In periods of great change like the one we’re living through right now, one of the most important skills is imagination. It’s what enables us to invent new business models, create differentiated brands, and reframe a growing number of ‘problems’ as ‘opportunities’.
It turns out that when people talk about ‘dreaming up’ an idea, they’re not far from the truth: imagination has been closely linked to dream states. When they studied the brains of jazz musicians during improvisation, neuroscientists Charles Limb and Allen Braun found a “disassociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex.” Interestingly, this pattern was absent when the musicians played memorised sequences. These disassociated patterns, they say, are similar to what happens in our brains during REM sleep.
Dreaming is marked by a sense of unfocused attention, unplanned or irrational associations, and an apparent loss of control. In this article I will argue that once we learn the ‘trick’ of dreaming—of disassociating our thoughts from the linear and the logical—we can become wellsprings of originality.
The Tar Pits of Knowledge
To innovate, you need to move from the known to the unknown. You also need to hold on to your beliefs lightly, so that what you believe doesn’t block the view of what you might find out. This is difficult for most people. When asked to imagine a new tool for slicing bread or a new melody for a song, they stare blankly, as if to say, “How could there be such a thing?” They may recall some of the knives or popular songs they’ve known, but nothing new will come to mind. At most, they might try to combine features of two or more existing examples to come up with a hybrid.
The number-one hazard for innovators is getting stuck in the ‘tar pits’ of prior knowledge. While knowledge can free us to imagine new-to-the-world ideas, it can also trap us into believing opportunities are smaller than they are. When we’re stumped by a problem, or feel hurried to solve it, our brains can easily default to off-the-shelf solutions based on ‘what everyone knows’. But what we know today may not be what we need to know tomorrow, so to avoid jumping to conclusions, we need to hold off on solving a problem until we can perceive the general shape of its solution.
There are three steps for generating a creative solution to a problem:
* discover what is;
* imagine what could be; and
* describe the attributes of success.
Let’s examine each in turn.
What is? This is the body of known facts about the problem: Why is it a problem? What is its history? What is the conventional thinking about it? How have similar problems been solved in the past, perhaps in other domains?
Another key question is, What are the practical constraints of the problem? Constraints are the limitations imposed by the problem’s context, which can include budget, time, manpower, habits, conventions or fears. These things squeeze the problem down to a size you can focus on. Without constraints, solutions tend towards the unfocused and the unimaginative.
What could be? Facts and constraints are necessary but insufficient. To envision what is possible, you also need imagination. One way to get started is by asking deeper questions. For example, when Thomas Edison imagined the light bulb, he didn’t frame the question as, how can we create an alternative source of light? Instead, he framed it as, how can we make electricity so cheap that “only the rich will burn candles”? While you can easily overreach the possibilities by thinking too big, it’s much easier to tame a wild idea than to reanimate a dead one.
The attributes of success. The shape of a missing answer is formed at the intersection of affordances and desiderata. Affordances are the counterpoint to constraints: they are creative possibilities that are native to the subject, the method, the tools, or the challenge. For example, a movie about the early days of movies contains the affordance of being a silent film (The Artist); a car designed for the poor population of India contains the affordance of being extremely minimal (Tata Motors); and a company with a breadth of experience but a commoditised product line has the possibility to become a consulting firm (IBM).
Desiderata are secondary objectives that support a goal or a solution, and this principle can be applied to any number of problems. It’s really as simple as compiling a wish list. Ask yourself this question and fill in the blank: Wouldn’t it be great if ______? When you finish your list, call out the wishes that would create the most compelling outcome. These will form a sort of matrix that defines the shape of your answer.
To make your wish list more than an ordinary shopping list, you’ll need to engage your imagination.
Reviving the Play Instinct
Imagination is the child of obstinacy and playfulness: it comes from a refusal to settle for comfortable answers while having fun doing it.
During the Industrial Age, fun was discouraged. It took time to have fun, and time was the non-renewable resource that needed to be maximised and measured. Employees were paid by the number of pieces they could complete or the predetermined function they performed—not by the number of new ideas they brought to the table. Time was money, and money was time.
After the clock came to Europe in 1307, it took less than a century for mechanical time to sweep the continent. With clocks, you could agree on the delivery of a shipment, regularise the baking of bread, and estimate the completion of a brick wall. Clocks paved the way for sophisticated banking, transportation, mass production and eventually, computers. They brought precision to business; but they also brought an undue emphasis on quantity over quality.
The ancient Greeks understood that time comes in two flavours: objective time, or chronos; and subjective time, or kairos. Chronos is measured by the sun, the moon and the seasons. Kairos cannot be measured, only judged by the quality of one’s experience.
Think back to a day in your childhood when you were so busy playing that you lost track of the clock. The minutes and hours blended seamlessly, one into the next, while your mind focused on some engaging activity. As you grew older, this play instinct began to fade. The requirements of society demanded more attention to objective time—an adherence to deadlines, agreements and social courtesies—until play became more and more associated with non-productivity, a kind of time that had no commercial value.
Yet quality time is the state in which imagination flourishes best. You can’t decide to produce an insight in 30 minutes, or to have an idea by 3:15. But you can decide to forget about the clock and focus on the challenge at hand, in which case you may well have an idea by 3:15—or even five ideas. Imagination takes as long as it takes, and rushing it usually slows it down. This is the central conflict between the world of business and the world of creativity.
The solution to this dilemma, in my experience, is for business ‘doers’ and creative ‘dreamers’ to focus on goals instead of deadlines. Goals form the common ground that unites both work styles. Focus on goals, take away the clocks, and start playing as soon as possible. What you’ll find is that generating ideas ‘out of time’ can produce results much faster than holding yourself to a deadline. If you wait until the last minute, however, leaving little opportunity for play, you’ll find yourself clutching the first idea that floats by.
If you could pry the roof off of all the mediocre companies in the world, you’d see an army of adrenaline addicts working on perpetual deadline, madly checking boxes instead of thinking ahead. You can get an immediate buzz from getting things done, but innovation requires something more: unmeasured time spent in the ‘dragon pit’, the space between what is and what could be. But what should you be doing there? What are the rules of creative play? How do you know when you’re winning?
Here’s where quantity plays a crucial role. The best creative thinkers are usually the most prolific ones, because innovation, like evolution, depends on variety. In fact, you could say that innovation is really just ‘evolution by design’. The more ideas you have, the better your odds that two of them will combine to create a useful third idea.
The 20th century made us believe that everything of value can be bought in a store; that the answer to the question lies at the back of the book; and that design is something only designers do. But in the 21st century, we are being nudged forward—by our customers, our employers, our economy, and by the robots nipping at our heels—to be original.
Originality doesn’t come from factual knowledge, but nor does it come from suppressing factual knowledge: it comes from the exposure of factual knowledge to the animating force of imagination. Sadly, the metaskill of dreaming—the ability to cut ideas out of whole cloth—is not currently taught in business schools—or any other school. This seems downright odd to me in an age when innovation is the dividing line between success and failure. Hopefully, this will change before long. A guy can dream.
Marty Neumeier is director of Transformation at Liquid Agency in Silicon Valley, and the author of Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age (New Riders, 2013), from which this is excerpted. He has worked with Apple, Adobe, BMW, Google, Patagonia and Twitter
Six key strategies that an help trigger new ideas
So, where do combinable ideas come from? Happily, they come from learnable techniques. While some people may be naturals in the realm of imagination, we can all improve our skills with deliberate practice. Here are six strategies that can help to trigger new ideas.
Think in metaphors: A metaphor is a way of making a comparison between two unrelated things. “All the world is a stage,” is an example. The world is not a stage, but it is like a stage in some ways. Shakespeare could have used a simile instead of a metaphor—“The world is like a stage”—and it would have had the same meaning, just not the same impact. By saying the world is a stage, a fresh idea is forced to emerge: that every person is merely playing a part.
Thinking about problems metaphorically moves your thinking from the literal to the abstract, so you can move freely on a different plane. To a literal thinker, a rose is a rose; to a metaphorical thinker, a rose could be a young woman’s cheek or the morning sky before a storm. If your challenge is to invent a new name for a store that sells footwear to active girls, you could call it Active Footwear. Or you could think in metaphors and move beyond the first pasture. For example, maybe active footwear for girls is like the ballet slippers in The Red Shoes, or like a bouncy pop song from the sixties, or like—wait a minute. What if we call it Shubop?
Think in pictures: Many people assume Einstein was a logical, left-brain thinker, but he was actually the opposite. Rather than using mathematics or language to crack a tough problem, he preferred to think in pictures and spatial relationships. He recognised that visual thinking can strip a problem down to its essence, leading to profoundly simple conclusions that ordinary language might not be able to reach. The problem is, our brains build up patterns of experience that make it hard to think in new ways. Your best shot at clearing this hurdle is not to try and jump it, but to go around it: start from a different place—a place that doesn’t make any sense. Better yet, think of the worst place you could possibly start, and start there.
Let’s say your task is to negotiate a peace treaty between warring states. So far, no amount of reasoning has been able to bring the two sides together. You could try yet more reasoning, or perhaps the threat of draconian intervention, but these are likely to cause further entrenchment. So you start from a different place: what would be the worst way to structure the talks? How about suggesting that the two leaders declare immediate, mutual, all-out war? Obviously, that’s crazy; but what if you suggest it anyway, just to make a point about the absurdity of war? Then, when the two parties reject the idea, you can propose a less dramatic solution: arm wrestling to the death, winner takes all. No? How about this: arm wrestling, and whoever loses buys the other a beer. Now we’re getting somewhere. At least they would have to be human, which would count as progress