Innovation, innovation, innovation. It’s the mantra for today’s organization. Every CEO is focused on it. The most successful organizations have always done it. The best leaders have it in their DNA and you won’t survive without it.
But for all the talk of innovation; its importance; how to build a strategy around it and then how to execute on that, there’s one critical component that is consistently overlooked: the imagination.
When we think about innovation, we think about creativity and collaboration. The process of working together, in a team or as an organization, to explore ideas, design their materialization and test how they do or don’t work.
But the process of innovation actually starts much earlier. It’s easy to forget that every one of those ideas that we’re playing around with starts deep in the mind of one individual within the group. It starts in their imagination.
Over the last decade or so companies have spent a lot of time building structures and processes to support the latter stages of innovation. But imagination has gone missing from the workplace. It’s time we find it.
How imagination works
“Imagination is the creation of new images in the mind.” explains artist and imagineer.me founder, Kelly-Ann Denton.
Image credit: imagineer.me
Visual cognitive function happens as two main processes:
- Encoding: what we choose to take in from the world around us.
- Decoding: how we make sense of that information using our visual mind.
We’re all wired to be visual thinkers. 40% of the human cortex is dedicated to visual processing; no other faculty in the brain takes up that much space and 83% of all the information we retain is visual.
But most of us aren’t using visual minds – or imaginations – to their full potential. In particular, when it comes to decoding; our ability to clearly interpret and then express our ideas back out to the world.
“Often people we work with know what’s in their head but they can’t articulate it,” says Denton. Fortunately, we all have the ability to redesign our brains to be more imaginative, and this comes down to getting the visual education many of us missed.
Bringing visual education to work
Most of us stop training our brains in how to process and express visual information when we give up visual arts at the age of 14 or 15. We go through the rest of school, college, and then we get to work where resources and training are even fewer and further between.
“Visual training is a critical skill that is missing in workplace development,” says Denton. “We need to build work environments that are more like art schools”.
So how can you help your team flex their visual mind?
Find visual thinkers
Bringing in experts in visual learning can have a big impact. These are specialists, often who have worked teaching visual arts in an academic setting. Their role is to teach your people new techniques and ways of thinking; including visual mapping, metaphor, and reframing, that are usually taught to art students.
Alternatively, they can work one-on-one with leaders to help them understand how their own thought processes work so that over time they can get better at reading the ideas in their mind.
If you don’t have a training budget, take a look in your own organization. Investigate the skills that already exist in your team. Did any of them go to art school? Are any of them weekend photographers? These people probably won’t know specific techniques in detail but encouraging them to apply their visual understanding and share experiences will help the whole team.
Increase the stimulus
Our ability to imagine new ideas relies on our memory. The more we observe, the more stimulus we have to draw on and the more dots we have available to connect when trying to think up new ideas.
Of course, we can train ourselves to be more observant. This experiment by Cannon illustrates how some people spend more time looking and retrieving information than others.
The graph shows the number of eye movements made by three people looking at a portrait photograph. The first is a non-photographer, the second a photography student and the third, a professional photographer. The professional photographer makes over five times as many eye movements, or observations, as the non-photographer.
Image credit: Canon
Training your people to be more observant comes back to building more mindful organizations; allowing your people to work in more varied and flexible conditions so they can take in more stimulus and encouraging a stronger sense of curiosity.
If you can help your people train their visual mind in this way, it will not only improve the quality and quantity of ideas going at the beginning of the innovation funnel, but it can also help in later stages.
As we use our imagination more, we become more open to possibilities and change. So if you can get everyone in your organization to sharpen their imagination, you’ll see less resistance to change and a greater chance that new ideas, process and products stick.
Leading a culture of imagination
Building a culture of imagination isn’t easy. You need both courageous leadership and close attention to detail in order to set the right conditions:
Be aware of blind thinking
Blind thinking is exactly as it sounds; thinking without looking at what’s really going on. And it is the enemy of imagination.
We know from the work of behavioral economists that we all use heuristics to help us make decisions and to make our lives easier. The same is true in the workplace. Every organization has its own corporate heuristics; the how-we’ve-always-done-its. These assumptions block organizational creativity because so they’re so easy to overlook, most leaders won’t stop to think whether it could be done another way. In fact, these processes or products are often the ones that are in the greatest need of a rethink.
Identify group dynamics
As with any initiative that involves change, people will react in different ways, “Some will thrive from the beginning, others will suffocate for fear of judgment, others still will try to crush the whole process.” say Denton. “Creativity is the end game. Your role as the leader is to make sure those who are talented get challenged, those who lack confidence are reassured, and those who are cynical are managed.”
“You will need a mechanism to deal with negative people” but if you can get the cynics to share an idea that eventually materializes into something real, they’ll be hooked and you’ll be on your way to building an imaginative culture to boot.
A note on structure
A big question that always comes up around innovation is, should you create a dedicated team to lead the charge?
The answer is blurry. Many organizations have done this in recent years. Some of these teams have been very successful. Others have failed. Whether you do or not, Denton’s partner, Professor David Alais argues that the first priority has to be building imagination into your culture:
“Imagination has to be cultural rather than elitist. There’s no point having a team dedicated to imagination without this because they’ll spend their whole time moving against the tide.”
We’d agree wholeheartedly; exercising our imagination should be the responsibility and joy of every single one of us.