On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Flight 253 with explosives inside his shorts. Fortunately, he was unable to get his makeshift detonator to function. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Transportation Safety Administration, and various U.S. intelligence agencies did not foresee this type of attack, a problem that former National Intelligence Chief John Negroponte called a failure of imagination.

It has been more than eight years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and five years since the 9/11 Commissions report National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States identified that the United States most important failurewas one of imagination.

In discussing Flight 253, President Obama did not use that phrase. Instead, he chose this language: In other words, this was not a failure to collect intelligence; it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had. The information was there. Agencies and analysts who needed it had access to it. And our professionals were trained to look for it and to bring it all together.

Disregard for Americas Profound Failure

A 2005 The Public Managerarticle Hurricanes & Learning Organization Obsolescence discussed a study on how the United States was tackling this important failure. At the time, the study found that out of 19,405 jobs, no new jobs recruited for imagination skills. Likewise, in all the help-wanted ads for the U.S. governmentincluding the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the National Security Agency (NSA)there were zero listings calling for outstanding imaginations. What is the United States doing in 2010 to solve this failure of imagination?

There is a new administration and a new assault on the people of the United States. A similar study conducted in January 2010 revealed 28,875 open positions listed on USAjobs.com, the official job listing board of the U.S. government. In a random screening of several hundred jobs, a search for the word imagination found only 11 adsnearly zero percent. None of these job listings were for positions in U.S. intelligence agencies.

Imagination Versus Innovation

The term imagination seems to be feared. All sorts of government leaders talk about innovation, but innovative ideas have already been filtered into those that seem to have an application to particular problems.

Imagination happens earlier in the process. It is in the world of imagination that free-floating shards and fragments can be conceptualized into something mind-blowing.

If those ideas are filtered too earlyso they have an immediate impact on a particular problemwe lose the opportunity to imagine what other views of the problem might look like. We are a very innovative country, but that has not protected us from failures of imagination.

Imagination in Our Intelligence Agencies

A failure of imagination is one of the surest paths to an intelligence breakdown, said former CIA Director General Michael Hayden, suggesting that on some level, the CIA has a fundamental understanding of the problem.

Leon Panetta, the current director of the CIA, said on the last anniversary of 9/11: To keep America safe, we must stay a step ahead, we must see where science and technology are going and we must use them to our greatest advantage. Our work must be beyond the capability and the imagination of our adversaries.

Even a few anonymous CIA philosophers have weighed in: Intelligence community organizations need to institutionalize sustained, collaborative efforts by analysts to question their judgments and underlying assumptions, employing both critical and creative modes of thought.

This gets to the heart of what is meant by failure of imagination. New concepts can continually come forward, if we encourage unrestrained second guessing. It takes analysts who are dedicated, open, and modest to persevere in this kind of work. Another anonymous CIA writer puts it this way: What is required is a continuous, iterative, largely informal effort by members of organizations to understand, or make sense, of what is going on in the external environment that is relevant to their goals and needs.

If these were mainstream ideas within the CIA, they would translate into practice. They havent, and the CIA is simply not hiring to this skill set. Failure of imagination is almost totally invisible within the CIAs hiring parameters. And other agencies do not seem to fare any better. We can find no evidence of any active imagination programs in the FBI, NSA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Counterterrorism Center.

National Intelligence Strategy

You would think that the National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) of the United States would be the first to address this failure of imagination problem, but there is no mention of it. Even the National Strategy to Combat Terrorist Travel by the National Counterterrorism Center fails the imagination test.

Security consultant Bruce Schneier tells us that at one time, DHS brought in a number of science fiction writers to develop worst-case scenarios. This is the closest acknowledgement by the government to address imagination as a source of innovation and problem-solving.

Imagine a Failure of Imagination Failure

The failure of imagination diagnosis has not been taken seriously, and there are a number of possible reasons.

Government Disbelief

Despite the 9/11 Commission report, the government does not really believe there is an imagination failure. Schneier believes that terrorism is a real threat, but were not any safer through security measures that require us to correctly guess what the terrorists are going to do next.

He is right that guessing correctly is an inappropriate foundation for policy, but a population that is infused with creativity and imagination trying to solve the nations problems and creating a better, safer future for ourselves will likely garner positive results.

Perpetual Denial

U.S. culture lives in perpetual denial. To be sure, denial is a necessary psychological defense for some, but it is an intolerable trait for the president of the United States.

Imagination Work Costs Too Much


Focusing on every alternative scenario is too expensive. Former CIA Deputy Director William O. Studeman has said: It is cheaper to counter a known threat than an imagined threat. This may be the heart of why failure of imagination has not been championed by anyone. Creating a program focused on imagination is just too expensive.

It is also conceivable that government managers have realized just how short their careers might be if they allow their employees to exercise imagination, even for good reasons.

Sources of Imagination

Consider some possible solutions to the failure of imagination problem.

Time to Think

When I was a manager at CIGNA, my team was creating the CIGNA Technology Institute, a new organization in the company. When the challenge started to become daunting, I requested that each member start taking one day a week to work from home. Spend some of that day just thinking, I said.

Within two weeks, energy on the staff skyrocketed and ideas flowed. We put together a complex, effective organization in record time and developed the seven-second solution, which coupled online learning with a live expert available 24 hours per day. It guaranteed to learners they would have an expert within seven seconds who could respond to their question.

We recommend that all government employees be given four hours per week to just think and get their creative juices flowing. Why? Because theyll be better able to tackle the failure of imagination problem, and theyll get more done for U.S. citizens. Many companies have sabbaticals for the same reason. Perhaps every six years, government employees should have six months off with pay.

Eliminate Command-and-Control Organizations

Government agencies should be evaluated by teams designed by leadership mavens such as Meg Wheatley to determine whether they absolutely require command-andcontrol structures to function. All organizations that do not necessitate that hierarchical rigid control should be recalibrated into collaborative organizations and the managers trained to use social processes to jumpstart their institutional imaginations.

Imagination Skills Training

Programs that teach people imagination skills that disrupt their habitual thinking or patterns of thought and replace them with fresh thinking skills should be offered to all 2,900,000 government civilian employees within the next four years.

Trust More, Collaborate More

I spent four years in the U.S. Air Force Security Service. I had extensive training in appropriate security practices. The instructors phrase was loose lips sink ships. The rule was never disclose anything that happens within these walls. These basic principles were enforced and reinforced every dayaloud and in writing.

During that time, I had the opportunity to spend a small amount of time at the National Security Administration (NSA). Security at the agency was very rigid, with Marines of mythic size scrutinizing everything that went in or out of the building. These men and women saw and heard everything.

One day after work, I went through the rigid security checkpoint, staffed by these Marines, and met up with two NSA secretaries I did not know. They gave me a ride into Washington, D.C. From the moment they got into the car until the time they dropped me offamong their stories about their bosses and childrenthey discussed classified information. There was a very large disconnect between the theory and practice of security at one of the nations preeminent agencies.

Even in NSA, the most secretive of institutions, if there is only an illusion of control, why not open things up and get people thinking about possibilities?

Need to Know Means We May Never Know

There is a sacred cow that underlies intelligence work. Before you share knowledge, make sure the receiver has a need to know. This was an operative principle when I was involved, and it is an operative principle now. It absolutely gets in the way of possible imaginative solutions. It is a gateway that inhibits imagination every time it is invoked because it interrupts the spontaneous flow of data, information, and ideas.

If we want to get the most out of employees and make them part of the solution, let them freely and uninhibitedly toss ideas around with all colleagues who have the same security clearance. Social interaction is at the heart of the imagination process and what we have now does not work.

Security consultant Richard Forno hits the nail on the head: Contrary to Americas infatuation with instant gratification, imagination is not quickly built, funded, or enacted. It takes years to inculcate such a mindset brought about by outside-the-box, unconventional, and daring thinking from folks with expertise and years of firsthand knowledge in areas far beyond security or law enforcement and who are encouraged to think freely and have their analyses seriously considered in the halls of Washington. Such a radical way of thinking and planning is necessary to deal with an equally radical adversary, yet we remain entrenched in conventional wisdom and responses.

We live in a world in which people are so desperate, they will strap explosives onto their bodies and attack innocent people. Our response must be to recognize the failures of conventional wisdom and begin a dialogue that shakes the foundations that have cemented us in place.