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Turn Your Business Into 'The Imagination Machine'

May 20, 2021 Leadership
myles suer
By Myles Suer

How can businesses harness the collective imagination of their workforce at a time when innovation is at a premium? That is the central question of Martin Reeves' and Jack Fuller's forthcoming book, "The Imagination Machine." Are there methods to increase both the predictability and the frequency of bursts of imagination? Businesses tasked with innovating — and that means all businesses — struggle with questions like these on a daily basis. The strategic diagnostics Reeves and Fuller offer throughout the book make this a valuable read for every legacy organization looking to retain their market relevance.

Why Innovation Matters Now More Than Ever

Reeves and Fuller claim innovation matters beyond the walls of the corporation. They argue that winning corporations can change the world by combining their organizational abilities with the unique human capacity to imagine. “Imagination is needed now more than ever. Since competitive advantage is increasingly short-lived, driven by rapid evolution of the technological and business environment …. Since the 1960’s, the average number of Fortune 500 companies exiting the Fortune 500 has increased by 36% annually.”

Without question, AI is a key element in this broader transformation. In "Competing in the Age of AI," authors Marco Iansiti and Karim Lakhani describe AI as a universal engine for business execution. Reeves and Fuller take it a bit further, suggesting that "although AI is still developing, its transformational power is clear. Unlike previous waves of technology, AI threatens to replace not routine physical work but routine cognitive work. (In the age of AI), competitive advantage will accrue to firms developing ways of working to get the most out of human imagination and higher-level cognition."

Related Article: How Digital Teams Can Cultivate Divergent Thinking

Star Trek’s Version of AI Isn't Here (Yet)

As a fan of "Star Trek" and "Bicentennial Man," I am here to tell you the type of AI they show is not available today. And that's good news, according to Reeves and Fuller, because today’s computers and algorithms lack imagination. They cannot do counterfactual thinking.

How then do the authors define imagination? Imagination is “the ability to create a mental model of something that does not exist yet.” It is the ability to break the mold and the advantage for humans within the workplace moving forward. Every team member is capable of this. Culture and process are what stifle imagination.

One problem Reeves and Fuller identify is that most legacy businesses spend so much of their time in the realm of what is. This rootedness in the present pushes them to focus on what is currently going on, rather than what could be. These organizations spend a lot of time and effort into keeping an existing complicated effort going.

Several years ago, Geoffrey Moore examined where startups and legacy businesses put their time and investment in his book "Dealing with Darwin." He evaluated them specifically for time and investment in things that are core (create sustainable competitive advantage) and things that are context (everything else). He found, “when an enterprise is starting up, its core/context ratio is heavily weighted to core.” The opposite is true in legacy businesses. From personal experience in legacy businesses, you spend significant effort repeatedly justifying your decisions and fighting competitive battles (Patrick Lencioni does a great job describing legacy environment in his book "Silos, Politics and Turf Wars").

Reeves and Fuller therefore suggest that the difference between startups and legacy businesses most often boils down to the ability to regularly think counterfactually. Put differently, the ability to put aside mental models that we habitually rely on and create new ones. Organizations that can do so have the imagination to explore what is possible, much like a mining expedition to an uncharted territory.

Related Article: Spark Innovation Through Imaginative Visualization

How Does Imagination Work?

Reeves and Fuller suggest an innovation process that consists of six processes. Each matter to achieving a business outcome from innovation.

1. Seduction: Surprise leads our minds away from familiar thinking. This can be as simple as introducing something that doesn't fit in the current mental model.

2. Idea: A change, recombination and playing with different models results in the generation of new ideas.

3. Collision: This involves shifting our attention and filters to an emerging idea, which in turn leads to further surprises and rethinking. Reeves and Fuller suggest a model of Trigger — Rethinking — Act. To work effectively, it requires regular probing or what Theodore Levitt calls “thinking managers.”

4. Epidemic: In this process, communication joins individual imaginations together across a business. The result is an accelerating of both development and adoption of the idea. Collective imagination amplifies the idea by making it socially significant.

5. The New Ordinary: This involves codification of the idea so it can be replicated by people far removed from the idea’s pioneers.

6. The Encore: How to repeat the process — again and again.

Related Article: Turn Your Enterprise Social Network Into an Innovation Pipeline

Things That Drive Imagination

Reeves and Fuller identify multiple triggers for the above innovation cycle, including:

  • Events or Consequences.
  • Anomalies.
  • Analogies (exploration of the ramifications for a piece of information).
  • Aggravations (things that drive us to change or escape something).
  • Aspirations (things that drive us to bring about something we want or believe into being).

I found in my startups, my early adopters always had an aggravation or aspiration that was driving them to help me succeed at defining the business problem correctly. With the above opportunities for imagination to work, people and organizations need to take in new information; comprehend and process the opportunity; and interpret and notice the ramifications of the potential change.

Making Time for Inspiration

Organizations can take multiple steps to enable and accelerate innovation, including:

  • Making time for reflection.
  • Paying attention to frustrations.
  • Noting and treasuring aspiration.
  • Engaging with others.

Reeves and Fuller quote Tim O’Reilly, who states: “imagination is a process of letting go of what you know, experiencing life fresh.” In the startups mentioned above, I found that each time my team talked to a new potential partner or customer, I needed to revisit the facts as I knew them. As I created a call report, it was like walking into a familiar room and needing to rediscover what it looked like. Everything changed or got much clearer.

Related Article: 4 Surprise Innovation Lessons From COVID-19

What Blocks Inspiration?

A number of factors can explain why inspiration fails to take hold in legacy organizations. A big one is a culture of busyness. In one of my recent employers, I was surprised to learn that the executive team was typically on the road over 200 days a year. In these organizations, executives were just too busy to reflect or to create a new business strategy.

A second issue is having only answers, not questions. Earlier in my career, I worked for Adaptec, which at the time was a $2 billion company. However, a threat was on the horizon called USB, which in the end reduced the company to a fraction of its size. Every time I asked about the threat I was given the answer that SCSI is faster, better performing and would always be preferred.

A third issue is over-engineering the environment. The book "Enterprise Architecture as Strategy" tells the story of a company that had hand-coded all the integrations between its applications. The organization found itself investing so most of its developer time and effort into maintaining things. The company lacked two important capabilities: business agility and the ability to innovate. This can happen on the people side as well by simply being opposed to deal with the randomness and chaos of innovation.

Finally, organizations can become overly focused on averages and aggregates. A great example is the notion of "best in class," which means you are no better than your competition. Geoffrey Moore suggests that best in class is a cop-out and leads to lower returns on investment over time.

What Stops Organizations From Acting on Innovative Ideas?

Even where potential innovation is discovered, organizations err on the side of being conservative and ignore the surprises and opportunities that come their way. Where this occurs, organizations can fail to iterate on potential that surprise enables. Or even worse, organizations can overly rely on permission or overemphasize analysis and deduction. The phenomena of organizations centralizing and not letting go is what Gary Hamel calls “the management orthodoxies.”

The above blockers fit well with the thinking of Jeanne Ross, Cynthia Beath and Martin Mocker, authors of "Designed for Digital." They found that innovation requires empowered teams that establish metrics, define processes, assess outcomes, and adjust their own activities to meet goals that contribute to larger companywide goals. Today’s digital offerings, they claim, depend less on standardized processes and more on rapid ones. To create digital offerings in a market-responsive fashion, leaders need to count on people to reimagine what is possible, which requires a balance between autonomy and alignment.

Don't Get Rooted in the Past

With management support, organizations can change. It starts by acknowledging that existing mental models are not fixed, and may actually be holding the company back. Often, this starts by surfacing and testing working assumptions. With this complete, organizations can solve afresh for constraints and work to develop alternative mental models. 

Thinking is free, and it is OK to start with a messy process. What's more important is getting started. 

In my discussions with chief information officers over the last several years, they have repeatedly suggested that technology is far easier to manage than people and process. The people and process of innovation is always harder. To innovate, organizations need to reevaluate assumptions and challenge their own mental models to explore new possibilities and new paths to growth. Having this flexibility is essential to continued success. This is why continual innovators like Amazon are built to be what Jeff Bezos likes to call a "Day 1 company." As Bezos wrote in his 2017 letter to stakeholders, "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by an excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always better to be a Day 1 company."

About the Author

Myles Suer, according to LeadTail, is the No. 1 leading influencer of CIOs. Myles is director of solutions marketing at Alation and he's also the facilitator for the #CIOChat.

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