Muzeable’s Essential Guide to Growth No. 269: Skills for the modern age 1 – the IMAGINATION

Muzeable Thinking No. 9 – posted by Tim Brooks 31st May 2013

The next few outpourings from my young [ha!]and restless heart will explore a small number of  ‘competencies’ that I think are modern age GROWTH ESSENTIALS. Our observation is that these skills are rather lacking, or at least all too rare, in business. First… IMAGINATION.

Start point: What most companies and leaders really lack is not the creativity to generate ideas, but:

  • The [commercial] imagination to work out which disruptions will [or could] matter to their longer term growth agenda in the face of intense complexity.
  • The [commercial] imagination to picture how to actually make the change happen within the realities of the current organisation i.e. change it without destroying it.

For years there has been much talk (often very passionately delivered) about the ‘creativity’ gap in big corporations. We need more and better ideas, so let’s employ more creative people – mavericks even – we can train and encourage them; empower them to be more creative as part of the day job then things will soon change around here. Whether it’s a bad idea or it’s been badly executed it doesn’t seem to have worked very consistently?

Then, some of the rhetoric – and let’s face it most business writing is founded on pithy rhetoric trying to make the shades of grey [muddy brown?] appear as black and white – moved to other failings. Or at least other failings were added to explain the febrile nature of success. First among equals was the notion that it was not the paucity or quality of the ideas that was holding us back, but our collective inability to execute consistently, quickly and effectively. Execute, execute, execute was a new mantra, let strategy take care of itself and just do it!

Now we have a new generation of [mainly digital] champions telling us to miss out planning and carefully crafted innovation and just punt stuff out into the ether and develop it as we go. Speed trumps all of the above. The world is too complex and changing too fast to allow us to chart our journey in the old style with any confidence of success.

Actually, it’s all true. Or not. Or probably in part, depending on the situation. Our view – which is based on long experience and not extensive data [yet], we admit – is that there are group of other behaviours and challenges at heart of the problem that contribute to the success or failure of all of the above approaches. The first is worthy of real analysis and consideration – the corporate  IMAGINATION. It is this, or a consistent lack of it, that holds back leadership and businesses from winning more often. Imagination is not the same as creativity. It is also not an attribute that gets much nurturing, because in more junior roles it can actually hold your thrusting career back at a point when it’s best to just to be a ‘good soldier’ and get on with stuff.

Sir Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything  talks about this, making a point perhaps intended at the expense of ‘imagination’, but my point is that it explains that IMAGINATION is like strategy… creativity is like execution:

‘Imagination is not the same as creativity.  Creativity takes the process of imagination to another level [gap]. Imagination can be entirely internal.  You could be imaginative all day long without anyone noticing [gap]. To be creative you actually have to do something. You can think of creativity as applied imagination.’

A dictionary definition expands this:

  1. The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses: “a vivid  imagination”.
  2. The ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.

So, if creativity is a doing word… imagination is its foundation and driving force. It is more than a vision, it is a reflective and flexible approach that can and should be applied to every new thought or opportunity we find. Leadership is more about the latter than the former – it should make sure we are ‘doing’ the right things – then get other people to ‘do it’.

Much strong tea and conversation later we concluded that there is rarely a lack of ideas in most serious big companies. Their best execs might not be left field mavericks, but they know their businesses and anyway they are not stupid so they employ people like us to supplement and support them if they want an IV injection of sparky thinking. True they are often better/best at linear ideas, the improvement not the breakthrough, but great [big] ideas and thoughts pass across their collective desks on a regular basis.
The execution criticism is also true. More often when you sift through the ashes of failure you find the germ of an idea or strategy that ‘could’ have worked and has been dragged down by poor delivery or because it is the ‘wrong’ idea for that organisation to deliver. Our mantra – useful useable used – is a key state of mind in fighting this. Strategic thinking is often useful, sometimes – shock – it is even useable, but is it actually used [and embedded] in anger at the sharp end? Rarely.

That said, the failure to execute is often a strategic issue. The ideas are the wrong ideas for that company or leadership has not embedded the strategy in the far reaches of the corporate body just the shiny HQ building. This leads to the existence of local agendas that are disconnected and/or working diligently from a set of competing objectives and metrics that haven’t been sufficiently re calibrated against the new approach. Sales departments often end up here, being beaten up on short term sales or driving volume which makes them prioritise the old, easy stuff over the new harder sell. Or with a crack-head relationship with promotion that ultimately prevents retailers taking the new stuff seriously or rapidly devaluing it – so smothering it at birth. All of this requires IMAGINATION and IMAGINATIVE approaches to overcome the fundamental, entrenched or infrastructural barriers to success.

We see bridging the imagination gap as one piece in this growth jigsaw – not a panacea or another fundamentalist input. It can be a key input to help companies and leadership to more effectively contextualise their future success and the ideas that might get them there into a framework that allows an increase in intelligent risk and the speed with which we can exploit opportunities.

Imagination links to the execution gap because one of the main issues with change or disruptive thinking is our ability to plan the unknown. Imagination is the skill we need to paint a plausible view of the future we can move towards – levels of complexity mean it cannot be a rigid plan. This is key, because the more credible this picture is the better our chance of success. It is not like corporate vision in the corporate leadership sense. It is not a ‘destination’ but a way to help business see how specific concepts or ideas can be realised/how they would actually work – despite or within what the organisation is today or in the near term. It scopes out real changes to the modus operandi versus making ‘change’ into a ‘project’ or end in itself. It actually doesn’t want too much creative input… it should be rigorous and pragmatic.

This is scary as it usually involves imagining a world in which we’ll be uncomfortable, or even obsolete! Only the very best managers we’ve met or worked with do this naturally! It involves considering convergence, technology and adjacencies that are currently seen are irrelevant or marginal to the current world view. None of this is pure play creativity – the ‘idea’ is probably – even if half-baked – on the table already. It’s about the ability to see:  a) how it might work (THE CONTEXT) and b) how WE might be best able to do it (THE NATURE of the CHANGE). Both these will start to shape our strategy AND the execution plan. Not enough ideas are ‘killed off’ due to an understanding of the nature of the change e.g. we aren’t the right people to do this or because we haven’t  envisaged the reality with enough imagination.

Examples abound… Blockbuster and Netflix, Music/Book/DVD retailers and Online in all cases there were points where IMAGINATION would have mattered. This is not about crystal ball gazing… we’re not talking about being able to see the future. In all these cases there were points of change where IF the incumbents had acted and changed their model whilst they still had brand strength and scale, some might have found a future. Future examples abound; big Pharma’s tortoise like move from transactional product marketing towards service/big data/CRM + effective product solutions; the need to see the specific ways your supply chain will be about more than ‘operational excellence’ and increasingly a key driver of reputation and difference [Fairtrade, CSR, audit etc.]; the imagination to understand that your current business model is going to change, die even, the only variable being when.

So, leaders need to cultivate their imagination. It is their ability to see the kernel of the idea or disruption, the technology or the imminent change that will drive the better results we all seek. It will enable them to zig whilst the category zags. Given that the data demonstrates that 90% of businesses are at the very best doing ‘OK’ then it’s clear that we need to zig, because following the category will deliver at best, only ‘OK’ results.

We see IMAGINATION as a missing component in many organisations. They are locked into a view of their business and how it works. [Note e.g.s above.] Innovation is held back not by a paucity of ideas but by the inability to see how to make them reality – to give execution half a chance of succeeding. NB a honed imagination does not remove the need for strategy, having the imagination to see how things might work and actually building the framework to deliver them are different things. But, the imagination will shape and influence your strategic priorities and the growth agenda. Future planning is also not the same thing… imagination sits outside of a project plan.

Great leaders DO this naturally. Most of us try to manage or project plan or research our way around its lack. This is not enough and is a linear ‘project managed’ road to disappointment. Cultivate an imagination. Ask different questions in different ways. Incorporate different stimuli into your approach. Create some rules of thumb for imagining the future world and where you – and the idea on the table – will fit into it. Think about how other people would do it – not just your head to head competitors, but the potential new kids on the block and adjacencies. We all do this sometimes… but our experience of big blue chips is that ‘sometimes’ ain’t very often. It isn’t part of the core.

The worry is that whilst you might be able to train people to be more creative can you train people to be more imaginative?  Hope so, or if not we need to  develop better approaches [FOR HEAVENS SAKE NOT MORE *^?*ing TOOLS, THEY WON’T EVER BE FLEXIBLE ENOUGH!!!!] or ways of looking at the world to support  leaders and companies to make the leaps of imagination – without mortgaging the core of the business – that will ultimately drive more sustainable growth. Perhaps it is as much a ‘mind-set’ as a ‘skill’? In which case it is perhaps as much about acknowledging the gap and forcing ourselves to challenge our own status quo… RECOMMENDATION: have a small imagination focused project on the go at all times to keep yourselves honest and uncomfortable!

As with all things there are as many questions as answers!! But we see IMAGINATION and its conscious development as one small key to a growth led future. Next we will be discussing another rare, uncomfortable, modern age business essential… EXPLOITATION.

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