from the plains can you imagine mountains?

One evening, a few months ago, I was sitting on the sheltered roof of a campement in the Dogon Country, Mali, on the edge of the great Sahara desert. As the thick (and still burning hot) night descended, my African companions began to quiz me about Canada and Canadian ways of life. Finally one asked: “I have often wondered, what is it like to drive through snow? Isn’t it sort of like driving through the drifting sands we have here?”


It took me some moments to try and think of how to answer him so that he could imagine the particular qualities of snow…and what it feels like to drive through it–there are so many different snow conditions! Where to begin describing something like this to someone who have never lived it?

This week I’ve been working on the design of two very different experiences–an Appreciative Inquiry Summit, and a senior executive leadership development program. Both of these experiences will require the participants to use their imaginations in the same way that my African companions and I needed to.

In the Summit, at some point we are inviting the participants to allow themselves to imagine a future which will incorporate the finest experiences from the present, and their noblest aspirations for the future. In this situation the design challenge for us is to create the conditions in which people can creatively cast forward into what is possible, but as yet unrealized. We debated how to set up the task, the right words of invitation and stimulation for their ideas and energies.

In the leadership development program we are faced with what seems to be a very different challenge–it is about carefully choosing a broad cross-section of destinations around the world where the group will meet all kinds of leaders–from private, public, and non-profit sectors. The purpose of all of this traveling and visiting is to offer direct exposure to interesting, and provocative people and issues on the planet, and thereby to stimulate the development of leadership skills, attitudes, and behaviors needed to enrich their work in high profile roles.

Two very different types of experiences, both attempting to stimulate new ideas and ways of being among communities of people. In one assignment we are trying to create conditions for the group to (re)imagine the future. In the other, we are directly exposing the group to key people, AND to all the sights, smells and sensations of places that are vibrant and alive as well as dark and difficult.

So now I begin to wonder: which approach will be more effective at stimulating the desired outcomes?

One will most certainly be more pricey than the other, that is clear. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome will be more effective. There are more variables to consider….but rather than analysing these, the question that is sticking to me today is this:

If you have never seen or experienced certain conditions, can your imagination, or TV, or good storytelling offer enough of an indication to successfully inform your ideas, directions, behaviors?

It’s challenging to bring groups together so that they can co-create or co-author a story of the future which excites, stimulates and calls them to coordinated action. Many members of groups we work with are desert-dwellers, in terms of experience–they have addressed challenging conditions and the subtle contours of existence that they deeply understand and cope with. But when the time comes to scale “mountains”, or cross “oceans” in their work, even the most vivid imaginations are not always up to the task of anticipating what these new conditions will be like. Stimulating our imaginations is not that easy–sometimes we can only afford to rely on the stories of travelers, researchers, summaries of trends and other tales from the beyond.

As designers and facilitators of these processes we need to think carefully and creatively about how to provide people with access to, or approximation of our most powerful teachers: direct experience. Sometimes I see that I am relying too much on the “formulae” of methodologies–whether they are Future Search, or Appreciative Inquiry, or some version of experiential learning. These methodologies are not always adequate for what people need in order to go where they need to go. For me the coming challenge is to bring my own imagination further, and to work with combinations of methodologies so that I can serve the needs and budgets of the various groups I work with.

My ability to design experiences that will stimulate the imaginations, and hearts of those I work with is limited by my own imagination and access to my heart. That brief conversation about snow on the burning rooftop in Mali was a good reminder of the need to be creative about it. From that rooftop I started to look for ice cubes to grate, and show something that approximates “snow”. But no ice cubes in that place! Once again I had to lean back on that imperfect medium of language, metaphor, simile, and a few dollops of imagination.

dream on!