Lost & Found: flexing your imagination muscles

Article by
Su Beresford

The evolution and value of imagination, part two

This is the second in a two-part series that explores the change in how imagination is valued and how it can be developed personally and in business.

Part One discussed the personal and societal history we have of shunning imagination and how this has been changing as we move away from restrictive frameworks and thinking and towards creativity and innovation.

Part Two looks at ways to develop your imagination and how businesses can enable it to improve creative problem solving and innovation with little to no financial investment. 

The imagination needs some attention to develop. The more you actively use it, the easier it gets to imagine beyond your experiences and knowledge. The most important thing you can do to develop your imagination is give yourself licence to use it. Fight against any discouragement in your past and see the benefit to allow our flights of fancy.

  • Read more.
    The more the subject varies from our experience, the better, but even a non-fiction work on the recently discovered Sparklemuffin spider will still enable the imagination to fire. Listening to audiobooks is also ok but not the passive activity of watching TV or movies. (I’m not saying don’t watch movies – I love movies, just don’t assume it has the same advantages to the imagination as reading)
  • Change the way you experience the world.
    Learn a new activity. Think about something in a new way. Hang out with people who think differently from you. 
  • Allow yourself time to imagine.
    This is the kicker for me! You can’t let your imagination free if you are watching TV, checking your emails, planning dinner for the week, and folding the laundry at the same time. Imagination is not a multitasking sport. Stop, turn off anything that demands your attention, and let your imagination take centre stage.
  • Change your environment.
    When you need a shot of imagination to think about a problem in a different way, go somewhere different. I am currently writing this article in a very busy café (trying to suppress feelings of guilt at taking up table space – maybe another coffee and possibly a muffin will help). For me trying to think at my desk often leaves me stuck and thinking the same thoughts. A different view and, especially for me, different sounds help spark different thoughts.

An imaginative workplace

Enabling time and space for imagination in business is slightly more tricky. Being in the act of imagining can look the same as doing nothing, so enabling imagination in business requires trust

Imagine this scenario (see what I did there?): you are in a meeting room/breakout space/cafeteria with no device and no one around when your boss walks past, looks in, and asks what you are doing. If you are comfortable saying, “I’m having a wee think about such-and-such”, then congratulations, your company sees the value of imagination (or you are bold enough to believe they do). If, however, you go bright red and stumble out some excuse, then we may have some work to do. 

Or, another scenario where, in the middle of a brainstorming/design thinking/problem solving session, someone says, “let’s take some time to reflect on what we have just heard and reconvene in an hour to discuss this issue further.” Everyone then goes off and has a jolly good think on their own, in their own way. I personally have never seen this happen and yet writing it now, it seems madness that we don’t do this more often. The need for speed, the cost and time associated with brainstorming sessions, and the need to be constantly collaborating means we are missing an important part of any process: reflection.

Some companies have “creativity” or “innovation” spaces - quite often with incredibly uncomfortable seating to “keep you on your toes” and spark creativity. But these are not necessarily the same spaces needed for imagination. Personally, I need to be comfortable to imagine and reflect. Some companies have breakout areas where you can tuck yourself away and have a good think. Companies do not need to redesign offices to create “imagination hubs”, they just need to give licence to employees to work wherever they are able to focus, think and reflect - a cafe,  home, or just going for a walk during the working day.

Imagination is often sparked by inspiration. Allowing time to investigate and understand new trends and technological advancements for their own sake, not just as a result of research into a specific issue, is also important. Setting time aside to read is so important and often encouraged at the senior leadership level but not so much among those that are also involved in innovation, continuous improvement, and problem solving. 

I am very lucky that I work for a company that sees the value in innovation and in the path to achieve it. Therefore, I set aside time in my diary each week to read and reflect. I don’t always manage it as events happen, but at least I am acknowledging its importance. Since doing this, not only have I vastly improved my knowledge, but it has also sparked my thinking and led to many healthy debates. All of which has improved my ability to help my clients create meaningful and long reaching solutions to their problems.

Finally, imagination in business needs to have tangible outcomes. The way this is achieved is through collaboration. We need time on our own to think through an issue but we must come back together to present ideas, refine, and move forward. This may result in other rounds of reflection but the drive is always towards the shared outcome. Imagination in business is a tool to enhance the innovation of our products and services and to enable us to creatively solve problems that ultimately lead us to being better equipped to serve our customer’s needs.

Although “doing imagination” may look different to “doing” other business activities, it still needs the same basic things to develop and grow.

  1. Imagination needs time.
    Time allocated in the working week, in continuous improvement, project and problem frameworks and methodologies; 
  2. Imagination needs space.
    Space that allows people to switch off and think without the constraints of the open office (a whole other article in itself!);
  3. Imagination needs licence.
    Licence from all levels of management that imagination is valued and trust is given;
  4. Imagination needs feedback.
    Feedback and discussion with others to move imagination towards tangible outcomes. 

The imagination is often seen as an exclusively human function. We do not know that animals do not imagine but we can see that the way humans imagine differentiates our species. As advances in robotics and artificial intelligence technology are increasingly becoming part of our daily lives, there is a drive to highlight the attributes that differentiate us . Along with creativity and empathy, imagination is now seen as being a vital “human” trait that will enable us to navigate the future.  

In the past, imagination was seen as being at odds with the industrialised model which viewed the workforce as a machine. The closer human actions resembled those of robots, the more controlled the outcome and, therefore, easier to model and predict. Ironically, as machines became more real and robots moved into the mainstream, the drive for our human workforce is now to be less robotic, less controlled, and more “human”.

In business, the need for imagination is more immediate as we navigate the rapid pace of change.  The field of play is not the same as it was fifty, or even five, years ago. It is not just the pace of change but the breadth and depth of change - a company may be going through transformation on many fronts, leading to confusion and fatigue. We need to ensure that we acknowledge the importance of imagination and enable time and space for its application.

It is easier than you think to unlock the power of imagination in your business - you could do it tomorrow. In fact, do it tomorrow - it doesn’t take any financial investment, imagination is free.  

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. 

Header photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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