Employee Imagination is the Key to a Culture of Innovation

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" 

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?”

That’s from David Foster Wallace’s famous address, "This is Water" which is one of my favorite ways to talk about culture. 

The only way to change culture is to first see it clearly and not take it for granted.

Great culture doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of allowing people to be their best human selves. To work in that way that only humans can, which requires creativity and curiosity and imagination.

Creativity is 99% crap. Creatives spend their whole lives learning how to deal with this and produce good work in spite of it.

In business and with our colleagues, we have so much at stake that it can be very scary to go there. It’s normal to be afraid. You need a culture that allows for it. 

Using time and space for creativity feels like an uncertain use of resources. But a risk taken strategically can produce an ROI beyond calculation. It will create Swiffers, and Tide Pods, and revenue beyond what you can project today.

That's why fixing a broken culture should be treated as urgently as filling empty positions.

Your costly search for great talent goes wasted when you bring new hires into a toxic environment. Imagine bringing home a beautiful tropical fish, and then adding it to a tank filled with polluted water. The fish dies. (The fish does not fix the problem for you.)

They say necessity is the mother of invention. This is true so often because when we are desperate, we don’t have the luxury of fear.

But you don’t need to be in a crisis to be imaginative. You just need to give imagination a safe home. Deadlines are good, but until the deadline - make sure the fear of failure is not getting in the way of your people's best work. 


Ambra Sultzbaugh