By Adam Witty
“See it, be it.” I’ve always been a fan of this philosophy. If you can imagine something, you’ve taken the first step to creating it. The Wright Brothers imagined a flying machine. Steve Jobs imagined an easy-to-use computer. Walt Disney imagined a place where children and parents could have fun together.
Imagination is the key to business success. Yes, a business needs to be efficient, cost-effective, and competitive. Spreadsheets need to be balanced, marketing schedules need to be created, customer service needs to be fine-tuned. But in order for a business to survive and grow, it needs to be imaginative—to dream and develop new products and services.
To carry on a successful business, a man must have imagination. He must see things as in a vision.”—Charles M. Schwab
Let’s not confuse imagination with its cousins: creativity and innovation. As has been eloquently said before me (although the actual source of the quote appears to be unknown), “Imagination is about seeing the impossible, or unreal. Creativity is using imagination to unleash the potential of existing ideas in order to create new and valuable ones. Innovation is taking existing, reliable systems and ideas and improving them.”
Creators and innovators are often seen as doers and makers, crucial to the bottom line and coveted by growing businesses. Call yourself “imaginative” and risk being seen as a daydreamer, wasting time and resources.
When I first started my company 13 years ago, I admit I subscribed to that philosophy. I used to roll my eyes when somebody started a brainstorming with “Here’s a crazy idea. What if we….” At that point, time and resources were precious and I didn’t have enough of either to waste.
Since then, I’ve come to an appreciation and respect for imagination. As a matter of fact, it’s a trait I look for in potential hires. Not just “what can you do with the tools on-hand,” but “what would you do if you had no limitations.”
Imagination is a muscle. It needs to be exercised. Here are some ways I’ve learned to encourage imagination in myself and my team:
1. Be happy
The first step in unleashing a productive imagination is to create a positive work environment—one that is fertile and open to imaginative thinking.
The No. 1 priority of my company’s leadership team is Team Member Happiness. Not profits. Not customers. If my employees are happy, they will discover ways to take care of our customers, and our customers will take care of profitable growth.
One way I encourage happiness is to help employees live their dreams. I do this by creating a dream board for every employee. I then help make those dreams come true. Over the years, I have surprised employees with “dreams come true” based on their dream boards: a trip to Ireland, a hike through the Rockies, a stay at an ashram, a shopping spree. My goal is to create a happy, healthy, enriched work space where imagination can flourish.
2. Be open-minded
No idea is too absurd (although some come pretty close). You think a blanket with sleeves is a silly idea? Tell that to the creator of the Snuggie which has profited over $200 million dollars. What about sunglasses for dogs? Doggles brings in more than $3 million in sales.
As I said, no idea is too absurd.
Your work environment should be a safe space for sharing ideas. Avoid saying things like “That won’t work” right off the bat. Never discourage. As that great philosopher Peter Pan says, “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to.” Once you extinguish somebody’s imaginative flame, it’s hard to reignite it, and that’s your loss.
3. Be grateful
However unrealistic the idea, encourage big, bold thinking by being grateful. “Thank you—I like the way you’re thinking” goes a long, long way. When an employee feels valued, they are more likely to think out-of-the-box without any limitations. The results can be amazing.
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4. Be patient
The best ideas percolate. Give yourself and your employees space to imagine. Listen to music. Take a walk—or at least go to the deli to pick up lunch.
Remember that good ideas don’t happen on deadlines. Nothing can kill a productive imagination faster than the pressure of timelines and the specter of a boss looming over one’s shoulder.
5. Be curious
Curiosity is the food that makes imagination blossom, but it might be the most challenging trait of all. As a business person, it’s hard to be curious about the world around you when you’re focused on such unimaginative things as meeting deadlines and pursuing clients. Those excuses are valid but, they’re shortsighted.
Encourage those around you to open their minds to new ways through outside hobbies, museums, and books. Being a publishing company, we keep an expansive library from which we encourage employees to borrow.
Mix things up. I believe that cross-team communication—creating an opportunity where team members from different departments can get together and share ideas—stimulates imagination. Here we all gather in the office for beers every Friday afternoon. After all, Southwest Airlines is reported to have been created on the back of a napkin.
If you and your company are doing what is predictable, you’ll be out of business before you know it. Your success is dependent on the collective imagination of the people around you. Stimulating, encouraging, and nurturing you and your team’s ability to imagine new ideas should be a priority.
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