A Failure of Imagination

Posted 12.08.2008

In his latest post, Seth Godin writes about the economic opportunities he missed out on in the early days of the Internet.  He recounts that he didn’t just ignore the Web, he actively ignored it and spent his time writing The Smiley Dictionary.  How could a really smart guy like Seth Godin miss it so big?  As he explains, “the rules of this new business didn't match the rules of my existing business.”

Apollo 11 liftoff Seth’s post reminds me of an episode from one of my favorite television series, Tom Hanks’ “From the Earth to the Moon,” which is the story of NASA’s Apollo program.   One of the tragedies of the race to the moon occurred in 1967 when three astronauts died in their space capsule as a flash fire consumed the space craft during a launch pad test.  The space program came to a halt as investigations conducted by their fellow astronauts were organized to determine the cause of the fire.  The episode comes to a climax when astronaut Frank Borman is called before a Senate committee to explain what happened and why the Apollo program should be allowed to continue.  His answer was that the ultimate cause of the fire was “a failure of imagination.”  The astronauts and engineers at NASA had prepared for any eventuality that might occur in space.  They never imagined that there could be a fire on the launch pad.

Of course, they came back from that and, a little over two years later, Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. 

It’s easy to see how failures of imagination got us to where we are today.  Not enough people imagined that housing values might actually decline instead of going up, up, up.  So here we are.  The interesting point here is the very trait that will get us out of this mess is imagination.  At the macro and the micro levels, all of us as leaders need to act with imagination to come up with the solutions that will get us back on track sooner rather than later.  Sure, we need to be smart with our resources, but we also need to innovate.

What can you do this week to help your team to better understand the new rules and imagine what the options and the possibilities are?