Imagine and innovate

For a number of organizations, trying to be more innovative may well be the worst way to be more innovative. Trying to be more imaginative, however…

In an age that worships innovation, the very notion of “the innovative organization” has become both a cliché and a platitude. Every organization wants to become more innovative, and as a result, very few of them do. This, as organizations tend to attempt becoming innovative by copying the same stratagems, using the same books and the same consultants, all in a race to become “different”. As a result, we can see a tremendous amount of companies ending up being pseudo-different, i.e. trying to, but not being too different. We want to be radical, but go for incremental improvements. We desire disruption, yet we sing from the same hymnal as our competitors.

I’ve worked with these issues for over a decade by now (and closing in on a second, although admitting to this would be admitting to my age). During that time, I’ve come across innumerable companies wanting to become more innovative. What’s striking, however, is how often they’ve wanted to do this without truly changing anything fundamental about themselves. They’ve looked to innovation as a kind of “secret sauce”, something that they can just apply to their normal way of doing things.

My take, one which I’ve deployed with some success in a number of companies, is different. I’ve always worked from the fact that true change does not stem from just doing what you’re already doing, but with a flair for innovation. Instead, I’ve guided companies to tap into something different, something stranger, something potent but potentially dangerous. Namely, imagination.

For some, this might sound strange. Isn’t imagination, creativity, and innovation always related? Yes, but we can still desire the last whilst ignoring the first. We get encouraged to think creatively, but rarely consider just how conservative and traditional our normal creativity can be. For others, the word sounds suspiciously fluffy, not to mention a bit childish. To those people, “imagination” is a word associated with hippy-dippy dreaming, and possibly finger-painting.

The reason imagination is such a powerful (and underused!) resource, is because it challenges what we normally consider to be creative, and pushes into more challenging forms of thinking. Imagination is the mental faculty in charge of thinking wholly without constraints, in a manner unfettered by tradition or calculation. It is, for lack of a better way to describe it, our brain at its wildest.

A key reason why imagination often isn’t considered in the world of business is exactly this. Since an imaginative idea doesn’t have to be practical or even possible to realize, imagination seem to many more suitable to the kindergarten than to the board room. And yes, imagination can be quite wild. Consider for instance the child’s dream of a machine that can generate endless energy out of nothing more than water. It sounds like a foolish dream, one we might smile at if presented by a child, but scoff at in the office. So we tend to stick to the ideas that seem sensible, that seem practical, that makes us believe in execution.

But here be dragons.

It should be self-evident, but experience has taught me it pays to repeat this: If we only focus on the kind of creativity that seems sensible, practical and pragmatic, we’re missing out. We are very good at pretending our traditional, typical thinking is creative, and to dismiss imagination as something childish and stupid, but the reality is that true breakthroughs come from people daring to imagine. Consider the Tesla. For a long time, there had been the dream of the electrical car, but it has often been dismissed as childish, like something out of science fiction. Then comes Elon Musk, and states not only that he’ll build electric cars, he’ll make them sports cars! Every sensible person in the car industry scoffed. A joke, they thought. Impossible, they said. Until it all of a sudden wasn’t.

And what about that machine that can create energy out of water? No, it doesn’t exist, but maybe it was such childish flights of fancy that inspired engineers to experiment with new fuel mixtures, adding e.g. ethanol to gasoline to lessen environmental impact. The thing with creativity is that even strange, outlandish, and imaginative ideas do drive development, often so that an organization that doesn’t allow for more imaginative ideas won’t develop the more pragmatic ones either.

But how can one make one’s organization more imaginative? It often seems that our corporations are designed to achieve the polar opposite, and kill what little imagination there remains in people. It can also seem like making an organization more imaginative requires massive investments in rather frivolous things – like building a huge ballpit in the office or bringing in professional clowns.

Both these assumptions rest on a fundamental misunderstanding. Imagination isn’t difficult, and it doesn’t demand huge resources. What it does require, on an organizational level, is a commitment from top management to allow for more creative if less immediately pragmatic ideas. By doing so, management can both ensure the generation of stimulating ideas, and keep the creative culture of their organizations more healthy overall.

But to do so, organizations need to become more comfortable with imagination, and to ensure that ideation isn’t hampered by a too strict adherence to what seems sensible right now. By allowing for the seemingly foolish, organizations can start inoculating themselves to disruptions to come! After all, even current events have been more imaginative than any one of us could have predicted a year ago…

What follows, then, are some condensed lessons from having worked with companies trying to push beyond “creativity” and beyond “innovation”. This does not cover the full gamut of work necessary to make and keep an organization imaginative, but they can serve as necessary starting points for crafting a legacy of imagination. I will here only look to three key such points, namely:

  1. Encourage dreaming
  2. Break your chains
  3. Embrace the impossible

By encouraging your people to dream, you extend their capacity for ideas and reaching for greater creative heights. By working on breaking the mental chains of your organization, you directly attack the things that are keeping your creativity fettered to your history and your biases. And by embracing the impossible you can start crafting the future, today.

Encourage Dreaming

Looking to the way in which corporations are presented in popular culture, dreams and dreaming are not the first things that come to mind. Instead, organizations are often portrayed as the kind of places where dreams are broken and forgotten, and where dreamers are pariahs to be driven out. These are of course caricatures, but they live on in both how people think organizations work, and in how people think organizations should work. Few consider (day-)dreaming as something appropriate to engage in during office hours.

That said, many of the most successful companies I’ve worked with, not to mention some of the most successful CEOs I’ve met, make dreaming a strategic priority.

We should of course not consider all dreaming to be alike. Having more or less imaginatively improbable daydreams about romantic dalliances with stars of screen and stage can have an impact on motivation, but rarely on innovation. Ditto for dreaming yourself away from the office onto some paradise island.

But with the right impetus, dreaming can be surprisingly productive. The right kind of dreaming will be connected to the greater whole of what your organization is working with, with its “what are we doing and why are we doing it”-issues. It will look to what the organization does, and then try to imagine it without any limitations, or re-imagine it in a manner that cares not a whit for what is practical, or provable, or even possible.

Many great innovations started out as science fiction, and most science fiction was born out of tales of magic. Magic, again, is connected to dreams and dream logics. The way to bring magic back to your company is thus to tap into such logics, to rejoice in unfettered thinking. For what is access to all the worlds music and all the worlds stories but a tale of magic? What is a self-driving car but a tale straight out of Cinderella – if with less pumpkin?

What this means for companies is that one needs to create a culture that both allows dreaming and creates space for it. The former might seem like a strange recommendation, for who can stop you from dreaming? Well, cultures can. By laughing at imaginative ideas, by dismissing the narrative and creative power of dreams, we can create a culture where no-one dares to air more imaginative ideas or voice more challenging possibilities. What a leader who wants to improve their organization needs to do, then, is to ensure that even more outlandish ideas aren’t dismissed out of hand, and more fundamentally that even dreamers feel that they’re respected in the organization.

The second part, creating space for dreaming, is also critically important. Organizations that fill their employees schedules with meetings of dubious value, or that insist that every minute of their workdays needs to be filled and reported in 15 minute increments, will make sure that their employees lack both the time and the motivation for imaginative thinking. Also, companies that see the role of management solely at the raising of quotas will make sure that the focus of their employees is turned squarely away from anything more imaginative.

If we look to the success of much vaunted corporations such as Facebook and 3M, or fleet-footed startups like Snap or Impossible Foods, what often sets them apart is that they make sure that their employees, at least from time to time, have the possibility to explore new avenues, dream new dreams. When people ponder the question why some companies give their employees 20% time to work on their own projects (and whether this makes sense), they often forget this aspect. Free time shouldn’t only be used to develop specific projects, it can also be productively used to go beyond mundane day-to-day thinking, and help employees to transcend what they thought was possible to do or think.

The Innovation Secrets of Daenerys Targaryen, Breaker of Chains

In the fantasy novels of George R. R. Martin, known as Game of Thrones after the first novel and the very popular TV-series it spawned, a central character is Daenerys Targaryen, who has the quite impressive resume of being “First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, Rhoynar, and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons”. She is a complex hero, but the most characteristic thing about her as a leader is the way in which she engenders unbreakable loyalty. She abhors slavery and limitations, which is why she is known as the breaker of chains.

Daenarys is of course just a fictional character, but this doesn’t mean that we cannot learn e.g. innovation from her. On the contrary, her focused wish to break the chains of men is a brilliant example of how to enhance imagination.

The difference between creativity and imagination is that the former is limited, and the latter is not.

For companies that wish to become more imaginative, it isn’t enough merely to allow for more dreaming. The company must also be capable of using imagination to reflect on and challenge the existing mindsets, competencies and world views of the organization – the chains that currently limit creativity and propensity for change in the organization.

Imagination and the aforementioned chains exist in a complex interrelationship. Questioning “best practices” and existing competencies (“this is how we’ve always done it!”, “this has proved to be the only way that works!”) is an excellent way to push the organization towards more imaginative thinking. At the same time, imaginative ideas is a great way to challenge a company’s existing mindsets and ways of working. The intelligent leader thus realizes and capitalizes upon both dynamics.

One way to do this is to force teams to act out “What if?”-scenarios. For instance, you might encourage teams of employees to imagine a world that still desires the same things (such as ease of dining), but where new technology has made much of the experience of “eating out” possible to replicate at home (think about virtual and augmented reality). How is a restaurant (if that’s the business you’re in) supposed to survive in such an environment? What happens when your core competencies can be replicated and superseded by new ones? What new skills are needed in such a world, to survive and to thrive? An exercise of this type obviously won’t eradicate existing preferences for the already known and the already mastered, but it can start weakening the chains and make their dominance in the organization less oppressive.

Embrace the Impossible

Not every imaginative idea will become reality, but each one trains us to think a little different about impossibility. Retailers originally laughed at the idea that anyone except a few hopelessly asocial nerds would ever shop online. Car companies laughed at the idea of electric cars. We all laughed at the idea of China as an economic super-power. It was all impossible – a dominant China, the Tesla, Amazon for everything – until it wasn’t.

This is the importance of imagination. It trains us to embrace the impossible, rather than rejecting it. Imagination doesn’t care if an idea is practical, only if it stimulates out thinking. For companies, their main challenge and main weakness tends to be that they’re locked into thinking only that which is possible right now, whilst ignoring that which will be possible sooner than they might think.

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”

—Lewis Carroll

With the speed our world changes, organizations must become more adept at believing impossible things, simply because they might not be impossible for long. In fact, by learning to love the impossible, companies may well do the most pragmatic thing of all – loving what’s possible tomorrow.

Embracing the impossible is both supporting imagination and ensuring that you’ll have more of it tomorrow. Only when we can turn imagination into something we love, rather than something we tolerate, can we make it into something that people will want to engage with, in a continuous fashion.

I recently had lunch with an exceptionally successful CEO in real estate, who talked about the manner in which he collected ideas from young trainees. One of these had suggested an idea that the CEO knew wouldn’t work – having worked in the industry for a few decades. He realized, there and then, that this was one of the moments where true leadership mettle is measured. He took the idea to his management team, and said “I want this.”. His team looked at him in askance and said “It’s impossible.”, to which he answered that he knew. He then said he wanted it realized in six weeks, no later. And left it at that.

Six weeks later, the first prototype was finished. Once launched, it attracted a record number of customers. Today, it’s a core strategic initiative of the company. Turns out that embracing that imaginative, impossible idea wasn’t so silly after all. In the end, it turned out to be rather innovative.


Alf Rehn is a highly engaging thought leader on innovation and new wave business management.

Feb 16, 2017 By webmaster