“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” ― Carl Sagan
Wherever there is angst, there is opportunity. Currently, many companies are finding the productivity of their own innovation initiatives to be a considerable source of angst.
A popular Rx to diminish this angst has been to boost the stock of a company’s creativity skills by mimicking trendy companies, like Google—knocking down cubicle walls and installing foosball tables—and by investing in creativity training programs and consultants with missionary zeal.
The assumption being that a material improvement in the creative thinking capability among its employees would materially increase the quality and quantity of innovation. Unfortunately, this creativity-focused obsession has a fatal flaw. It assumes creativity alone will elevate innovation performance.
Despite the emphasis placed on boosting creativity, it is not the opportunity. The crucial missing variable in the innovation equation that deserves our attention before creativity is imagination.
Imagination Fuels Innovation
Creativity can certainly accelerate innovation, but only after imagination has rewired mindsets. Let me explain.
Fifty years ago, the first Shinkansen bullet train traveled from Tokyo to Osaka. It arrived there in record time, traveling 130mph along a dedicated, high-speed track, featuring the fewest possible curves, more than 3,000 bridges, and 67 miles of tunnel.
Today, Shinkansen trains leave Tokyo for Osaka every three minutes, seating up to 1,323 passengers, and traveling at cruising speeds of 168mph—some even reaching top speeds of nearly 200mph. Fast, frequent, clean, safe and on-time, the bullet trains have virtually killed domestic air travel in Japan. Innovation, definitely, but one fired by imagination, not creativity alone.
Why have similar high-speed rail projects not taken off here in the U.S? Not because the U.S. lacks creative financing schemes, or creative engineers, or creative messaging to help woo public support. Because most people in the U.S. find it difficult to imagine life without cars. Innovations like ZipCar and Cars2Go owe their success not to a sudden increase in the creativity of American consumers in considering transportation alternatives, but to the increased willingness of everyday citizens to imagine a world unfettered by car ownership.
The success of innovators like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber exhibit a similar dynamic: imagination first, creativity second. If imagination is critical to the innovation process, then it is important to ask: why is it undervalued?
The first reason for this is that business thinkers and practitioners mistakenly equate imagination to creativity. But imagination and creativity are not identical; paying homage to creativity does not automatically elevate imagination.
In his book, The Imagination Challenge, Alexander Manu explains the key difference between creativity and imagination:
“…creativity is chiefly a development tool, applied to an object or idea that has already been imagined. Creativity deploys mental skills to develop an idea but not to generate it…”
The second reason imagination is undervalued is that; unfortunately, people confine it to the sciences, art, and entertainment. For example, Popular Science magazine ran a feature, titled “Summer Sci-Fi Special: 10 Top Writers Imagine the Future.” Conceiving imagination in this limited way does injustice to imagination, reducing it to a sideshow. In truth, imagination is the main event. Without a healthy dose of it, several innovations we enjoy routinely today never would have materialized. Today, football (soccer) fanatics can watch every minute of the FIFA World Cup, broadcast “live,” even if they are 35,000 feet up, flying over the Atlantic. Somebody imagined it, before somebody else created it and made it reality.
Imagination as a Competitive Advantage
If companies are serious about increasing the productivity of their innovation initiatives, then they must get serious about cultivating and nurturing imagination among their employees.
There is a reason why a leading innovator like The Walt Disney Company, gives its animators and artists the esteemed title of “Imagineer.” Disney’s corporate culture emphasizes and continues to tap the imaginations of all its employees. Not surprisingly, Disney is not only consistently ranked as a top innovative company, but continues to be a major force in transforming the entertainment industry.
Imagination is the “what” or “what if” that enables us to seek out new business opportunities or foresee tomorrow’s challenges, while creativity is the “how” or “how to” that guides our approach to known problems.
What Now? What Next?
To boost innovation, companies must invest in the building and nurturing of their imagination capabilities. Here are three simple recommendations your company can implement tomorrow:
- Don’t be in a hurry to find the one, right answer. Make a fetish of asking many different “what if” questions that will yield entirely new vistas, and scenarios. For example, a July 2014 U.N. report predicts that the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas will increase from 54 to 66 percent by 2050. Imagining the implications of this on housing, infrastructure, transportation, energy, education and health care can yield a number of potential innovation opportunities that subsequently can be creatively developed and commercialized.
- Abandon the KISS principle and complicate the stew. Customers’ lives are rarely simple, and never one-dimensional. Actively seek and embrace cognitive diversity; materially different ways of perceiving, filtering, and interpreting reality
- Forget hierarchies and titles. Engage the entire company through creative play. An imagination capability must be a corporate asset—not just an individual property—for it to effectively fuel innovation initiatives. Creative play can go a long way in developing and cultivating an imagination capability, because employees, regardless of their educational background and titles, love and know how to play.
Just like a spacecraft goes through a series of firing sequences before launch, innovation needs a series of corporate capabilities to fire in the right order for it to take off. Although the two are linked, imagination must come before creativity. When implemented in the proper sequence, the two function more effectively, and innovation wins. This is a lesson all proponents of Big Data must learn if they want their initiatives to bear fruit.
Gaurav Bhalla is the CEO of Knowledge Kinetics, a customer value innovation company. His leading edge thinking is reflected in his HBR article “Rethinking Marketing” and his book Collaboration and Co-Creation: New Platforms for Marketing and Innovation, which has drawn audiences in more than 15 countries.