Practical imagination is the capability of coming up with novel ideas that are applicable to problems and opportunities that are within reach. Now, I’m a utopian at heart who has spent much too much time reading science fiction. I have all the respect in the world for great, far-reaching ideas that point society toward radical, beneficial transformations. However, dreaming is different from doing, and most people enmeshed in large organizations will not be able to create that kind of massive change. So, practical imagination is more modest—and, perhaps, a better use of their time and energy.
Before becoming an agent for innovation, preparation is necessary. This is especially true for those who may have spent years sidelining creativity in favor of getting today’s assignments done. So, before taking on weary executives and staunch bureaucrats, consider the following:
Do you have or can you produce fresh ideas? Many people will nod their heads, but, in my experience, people in large organizations are more adept at coming up with answers than providing insights. I call this the “A student effect.” You can see it in action in meetings when people believe they are quite clever, even as they list the same ideas that everyone has heard before. They have the right answers. They know their subjects. But they offer nothing new. Practical innovation requires something new. If you offer a reply in a meeting and no one follows up with a question that challenges you, chances are that your idea is not fresh.
There are many books that talk about developing imagination. (Osborne’s classic Applied Imagination is one of my favorites.) These books can be helpful, if used. But the best way to move toward fresh ideas is to acquire and twist new knowledge. This means looking in places that have nothing to do with your current concerns. I believe curiosity is the foundation of imagination (and I’ve written about curiosity previously in “Are we losing our ability to ask good questions?” and in an article “Need to Know: How curiosity drives innovation,” available upon request).
If you don’t regularly explore something you have to know, but which has no immediate value, you may not be prepared to be an agent of innovation.
One of the best ways to integrate new knowledge into your stockpile and make it available for practical imagination is by talking with people regularly whose interests are very different from your own. Bringing that new knowledge into a conversation with someone who has a different point of view will make it accessible and surprising ways when you need it.
Fresh ideas often come in awkward forms. They may formed from the language of conventional ideas, even though you know deep down that there is a piece that is different. In these cases, it is important to identify and explore the essence of what you responded to emotionally. This means doing more than jotting down a few words when an idea occurs to you. If you force yourself to write several sentences, what is special about your idea will become more visible.
On the other hand, the idea may appear wild and impractical. In these cases, I have found that writing a few paragraphs and then leaving the idea alone for a while can help to tame it. The worst thing to do with a wild idea is to share it with other people right away. They will be happy to tell you how crazy it is, and it is unlikely to survive the conversation.
Most ideas are not good, so it is important to have a lot of them. When you are convinced that you are proficient at regularly creating fresh ideas, you are ready for your next step in becoming an innovation agent, establishing your bona fides. I’ll write about this in my next entry, “Incredible credibles.”