Volume 15, 
January, 2017


Failure of Imagination is Not an Option
The future of innovation belongs to those who can dream in their customers’ worlds


Sheila Mello and Wayne Mackey

“You can’t imagine…”

That’s what we say when something seems incomprehensible, when, quite literally, we cannot conceive of it.

Frost & Sullivan’s recent innovation conference highlighted the fact that failure of imagination won’t be an option for innovators going forward. You can check all the usual boxes—great execution, solid management, well-integrated teams, stellar new product development processes. Yet if you can’t see what’s coming in three, five, or ten years, you not only risk losing market share but also suffering the complete disintegration of your company, your industry, and your business model.

“But,” you say, “I can’t know what the world will look like in five years! I’m no Brian David Johnson,” (the futurist who gave one of the Frost keynotes).

That’s true. As part of your company’s innovation team, you’re probably not expected to prognosticate on how autonomous cars will be deployed or the role robotics will play in our everyday lives. Nor are you tasked with creating a story of the future in the way that fiction writers or moviemakers do.

But I’ll let you in on a secret. You don’t have to know the future or write those stories. You do have to cultivate your capacity to imagine. And you can accomplish that (another little secret here) with some fairly simple tools you’re probably already using.

Listening. I’m sure you’ve been urged: “Talk to your customers!” Certainly, getting out into the real world of users is preferable to sitting alone in your office or talking only with your staff. But phrasing it this way puts the emphasis on the wrong part of the conversation. When you’re conversing with customers, you should spend only about 10 percent of your time talking. The other 90 percent you spend listening. (See my article and infographic on interview tips.) 

Empathizing. One of the workshops at the Frost event, Mastering the Art of Lean and Agile Product Development, emphasized empathy as a key prerequisite for innovation. In our daily lives, empathy evokes the idea of putting your arm around someone who’s having a hard time. In a business context, it means identifying closely enough with your customers or users to understand what thrills them, what drives them crazy, what makes them throw up their arms in exasperation. And, like the skill of listening, you achieve this understanding through a structured process. 

Brainstorming without boundaries. Now that you’ve listened and empathized, you’re in a position to begin imagining. Brainstorming is one of the best tools to cultivate new ideas. The most productive brainstorming sessions encourage seemingly wild ideas without boundaries. This is not the time to impose limitations of any kind—budgetary, expertise, technology, logical, or even physical. Would a flying car solve your customer’s biggest issue? Anti-gravity boots? Carbon-negative power plants? Get those ideas out there, no matter how outrageous they may seem.

After the brainstorming, you’ll apply filters and analysis to help narrow down the ideas to the range of what’s possible. But don’t limit yourself unnecessarily. Just because your company doesn’t possess a core competency in an area doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue an idea based on that competency. You can partner with experts or acquire the necessary technology if the idea fits your vision of what kind of company you imagine becoming.

You may end up reimagining the company itself. Lowinn Kibbey, Global Head, Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, referred during the Frost innovation event to the fact that J&J has shifted from being a company that helps take care of the sick to a company that helps keep people well. That may sound like a small shift, but it has vast implications for the kinds of projects, products, and business areas the company pursues.

Notice what I didn’t suggest that you do: talk a lot, think hard, and improve on current products or ideas.

Talking gets in the way of listening. Thinking hard means staying inside your own head, without connecting empathetically to the population you’re trying to serve. And improving on current ideas, while it might be an important piece of your business strategy, won’t let you take that wild leap of imagination that will lead to the next business that no one yet has thought to create.

Even in an as-yet-unimagined world populated with robots, connected by autonomous vehicles, supported by gig workers staying in temporary homes, and steeped in Big Data, people—your potential customers—still have needs, desires, and obstacles. Your job is to develop a strategy to understand and empathize with them, no matter how fantastical the world they live in.

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