I’ve always been slightly underwhelmed by innovation. That isn’t completely true – I’ve been blown away by innovations themselves but have been consistently underwhelmed by innovation training, innovation departments or innovation projects that I’ve been involved in in the corporate world.  I’d always imagined that they would be hotbeds of unbridled creativity and I’ve long been curious as to what the missing ingredient has been for me.

It was recently when I read “Out of Our Minds” by Sir Ken Robinson that several pennies dropped! It was Robinson’s suggestion of a difference between imagination, creativity and innovation that got me very excited. He suggests that imagination is the ability to bring to mind ideas that aren’t present to the senses, creativity is the ability to turn these ideas into concepts of value (ie. applied imagination) and innovation is the ability to bring these concepts of value to life for others (ie. applied creativity).

One of the pennies that dropped was the realisation that without all three, the value of each is significantly diminished. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. (A point worthy of note to those looking to bring improv training into businesses).

As a result of this I’ve started to consider creativity as the bridge between imagination and innovation.

Creativity - the bridge between imagination and innovation

This simple definition has helped me make more sense of my ‘underwhelmedness’ as I realise what has been missing in a lot of corporate innovation efforts:

Believing innovation is the first and only step in the process. This is a bit like expecting elite performance from your car even though you haven’t turned the key or put in petrol.
Failing to build a strong bridge or a ‘red thread’ between the three stages of imagination, creativity and innovation. This is like having the ingredients for an omelette, trying to cook a roast chicken and then attempting to serve customers risotto. Ends up being disjointed and confusing.
Undervaluing the process of nurturing and giving voice to the imagination. Normally because it is a bit strange and scary and requires fully grown adults to be a bit more mad, bad or wrong than they feel comfortable with.

This last point fascinates me the most as the majority of my research recently has been into increasing our ability and willingness to imagine and bravely share our imagined thoughts with others – something that proves quite difficult in a predominantly left-brain-biased mindset in organisations.  Can creating conditions that nurture employee imagination eventually lead to more innovation?  How might we go about doing this?

I have a very active imagination (which has as many downsides as upsides!) and a month or so back I became curious as to where my random imaginative ideas spontaneously came from, so I decided that every time I had one I would reflect on and write down the thought process that preceded it. As a result of this I now have a list of tactics I can consciously employ to help kick-start my imagination into action if it is being a bit lazy. I am hoping that this list may also be of use to others.

I call these tactics ‘CPR* for your imagination‘, here are a few of my favourites…

Flipping reality. Make the opposite true of any observation you make. The man in Trafalgar Square feeding the pigeons is actually being controlled by the pigeons to bring them food. Drain covers are not there to allow unwanted mess to flow down to the sewer but they are there to prevent us from finding the hidden treasures of the sewer people. Tube trains are in fact static and rotate the stations through the tunnels with their wheels.

Anthropomorphise. Assume that everything has human consciousness and indulge in wondering what animals or objects are thinking, feeling or relating. What have the salt and pepper pots fallen out over? What is the secret that the footbridge will suddenly spring on those walking over it? What is the portaloo’s view on the global economy and the extent of the current austerity measures?

Imagine the back story. Make up the events, history, context and relationships from the past that could have lead to the present moment. Outside a butcher’s shop in London there was a 6 foot cardboard pig, dressed in butcher’s costume and holding a string of sausages – an advert for the shop. He was smiling despite having killed his own kind and selling them to others, no doubt for profit. Like a pig Sweeney Todd. This lead to an idea for a rather dark children’s book.

Speed dating. Rapidly introducing two random things to eachother to see if any magic arises through making a new connection. Owl + toothpase = toothpaste that makes you wiser the more you use it. Boris Johnston + dinosaurs = ‘Borasaurs’ – animatronic dinosaurs that you can put money in to ride around London. Tesco’s + windchimes = a new chain of stores called Windco on every single street corner that stocks a variety of low cost wind chimes to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the new craze that is sweeping the nation.

Make it worse. Instead of coming up with ideas that help, come up with ideas that will make things worse. An umbrella that has a reservoir of water that it pours out continually when opened. An anti-bear costume that is made out of meat with a hat that emits female bear pheromones and mating calls. A weed killer product that not only kills the weeds but the entire garden..and the gardener and neighbours.

Through playing with these ‘CPR for the imagination’ ideas (and not forcing the results to make any sense quite yet) we can generate a plethora of strange, usual ideas that, if explored, expanded, filtered could be turned into concepts and, through a creativity process, and may just yield a new innovation.

Sir Ken Robinson’s book “Out of Our Minds” is a top read and can be purchased here.

* CPR = Cardiopulmonary resuscitation.  A manual emergency procedure used to re-start the heart – a far more serious situation than simply not having any new ideas!