example, scientists often use their imaginations to come up with new theories and ideas. They see things differently and they can imagine possibilities that others cannot.

There are also cases where people have failed to use their imaginations. This can often lead to conformism and blindly following the status quo. For example, the author William Golding argues that the biggest problem with society is that people are not able to imagine alternatives to the way things are currently. This lack of imagination can have negative consequences for both individuals and society as a whole.

So, we can see that imagination is a powerful tool. We can use it for both good and bad depending on how it is used. Some examples:

1) Negative Example – The 9/11 Attacks

The 9/11 attacks were an example of when there was a failure of imagination. The government could not imagine that someone would fly planes into buildings, and as a result, we did not prepare ourselves for the possibility of the attack.

2) Positive Example – The Internet

A positive example of when there was a failure of imagination was the internet. The researchers at DARPA could not imagine the use of the internet beyond research institutions and government agencies. They never could have imagined how the world would change.

Preparing For A Failure of Imagination

To prepare for a failure of imagination, we need to develop a habit of looking outside the box to come up with new perspectives of the world. By doing so, we can imagine a wide range of possibilities. How?

1) Think about potential outcomes

I'll give you an example. When the World Bank wanted to be prepared for future wars, it conducted research on what would happen if a world war occurred. They found they were using old data, so they thought they had enough ammunition, but in reality, it was insufficient. They failed to imagine that we could fight these wars with different weapons.

So one way to prevent a failure of imagination is to think about all the potential outcomes of a situation, no matter how unlikely they may seem. Try to come up with as many scenarios as you can and plan for them accordingly.

2) Be open-minded

Another way to prevent a failure of imagination is to be open-minded. This means being willing to consider new ideas and perspectives, even if they differ from your own. It is important to remember that just because something is different; doesn't mean that it is bad. Different can be good. So don't be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and explore new ideas.

3) Encourage others to be creative

Finally, another way to prevent a failure of imagination is to encourage others to be creative. This means creating an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas, no matter how crazy they may seem. It is important to remember that the best ideas often come from those who will think outside the box. So don't be afraid to encourage others to be creative and to share their ideas.

The Key Question To Ask — What If?

What if you could imagine anything and make it happen?

What if you could be anyone or do anything?

What-if questions are a way to spark your imagination and prevent a failure of imagination. They help you explore new possibilities and open your mind to different ways of thinking. By asking what if, you're expanding your knowledge and potential, which can lead to new opportunities and success.

What-if questions can be used in any situation, whether you face a problem that needs solving or you're simply looking for a creative way to do something. Asking what if allows you to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions. It also helps you see things from different perspectives.

What if questions are especially helpful when wanting to avoid the surprise that comes from a failure of imagination. Asking what if can help you anticipate negative a positive outcomes and plan for them ahead of time. It's a way to think about all the possible outcomes of a situation and be prepared for anything that might happen.

Failure of Imagination

The failure of imagination can be a problem, but it is also key to innovation. We need new ideas in order to make progress, and without the capacity for imagination, we would never come up with new ideas. We need to learn to use our imaginations to understand and plan for both the good and bad. Only then can we truly progress as a society.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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