There are more than a few reasons your firm or industry won’t make it through the next decade. While you won’t derail or defuse the power of the many disruptive market forces swirling in our world, it’s the lack of imagination for harnessing these forces that may ultimately relegate your firm to the business history books. Ironically, imagination may be the most controllable and most important of the tools you need to survive and even thrive in this world.

It’s Not “If” but “When”

For the CEO, managers, and employees working in legacy businesses, the threat of disruption followed by obsolescence is genuine. It’s no longer “if” but “when” the rules of your entire business and industry will be rewritten for you. The question is, are you going to be able to participate in the rewrite or even get out ahead of the market forces? In most cases, human nature and organizational inertia push the answer squarely into the “No” column.

Escape Velocity is Elusive

Sadly, the one trick most firms fail to achieve is what consultant, Geoffrey Moore describes as “escape velocity.” The gravitational pull of the past, coupled with the dominant logic and cognitive biases of an organization’s management and contributors blind them to radically new approaches and ideas essential for business innovation. Long-standing business practices, including how and what you use as your key performance indicators plus your strategy and investment practices ironically, contain the future seeds of your firm’s undoing.

“Competing on Imagination”

I wish I had coined the phrase, “competing on imagination,” however, the fine folks at BCG Henderson Institute beat me to the punch in their growing series under the umbrella of “Winning the ’20s.” In their words, “imagination is the ability to think counterfactually.” They go on to say, “Rather than living in the realm of ‘what is,’ imagination gives us the ability to explore the realm of ‘what is not’ but could be, enabling us to conceive and create new things and to shape what is.

Think about it.

How many “counterfactual” ideas did your firm invest in last year? How many are on the radar screen?

Chances are, not many. For many, the real answer is zero.

4 Starter Ideas to Fire the Imagination and Promote Thinking Differently

Make the cultivation of individual and group imagination an imperative. You cannot mandate creativity and you can’t will imagination into existence, however, you can deliberately foster an environment where ideas flourish. Here are four ideas that can serve as the seeds of creativity. It’s up to you to nurture them.

1. Change the View. Dramatically.

The team at BCG Henderson Institute referenced earlier, describes this view change as learning to see “accidents, anomalies, and new analogies.” I love the use of observation and analogical thinking as a means of stimulating imagination.

In one case, a CEO sent her silo-focused, non-collaborative team of managers out into the world to observe firms and practices far removed from their industry. After several rounds of these “field trips,” she challenged them to go crazy on “What if?” type questions as they looked to relate external practices to their situations. The silo walls melted, ideas emerged, and imagination led to experiments that in the CEOs words, “saved this firm from itself.”

In another similar example, a senior product manager announced to her team she was cutting the budget to industry events by 50%. They groaned. She then announced that the budget was available to events outside of their industry. They were confused. After asking the team members to serve as anthropologists for a time and to collect observations, she moved them from divergent to convergent thinking in terms of ideas for their business. The process generated not only new product ideas but several new partnerships in different industries and one acquisition candidate.

In my experience, shifting the view of the team and engaging in analogical thinking is mission-critical in fostering imagination, ideas, and actions.

2. Rethink Idea Generation

The research on idea generation as we generally practice it in organizations—brainstorming—is clear. As practiced, it’s a terrible process that fails to generate more or better ideas than a single individual working alone.

Of course, we could consider adopting practices of inventors such as Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu who generated more than 3,300 inventions by either creating a state of oxygen deprivation or, doing his deep thinking in a 24-karat gold room constructed without nails. (Apparently, nails block ideas.)

Since oxygen deprivation is not generally a good idea and 24-karat, nail-free rooms are in short supply in our organizations; we’re left to find ways to improve brainstorming. According to Northwestern Professor Leigh Thompson in her excellent book, Creative Conspiracy, a few critical changes to the brainstorming process make a big difference. These include

  • Make the rules clear and visible. (No judgment, make them visible, jump and build, quantity)
  • Use hybrid brainstorming. (Individuals on their own first and then the group. Keep the individual contributions anonymous.)
  • Focus on the number of ideas.
  • Push for performance gains on quantity.
  • Manage the time-frame—groups tire after an hour.

Create a transparent process for evaluating the ideas after the event—people grow frustrated if their ideas disappear into the world of flip-charts never to be seen again.

I love blending the “change the view” approach with follow-on brainstorming using Professor Thompson’s ideas.

3. Encourage Beginner’s Mind Thinking

So many of our practices in organizations are set-up to build on prior approaches. Instead, encourage individuals and teams to take a fresh look and define new methods and techniques as if they were seeing the problem for the first time.

While it is hard to shut down our biases, histories, and preconceived notions, we can use objective outsiders to challenge assumptions, external facilitators to help us identify and unpack assumptions and framing techniques to approach problems in new ways.

The quote from Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki rings true every day: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the experts, there are few.” Our challenge is to fuel the imaginations of our colleagues to see the many possibilities.

4. Build Cognitively Diverse Teams

In working with a client leading a problem-solving team, one of the team members offered, “When we first came together, we looked at each other and wondered why in the world anyone would put this combination of individuals together. We have such radically different backgrounds that on the surface, it made no sense for us to work together. It turns out; her approach was genius as we drew upon each other’s skills to imagine and innovate new solutions that are transforming our business.

I couldn’t say it any better than that.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In periods of dramatic structural change, it’s not your operational efficiency that will save the day for your firm, but the ideas you generate to apply this competency in pursuit of new approaches, markets, technologies, solutions, and customers. Change is inevitable. The question on your mind should be, “Do we have the imagination to see our way into a new and different world?” It’s time to invest in learning to think and act differently.

Art's Signature