One new rule for Human Capital: Show some Imagination

I’ve just read the always excellent Jon Ingham’s reflections  on the (previously) always excellent Tom Peters’ new rules on Human Capital.

I started out wanting to read both, but Jon put me off Tom. Not because everything Tom said was wrong, but enough was old hat or missing the point (or opportunity) that I stuck with Jon. I was though struck by one thing they did agree on: the need for a focus on imagination.

This reminded me of an article I read over the Bank Holiday at the Smithsonian: How Biomimicry is Inspiring Human Innovation. The article neatly and with eye-popping examples suggests that the race is on to explore olde Mother Nature not just with a view to classify and categorise (kind of like we all seem to be doing in HR with metrics and analytics these days), but to learn from the breath-taking imagination at work here, even in such everyday wonders as butterfly wings.

Strikes me that we are in a similar position on both sides. We know – though there is still no real theory – what a firm is (an innovative commercial bet against Knightian uncertainty) and what it is for (to sustainably make/sell x/y/z). What the main constituent parts are (HR, Finance etc). What, in the main, the various main actors (CIO, Marketing etc) are meant to do and how it’s all supposed to work (together).

In science, the same is true. The sciences (physics, chemistry etc) are pretty much ‘set’ (or their splinter sets are), as are their actors and the scientific method used (recognising grey areas/disputes). So they too have their domains and use the same kind of analytical methods to count stuff and categorise stuff and place things in neat ordered hierarchies.

And yet the real driver in both the human/business and natural worlds, the thing that makes one businesses make an evolutionary leap over another – just as one species hits a dead end and the other soars upwards – is the imaginative adaptations involved.

You see, imagination – the first African ancestor to walk the earth after a forest fire and sample barbecued gazelle right down to those two guys (I forget their names) who cooked up a search engine, were using imagination. Curiosity and imagination that took courage to follow through on, that went against what everyone else previously had done. None of which can be inspired by categorisation.

In fact, in many ways everything that follows from imagination is designed not to fan the flames of more imaginative leaps but to smother and contain them in red tape. All firms (just like 99% of all species that ever lived) get fat and lazy and become extinct, even those that started of – evolution wise – with a head start and no natural predators in sight. Unwittingly, firms make themselves extinct. We are all taxidermists.

But the actual mechanics of creative imagination, just like the mechanics of natural evolutionary imagination, can be lessons that we can teach and learn. Traits that can be encouraged (though I’d like to know how many crazies you hire to keep your imaginative capital up). And the business can be designed to encourage creative thinking and serendipitous collaboration (Jobs did that for Pixar, and it almost made Disney a dinosaur). In fact, if you design your business with the certainty of its going extinct in mind you can make it part of your business strategy to be left holding the knife. Just ask Googlers what they’re up to 20% of the week. They may not reply, ‘Dreaming up Google’s extinction’, but that might be the only imaginative way Google adapts and survives.

Should HR be telling their employees to think more? Should recruitment shelve the company archetype and hire more poets? Should the board make it a strategy to build businesses whose sole goal is to disrupt and make extinct the business that currently exists?

I think so. But it will take some imagination.

For more on the battle for ideas and where they come from as a human capital risk, you can download the free no boring registration required whitepaper, Risk Reset here.

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