Using “Imagination-Fueled” Creativity to come up with Game-Changing “Ah-Ha’s in “Oh-No” economic times.
With your imagination, you can change the world “ — Steve Jobs
I have been in the creativity business for a while. My journey is the path less travelled compared to most creative advertising professionals. I have gone from young advertising Art Director to Executive Creative Director at large global ad agencies, I ran my creative advertising agency, served as a digital creative director, worked client-side as Director of Creative and UX, and recently professional services as Director of Strategy for strategic innovation labs, all in the pursuit of creativity, innovation and the proverbial Eureka moment!
Lately, I have had time to think about the role of creativity in how we adapt, and ultimately thrive, post-COVID. More specifically, what role does imagination play in creativity and innovation for organizations? These are certainly disruptive times, so a drop in creativity and innovation should be expected. I mean, how much creativity can you jam in between back to back Zoom calls from your closet and running your “home summer camp” for the kids.
So, why do some organization’s creativity and innovation thrive in seemingly impossible economic conditions while others don’t? I wanted to uncover why this happens. Is it creative frameworks or methodologies? Is it building a culture for creativity? Is it hiring more creative outliers? Is there a recipe for creative innovation and game-changing success in tough economic times. If so, what role if any, does imagination play?
Against the grain. Companies that invest in imagination and innovation do better in downturns.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, titled “We Need Imagination Now More Than Ever”, authors Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller (Authors of The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company’s Future) explore how imagination is a key factor in capturing and developing new opportunities for businesses. They also point out that imagination is also one of the most difficult things to keep alive under pressure.
We Need Imagination Now More Than Ever
In these difficult times, we've made a number of our coronavirus articles free for all readers. To get all of HBR's…
It is undeniable that many companies today are under tremendous stress since the COVID crisis began last April and for the most part, have been primarily focusing on just surviving. However, companies that can quickly transition from a survival mode to a thriving mode, and start to power their creativity and innovation with more imagination, stand to gain considerable value and a competitive edge.
Reeves and Fuller surveyed more than 250 multinational companies to better understand the measures and steps companies were taking to manage the Covid-19 epidemic. They found that only a minority were at the stage where they were identifying and shaping new strategic opportunities. Interesting fact: 14% of companies that invest in imagination and innovation outperformed the market.
Your pre-COVID plans and strategies have no doubt been put on hold, scrapped, or have significantly changed at this point, but have you embraced imagination-innovation as part of your future strategic development?
”Imagination is one of the least understood but most crucial ingredients of business success. It’s what makes the difference between an incremental change and the kinds of pivots and paradigm shifts that are essential to success & especially during a crisis.” — Reeves and Fuller
A study conducted in 2010 (Roaring Out of Recession by Ranjay Gulati, Nitin Nohria and Franz Wohlgezogen) provided some startling facts. They found that 17% of the companies in their study didn’t survive the 2007 recession — going bankrupt, acquired, or became private. About 80% of companies did not regain their 2007 growth rates for sales and profits three years after a recession. Only 9% flourished after a slowdown, doing better on key financial parameters than they had before it and outperforming rivals in their industry by at least 10% in terms of sales and profits growth.
Roaring Out of Recession
The Idea in Brief What strategies can companies use to survive a recession so that they'll thrive when it ends? A…
In an academic study conducted in 2012 by researchers from the Italian National Research Council and the University of London (The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Innovation) looked into the effects of an economic crisis on applied creativity. They found that during economic crises the vast majority of companies react to a short or medium-term adverse macroeconomic environment by downsizing expenditures, including expenditures on investment and innovation. However, this study also noted that for a few companies, the economic crisis presented an excellent opportunity to explore new innovative products and strategies.
It seems that organizations that do better have the foresight to understand that an economic crisis will not last forever and that a recovery will sooner or later arrive. To reap benefits from opportunities during changing economic environments, successful companies need to swim against the tide and instead, invest in creativity and innovation.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. entered a 16-month recession, when GDP took its worst hit in almost two decades. The idea of easy-to-use computing for homes and offices was created during these tough times by two college drop-outs named Bill Gates and Paul Allen, founders of Microsoft.
While Apple, like Microsoft, has been around since the 1970s, during the dot-com crash of the early 2000s, and in the aftermath of 9/11, Apple transformed itself. It was at a time when Steve Jobs was back in Apple and they created and launched the Game-Changing iPod.
Netflix was another company that had a huge Game-Changing idea during tough economic times. Netflix, created in 1998, as a VHS mail service and almost succumbed to financial troubles when the Internet bubble exploded in 2000. It was almost sold to a company called Blockbuster, who would eventually decline to buy it for a mere $50 million. Netflix was able to survive the storm, using its ingenuity and imagination to turn itself into a leader in online on-demand digital content.
And during the 2008 financial crisis, two college students from San Francisco named Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had the idea to rent out an air mattress in their living room. The economic disruption turned into an opportunity through a brilliantly imaginative idea. The tough economic climate created the conditions for budget travel and Airbnb opened a door to serve travellers priced out by hotels.
What these game-changers had in common is that they “went against the grain” and turned economic downturns into opportunities.
But, what are the best ways that an organization can put itself into a game-changer shape? What’s the recipe?
Creative frameworks or methodologies.
I came across an article on the role of creativity in the strategy-making process called Strategy Needs Creativity in the Harvard Business Review.
Great Strategy Requires Creativity
The idea in Brief The Problem The field of strategy overfocuses on analytic rigour and under focuses on creativity. Why It…
In it, author Adam Brandenburger, Professor at the Stern School of Business and NYU, presents some interesting thoughts on the subject and offers us an approach to building a breakthrough strategy. He believes that “game-changing” strategies are born of creative thinking: a spark of intuition, a connection between different ways of thinking, different perceptions, then a leap into the unexpected.”
Professor Brandenburger believes that we need to supplement the conventional ways and tools we give to business students and executives to be creative with some unconventional ways of thinking if we want them to be able to generate truly groundbreaking strategies. Tools and methodologies that are explicitly designed to foster creativity.
Adam proposes four unconventional approaches to building breakthrough strategies. Contrast, Combination, Constraint, and Context.
- Contrast — identify the real issue, challenge the status quo and common assumptions that underlie conventional thinking.
- Combination — linking products or services that seem independent from or even in tension with one another.
- Constraint — turning limitations into strengths. Embracing the beauty of your constraints is helpful to great design solutions.
- Context — looking at how other industries solved big issues helps us to look at the “Art of the Possible” — and helps us explore a wider range of possibilities. — not being trapped in your company’s or industry’s single narrative is key.
While I agree with Adam, that unconventional frameworks have a roll, the creativity stages he suggests in my opinion are simply not enough to enable game-changing strategies.
The real challenge in coming up with game-changing ideas is not to simply engage your students or employees in unconventional creative tools or frameworks, the real challenge is to get the people in organizations to use more imagination in their creativity and innovation. Simply adding creative methodologies or creative processes at your company, no matter how unconventional, will not make your people or your organization more creative. Design systems like Design Thinking or Agile are very useful tools, but they are not the solution. It’s just not that easy.
So what’s the game-changer recipe? I believe one of the key ingredients is imagination.
Imagination-Fueled Creativity, not just creativity.
Many people think creativity and imagination are the same things. They are closely related but not identical.
Creativity is defined as “the ability to produce original and unusual ideas, or to make something new”, while Imagination is defined as — “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.”
I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of British author, speaker and international advisor on education, Sir Ken Robinson. If you haven’t seen Ken’s famous Ted Talk “Do schools kill creativity” — here is a link — worth watching.
Sir Ken Robinson’s definition of imagination and creativity illustrates the difference -
“Imagination is the ability to step outside of your current space or viewpoint to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses.” and, “creativity is simply applied imagination that creates value.” — Sir Ken Robinson
I like his definition. “Creativity is applied imagination that creates value” is a simple articulation and that “applied imagination” is a key component of creativity. I believe it is applied imagination or Imagination-Fueled Creativity and not just “everyday” creativity that has the ability to ignite and nurture bold big innovations and helps organizations to be game-changers while others stay followers.
Elon Musk and the importance of imagination.
Elon Musk displays a boldly wild imagination and a high tolerance for risk and he is dominating market share through the power of imagination, much like Steve Jobs did.
Much has been written about Elon Musk’s use of the scientific method and the First Principles of thinking. Musk highlighted the “First Principles” strategy at a 2013 TED conference where he noted that the concept is similar to the methodology used in physics.
As Musk explained: “We get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the “First Principles” approach.”
The “First Principles” framework for thinking allows you to innovate in leaps and bounds, rather than making small improvements on pre-existing ideas. However — even for Musk, just using the “First Principles” is not enough. During an interview on CNBC with the late Kobe Bryant, Musk talked about the importance of imagination, telling Bryant that anyone can boost their knowledge, “but if you don’t have the imagination to then take it to another level, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Conditions for the imagination to thrive.
Organizations and their leaders, therefore, must not only employ unconventional methodologies and systems but more importantly, they must build and nurture a safe culture of imaginative creative exploring.
If organizations want to boost their “game-changing” strategies and innovation output, they need to understand and embrace the role of imagination in creativity. They need to understand the fragility of truly “big” ideas, and then strive to create ideal conditions these new and fragile ideas to thrive inside their organizations, especially, in times of economic uncertainty.
“If you want a creative culture, you need to actively look at what barriers you are putting up — consciously or otherwise — and remove them, alongside proactively encouraging the creative process.” — Sir Ken Robinson
Ken Robinson, believed that everyone is creative and that creativity should be democratized. I share his view regarding the advertising industry’s convention of labelling certain people — or departments — as creative or innovative just colonizes creativity and it implies that other areas are not creative. While I buy that everyone is creative, not everyone is boldly and bravely imaginative. Not because they can’t be, but because the conditions are not favourable for them to be.
Environmental conditions for Imagination-Fueled Creativity.
Two environmental conditions need to be considered. Physical and psychological.
First, let’s discuss the physical environment.
When I was young — my mother, and artist, let me design and paint my room. I put a spaceship on a dark blue wall, painted the ceiling black, and hung posters and model spaceships and aircraft everywhere. I believe this environment was foundational in my ultimately choosing a creative path. It fed my imagination — and it signalled that creativity and having a vivid imagination was ok with my parents.
I was lucky to have spent part of my advertising career as Art Director at the famous advertising agency Chiat Day. The Chiat Day Toronto office was like nothing I have ever experienced to that point. Tree trunks were pillars in the lobby. A fish in a bathtub sculpture behind reception. During the new office’s opening party I had the opportunity to meet the famous Canadian-born American architect Frank Geary and ask him about the design and his vision. He explained to me that when people walk into space — they should understand that they are in a creative agency — and that their imagination is required.
So, designing or changing a physical environment, like unconventional frameworks mentioned earlier, is a strong tool for getting people to think more creatively. But If you want to get your people to truly think outside the box strategically — then design a great vibrant and expected box — or online space. Have your spaces communicate to your staff that it’s OK to have crazy ideas at your company.
We all understand that we are now living “The Future of Work”, and that many employees may never go back to the “office”. However, there will be a day in the future where we will want (and need) to assemble and physically work together again. How about rethinking your space now. Get rid of the cubicles and create spaces to spark the imagination of your people.
Psychological conditions for Imagination-Fueled Creativity.
After the physical environment, the next most important factor is the psychological one. To find original game-changing ideas you often require a level of tolerance for the unknown and take leaps of faith. The game-changing organizations and create cultures of abhorring status quo thinking. They support a culture of risk-taking. They even incentivize people for it.
To me, the real challenge is designing the right culture and climate where everyone can stretch their imagination. Have bold crazy ideas and feel that the ideas are valued. A safe environment where exploration and imagination thrive.
Creativity and innovation is a delicate and fragile business. Game-changing organizations know this and have created cultures with leaders who are not overly critical of employee’s attempts at innovation or creativity. If leaders don’t show employees that they open to new ideas, your innovators will stop proposing creative ideas for fear of being penalized. Risk mitigation is something that thrives in tough economic times, however, too much negativity and risk mitigation will kill “innovation culture”.
You need to create a “Yes, and…” culture, a place where the only bad idea is no idea.
In my experience as a creative professional, I was always defending early fragile new ideas from people who felt compelled to be the “devil’s advocate” — quick to point out why it wouldn’t work. They felt supported by the culture of the organization (and their bosses) to be highly critical and kill the idea seeds. Imagination needs the fertile soil of positivity. If the dominant culture is one of risk mitigation and penalizes you formally or informally for deviating from the norm, then you will pick up the message quite quickly and stop using your imagination and creativity.
Embrace diverse experiences. They are fuel for the imagination.
“Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas.” — Rosamund Harding
Steve Jobs understood one of the secrets of Game-Changing ideas is the need for eclectic experiences. He described the creative process as making connections or connecting the dots like is “… And you can go hear stories about all these people (Game Changers) and the key thing that comes through is that they had a variety of experiences, which they could draw upon in order to try to solve a problem or attack a particular dilemma in a kind of unique way.”
However one of the things Jobs cleverly points out is — if all the dots are the same then you will not have enough fuel to spark new Game-Changing ideas. You need different experiences and perspectives.
Again Jobs makes a great suggestion — “If you’re gonna make connections which are innovative … you have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does, or else you’re going to make the same connections [as everybody else], and then you won’t be innovative…”
According to psychology research studies on creativity, highly creative people pursue a more expansive range of experiences, which gives them the fuel for ideas. The more varied the inputs, the more original the outputs. Psychologists have determined that the single most consistent variable in creative achievement is a trait called “openness”.
Openness to diverse experiences correlates with creativity, as measured by tests of divergent thinking. Openness has been linked to both artistic and scientific creativity as professional artists and scientists have been found to score higher in openness compared to members of the general population.
Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity, writes: “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and originally seeing things — seeing things that others cannot see.
She highlights that part of what comes with seeing connections that no one else sees is that not all of these connections exist except in the mind of the creative person.
So the point here is — when you assemble your innovation teams — make the group as diverse as you can. Bring in people from outside your organization. Bring in your customers — since your innovations need to work for them ultimately. Embrace differing experiences.
Here’s another bold idea. Hire an advertising Creative Director and set them loose within your organization — many have been displaced by the disruption of the ad industry and are seeking work — and these people are prolific and highly trained to come up with outlier ideas and make connections others don’t. You will be pleasantly surprised by how they can drive innovation beyond just marketing ideas.
Not only is “now” the time to double down on creativity and Imagination-Fueled Creativity. It could also mean the difference between a business’s failure or success.
Now is the time to think about creating a positive climate at your organization by institutionalizing imagination-fueled creativity. Bake it into your walls, into your processes, your recruiting and hiring, and into your company’s DNA. Incentivize imagination and innovation. Get rid of the naysayers. Operationalize imagination to achieve genuine change. It’s not enough to think about creativity and innovation half-heartedly. It has to be one of your strategic pillars.
“If innovation isn’t actively promoted, and if there aren’t any incentives to be more innovative, then people get the message that innovation isn’t a priority and they tend to pull back,” — Sir Ken Robinson
If you want to understand more about this from an HR point of view — here is a good article on five ways HR can help create and drive a culture of innovation by Amantha Imber.
5 ways HR can help create and drive a culture of innovation
There are five drivers of cultures of innovation, according to Dr. Amantha Imber, who explains that HR has an important…
I believe that both the quality and abundance of innovation within organizations can be greatly improved by not just implementing processes and methodologies, but by embracing Imagination-Fueled Creativity. It will create more innovative and game-changing strategies and products, which in turn will help your organization gain a competitive advantage.
The time is now. While others are dismantling their creative centres, laying off their most creative employees, or holding off on investment, go the other way. For the organizations that go “All In” on imagination by building supportive “Yes and…” cultures, imaginative vibrant environments, retain their outlier thinkers and embrace varied experiences, Imagination-Fueled Creativity could be a game-changer.