Imagination and creativity in the Armed Forces


Lt Col Fernando Garetto is a Chilean Army Officer. He is a big fan of creativity and currently a student of the Advance Command and Staff Course in the Defence Academy, which includes completing a King’s College London Master by Research (MRes) in Defence Studies. 

Within the defence community, creativity and imagination are two qualities often cited as important attributes for aspiring commanders and their staffs. Yet the extent to which these characteristics are fully understood, or their importance genuinely appreciated, is open to doubt.

JDP 04 “Understanding and Decision-making” states that “Creative thinking should be encouraged (…) to create imaginative and competing hypotheses.” However an analysis of the definitions of creativity and imagination shows that the connection between them runs the other way around; that is, imagination is the necessary precursor to creativity. This distinction matters because it cuts to the heart of the education we deliver to future leaders, and the ways in which we foster their willingness to think and problem solve during the course of their careers.

Creativity vs Imagination

Although they are often mentioned in the same breath, creativity and imagination are not the same. In reality, they sit on a continuum and understanding how they relate to one anothe is vital both to our understanding of the terms and the development of two qualities themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the quality of being creative as “the action of making, forming, producing, or constituting for the first time or afresh; invention, causation, production” and, “an original production of human intelligence or power.” Thus, if creativity centres around new and novel ideas, we must ask what lies behind an individual’s ability to generate such solutions.

Imagination is the answer to this question; it is the essential precondition for creativity. For some people, imagination is “the action of imagining or forming mental images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” Here lies a second crucial difference between creativity and imagination: the ability to imagine is abstract and requires no direct observation of an outcome. Thus, it is entirely possible – even likely – that humans possess imagination, but are not capable of producing creative solutions to particular problems. If you imagine how to defeat an enemy or how to provide security in your area of responsibility, you are not being creative automatically, however, those thoughts might constitute a starting point for something creative. So theoretically, imagination should not be assumed as a desirable end, but just as a means to develop creativity.

Creativity & Utility

As we saw, creativity requires the implementation of a novel solution. However, applied definition of the term argue that even that is not enough. For some writers, creativity also needs to produce something with value or that is useful – ie creative solutions need to work. Thus, for Ken Robinson, creativity is the “process of having original ideas that have value.” Again it is possible to see how imagination differs from creativity and how the latter seems to be more challenging to achieve.

It is essential to mention that this “positive” side of creativity has been a matter of discussion. There are authors such as James and Taylor (2010) that argue how creativity might also have negative, undesired or uncomfortable results to some. They say that “Usefulness is subjective; what is useful to me could be either useless or harmful to you”, thereby reaffirming the subjectivity of creativity.

Creativity in Defence

This side of creativity acquires a particular significance within the defence environment, given some features of the Armed Forces such as their hierarchy and procedures. By default, creativity requires a challenge to the status-quo to deliver a novel, better outcome and therefore, it could be seen as an obstacle for efficient procedures. This view also suggests that creativity and their results is not always a desirable ability nor a skill to develop in every service member. However, there are two factors that tear down these thoughts: efficiency and the contemporary operating environments.

The development of imagination and creativity are extremely relevant for the Armed Forces’ efficiency. For instance, if commanders and staff are capable of creating better planning processes they could be able to reduce the decision making time. Moreover, if they manage to deliver novel and useful courses of actions, they will be contributing to surprise the enemy. Faster decisions and creative courses of actions capable to surprise the enemy are key elements within the manoeuvrist approach stated in the UK Defence Doctrine (JDP 0-01). Furthermore, the manoeuvrist approach has been taken as the fighting doctrine of the UK land forces and its respective joint publication says that “This indirect approach emphasises the need to act in original ways unexpected by the enemy” (JDP 0-20). So the more creative staff and commanders are, the more the chances to achieve their objectives.

But doctrine is not the only dimension that believes creativity and imagination are important. In 2017 Michael Fallon MP said that “the only way our armies can prepare for the battlefields of tomorrow is by placing innovation and adaptability at their core.” Then, when he unpacked this thought he said that “the history of land warfare is punctuated by moments of brilliance, instances where innovation and imagination changed the course of operations.” Innovation is evidence of creativity and as we discussed creativity is evidence of imagination, therefore, it is relevant to understand the differences and the connection between them, in order to develop or improve these skills among the members of the Armed Forces, contributing this way to efficient and successful operations. It is also worth stressing that efficiency contributes not only with the objectives’ accomplishments but also, with the subsequent legitimacy that efficiency normally brings in terms of time and/or human and material resources.

Equally, contemporary operating environments have brought new challenges that require creativity (and other skills) to face them. The Armed forces in the UK contribute actively across the national strategic objectives, particularly the first of them “protect our people”. This participation implies the deployment in different scenarios characterised by a combination of factors such volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity or what some people call VUCA environments. As General Sir Nick Carter argued at RUSI in December 2018, ‘it is hard to remember a time when the strategic and political context was more uncertain, more complex and more dynamic…we must transform to become curious, challenging and constantly adaptable’. The answers to cope these challenges are also diverse and complex and the ideas of resilience and adaptability appear as alternatives. I believe that creativity is also part of the answer, not only to offer unconventional thinking about problems but also to produce creative solutions against security threats.

To conclude, it is possible to say that creativity and imagination are substantially different concepts, but with a strong connection between them. Imagination remains in an intangible dimension and constitutes the foundation for creativity, whereas the latter implies challenging the status quo and results only when a novel outcome is produced and valued by the majority of the people around it. Challenging the status quo is normally hindered by cultural obstacles, particularly in the Armed Forces, but the necessity to be every time more efficient in operations, along with the necessary answers to cope the challenges presented by the contemporary operating environments make creativity as a very important skill to be developed or improved if we are to meet the security challenges of the 21st century.

Image: The Marine Corps University (MCU) Energy & Innovation Scholars Program meeting on Wednesday, December 12 at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity, via the USMC.

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