Innovation is almost always associated with having new ideas. We all know that having a creative idea is just the beginning of a possibly long journey — the journey toward its successful implementation. And yet, it seems like the ideation phase of a project often gets all the fame and glory. Ideation is the cool activity where the magic happens. The rest is often treated as a necessary evil — something that has to be done and obviously requires technical skills but has little to do with innovation per se.
Ask yourself this: In which phase of an innovative project imagination plays a significant role: ideation, concept, market research, implementation?
Most people identify the Ideation phase as the imaginative and creative phase. After all, this is where you need to define a problem and come up with new ideas to address it. The Concept phase might also be considered imaginative as it requires you to envision a product, a service, or a new feature before it is implemented.
Implementation, on the other hand, is conceived as an execution activity. An innovative product cannot be realized without it, but creativity and imagination are not first-class citizens during these phases. At least that’s the conventional view.
Well, the standard view, in this case, is the wrong view.
implementation is paved with critical problems
As anyone who has ever turned an idea into a reality knows, implementation is rarely an easy journey. What seems to be coherent and straightforward in your mind will soon come across critical design and implementation challenges for your team. Reality is more complicated than how we model it in our mind, and implementation is where reality has to be faced.
Technical problems are not always solved just by hard work. For the implementation phase to succeed, you will have to address critical issues using creative solutions. Sometimes, to find innovative solutions, you must go back to the core idea. But often, the creative solutions are in the implementation’s playground.
To come up with creative solutions to technical problems, implementers must be imaginative — they must have the ability to see things differently. The alternative — the brute force search for a resolution — is not practical and is likely to kill the project altogether.
Imagination is essential when conceiving a new idea. But imagination is also crucial when you need a radical solution for a critical implementation problem. Sure, this an entirely different creative playground, but it is no less creative than the initial ideation phase.
implementation is a maze of decision points
No project is a straight road. There are crossroads and decision points every few steps, each leading to a slightly (or dramatically) new direction. Sometimes, these decision points revolve around problems and possible solutions, but not always. Some decision points are based on smaller ideas or questions that you come across along the way.
Now, the question is, how does the implementation team take “the right” decision? You can probably guess where this is going: by using their imagination.
Decision points don’t have one clear, correct answer. If they would have, we would hardly call them decision points. More often, these crossroads can lead to alternate realities, and the only way to make an educated guess on which way to turn is to imagine the result and how it fits in the overall vision.
Sure, there’s always a place for experimentation and trial and error. If you can create a simple prototype and validate it, that’s great. But if you have multiple options to choose from, even the decision to prototype a few of them might not be an easy one.
Validating a prototype can only tell you something about that specific option or, if you are lucky, it can provide some insights on a couple of other alternatives. But, it will not give you feedback on all the alternatives you haven’t tried. And yet, you cannot try all options. So, the only practical approach is trying to imagine the results and use your imagination as the first filter (and sometimes also the last) in any decision point.
Call it a hunch or a gut feeling, imagination plays a significant role in decision making. And as any implementation phase requires hundreds or even thousands of decisions, the team’s imagination becomes a first-class navigation tool.
innovation is evolutionary
Last but not least, innovation is rarely a single event. Regardless of how innovation is perceived from the outside, it is an iterative, evolutionary process. More often than not, by the time an idea is implemented and shared with the world, it is quite different from the original idea that set the wheels in motion.
For this evolution process to be effective and result in an innovative product that brings value, everyone involved in the process must contribute to shaping the end result, not by just implementing someone else’s design or taking local decisions, but also by active participation in the ongoing ideation process.
In fact, the innovation process is not linear. It includes ups and downs, pushing forward and backtracking, and often changing directions. And none of this is possible if you have one visionary and many implementers who just follow instructions. The entire team should share the vision and, at some points, help to shape it.
Ideation is done throughout the project, and it relies on an ongoing collaboration with the implementers. This dialogue never stops. It is an essential part of the infinite feedback loop that supports evolutionary innovation.
Imagination is a skill the entire team should share. Creativity is a tool for implementers as much as it is for “the innovators.” If you want to turn what you see in your mind into a reality, you need an imaginative, creative team by your side.