Innovation Essentials: Choose to Imagine

This post is an excerpt from the upcoming Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We Stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Watch this space for details on its release.

When Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” he wasn’t saying that knowledge was unimportant, but rather that imagination is underrated. It can truly be the more valuable of the two. Yet this is not the choice many of us would make.

We see knowledge as that which is proven and dependable. If it wasn’t, we probably wouldn’t call it knowledge. It’s the answers we already have, the things we already know how to do or know to be true. We think imagination is fine but it’s more speculative, perhaps a good guess or a great possibility, but not something we can fully count on when it’s really important. It’s just not as reliable as knowledge. So even when we have good ideas, we tend not to trust them as much as our knowledge, and we especially don’t trust the ideas of others as much as our own knowledge.

This is one of the ways we choose to stop ourselves from tapping into our own creative genius.

Sure, trying new things is risky, but when we’re in a changing environment trying old things is risky! When we use our imagination, we at least recognize that we need to be testing and exploring. When we apply knowledge we often simply assume it’s going to work for us until proven otherwise. So we’re still taking risks but we’re not acknowledging those risks. How dangerous is that?

Over reliance on knowledge is like a species that becomes so specialized that it’s utterly at the mercy of its environment. It may be a plant that can only survive in soil of a particular acidity and moisture, within a limited range of daily sunlight. Perhaps it requires a specific type of bog or forest floor. If taken from that environment, or that environment is destroyed, it immediately dies, because it can’t adapt. When someone loses a job due to cutbacks or a business failure, or an entrepreneur or project manager encounters setbacks, they can behave like that fragile overspecialized plant and blame the environment, or they can choose to adapt to their new environment and rediscover success.

Our imagination is what gives us the ability to adapt, and clearly we need to be able to adapt and readapt in this modern world. It’s not that we should always trust our imagination, but that we have the courage to experiment with it, in order to find the new solutions we need. As the 20th century philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” The learning he was talking about wasn’t knowledge transfer as from teacher to student; he was talking about learning things no one has figured out yet, that we need to discover in order to solve the unique challenges we face.

Accomplished innovators routinely choose their imagination over their knowledge. They recognize, as Einstein did, that knowledge is limited—and limiting—and they don’t want to be caught unprepared for the inevitable changes and surprises they know they will encounter. They exercise their imagination like an athlete exercises muscles, not because it’s always needed, but because without exercise it won’t be ready to perform at those crucial times when it is needed.

Knowledge isn’t a bad thing. Our knowledge gives us valuable options to consider and possibilities to explore. It’s when we allow our knowledge to convince us of what’s not possible, when we use it to prematurely reject ideas, that it becomes a hindrance.

Most organizations become limited by their knowledge too, by their assumptions and beliefs and conventional wisdom about how to do business or fulfill their mission. And as with individuals, if an organization isn’t practicing the use of imagination, of exploring new possibilities, it gradually loses that capability.

To be innovators, we need to get comfortable exercising our imagination and valuing what it gives us—especially when it contradicts our knowledge. Because if it’s entirely consistent with what we already think we know, it’s probably not imagination, just memory.

We need to consciously choose imagination over knowledge.

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