06 Feb 2020 16:33 IST

The power of imagination over knowledge

When leaders come up with imaginative solutions, the team follows and an imagination culture grows

Watching the Budget speech last week brought to mind a line from the movie Inception. Cobb and Eames are discussing Arthur. Cobb praises him as a good pointman. Eames agrees. “The best. But he has no imagination. If you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination.” The Budget was a mixed bag. In some cases, good programmes. In some cases, lots of intent but no really truly innovative idea to get the country out of the economic challenges we face today. It lacked imagination.

Business leaders face the same temptation. When they face a challenge, they tend to usually think themselves through the solution. That’s the tested approach. But the problem is that it relies on knowledge — knowledge of the past, knowledge of comfort zones, knowledge of the known and some problems defy solutions from that space. They need imagination.

What kind of times need imaginative solutions?

When we step into the unknown

Today’s VUCA world — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — throws problems and opportunities at us that we haven’t dealt with before. As Stephen Covey put it, when the terrain changes so fast, maps or past knowledge are useless. Today the automotive industry, nudged towards electric car solutions, has to go beyond knowledge and kickstart the imagination juices of their teams. Zoomcar handled the challenge of not always having manpower available to hand renters their car keys by creating a remote open-the-car solution. Renters open the car from their mobile phone and zoom off. When they drop the car off — they lock it with the app on their phone and the rental is done.

In the HBR article “Better Brainstorming” (HBR March-April 2018), Hal Gregersen suggested “Brainstorming for questions rather than answers makes it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory.” Imagination demands a ‘what if’, a ‘why not’, an ‘is it possible’ — questions that force us to bust the boundaries of our traditional thinking. Consider the case of Hyderabad-based entrepreneur Narayana Peesapathy, who looked at the problem of 120 billion pieces of disposable plastic cutlery that are discarded in India every year. His imaginative solution — edible cutlery. His company, Bakeys Food, makes spoons from jowar (millet). So, when you’re done eating your food with your spoon you don’t throw away your spoon — you eat it. His inspiration was watching a passenger on a flight pick at his food with a cracker after breaking his plastic spoon. His ‘what if’ question triggered the innovation.

In crisis situations leaders do face barriers to stepping out. One barrier to pushing the imagination button is the pressure to look good. To appear in control. To appear to be succeeding even when signs of failure surround us. This focus on appearance kills imagination. It puts pressure on us to look like the expert, to show that we have all the answers. An insecure leader will find it difficult to switch on imagination. Imagination needs self-security.

When we need breakthrough transformation

Steve Jobs and his team where able to look at the mobile phone and reimagine it. They didn’t improve it; they didn’t seek to make it more efficient — they aimed to revolutionise it. Listen to Jobs launching the iPhone. Today we take it for granted, but back then, it was nothing short of a true imagination-driven solution.

“Here’s four smartphones, right? Motorola Q, the BlackBerry, Palm Treo, Nokia E62 — the usual suspects. And, what’s wrong with their user interfaces? ...It’s this stuff right there. They all have these keyboards that are there whether or not you need them to be there...We solved this problem. What we’re going to do is get rid of all these buttons and just make a giant screen. A giant screen.”

Back in the day, when I was part of one of the Tata Group’s export divisions, the challenge that garment exporters faced was to reduce lead times. Buyers were unwilling to put up with the 120 odd days it took between order and the shipment being received. Fabric production generally took about 60 days. Then, the garment production took about 30 days and final shipment another 30 days. Buyers wanted this dramatically reduced to be more just-in-time to meet their own customers’ rapidly changing tastes. People could only anticipate shaving, maybe, five days off fabric production, perhaps three days off garment production.

Then I heard the story which I was never able to verify was actually true — that a Chinese exporter ‘imagined’ his way to a dramatically reduced lead time. The fabric was produced in the shaved time of 55 days. Brought directly to the harbour and loaded onto the ship which then set sail for the destination country. On the ship he had set up his garment factory! So, while the ship sailed, the workers worked on-board converting the fabric to garments which were ironed, packed and ready when it docked at port — 35 days faster! That’s an imaginative solution.

When a conflict threatens

Theodore Roosevelt was confronted with one of the biggest crises of his Presidency when the coal miners went on strike. He had the miners with legitimate grievances on one hand and the mine owners unwilling to budge an inch on the other side. After months of cajoling and nudging and mediation after mediation, a settlement was around the corner. A commission was proposed but everything broke down when the miners asked for a labour man on the commission. The owners adamantly refused.

As Roosevelt recalled: “They had worked themselves into a frame of mind where they were prepared to sacrifice everything and see civil war rather than back down.” Now watch his imagination at work. “Suddenly it dawned on me that they (the mine owners) were not objecting to the thing, but to the name. I found that they did not mind my appointing any man..labour man or not, so long as he was not appointed as a labour man.” Roosevelt promptly suggested labour leader E.E Clark under the “eminent sociologist” slot that the commission provided for. Problem solved. Deadlock broken.

Leaders need to practice using their imagination. It must become a habit. When faced with challenges like the ones below, leaders must make a deliberate attempt to suspend their KQ — knowledge quotient and get their iQ — their imagination quotient into gear. When leaders take the lead, team members will follow. And soon an imagination culture grows.

Let Einstein have the last word: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”