November 30, 2015

Diving into our imaginations

On a recent biomimicry workshop in South Africa, I roamed the Savannah with 20 other participants as we learned about the local ecosystems, the flora, the fauna, and the connections between them all. At the end of the week-long workshop, we were given a design-thinking challenge to apply a biologically-inspired concept to human needs. The result offered a powerful reminder that leaping into our imaginations is rejuvenating and productive.

The value in this journey came from the overarching structure of the activity—three elements that kept me moving toward new thinking:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Framework
  3. Medium


First things first: find something that moves you. The moment you find real inspiration in an idea, curiosity takes over and doors begin to open.

For me, this took the form of a butterfly’s metamorphosis. The volume of interesting concepts were piling up throughout the workshop, but butterflies continued to flicker in and out of view. I couldn’t help but find magic in the transformation from grounded caterpillar to winged butterfly, and the mind-blowing biology behind the metamorphosis process further fueled my interest.


Once you have inspiration, give yourself guardrails to prevent getting lost in the vastness of your imagination. Although slightly counter-intuitive, establishing firm boundaries actually elevates creativity.

Even though I was inspired by the process of metamorphosis, I didn’t know exactly where the idea might lead me. On one level, I was guided by the time and resource constraints of the design-thinking activity itself. But most importantly, using a metaphorical approach to problem solving allowed big leaps in my thinking. My instinct has long been to create literal ideas that, in theory, are more “sellable.” Deviating from the literal, I connected butterfly metamorphosis to our education system. While the metaphor was complex, it was also meaningful to me and my audience, resulting in an idea that was equally (or more) valuable in the real world as a literal solution would have been.


With Inspiration and a Framework to guide you, now it’s time to properly illustrate your point. To maintain outside-the-box thinking, put the computer away and look for alternative means to tell your story. Get artistic without apology.

For years, my habit has been to tell stories through writing. This is why it was so helpful to break out the big washable markers and the poster-sized paper to literally draw my conclusions. Not only were colorful diagrams more effective than writing to demonstrate my butterfly-inspired education system, the process also proved that experimenting with how we share our ideas can increase their value.

Metamorphosis (inspiration), metaphor (framework), and markers (medium) pushed me to a new level of creativity. The most difficult and rewarding part of this effort was not about connecting butterflies to education, but allowing myself the time and space to take risks with my ideas instead of trying to make them perfect. If we all spend a little more time diving into the deep end of our imaginations, I’m convinced we’ll enjoy the swim.

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