In 2007 Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia moved to San Francisco. With no work, they struggled to pay their rent. When a local industrial design conference brought visitors to town, they saw an opportunity for easy money. Equipped with a couple of air mattresses, they launched “Air Bed and Breakfast”. Chesky and Gebbia cost $ 80 a night and welcomed the first guests to Airbnb.
From here it was by no means easy to sail. The founding history of Airbnb is characterized by hectic rush and setbacks. No different from other start-ups. The idea that millions of people would book accommodation in a marketplace seemed pretty absurd at the time. So the challenges were expected. After all, Chesky, Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk – who joined the team as the third co-founder – dreamed of a world that didn’t exist then. To achieve this, they rely on a rudimentary ingredient for success: imagination!
We all intuitively know that imagination is important, but how to be resourceful is another matter. Fortunately, a new book by Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller gives us some guidance. The Imagination Machine provides individuals and organizations with a blueprint to develop groundbreaking new ideas.
While you have to read the book yourself to master this task, I would like to highlight one aspect that particularly fascinated me: simulation games. I offered four in the book. They help you spot anomalies, challenge your mental models, use actions to accelerate the imagination, and facilitate the diffusion of ideas.
Bad Customers’ Game – Recognizing Anomalies
The imagination often begins with discovering something unusual, a curiosity. This triggers counterfactual thinking, which in turn generates new ideas. As Reeves and Fuller note, “the ultimate business anomaly and source of frustration is a bad customer,” adding, “But how often does your company really learn from its bad customers?”
We learned from Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma that customers can prevent us from breaking new ground. However, this is a consequence of the fact that they are primarily asked about existing products.
The “Bad Customer Game” helps you to use customer feedback in a different way. First, talk to a frustrated customer or listen to recorded calls. Next, try to understand their needs and motivations. In doing so, look beyond the product or service that 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 a few colleagues. Let your imagination run wild. You are in the early stages of a new idea.
Invert your business game – challenge your mental models
A persistent barrier to new ideas is the mental model that underlies our existing business. History is littered with examples from once great companies that have not been able to think beyond their existing business models. Blockbuster, for example, was addicted to late fees, and Kodak executives were in love with the razor blade model, where the main income came from movies rather than cameras. Neither of them survived the transition to a more digital world.
In the “Reverse Your Business Game” you first formulate your current business model. The example of the Reeves and Fuller offering is an automaker making assumptions like “(1) people want to buy cars, (2) cars are made in factories, (3) the company’s main offering is cars, and so on.”
In the second step, you radically change these assumptions. For example, you might assume that people no longer want to own a car (an idea that seems plausible to me when I remember conversations with my students).
In the last step, you formulate a business model based on these new assumptions. While this may turn out to be impractical, the game will at least help you challenge your existing mental models. Involving frontline people and people from other industries – i.e. opening up your strategy – will help you incorporate fresh thinking into this game.
$ 100 game – use action to fire the imagination
Action and imagination are closely interwoven. The sooner your ideas collide with reality, the better. It is a misconception that great ideas are the product of a single Eureka moment. Successful entrepreneurs know that they are much more likely to be the product of an ongoing trial and error process.
In the “$ 100 game” you choose an idea that is to collide with the real world. Then think about what steps you could take to gradually reduce the time and money you have. What would you do with $ 100,000 three months? What if you have $ 10,000 and a month? How about 100 € and a week? Finally, what can you do today by all means available?
When you’ve thought that through, share your ideas with a colleague. You might even want to go 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 everyone would share their car, he spent $ 1,000 setting up a simple website and adding 10,000 postcards print that advertise it. 40 people registered their car and made the idea more tangible. This, explain Reeves and Fuller, “started a cycle of action and rethinking that drove the development of his counterfactual mental model”.
The name game – facilitate the dissemination of ideas
Procter & Gamble was one of the first to adopt open innovation, an approach that uses the wisdom of the masses to generate new ideas. By 2006, more than 35% of its new products contained elements that were created outside the company.
Imagination is also a social process that benefits from including a broader mindset. A particular challenge in the initial phase is the fuzziness of an idea. How do you involve others? How do you articulate a half-baked idea enough to allow others to contribute?
The “name 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 a whole new concept, Griffith’s improved vacuum cleaner for removing dust from carpets was launched. The alternative is to create a name that refers to something familiar. One example is the Apple Watch, which isn’t actually a watch.
Choose extreme versions of these two types of names in this game. Then share with a colleague who did the same for her idea. Once you’ve selected a favorite, you might go a step further and advertise it to a larger group of colleagues.
Imagination as a new growth driver
As you might have guessed, I’m a huge fan of this book. These four games give you a sneak peek, but there’s a lot more to come. Imagination is difficult to measure and control, but with Reeves and Fuller’s suggestions, you will be well equipped to unleash that engine of growth.