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Imagination and Innovation

There is no life I know

To compare with pure imagination

Living there, you’ll be free

If you truly wish to be

-Willy Wonka


Hello, and welcome to a somewhat whimsical exploration of the world of innovation, where imagination churns and flows like a river of chocolate in Willy Wonka’s factory. Albert Einstein once noted, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Well, I’ve always had a close relationship with my imagination but never necessarily correlated it to intelligence. Is it possible that the intricate, imaginary worlds and scenarios that play out in my mind could increase my capacity for innovation? Let’s explore how one’s imagination can provide a framework for thinking about innovation.

Let’s start with some basic definitions. Wikipedia defines innovation as the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services. Wikipedia defines imagination as the faculty or action of forming new ideas, images, or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. I like to think of the imagination as a place in our minds where we can see things that do not exist but that one day might. Imagination is more closely associated with artists, children, scientists, musicians, etc, than with business and work; I think we have been undervaluing imagination. I was recently in a meeting where my colleagues and I were doing some “strategic visioning .”As I was thinking about some ideas, I realized that “strategic visioning” is a fancy business word for “imagining .” This led me to think about the limitations I placed on myself by thinking of innovation within a business context. Instead of thinking, “How can we…” or “Let’s dive into potential solutions for…”, I started thinking, “Let’s imagine…” and “If I waved my magic wand…”.   This resulted in an explosion of ideas not unlike the flavors that I imagine bursting out of an everlasting gobstopper.

So, how can we get to a point where we start incorporating our imagination into our “strategic visioning” or the development of any innovative concept? Well, innovation can thrive in a culture and environment that nurtures creativity and imagination. A business cubicle or computer and desk may not be the best way to stimulate this kind of thinking; maybe liven it up by creating an innovation room or a space surrounded by items (pictures, quotes, objects) that might spark your creativity. I traveled to Scandinavia last year and picked up a great concept from Norway- friluftsliv. Friluftsliv, or “outdoor life,” is basically a commitment to celebrate time outdoors, regardless of the season or weather, and can include any outdoor activity from extreme skiing to resting in a hammock. This Norwegian concept really spoke to me as I like to walk every day, and I find that is my optimal time for generating ideas and thinking outside the box. The great outdoors, surrounded by nature, can be one way to stimulate your imagination.

We can also create a positive environment for innovation by allowing ourselves the freedom to experiment and creating a safe space, whether within our minds or for the benefit of others, for our failures. Brene Brown stated, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.”  It is not easy, and it is not for everyone, to dive headfirst into the unknown. Most of us prefer the comfort of the familiar, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  But for those brave enough to embrace the more chaotic path of innovation and imagination, the world can be a playground of endless opportunities.

Here are some basic exercises to use your imagination and stimulate creative thinking:

  • Brainstorming Sessions: Gather your team and encourage them to let the ideas flow like a chocolate waterfall: no judgments, no egos, just encouragement to bring forth pure, unbridled creativity.
  • Role Playing: Role-playing can spice things up and spark creativity. Each team member adopts an assigned role (inventor, customer, tech expert, etc.) and has discussions as if they were the actual individuals in those positions.
  • Mind Mapping: This exercise is a visual thinking tool where you create a diagram to represent ideas, concepts, or information around a theme or topic. Place a key idea or word in the center of the diagram and use your team’s imagination to write out the branches of related sub-topics. This will help you organize your thoughts visually, connecting ideas to create a tree-like structure of ideas built from your minds.

There is a wonderful quote from Maya Angelou: “​​You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” She is so right; you must use your creativity like a muscle so it can grow stronger. The more we use it, the more it flourishes. I will continue to use my creativity muscle to devise my own imaginary worlds and explore new horizons in the world of innovation. I encourage you to join me on this imaginative journey. As we have learned, imagination is not just reserved for artists and dreamers; it plays a crucial role for anyone looking to spark an innovative idea. By redefining our approach to strategic thinking as a form of imaginative exploration, we can tap into our endless reserves of imagination and keep the chocolate river flowing. So, the next time you find yourself in a “strategic visioning” session or in a place where you need to think innovatively, don’t be afraid to let your imagination run wild. Whether it’s brainstorming, role-playing, mind mapping, friluftsliv, or some other innovative activity that you devise, these types of exercises can help you tap into the boundless potential of your creative mind. Let Willy Wonka’s words serve as a reminder, and let your imagination be the key that unlocks the door to a world of endless innovative possibilities. There is a world of pure imagination out there waiting for those brave enough to explore it.