Imagination is not a word you hear much about in business. Few companies, outside electronic game producers, would describe themselves as imaginative. That is a shame and a mistake. Imagination is the number one tool for creativity and innovation.
Over the past couple of years, “innovation” has become an incredibly sexy business term. Every business aims to be innovative. Every business knows that it needs to innovate to grow. Even the staid European Commission has been launching research programs aimed at making European Community businesses more innovative.
Likewise, creativity is an admired skill in business these days. Once only advertising people were expected to be creative. Today, most businesses seek creative people. And that makes sense. Innovation is creativity implemented. So, if you want to run an innovative company, you need creative people.
Imagination, however, is not a word you hear much about in business. Few companies, outside electronic game producers, would describe themselves as imaginative.
To do a quick and dirty survey, I went to Monster.com, a major job search web site and searched for jobs in the New York City area. The search term “innovative” delivered 960 jobs; “creative” brought up over 1000 jobs; and imagination found only nine jobs! Of the many thousands of jobs advertised in Monster.com for the New York City area, only nine are for imaginative people.
Imagination: The number one tool
Without imagination, people can not look at problems from new perspectives.
That is a shame and a mistake. Imagination is the number one tool for creativity and innovation. Without imagination, people can not look at problems from new perspectives. Without imagination, people cannot imagine how various solutions to a problem would work. Without imagination, people simply cannot dream up new ideas.
And imagination is so much more than a basic tool for creativity. Imagination allows people to put themselves in the shoes of others such as customers and colleagues in order to understand them better and work with them better.
Imagination provides the vision that allows people to see in their minds how a process will work from beginning to end. Imagination allows people to see what may go wrong in a process and envision how various solutions might solve those problems.
Imagination allows leaders to envision the big picture and devise strategy.
Hiring for imagination
In short, I would say that imagination should be seen as a critical skill in any innovative employee, not to mention top management. Moreover, when hiring people, testing their imaginative skills should be a prerequisite. Fortunately, this is not difficult. It is a matter of describing problem wrought and unusual scenarios to prospective employees and seeing how they would resolve the problems. Insist they describe their solutions in reference to the scenario rather than past activities.
For example, you are hiring a sales manager. Here are two scenarios that come to mind:
1) You have all but made a $10 million sale to a client in Chicago (you are based in New York City). However, the client’s decision maker is about to leave on holiday and so you must fly to Chicago to close the sale. At JFK airport, you buy a coffee and fall asleep. A day later, you wake up in Vientiane (capital of Laos) airport. You are unharmed, but have no money, no passport, no personal documents. Just the clothes on your back. What do you do? How can you save yourself and the sale?
2) You fly across the country to visit the purchasing manager of a major client. You have already spoken to her on the telephone. She is interested but wants a face-to-face meeting to close the sale. When you arrive at the client’s office, you learn that the head of purchasing you spoke to has been fired for soliciting kick-backs from suppliers. Meanwhile, no one in the company has heard of you, there is no record of discussion between the fired head of purchasing and you and the replacement head of purchasing has never heard of your company. Moreover, the client suspects that you had been planning to pay a kickback to the ex head of purchasing. (which, of course, is not true).
These are just two off the wall scenarios that would challenge the thinking of a prospective employee and allow you to determine her imaginative skills as well as her problem solving skills.
Of course, to devise such scenarios you will need a good imagination! But that’s not a problem, is it?
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
About the auhtor
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.