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How to build an ‘imagination machine’ for a good business

In this excerpt from ‘The Imagination Machine’, authors Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller show how we can foster and harness ideas that can lead to flourishing companies

Thomas Edison demonstrating his tinfoil phonograph (1877).
Thomas Edison demonstrating his tinfoil phonograph (1877). (Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-cwpbh-04044))

A number of popular misconceptions get in the way of understanding what imagination is and how it works. It’s worth noting these to avoid being misled by them. Some of the most common myths around imagination are:

That it is exclusively mental: overlooking the interactions with the world that prompt and ground useful imaginative thinking.

That it is exclusively individual: believing it’s all down to one heroic individual, forgetting collective imagination, and that ideas that don’t spread aren’t useful.

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That it is unworldly: seeing imagination as dreaming, rather than as counterfactual thinking that depends on an analytic understanding of the world.

That it is momentary: believing or hoping imagination happens in a flash, rather than via deliberate mental construction and repeated collisions with the world.

That it is mystical: believing it can’t be systematically managed, unlike other unpredictable aspects of human nature that business manages to harness.

Most of these ideas can be traced to a cultural shift in Europe in the 1700s, the Romantic movement. Many intellectuals of that time were focused on rethinking what it meant to be an artist. The prevalent view was the approach developed from Aristotle through the Renaissance: that being an artist was about learning a skill, clarifying a purpose or ideal, and building on and refining an inherited art—a systematic, collective practice—to pursue that end.

In place of this, many influential thinkers, such as Johann Hamann, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated a new Romantic view: that chosen individuals— geniuses—have a mystical, mental link with a higher power, which leads them to great, iconoclastic ideas in some impossible-to-understand way.

Dispelling the myths of imagination, we need to aim instead to articulate the elements of a systematic, collective practice we can rely on to foster and harness imagination. Here is how:

The Seduction: Bayesian theory holds that our brains update themselves based on surprising new inputs. A surprise is the beginning of imagination: an event that leads our minds away from familiar ways of thinking. If your brain never encountered anything that was different from its existing mental models, it would never have cause to change its thinking. Contact with surprise—encountering something that doesn’t fit—is the starting point for imagination.

The Idea: After encountering a surprise, the brain has a number of possible actions available to it, according to neuroscientist Karl Friston, and the first of these is to rethink, that is, to change, recombine, and play with models in our mind to generate new ideas.

The Collision: Once an idea or mental model starts to develop in our mind, the brain has a number of options to bring the mental model into contact with the world. We can refocus, shifting attentional filters based on our emerging idea, leading to further surprises and further rethinking. We can move in the world: colliding our evolving model with different geographical or social contexts. By colliding our evolving idea with the world, we can use the collision to enrich our imagination.

The Epidemic: The other action open to the human brain, following the disruption of a mental model by surprise is to communicate. We can make ideas spread, joining imaginations together across a business, accelerating both the development and adoption of an idea. When we communicate a still-evolving imaginative idea, we aim to become the surprise—the disruptive or inspirational input to other people’s minds—triggering others’ imaginations. When this happens, it creates collective imagination, accelerating its evolution by involving others in its testing, development, and adoption.

The New Ordinary: Developing and spreading new mental models would be pointless if it did not lead to a new reality. The goal is for an idea that began with a surprise to eventually become unsurprising: an ordinary and accepted part of reality. Key to this is the art of codification, or writing a script so that the new thing can be realized and replicated by people far removed from its pioneers.

The Encore: In moving a model from the counterfactual to the factual, we create new policies, procedures, and specialized roles. Yet working within these dampens our capacity for surprise. As they grow, businesses face the challenge of being ambidextrous: on the one hand, having the machinery to exploit developed ideas; on the other hand, being able to continually explore new ideas—to harness imagination repeatedly. A business that can do both well can be called an “‘imagination machine”’: a company able to reliably harness imagination to discover new paths to growth.

Imagination itself is the ability to create mental models of things that don’t exist. Harnessing imagination in business, however, requires looking at all these areas, from the individual to the collective level. Business leaders need to shape themselves and their companies to draw on imagination consistently and successfully.

Reprinted by Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from The Imagination Machine: How To Spark New Ideas And Create Your Company’s Future. Copyright 2021 The Boston Consulting Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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