Imagine, Say, and Do

November 05, 2019

This post is part of my notes on three years of design leadership at Pipedrive. Also read the other posts in the series:


As I worked in Pipedrive Design, I crystallized a change management approach for myself that I’d like to call “Imagine, Say, and Do.”

I don’t claim this approach to be particularly novel, innovative, or anything massively new. It is a simple rehash or many old ideas, many of them much better articulated and reasoned elsewhere. I do like the title, though. It’s approachable and clear.

As Pipedrive product design lead, I often had to design the future, imagining situations and circumstances that didn’t exist before. I designed projects, organisations, processes, office layouts, and other kinds of things. I made decisions large and small. They may have involved several people, complex processes and months of work, or it may have been a twenty-second personal decision.

Summary

As I was going through all of this, I realised there is a useful approach that I can refer to in all of these situations, which, again, I call Imagine, Say, and Do. Let’s quickly discuss each piece for an overview.

Imagine means some future state of the world, your team, company, or yourself that you would like to exist. You imagine it in your mind.

Say is taking what you imagined in this previous item, giving it some tangible form, and expressing this form to other humans, gathering feedback and improving it in the process.

Do is the last step where you have imagined a change, described and tested it, and all that’s left to do is to apply and execute it.

Let’s drill down into each piece.

Imagine

Everything great that ever happened in this world happened first in somebody’s imagination.

Astrid Lindgren said that. A simple and big statement. I think it’s true. Or, as I myself wrote before I learned about the above quote:

All change in the human world starts as the imagination of one human.

I’m not really going to go into the nature, goals, or properties of this change. Let’s just say for whatever reason, you want the world to be different from what it is today. What is the process of imagining it?

I’ve had to imagine things large and small. Over time, I’ve developed an approach to imagining. I don’t claim to be particularly creative, but I do think you can treat imagining the future as a process in itself, and it’s the first thing of implementing change in the world.

Here’s how it works for me.

Ideas are fragile. Protect them. We are all naturally resistant to change. It is always easier to maintain the status quo, and new ideas challenge that. Just be mindful of this.

Ideas mutate and evolve over time. I think of ideas like a colony of bacteria in a Petri dish. They grow, mutate and change shape over time. I consciously cultivate this in my mind, bombarding the idea with different inputs, triggering it to mutate, grow, change, and evolve.

Give it time and embrace the subconscious. It’s not possible for me to remain in the rational and analysis world in the Imagine phase. It works best if I bounce between conscious and subconscious. How does it work? I just give it time. I consciously analyse an idea for a while from multiple angles, and then I don’t think about it for a while. My subconscious keeps grinding on the idea, though, and just surfaces it back to me at the right time. Maybe it’s waking up in the middle of the night with an eureka moment. Maybe it’s during some daily mundane activity. But I do know the idea comes back to me. Mostly. Sometimes not. Because…

Bad ideas die. Good ideas grow. It is initially very difficult to distinguish between bad and good ideas. Both of them may look equally dumb at first sight. What I found works best for me is just not to worry about it and let the subconscious take care of it. Bad ideas just disappear from my mind on their own. Good ideas keep coming back and resurfacing themselves.

Stretch the idea to understand where the limits are. One helpful creative technique is to intentionally push the idea so far that it feels ridiculous, to understand where the boundaries are. I’ve described it as boundary of acceptance. Another way is to think about it in terms of axes, which is another post in this series.

Experiment with words, form, and shape. This is crossing a bit into the next Say step already, but the first part of it happens in my head. Often there is some abstract formless nugget of an idea, which could take many shapes and be described with different words. There’s no need to rush this, but eventually, an idea will need to take some kind of shape. I play around with different shapes for the same idea, trying to find one that looks, feels and sounds the most appropriate.

So there’s this inner creative imagination process happening, which eventually arrives at a conclusion that I would like to bring this idea into the world. On to the next step.

Say

In the Say step, I give the idea some form, and express it to other humans. This may be an informal private discussion, a big group presentation, or anything else that’s appropriate for the idea in question.

This step has two purposes. One, you nail down the expression of your idea for yourself and others. Equally importantly, you build a following as the leader of this idea. You start preparing for a journey with other humans who will follow you and your idea. In Seth Godin terms, you build a tribe and a movement around your idea. You find believers.

The idea itself, or its expression, may substantially evolve in this step. You may find that the idea is good, but the way you describe it is not clear, or directs people to focus on the wrong aspects of it. So you evolve how you talk about it. Or maybe there is something broken about the idea itself, in which case, you work on the idea, or may find that it wasn’t worth pursuing after all.

Choosing who and how to Say the idea to, needs intention. The composition of the group, and the order in which you speak with people, matters a lot. In business language, you could call this “gaining stakeholder buy-in” and many business books exist on the topic. I’ve found it useful to start with informal 1:1 discussions with people who have the most skin in the game, and expand the group and increase formality level later on.

So by now you have done three things. You’ve imagined an idea, given in tangible form, and built a following. All that’s left is Do.

Do

Executing the idea may be the longest step, and involve the most amount of work, but in terms of risk and uncertainty, it is the easiest so I’m not going to focus on it much here. If you’ve done the previous two steps well, you have a solid idea and a strong group around it, so execution is something that you simply do together then according to the plan you have in place.

Properties

Here are some interesting properties of Imagine, Say, and Do (ISD).

Complete. You can fully describe many changes as an instance of ISD.

Scalable. The approach is highly stretchable. It applies to simple personal decisions, multi-month big team projects, and many things inbetween. The exact properties of each step naturally vary, but I argue that the essence of the steps remains exactly the same at all scales.

Universal. Note that I didn’t discuss much what kinds of changes you actually bring to the world with this approach. It could be product features, culture changes, process updates, organization changes, physical office layout, or many other things. I argue ISD is useful in all these situations.

Useful as a retrospective/analysis tool. Not all my work and change management has been successful. When I’ve failed, I can use ISD as a lens to analyse the change, and I always find the failure is because I failed to apply some element of ISD. Did I not imagine a bold enough change? Did I not say it clearly enough or to the right audience? Was the plan good but I failed to Do it? ISD helps me understand my shortcomings.

Atomic. You need all three steps. You can’t take any of them away. What happens if you do? I discuss this in the next section.

Testing the approach

Let’s test ISD by leaving out pieces. What happens if you leave one part of it out?

Say and Do, but no Imagine. On the surface, everything is right. You say things, and you do them. What’s missing?

Missing is a sense of purpose, progress and evolution. You’re not going anywhere. You simply maintain your daily grind. Sadly, I think this is most of our work most of the time. We just say and do things, but there is nothing we’re moving towards. In other words, no purpose. We’re not inspired. We become disillusioned, cynical, and bored. There is no optimism and positive outlook. To counter this, there should always be some element of Imagine present.

Imagine and Do, but no Say. What is this? You imagine boldly and execute change. Looks cool. What’s lacking?

You’re not building a tribe and following. I call this the “mad scientist” or “rockstar” (in the negative sense) scenario. You’re this crazy guy who does things, and seemingly makes progress, but you’re leaving other humans behind.

I can think of one domain of human activity where this works well: art. Much art is solitary, executed by one person, often considered crazy, genius, or simultaneously both by their contemporaries. You don’t need to waste time to build a following for art in its purest form. If the art is good and inspires people, the following happens on its own, possibly after your lifetime.

In business context, you most often operate with a group of other humans and have a much shorter time perspective, so you can’t really skip the Say part. You need a following, alliances, supporters, sponsors and believers for your work. Say phase is where you build these.

Imagine and Say, but no Do. You imagine change, and build a following for your ideas. You don’t do/execute them though. Who does, then?

Maybe the people who work for you do. Imagine+Say happens to describe the work of a leader quite well. If you’re in a position of having a team to do your execution, then as a leader, you can mostly focus on Imagine+Say because this really is the essence of leadership. Your tribe and followers are then happy to Do the execution with you.