You might think of imagination as something children do to pass the time until the grind of adulthood sets in, but they're actually practicing a problem-solving technique that we can all use to benefit our businesses.
Years ago, when I first started working with leadership teams around the world, I realized that many of them have the same problem: Industrial Era thinking. In the Industrial Era, things are tangible and heavy. Things we can touch make sense to our brains. In the Industrial Era, the work day had a clear start and end. Now we are headed into the Intelligence Era, in which things like algorithms, data and optimization are very nebulous and hard to understand. On top of that, the work day blurs into our personal lives. The best way to navigate this problem, which is only going to get more complex, is by use of what I call "applied imagination."
People who use applied imagination are somewhere between fantasizers who have great ideas but little desire or ability to make them real, and followers, who don't want to think things through and prefer a path cut for them.
The Imagination Gap
Author Brian Reich, whose book, The Imagination Gap, was just published, interviewed me about my favorite topic in the Imagination Room at Science House. Reich believes we aren't thinking big enough, and as a result, many interesting and important ideas are going unexplored, or not even being introduced at all.
"We need to be dreaming up things that are beyond what we know or think could be possible," Reich says. "That requires imagination. And we simply aren't using our imaginations enough. Imagination is not the domain of any one person, or any one sector. Everyone has an imagination and the more that we encourage people to use their imagination, the more everyone benefits. We have to get out of the way, stop telling people things like 'that's not how we do things,' or 'that's never going to succeed.'"
Here are some key ideas to help you find your own blind spots:
1. Everything and everybody is a work in progress. Nothing is a static fixed reality. As soon as you see everything as a work in progress, you begin to realize that you have contributions that you can make toward improving reality.
2. Imagination is a sandbox. Achieving your goal, in whatever new ways you conceive, is the desired outcome when it comes to applied imagination.
3. As soon as you think you're an expert, ask yourself what are you an expert in. As technology and other forces disrupt our society, we're much more likely to trust someone who doesn't know, but who is willing to find out, than someone who claims to have all the answers.
4. We are good at measuring the intrinsic characteristics of a decision, but not the extrinsic consequences. Imagination is required to understand complex extrinsic consequences.
5. Examine your own motivations. The first step to unlocking imagination is understanding what motivates you to take the next step.
6. Start small. If laziness becomes commonplace in our society, it will be harder to drive change. Every big idea that goes to market was once the tiny seed of an idea. The only way to make it real is by navigating the daily grind of reality with as much clarity as possible. Use your imagination.