In 2007 Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia moved to San Francisco. Without a job they struggled to pay their rent. When a local industrial design conference brought visitors into town, they saw an opportunity for some quick cash. Equipped with a few airbeds they launched “Air Bed and Breakfast.” Charging $80 a night, Chesky and Gebbia welcomed the first guests to what eventually became Airbnb.
It was by no means plain sailing from here. Airbnb’s founding story is one of hustle and set-backs. No different from other start-ups. At the time the idea that millions of people would book accommodation on a marketplace seemed rather preposterous. So, the challenges were expected. After all, Chesky, Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk—who joined the team as the third co-founder—dreamed up a world that did not exist then. To be able to come up with this, they relied on a rudimentary ingredient to success: imagination!
Intuitively we all know that imagination matters but how to be imaginative is another matter. Luckily a new book by Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller is out to guide us. The Imagination Machine provides a blueprint for individuals and organizations to come up with path-breaking new ideas.
While you have to read the book yourself to master this task, I want to highlight one aspect that I found particularly intriguing: business games. I picked four on offer in the book. They help you to spot anomalies, challenge your mental models, leverage action to accelerate imagination, and facilitate the spread of ideas.
The bad customer game—spot anomalies
Imagination often starts with spotting something unusual, an oddity. This triggers counter-factual thinking which in turn brings out fresh ideas. As Reeves and Fuller note, “the ultimate business anomaly and source of frustration is a bad customer,” adding “but how often does your business really learn from its bad customers?”
From Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma we learnt that customers can prevent us from venturing into new directions. This, however, is a consequence of primarily asking them about existing products.
The “bad customer game” helps you to leverage customer feedback in a different way. Start by talking to a frustrated customer or listen to recorded calls. Next, try to understand their needs and motivations. By doing so, look beyond the product or service you are offering. Finally, ask “What would our business have to look like to make this customer happy?”
It’s best to play this game with some colleagues. Allow your imagination to go wild. You are in the early stages of a new idea.
Reverse your business game—challenge your mental models
A persistent obstacle for new ideas is the mental model that underpins our existing business. History is littered with examples from once great firms that were unable to think beyond their existing business models. Blockbuster for instance was addicted to late fees and Kodak executives were in love with the razor-blade model where the main income was generated by film, not cameras. Neither survived the transition into a more digital world.
In the “reverse your business game” you start by articulating your current business model. The example Reeves and Fuller offer is a car manufacturer who makes assumptions such as “(1) people want to buy cars, (2) cars will be manufactured in factories, (3) the main offering of the company is cars, and so on.”
In step two you radically alter these assumptions. For example, you could assume that people no longer want to own a car (an idea that seems plausible when I recall conversations I have had with my students).
In the final step you articulate a business model based on these new assumptions. While this might turn out to be impractical the game at a minimum helps you to challenge your existing mental models. Involving front-line employees and people from other industries—i.e. opening up your strategy—will help you incorporate fresh thinking into this game.
100$ game—leverage action to accelerate imagination
Action and imagination are closely intertwined. The earlier your ideas are colliding with reality, the better. It’s a misconception that great ideas are the product of a single Eureka moment. Successful entrepreneurs know that they are far more likely to be a product of an ongoing trial-and-error process.
In the “100$ game” you pick an idea you want to collide with the real world. You then think about actions you might take, narrowing the time and money you have at your disposal in steps. What would you do with $100,000 and three months? What if you have $10,000 and one month? How about $100 and one week? And finally, what can you do today with whatever funding you have available?
Once you think this through, swap your ideas with a colleague. You might even want to take this a step further and test the idea in the real world.
Shelby Clark did this. When the founder of Turo—a peer-to-peer car-sharing company—struggled to convince potential investors that anybody would share their car, he spent $1,000 to set up a basic website and print 10,000 postcards advertising it. 40 people signed up their car, making the idea more tangible. This, Reeves and Fuller explain “kicked off a cycle of action and rethinking that drove the evolution of his counterfactual mental model.”
The naming game—facilitate the spread of ideas
Procter & Gamble was one of the early adopters of open innovation, an approach that uses the wisdom of the crowd to come up with new ideas. By 2006 more than 35% of its new products included elements that originated outside the company.
Imagination is also a social process which benefits from including a wider set of minds. In the early stages a particular challenge is the fuzziness of an idea. How do you engage others? How do you articulate enough of a half-baked idea to enable others to contribute?
The “naming game” helps you to overcome this barrier. By naming an idea we make it more tangible. Two ways are particularly helpful. You can choose a name that captures the functionality of your idea. In 1905 when vacuum cleaners were an entirely new concept, Griffith’s Improved Vacuum Apparatus for Removing Dust from Carpets was launched. The alternative is to create a name that links to something familiar. An example is the Apple Watch which is not really a watch.
In this game, pick extreme versions of these two types of naming. Then share with a colleague who has done the same for her idea. Once you have picked a favorite, you might take it one step further and announce it to a bigger group of colleagues.
Imagination as the new driver of growth
As you might have guessed by now, I am a huge fan of this book. These four games offer you a glimpse preview but much more is on offer. Imagination is hard to measure and manage but with the suggestions offered by Reeves and Fuller, you are well prepared to unleash this driver of growth.
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