Imaginative Gridlock

In A Failure of Nerve; Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Edwin H. Friedman tells a fascinating story.

In 1493, the publishers of the Nuremberg Chronicle stood on the brink of a transformation that would profoundly change the way they lived, worked, and related to one other. But they couldn’t see it coming. They were so paralyzed by the emotional bombardments of their time they even left several pages at the end of the book blank so their readers could record “the rest of the events until the end of the world.”

The signs were right in front of them—the 1493 edition pioneered the use of Gutenberg’s press, considered one of the most important innovations in history. The year before Columbus broke a profound human barrier and opened up a new world.

Friedman in A Failure of Nerve (2007) identifies this phenomenon as “imaginative gridlock.” Imagination and curiosity are not rooted in the cognitive realm—they are emotional.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Like the publishers of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, we stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally change the way we live, work, and relate to one other—the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Each revolution has built upon the advances of the past. The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam. Then, we moved to electric power in the Second Revolution. The Third added electronics and information technology. Now, the Fourth Revolution builds on the Third.

Those of us living through the Third Revolution experienced breakthroughs at a pace so rapid it had no historical precedent. For the fourth, well, buckle your seatbelt.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and author of The Fourth Industrial Revolution believes the pace of change coming will create opportunities and challenges like never seen before.

In the Fourth Revolution, we’ll experience a fusion of technologies creating a synergy that blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological domains. Events, threats, and opportunities will not just come at us faster or with less predictability (though that’s certainly part of it); they’ll converge and influence each other to create entirely unique situations. Moreover, the depth and breadth of these changes will disrupt almost every industry in every country around the world.

Experiencing Imaginative Gridlock

The imaginative gridlock was predicted as early as 1997. As Clayton Christensen pointed out in The Innovator’s Dilemma, there’s a danger we will, like the 1493 publishers, not see the forthcoming changes of this new Revolution as a new promising future. Instead, we’ll fall into the trap of imaginative gridlock.

Can you imagine what happens when things freeze up while in high speed? Disaster.

Speaking at the 2018 Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) in Dubai, Dr. Reuben Abraham, CEO of Think-Tank the IDFC Institute, said, “We have always had a fear of new technology, even as far back as the (First) industrial revolution, but those fears have been largely unfounded, so why is it different now? Well, it’s the speed in which technology has come to the fore. The risk factor we are dealing with is on a grand economic; political and social level.”

In order to break an emotional phenomenon like imaginative gridlock, we have to be able to imagine the unimaginable—to see or hear things differently. We need to separate ourselves from the surrounding emotional bombardments of our present situation.

Are eLearning and instructional design contributing to finding solutions for the imaginative gridlock? Are we prepared to lead the needed innovations in learning design in a world shaped by technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

According to a 2018 report by The Economist: Intelligence, very few have begun to address the risk, “[…] little has been done to prepare future workers through school curricula or, just as importantly, teacher training.”

Breaking the Gridlock

Gutenberg or Columbus. Gandhi or Lincoln. Breaking a gridlock requires a special kind of leadership Friedman (2007) calls “differentiated leadership.”

As a concept, differentiated leadership can be difficult to focus on objectively. Friedman tells us that these leaders have the capacity to move beyond the treadmill of trying harder; to reframe questions in order to find new answers; and help others get beyond the either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.

Those of us in eLearning need to be the leaders needed for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We need to become differentiated leaders and help prepare the way for more differentiated leaders.

For some time, there’s been a drive to encourage students to take STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects to supply the talent pipeline for the technologically-orientated careers of the future. Typically, we hear skills like collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving referred to as “soft skills.”

However, the demand for human skills outstrips supply as revealed in a WEF report, The Future of Jobs. The report surveyed CEOs across nine industries in 15 of the world’s largest economies to discover how technological advancements are likely to change the job market. It wasn’t STEM and digital skills that the executives desired. Instead, the premium was placed on creativity-based skills such as critical thinking and collaboration.

The issue is bigger than just the familiar “soft skills.” At the Global level anticipating the complexity of the quantum advances predicted in artificial intelligence (AI), the recent World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Learning Revolutions conference in New York offered an addition to the list for the higher education skills of the future that will be in most demand—ethics, morality, and philosophy.

Not only do we need to address the false dichotomy relating to STEM versus soft skills, we need to be guides to new answers to old STEM questions.

The British International School of Chicago—part of the Nord Anglia Education group—has embraced art and design as critical to successful innovation within its STEM movement. Proponents of the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math) movement believe that educators should encourage today’s students to develop the “creativity and critical thinking, making and problem-solving skills needed for the entrepreneurial and innovation-driven jobs of the future.”

We Are Designers

Design Thinking helps offer solutions-based approaches to solving problems. Friedman (2007) reminds us in the search for solutions, asking the right question is critical. How we frame the question predetermines the range of answers we can conceive in response.

The Henry Ford Learning Institute working with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (“the”) are collaborating to refine the Design Thinking process to help address the challenges today’s learners may encounter as the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds.

The question is: Are we asking the right questions? Are the challenges of this new Revolution so profound that innovation is not enough? What may be needed is a paradigm shift. Innovations are new answers to old questions; paradigm shifts reframe the question—changing the information that is important in finding solutions. (Friedman, 2007)

In Higher Education, we are beginning to see indicators of shifts. In June The US Office of Educational Technology partnered with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for 21st Century Universities to launch the Reimagining Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge.

The Challenge sought bold ideas for reimagining what the Higher Ed educational ecosystem will look like by 2030, “[…] with concrete steps that can be taken in 2018 to move toward that future.” Stackable credentials, micro-credentials, badges, user-centric identity management, student-governed educational records, pathways to become reskilled, life-long learning blockchain credentialing were part of this vision. Are we ready?

Becoming Differentiated eLearning Leaders

The Fourth Revolution doesn’t have to paralyze educators. Those in eLearning are experts in design and learning. We can be the needed differentiated leaders to prepare us for the Fourth Revolution (and beyond).

Ethics. Morality. STEAM. Design Thinking. Stackable Credentials. User-Centric Identify Management. Pathways. Blockchain Credentialing. Bold ideas for reimagining—are we asking the right questions? What’s eLearning’s place in this quickly changing world? Let us know!


Friedman, E.D. (2007) A failure of nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix. Seabury Books, NY.

Author: Gary Tucker, Executive Director of eLearning

An early adopter in online education, Gary helped develop and deliver one of the first fully online Masters degrees in Educational Technology. Still an early adopter, he now depends on the expertise of his dynamic eLearning team. When off-the-clock, he reads and rides his bicycle.

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