Why was Sir Richard Branson able to attract investors to build a spaceship when other entrepreneurs struggled to get finance for far less risky projects?
How was the late Steve Jobs able to launch two of the most successful products — the iPhone and iPad —of the last decade while other consumer electronics manufacturers blamed the economic downturn for their falling sales figures?
For both, their ability to use their imagination in two ways is the secret to their success.
See things differently
Where others see a desert, imaginative people see a resort. Where others see a crowded market, they see a niche opportunity. Where others see problems, they see possibilities.
Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge will take you from A to B, whereas imagination will take you everywhere.”
If you struggle to apply your imagination — especially at work, be reassured — this is a skill that can be learned.
In Napoleon Hill’s book, Think And Grow Rich, the author describes two types of imagination: creative and synthetic.
Creative imagination is the ability to see an entirely new way of doing something. Walt Disney dreamed of a theme park unlike anything done before. In 1955, he opened the first Disneyland. This type of imagination, however, can be difficult. Disney was rejected over 500 times before he secured the backing to build his dream.
Synthetic imagination is a process where you look at issues from different perspectives to trigger your imagination — to have you rearranging, reorganising or reframing them for creative options.
Examples of this approach are:
- The grocery industry, which has been rearranged to become a self-service system where customers go through the checkout counter without talking to a human being;
- The airline industry, which has been reorganised so that you can now pick your seat (online) yourself, print your own boarding pass and check-in yourself; or
- The fast-food industry, which the McDonald brothers reframed in the 1940s, by offering customers consistent quality but less choice.
Fire it up!
The second use of imagination — the ability to fire others’ imaginations — is more important.
There have been many brilliant visionaries who achieved nothing because they couldn’t get others to see their vision. It has got nothing to do with the business plan or the market projections.
It’s not about your ability to convince people with logic; it’s about your ability to spark their imagination. You have to sell the vision. Martin Luther King inspired a generation with, “I have a dream!” not “I have a strategic plan!”
To do this effectively, you first need a crystal-clear image in your mind. This ability to visualise has been used for a long time by elite athletes. They see themselves crossing the line first, hitting the winning shot, executing the perfect manoeuvre.
This is probably easier for athletes than for those in business, because, for the athlete, the image is clear and precise.
In business, it is more difficult but worth the effort. Why? The clearer your image of success, the more likely it will come to fruition and the more likely you are able to fuel others’ imaginations with it.
Embrace change with imagination
With 2012 looking to be a year of accelerating pace and uncertainty, the ability of your staff to use their imagination will determine whether you spend the year revelling in opportunities or being overwhelmed by problems.
In his famous book, The Human Side Of Enterprise, American social psychologist Douglas McGregor says: “The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organisational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.”
So, all you need to do is be able to tap into it. And to do this you need to do two things:
- Give your staff permission to fail. If they are terrified about the consequences of failure, they will never try anything new. I’m not suggesting irresponsible behaviour — perhaps have them check with you first — but give them a chance.
- Paint the right image in their minds as a goal. This is just to make sure you are all heading in the same direction. Management professor Noel Tichy said: “If you want them to venture into new places, first take them there in their imaginations.”
It is the ability to do this that distinguishes the likes of Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. It is an essential skill for any leader in times of change.