If you want to make the most of the innovation potential of your employees, you need to encourage and promote the use of imagination. Jeffrey Baumgartner shares some techniques to stretch your team.

Innovation is the implementation of creative ideas. Creative ideas are the output of imagination. Just about every CEO these days insists that innovation is critical to her firm’s future. Curiously, precious few talk about the importance of imagination. But, without imagination, you will not foster innovation. The result is rather like a car maker attempting to make cars without thinking about the engines.

What this means is that if you want to make the most of the innovation potential of your employees, you need to encourage and promote the use of imagination. This includes institutionalizing imagination so that it becomes a core corporate competence. It includes having the CEO talk about the importance of imagination to her employees and to her firm. It includes exercising imagination so each employee can use hers at a moment’s notice. After all, unexercised imagination gets flabby and slow.

Here are some activities that not only exercise the imagination, but sometimes result in innovative ideas and new ways of thinking about key corporate issues.

Role Play

“Role play” is a grown-up term for the games of pretend that we used to play as children. Role play is about two or more people taking on defined roles and playing out a little drama. For example, you can role play the act of selling a service to a difficult client. Have someone from the sales department play the difficult client (sales people will have experience with such people and will be able to play them realistically) have another person from any department other than sales play the role of the sales person. Have the two people play out a sales meeting. Tell them to let loose and push their characters. Have others watch the role play and invite them to shout suggestions to the players. Discuss the results afterwards.

You can role play customer complaints, negotiating with suppliers, dealing with specific problems and much more. You can even move away from scenarios based around your business and role-play other activities, such as job interviews, negotiations (which do not involve company activities), handling emotions and much more.

Role plays are terrific methods of exercising imagination because they force role players to pretend to be people different to themselves, think differently than they usually do and respond to imaginary issues. Indeed, it is important to have participants play roles dissimilar to their actual characters and positions in the company.

As an added benefit, when you role play business related scenarios, you also help train your employees to better understand your business, their colleagues, your clients and how to perform tasks more effectively. Indeed, if you are not using role play in your training, you should.

Extreme Scenarios

What would happen if your head office was blown up in a terrorist explosion? How might you ensure your business survived? What new legislation might destroy your business? How might you work around such legislation? What is the worst thing your competition could do to you? How might you react? What technical developments might make your product obsolete overnight (use your imagination, don’t be afraid to think about developments such as time travel, teleportation, mind reading, etc.)? What might you do if one or more of those developments took place tomorrow?

Brainstorming extreme scenarios such as these and then brainstorming possible solutions to the scenarios is a great way of stretching your imagination. For example a facilitator working with an airline asks employees the question: “what technological developments could make our business obsolete overnight?” A little brainstorming might discover threats such as teleportation, super high-speed rail travel, cheap solar powered rocket cars and so on.

The facilitator then divides the group into small teams. Each team could take one scenario and come up with solutions. Encourage them to forget any perceived limitations and push their imaginations. After a few hours or days (depending on your time frame for this exercise), have the teams meet up, share and discuss their solutions.

Because extreme scenarios involve drastic, yet unlikely events, they stretch the imagination. Envisioning such events and dreaming up methods of coping with them pushes the imagination yet further.

Yet, as unlikely as extreme scenarios usually are, thinking about their consequences sometimes results in powerful ideas that can be implemented – to your benefit – without the extreme scenario actually occurring in real life. And you never know. Before 11 September 2001, the idea of terrorists crashing aeroplanes into the World Trade Centre would have been perceived as an extreme scenario – and an unlikely one at that.

Long Term Envisioning

Try to imagine what your company will be like in 50 years. 100 years. 200 years. Draw up a plan of what you will be doing, what the market will be like and how you got there. Better still, divide a large group into several teams of about five participants each. Have each team draw up a vision plan for the year 2106. Then bring everyone together and present the plans. Share and compare.

Getting beyond the usual one year, five year or even ten year business plan, puts you into the unknowable future. Without clear facts to guide you, you are left to your imagination to create a vision of that far future.

Nevertheless, some of the ideas you dream up for the next century may suggest realistic goals for the near future. Yet again, this is an imagination exercise that sometimes provides potential practical benefits.

100 Uses for Your Product/100 New Services

A classic creativity exercise is to find 100 uses for a brick, a bucket of water, a bathtub or any other commonplace object. Such exercises stretch your imagination. So, why not try the same, but using one of your products as the focus of the challenge? Get a group together and brainstorm 100 uses for the product.

If you are a service company, that may not be possible. Instead, brainstorm 100 new services you could offer using your existing resources.

This exercise not only stretches the imagination, but focuses it on a key component of your business and so can result in practical ideas which can readily be implemented. It’s rather like bicycling 10 km to the shops and back. Not only do you get exercise, but you get the shopping done as well.


Of course, imagination exercises take up valuable time and do not always bring in immediately usable results. But, just as an athlete must exercise regularly to stay in shape and perform to the best of her abilities, so too must your corporate imagination get regular exercise in order that your employees innovate to the best of their abilities.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

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.