Jan Bosch is a research center director, professor, consultant and angel investor in startups. You can contact him at jan@janbosch.com.


Strategic digital product management: imaginate

Leestijd: 6 minuten

Seven tactics and practices to be more successful in terms of creative breakthroughs.

We’ve already talked about exploration as an activity in an earlier post. We need to conduct exploration activities, of course, to find new functionality to add to the existing offerings and to identify new offerings to create. However, exploration is also a mindset and a viewpoint we need to take for the activity to even be successful in terms of creative breakthroughs. Rather than use the word “explore” again, we’ll define a new term: “imaginate.”

The challenge many of us suffer from is that we have too much to do for the amount of time that we have available during the day. This leads to a situation where we become focused and concentrate on what’s right in front of us. That’s great for getting things done that we know need to be done, but it typically doesn’t result in novel insights and ideas.

A podcast I recently listened to talked about the close alignment between mental activities and the physical response. When we get focused on some work task, also our vision changes and we actually stop seeing what’s happening around us. Our brain starts to ignore all the inputs outside of the immediate task in front of us. This is of course the death of creativity and new insights and we need to fundamentally change our approach if we seek to adopt an exploratory and creative viewpoint.

In my experience, seven things help me adopt an exploratory mindset. First, we need to make room in our calendar. Although we can’t schedule creative insights and ideas, we know for sure that we won’t have them unless we create the space where they can occur. This means allocating significant chunks of time on our calendar. Two hours is the minimum slot where I’ve had any measure of success. Also, if at all possible, schedule these hours late in the afternoon when most of the urgent work for the day has been taken care of and, according to research, we’re more creative than during other hours of the day. It does require some discipline to not simply conk out but instead stay focused on the intended goal of imagination, creativity and exploration.

Second, avoid thinking about scaling. Many people tend to kill an idea as they imagine how it would need to be operationalized and how it would need to scale to be practical. Every potentially large tree can be easily killed as a sapling if you don’t protect it. New ideas need to be given the chance to germinate and grow a little before you become too critical and kill potentially good ideas. Rather than thinking about scaling, we need to focus on imagining and creating the most bespoke, manual and unscalable thing we can do that would really solve a customer problem. If we solve a real customer problem, the rest will follow over time.

Third, creativity is a team sport in many contexts. If we can bring other people into these imagination sessions who we can bounce ideas with, the results can be quite astounding. The main learning I’ve had is that people aren’t allowed to judge and criticize each other’s ideas. Instead, ask clarification questions and try to build on top of what others contribute. Ideally, no idea is left behind but instead, we seek to morph multiple ideas into a new concept that can be used for exploratory testing and validation with, potentially prospective, customers.

Fourth, it’s crazy, but we have no idea where ideas come from. We’ve all had situations where a solution to a problem that we’d been noodling on for a while suddenly popped into our heads. We can’t control when this happens or if it happens at all, but in my experience, virtually all challenges I’ve tried to tackle with creativity have resolved themselves simply by sticking with it and continuing to spend brain cycles on it. So, the fourth practice is to use our subconsciousness wisely. As Thomas Edison said, never go to sleep without a request to your subconsciousness. Novel, creative and innovative solutions aren’t created by our rational brains but rather pop up out of our subconsciousness.

The fifth practice is to use positivity. According to psychologists, as humans, we’re three times more sensitive to losing something than we appreciate gaining something. So, rather than spending a lot of conscious thought on what might go wrong, we need to intentionally think about what happens if we’re right! In the venture capital community, this is a well-known practice to overcome our natural dislike of losing money on a risky investment. Instead, the practice is to imagine how large the startup could become if everything goes right. In many cases, this will result in 100x to 1000x the original investment. Even if the chance of success is only 10 percent, it still makes it a positive bet that we should take. If we simply make enough investments, we’re going to win big-time and on each investment we can lose our money only once.

Sixth, relax constraints. Very often, we end up in a deadlock situation in our minds because the problem we’re looking to solve is overconstrained. There are so many constraining aspects and dimensions that the solution space is effectively empty. The way around this is to start relaxing or even removing some of the constraints. A typical one is that we focus on our existing customers and can’t imagine a solution that would serve their needs. So, initially, we should remove that constraint and focus on serving any customer, not our current ones.

Finally, as the seventh practice, move. We’ve all heard the saying that sitting is the new smoking. And many of us, including me, have changed to desks that also allow us to stand while working. In my experience, however, the real breakthroughs occur while moving, and walking and running are by far my favorite exercise forms for creative thinking. Running is best when I’m chewing through things by myself. Walking works well when I’m interacting with someone else, either on the phone or in person. In fact, a close colleague and I have a habit of going for a walk at the same time, calling each other and exploring a problem by bouncing ideas off each other. Virtually every walk ends with both of us having developed new insights and ideas and quite a few of our recent research articles originated from these walks.

As product management is so concerned with maximizing ROI, it’s tempting to focus on improving existing functionality that’s already proven to deliver value to customers. However, we need to invest sufficiently in the exploration of new areas of functionality. Exploration isn’t just an activity but also a viewpoint and mindset. To get to the “imaginate” state, I use at least seven tactics and practices, including creating space in my calendar, avoiding scaling, interacting with others, exploiting my subconsciousness, using positivity, relaxing constraints and moving. Exploration, creativity and imagination are experienced as very inefficient from the perspective of sustaining innovation and improvements as so many experiments fail. However, the few experiments that are successful will have an outsized impact and pay for all the failed ones. To end with a quote by Albert Einstein: “Creativity is intelligence having fun!”

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