In the not-so-distant past, imagination was not valued in business because everything could be achieved, solved, or developed simply through strict adherence to this framework or that model.
What need was there for imagination if all the thinking had already been thought?
The problem is that not all the thinking has been thought and, to paraphrase Einstein, the problems of the future cannot be solved with the frameworks of the past. To survive, not just in business but also as a species, humans need imagination to go beyond our current thinking and find creative solutions to our ever more complex problems.
This is Part One of a two-part series that explores the change in how imagination is valued and how it can be developed personally and in business.
When I was young, my father, upon seeing me doing “nothing”, used to set me to chores stating, “well if you’ve got nothing better to do…” My father was a man of action – he had three jobs while I was growing up and inaction or leisure time was seen as lazy at best and time wasting at worst, the ultimate sin. This has impacted my own relationship with inaction at work. I have always seen the value in tangible actions of output and outcomes but not so much with the non-measurable and intangible. Freud called daydreaming “infantile thinking” and my Dad would have been ecstatic in his agreement.
Recently, Redvespa commissioned some market research in to imagination in business. This, coupled with my personal journey into becoming more comfortable with inaction, has made me start thinking about imagination: what is it, why do we have it, why was it discouraged, why is it now starting to be encouraged and, after suppressing or devaluing it for so long, how do we get our imagination mojo back?
No idea or, more strictly speaking, no one idea. Like so much to do with our minds, experts are not in agreement as to how or why the imagination formed. Imagination is the ability to envisage knowledge beyond our ability to experience it – a cerebral act without direct sensory input. To some it is foundational to the evolution of humans – we needed to be able to imagine a future or a consequence in order to make survival decisions. Or, being able to imagine something that you were told but haven’t experienced, allowed for the spread of knowledge and therefore the development of communities and civilisation. To others it is a biological cognitive phenomenon that allows children to make sense of the world around them, possibly until they have enough experiences to inform their knowledge.
What we do know is this: when we imagine our brains light up like Christmas trees as eleven areas of the brain are needed to imagine. As you read that I’m sure a lot of you imagined some strange combination of a cauliflower-like structure amassed in tinsel and fairy lights, or maybe that was just me …
The more I think about it, the more I believe the ability to imagine beyond our own experiences is the reason for the success of humankind. It is the reason for the first human migration, it is the reason for art and scientific advancement. It is the drive for difference and it constantly fights against the drive to protect sameness. There is no true empathy without imagination. So, even though imagination may have also caused the less-than-attractive outcomes in human advancement, I believe it will be fundamental in finding a way to solve the problems we have created.
“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”JK Rowling
Imagination is often encouraged in the very young and indulged in artists and writers. Everyone else should live in the real world and leave imagination to dreams. You can’t see someone else’s imagination, and this leads it to be thought of as somewhat unsavoury, not quite cricket, not quite respectable. Imagination cannot be controlled and therefore is has in the past been seen as something to be feared or discouraged. Sameness requires adherence, difference must be tamed. To protect the social norm of the day and develop good workers of the future, it was better to downplay the bit that could lead to individual thoughts and deeds.
Historically, scientific advancements have relied heavily on imagination. In spite of this, the language used (outside the very overused Einstein quotes) to explain scientific discovery features words like “reason” and “empirical observation”. But scientists have to imagine something that is not yet possible or known and then apply reason and empirical observation to prove their imaginings. So, imagination in science has been repackaged as something more solid, more measurable, and, therefore, more trustworthy.
In a business sense how do you define, measure, and ultimately remunerate something that cannot be seen? While creativity can be seen and innovation can be measured, imagination is only seen when it is put into action. When comparing the creative output of two people, how do we know if the “better” output is actually a result of an advanced imagination or just advanced creative ability?
Imagination can be invisible. I could be imagining a solution to a great problem or I could just be daydreaming about my next holiday. This is the issue my dad had – imagining is perceived as inactivity – it looks the same as doing nothing. Of course, if I were to verbalise my thoughts or build or write them, then my imaginings can be seen but this is moving into the field of creativity.
For children, imagination is often manifest through play. But this is also why imagination is not encouraged in adults. Play is for children – we are actively discouraged to play as we get older and imaginative play and learning is removed from our schooling year-on-year.
So, we have both a personal and societal history of shunning imagination but things are changing and the value of imagination can now be seen being harnessed in sports through visualisation, and in business through imagining future possibilities.
Over the last few years there has been a move away from traditional ways of working, away from more confined methodologies, driven by a need to enable and improve innovation. Innovation is no longer seen as a “nice to have”, or simply reserved for the design world, but is now viewed as paramount to a business’s survival. This has led to a blossoming of creative approaches to the design of software and process, as well as new ways to approach problem solving. It has taken a little longer, but now imagination in business is starting to be recognised as vital to creativity and innovation. In fact, it is becoming a buzz word in the business lexicon.
The rapid pace of technological change has seen old companies disappear and new companies appear seemingly overnight. Disruption is everywhere and the customer is king and fought over on every stage. Companies that advance are finding new ways to serve customer needs. This rapid pace of change requires business to adapt and this requires innovation, creativity AND imagination.
“Most organizations do not value imagination, do not encourage it, do not reward it. In many cases, they don’t even think about it. But if you’re not thinking about imagination, I guarantee you’re not going to have meaningful innovation.”Jay S Walker
Creativity and innovation are the application of imagination – the action versus the inaction. But without imagination, creativity and innovation is severely curtailed because we are only focusing on what is known. We can improve our chances by adding diversity to the number of things that are known (collaborative brainstorming etc.), but we are still limiting the possible outcomes. By allowing imagination to be part of the process, companies can greatly improve their chances of finding ways to develop that can give them an edge in the competitive market.
“With imagination, our focus can be on things that are impossible. Creativity requires our focus to be on things that might be possible, but we can’t be sure until we explore them further. While innovation entails being focused on what is right in front of us, something that can be measurably improved in the here and now.”Tanner Christensen
So, now that we have been given the all clear and we are BFFs with imagination again, how do we turn on something we have turned off? Well, the truth is, we haven’t turned our imaginations off at all. The Christmas tree has been merrily twinkling away as we need our imagination for our everyday existence. But, as with all things, we can build and improve our personal and our corporate imagination muscles.
In Part Two of this series we will look at ways to develop your imagination and how businesses can use it to improve creative problem solving and innovation with little to no financial investment.
Su Beresford is a Business Analyst, storyteller, and facilitator with a focus on design and customer experience, who enables organisations to understand themselves and work collaboratively towards a shared solution. She embraces innovation and new ways of working to augment her craft with a passion for obtaining and the sharing knowledge.
You can find Su at [email protected]