The Imagination Machine

07.09.21

The Imagination Machine

IMAGINATION is unique to humans and is key to creativity and innovation. In a time when elementary students today will be working in jobs that haven’t yet been created, imagination is the path forward. Imagination is the ability to picture that which doesn’t exist.

In The Imagination Machine, authors Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller say that “For the sake of restoring the vitality of our companies, and for the societies these companies serve, we must better harness imagination.”

“We spend much of our time in the realm of what is,” imagination is about what isn’t. Distinct from creativity and innovation, imagination extends beyond programs of innovation: “imagination is not just for inventing new products and services, but for fundamentally rethinking the mental model on which a company is based, even rethinking an entire industry or envisaging new industries.”

The kind of imagination they are talking about is grounded in reality. “Imagination is not just random thoughts unhinged from reality. Rather, it rests on a causal understanding of reality. To the extent we understand the dynamics of the world—why things are the way they are—we can play with recombining and changing things in ways that still make sense and are feasible.”

To get the ball rolling so we can begin nurturing and drawing from the imagination that exists inside all of us, they have presented a six-step process for creating ideas and bringing them to life.

Step 1: The Seduction

Imagination begins with a surprise. Surprise triggers imagination. It takes us “out of our routine way of looking at things into the realm of counterfactual thinking.” To increase the frequency of a productive surprise, the authors suggest we make the time for reflection, pay attention to our frustrations, seek the unfamiliar, reflect on unintended consequences and anomalies, draw analogies, and learn new ways of interpreting the world as it is.

They say, “busy is the new stupid. It is precisely during the busy times that we should not forget to stare out the window.”

Step 2: The Idea

Imagination MachineThe trigger leads us to rethink; to rethink what could be rather than what is. “To harness imagination, we need to turn passing thoughts—triggered by surprise—into starting points for rethinking our mental models to develop new, valuable, counterfactual models.” New ideas are often messy. That’s OK.

We block rethinking by our impatience, fear of standing out, defensiveness (especially of the way things are), and the tendency to avoid taking a risk and playing it safe.

Step 3: The Collision

We need to act. Create a feedback loop from the mind to the world and back again. “A new mental model remains just an individual indulgence unless we act—to collide the idea with reality, spur our imagination again, and drive the evolution of the idea.” At this stage, we are looking for “a basic response from the world: Did the idea work—did the seed grow—or not?”

At the same time, we want to look for surprise to evolve our idea. “In this mindset, instead of looking for a binary response from the world—did the idea work or not?—we are looking for the world to disrupt the way we think.”

Step 4: The Epidemic

Like a virus, an idea needs to spread from one person to many. One benefit of sharing it with others is we “accelerate its evolution by driving collective reimagination.” The key here is to be able to communicate the idea well so that everyone imagines the same thing.

Step 5: The New Ordinary

How do you execute and deliver the new idea? How do you make it the new ordinary? We do this by creating a clear script to guide others in a way that drives thought and action. The script should also be designed “so that it can evolve, to change in response to changing demands or opportunities.”

Step 6: The Encore

Amazon has been successful because they combine efficiency and imagination. Some companies invent something and live off that for decades leading to stasis and eventual decline. “To avoid this fate, your business must combine harvesting well-cultivated areas with exploring counterfactual landscapes.” The challenge is to do both.

The core problem is that the imagining and executing mindsets don’t naturally fit together—in fact, they are often antagonistic. Emphasizing one has the potential to undermine the other.

Both mindsets are important to a successful company. If we focus on execution and efficiency alone, the company becomes oriented around financial metrics. Opportunities, in the form of early-stage imaginative ideas, appear as unevidenced and speculative. On the other hand, if we focus only on imagination, we don’t commit to a model for long enough to realize all its value.

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