As a dancer and someone who frequently experiences works of art in many disciplines, I’ve come to see over the years that constraints are often more conducive to artists’ imaginations than so-called “freedom.” Let’s say you’re a choreographer working on a commission. If you know that the area of the stage is only so many square feet, the piece must last no longer than twenty minutes, and the budget will allow for just four dancers, then you are able to focus on one thing alone: how can you make the most complex and beautiful dance possible within these limitations? But does this suggest that embracing boundaries is also a valuable strategy for business, government, and other institutions?
In addition to being an artist and a lover of the arts, I am the executive director of Lincoln Center Institute, a position that has taught me a lot about fostering imagination within a structured organization. Since it’s impossible for me to be aware of everything going on at LCI at any given time, I focus on keeping our mission—to develop young people’s imaginations through encounters with the arts—front and center. People work harder and think bigger when they understand what they’re doing and know that it’s worthwhile. Also, I hire employees whose character and judgment I trust, and then empower them to critique and improve the Institute; I try to cultivate an atmosphere where ideas are never dismissed. This isn’t to say that what I’m describing is always easy.
Lincoln Center is an important and much admired cultural entity, a designation that comes with its own set of customs and protocols. One major question I challenge myself with is: how do we at LCI benefit from this rich history while always focusing on the goal, namely, to help students by engaging them with the arts? This is where my original point about constraints comes in. As Eric Liu and I write in Imagination First, “there’s no need to rail against the existence of silos, walls, hives. Just nurture the spaces between: that’s where the true secrets of imagination are to be found” (156). Indeed, my task is to maintain a balance—to acknowledge and respect the “silos, walls, hives” while creating “spaces” where my employees can think imaginatively about how to do their jobs even better.
The 22nd imagination practice described in the book is called “Design for the Hallway.” Writing of our experiences presenting and participating in professional conferences, Eric and I note that “The breaks, not the sessions, are where palpable connections often are formed among … earnest changemakers” (155). In offices, too, the best ideas frequently emerge from hallways rather than cubicles and board rooms. When people in an organization have a common goal in mind, it’s sometimes enough just to get them motivated to talk, to share good ideas; good things will surely happen. So at LCI, I don’t let the structured nature of the environment get me down (“There is no informal without the formal” (155).) I attempt to lead the Institute in a way that invites employees to run into one another and chat, to think critically, and to dream up new responses to challenges. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the belief that nothing is more exciting than what goes on when the boss appropriately and constructively gets out of the way.
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