Unimagination describes the ability to accept and respond to previously unimaginable incidents and their consequences. Due to the perceived uniqueness or magnitude of such incidents, unimaginable situations may arise that can paralyze stakeholders, causing them to freeze. In order to tackle unimaginable situations, psychological and organizational stability and robustness are needed. Communication leaders should develop further competencies in their teams that combine goal orientation with a preparedness to respond strategically when the unimaginable occurs. This will enable them to navigate their organizations and stakeholders through unimaginable situations.
What is unimagination?
A giant comet hitting the earth? The outbreak of nuclear war in the quest for world domination? Robots taking over the government? Many scenarios seem so unlikely that they are considered impossible – and yet unimaginable incidents nevertheless occur.
Whether something is fully imaginable or not is always a matter of individual perception. It differs from person to person and depends on factors such as social background, education, and social networks. More and more incidents are perceived as unimaginable until they occur. This is why the ability to deal with the unimaginable is becoming increasingly important.
The trend unimagination therefore describes the ability to accept and respond to previously unimaginable situations as well as to adapt structures and processes in order to be prepared for future scenarios.
“We need to think more in terms of scenarios and try to imagine the unimaginable in order to develop possible communication strategies and measures at an early stage. This requires an open mind regarding the geopolitical situation and the impact on our markets.”
Bernd Hops, Executive Vice President Communications & Public Policy, Infineon
Being prepared for the unimaginable becomes crucial
In today’s societies being prepared for unimaginable incidents to happen gains more and more awareness. Self-help books teach us on what crises to be prepared for and how to manage them. In summary, unimagination is relevant for two main reasons:
- When previously unimaginable situations or developments occur, this can paralyze internal and external stakeholders and influence their perceptions and attitudes – sometimes in positive ways, but mostly negatively. Especially in moments of crisis, however, it is essential for organizations to get a clear picture of difficult situations and how they unfold.
- Current developments and experience show that it can be difficult to retain the capacity to act in unexpected situations. Better forecasting methods will not be the ultimate solution – after all, the unimaginable is characterized precisely by the fact that it is so difficult to predict. Hence, unimagination is not about being well prepared for every incident with management wisdom and predictions, so that one cannot be shocked by anything anymore. Instead, it is about recognizing different levels and types of events, and distinguishing between truly unimaginable and less unimaginable events.
How can we learn to unimagine
The ability to “unimagine” can be trained with the help of a range of methods on two levels:
- At the individual level, people can work to better tolerate uncertainty and insecurity. In psychology, this is known as ambiguity tolerance. While people with high ambiguity tolerance are able to tolerate contradictions and can classify ambiguous information, people with low ambiguity tolerance tend to make rash decisions. To prevent this, cognitive strategies can be used to consider the consequences of a choice (e.g., whether one would think the same way if one had to justify it to others) and the situation (e.g., how high the current stress level is). Strengthening intercultural skills and experiences is also helpful, as this reduces the urge to be unambiguous.
- At the organizational level, it is important to reduce confusion and quickly gain the upper hand in uncertain situations such as crises. Here, for example, improvisation and resilience training are discussed. Improvisation means being able to spontaneously develop creative solutions to a problem, while resilience refers to the ability to bounce back, reintegrate, and adapt after an unimaginable event. In both cases, the aim is to learn flexibility in dealing with challenges and to solve problems precisely. In this context, management and psychology often refer to design thinking. Design thinking is a problem-solving method that helps develop options, test strategies, and gather feedback. It is often used to develop new products or processes. In organizational psychology, however, design thinking is also considered an important tool for solving cognitively demanding problems, such as unimaginable situations.
Two key lessons for reacting to the unimaginable
Communication leaders can help their organizations and stakeholders to navigate through unimaginable situations. To this end, they must develop competencies in their teams that combine goal orientation with the readiness to react strategically when the unimaginable occurs. Two aspects are central to this:
- Informing stakeholders and coping with their lack of orientation is part of any corporate approach to deal with unimaginable incidents. Communication departments can help to ensure that internal and external stakeholders remain capable of taking action. For example, all information should be quickly collected and clearly communicated when an unforeseen situation occurs. This can reduce the influence of other sources and reduce rumors. Corporate communications can also prevent people from being paralyzed, for example by building relationships and trust and by strengthening the self-efficacy of employees.
- Communicators can use their knowledge and experience and share it with other members of their organization. For example, resilience training for executives and coworkers across the organization’s departments can be provided, or insights can be shared on how the communication department has responded to unimaginable incidents in the past. However, this should not be done without cultivating and expanding the department’s own unimagination skills. Improvisation and resilience training may also be worthwhile for communicators.
Key facts about the 5 trends
- State Revival: The state is experiencing a renaissance. Governments, regulators, political parties and politicians gained in importance both as a partner and as an antagonist of businesses. After a period with almost no state intervention in the economy (neoliberalism), the pendulum is now moving back in the other direction towards more state control (neodirigism). Multiple reasons such as the pandemic or the Russian war against Ukraine have prompted this trend. The state is interfering more strongly in the economy – both by providing subsidies and accelerating the growth of specific markets by means of high spending.
- Scarcity Management: After years of abundance, Europe has to get used to scarcity. Whether in raw materials, energy, personnel or products – there are shortages in many areas. This development is being exacerbated by demographic changes and geopolitical upheavals. Price increases, inflation and bottlenecks are the result. Many companies have to adapt their value chains and processes in order to achieve their long-term corporate goals. But scarcity offers opportunities as well. Rare products or services raise profitability for those who can deliver. Additionally, in times of scarcity, innovative and more sustainable solutions are increasingly developed for which there was previously no market.
- Unimagination: A third world war, widespread blackouts or computers striving for world domination – today many unimaginable incidents are considered for being possible someday. However, companies cannot prepare for every future scenario. Rather, it is important to take precautions. Organizations must adapt their structures and processes and empower their employees in order to remain capable of acting even when the unimaginable happens. On an individual level, psychological stability and robustness are needed. This can be promoted through training on ambiguity tolerance, resilience and improvisation.
- Augmented Workflows: AI-based technologies will enable new forms of interaction between humans and technology in the next few years. They promise to improve productivity by performing routine tasks, to reduce human error, and to generate insights that improve decision-making. As exciting as these prospects are, they may also be problematic. The prospect of augmented workflows challenges us to think about questions such as: Who delegates tasks to whom when humans and AI collaborate? How do outputs change if an AI makes suggestions – and who is responsible for them?
- Parallel Worlds: New technologies are increasingly enabling us to create and immerse ourselves in extended versions of reality – so-called parallel worlds. This can make abstract concepts more tangible for consumers. More and more companies are recognizing the potential of these technologies, for instance for product launches. Behind this is also the idea of creating a worldwide "Metaverse" in which the real and virtual worlds are combined in a single environment. So far the Metaverse is primarily a vision. If and when it will arrive and what it will look like is anybody’s guess. Due to the increasing possibilities of 3D technologies, this trend should not be misjudged by communication experts.
- Sources & screening: First, information sources which provide relevant insights into the professional discourse in the areas of management, technology, and society were monitored and screened. These sources primarily include recent publications from scientific journals and conferences in the respective domains, but also selected newspapers (e.g., Economist Science and Technology), magazines (e.g., Harvard Business Review, Wired), social news sites (e.g., Reddit Science), blogs and websites (e.g., ReadWrite, The Next Web), whitepapers, and corporate trend reports.
- Trend profiles: Each potential trend was systematically documented in a trend profile consisting of a brief description and several criteria estimating the trend’s relevance to corporate communications. Specifically, the research team assessed the impact of the trend on the corporate communications function, processes and management.
- Scoring: Based on the criteria detailed in the trend profiles, a scoring method was developed that was used to rate each of the trends.
- Selection: These trends were first discussed among the Communications Trend Radar team during a workshop. Each team member then voted individually for the top trends in the areas of management, technology, and society. We proposed five trends for 2023 (depicted below) based on the outcome of this process.
- Reflection: These trends were examined further and later discussed with communication leaders during an online workshop in November 2022.
- Report: All trends were analyzed and described in more detail in our publication - the Communications Trend Radar.
The Communications Trend Radar 2023 project was conducted by a research team of the Leipzig University, the University of Duisburg-Essen and University of Potsdam.
from left to right:
- Stefan Stieglitz is Professor at University of Potsdam. He is head of the SAP-endowed chair of Business Information Systems and Digital Transformation.
- Daniel Ziegele, M.A. is a research associate at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies at Leipzig University, Germany.
- Sünje Clausen, M.Sc. is a research associate at the chair of Digital Communication and Transformation at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.
- Ansgar Zerfass is Professor and Chair of Strategic Communication at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies at Leipzig University, Germany.