Time for imagination

Article by
Keith Shering

Do we need to be imaginative in order to be innovative?

Imagination can bring about the biggest, most world-changing innovations. The startling inventions rather than the clever iterations. The disruptions rather than the inspired riffs on an existing situation.

But imaginative innovation is often not a quick win. It can be the result of months’ or years’ worth of thinking. What’s the right amount of time and effort to invest in imagination?

Good question. And do you even need to be imaginative when you innovate?

Imagination vs Innovation.

Redvespa received many hundreds of responses to some recent research in to imagination within business. We're analysing them right now but even just creating the survey made us reconsider the whole process of innovation.

As part of our imagination hypothesis, we drew up a continuum:

  • Curiosity drives Imagination, which results in Creativity, leading to Innovation.

We used these working definitions:

  • Curiosity.
    A strong desire or eager wish to know or learn something.
  • Imagination.
    Forming new ideas, images or concepts of things, objects or processes that don't exist.
  • Creativity.
    The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.
  • Innovation.
    The introduction of a new idea, method, or device.

This gave us a neat journey from a latent or nascent need to a repeatable, systemised improvement.

Too neat, as it turns out.

We started to dig into the concept. Imagination is only one feed into creativity and innovation. A powerful one, yes, but not the only one.

Why People Create.

Let’s assume that in business, innovation is systemised, applied creativity. What drives that creation and creativity? 

We were looking for which investment results in creativity. We browsed, we read, we visited galleries. We thought of the creative people and businesses we know. We talked and debated. We thought about why people create things.

  • People create things to make something better than the last attempt. The need to keep up with a changing world. Or, the everlong quest for perfection, perhaps.
  • People create things because they are moved by things they see, hear, feel, or experience. They are moved to reflect that experience by making something new within their own domain.
  • People create things that no-one else has ever thought could be done. People with vision, frustrations, or insurmountable challenges to meet. People with a willingness to risk all and try anything.

Our hypothesis changed a little.

We acknowledged that different things could drive three branches of creativity; Iteration, Inspiration, or Imagination.

From a business perspective, this is interesting. Iteration is more accessible and reliable than inspiration. In turn, inspiration seems more predictable than imagination.

What Goes In May Not Come Out Quickly.

Or Ever.


We can easily pick one thing to alter within our product, service, or situation. We can use time and resources to change it, and see what results we get. We can track before and after performance. The Return on Investment (ROI) for iteration is easy to work out. 

Agile and other iterative approaches are examples of iterating through innovation. Try, learn, react, change, repeat. 

An example of iterative innovation might be the iPhone X. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Add some funky frills round the edges of the basic offering. Move the game on just enough. But compared to the impact of the original iPhone, the X feels, well, a little bit “meh”.


ROI for inspired creativity is perhaps a bit more tricky. It depends on how we find our inspiration. Investments here may be time, knowledge, and bringing in different viewpoints. We do a lot of this as consultants as we bring our external viewpoint to clients. Redvespa is a good example of investing to inspire your team. Creativity workshops and away days are examples of some classic approaches to inspire creativity.

Again, it's relatively easy to calculate the raw inputs and results. The big variables we may introduce are duration and confidence. There’s a decision to be made: how long will we allow for inspiration to strike. Forcing it often doesn’t work or is counter-productive. If the inspiration is fairly lateral or a leap from our corporate comfort zone, then our confidence in returns can be lacking.

Amazon Web Services is an example of inspired innovation. Amazon were not the first people to operate in the cloud (though pretty close). Nor were they the first company to lease computing power. However, their inspired idea was to offer their unused computing capacity over the web. It was a brilliant fusion of ideas at the right time. Talk about a successful pivot!


Imaginative innovation is a whole other level. If we’re creating something no-one has ever thought of, will people understand it, will they buy it? Even if people appreciate the novelty, will they value the utility? How’s that confidence level holding up!

Deciding what exactly we track as our investments is also trickier. One common trait of geniuses is that they tend to have a phenomenally deep understanding of their craft. This comes through years and years of devoted work. So timescale is another challenge too. 

It’s difficult to force imagination. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of waiting. Imaginative solutions might never come. Other times, our imagination might give us the answer in a flash. So we need to be ready for it. 

PayPal is the classic “Zero to One” imaginative innovation.

Why Are We Innovating?

Perhaps we should turn the situation around. We could drive our investment approach from why we are innovating in the first place. 

  • Reaction (iterative innovation).
    Are we innovating to keep up with market demand, or are we reacting to a situation?
  • Conversion (inspired innovation).
    Are we innovating to shake up our domain or bring a new class of customer into the fold?
  • Disruption (imaginative innovation).
    Or, are we hellbent on doing what it takes to change the world in our own way?

The answers to these basic question may help us understand how to invest. Alternatively, they can also prepare us for the risks if we use an approach not aligned with our goals.

Handling Investment In Imagination.

Sometimes we don’t have the time to wait for inspiration, let alone imagination. Nor do we have the effort to “waste” transformations we imagined.

If the ideal path (imagination, inspiration, or iteration) is not clear to us, we need a different approach. There may be a way to consciously combine the three approaches. We could balance the need for returns with the unpredictability of inspiration and imagination. Based on our early research discussions and findings, here are some ideas:

  • Start with iteration to maximise the chance of at least covering costs.
  • Look for inspiration at regular points (precedents, customer insights). If that gives us new ideas to create, pivot iteration to the best of those. See how the returns compare.
  • Facilitate imagination. Every so often, stop. Full stop. Create boredom. Make space to think. Collect everything that comes to mind without filtering. Write it down. Concepts, sketches, phrases, questions, you name it. Then ask if constraints, limits, or things we feel we can’t do are opportunities to be imaginative. What if the “too difficult” became the “slam dunk?” But don’t panic if nothing comes to mind.
  • Support imagination. Dig deep into sector knowledge. Ask our customers “what if we could give you this?” Look for inklings of opportunity. You’re unlikely to get overwhelming responses to truly imaginative ideas. But you can look for evidence of early adopters.
  • Regularly check if your reason for innovating has become clearer. Is it reaction, conversion, or disruption?

Change is inevitable. How we benefit from the opportunities created by change is up to us. Our knowledge, capabilities, attitude to risk, and willingness to invest in new thinking. Seeing creativity as having multiple sources lets us balance progression with imagination.

Keith Shering is a perennially curious analyst and imaginative problem solver. He's on a mission to help maximise potential - in people and organisations - through shared purpose, imagination and design.

You can find Keith at

Header photo by Saffu on Unsplash

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