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How the chain reaction of imagination, story and innovation works.

By Graham Williams

Innovation is not always plain sailing.

One of the problems with innovation is that we can become ‘locked in’ to an idea or habit so that we are unable to get out of a particular ‘groove’, we cannot imagine new possibilities, cannot generate nor accept new ideas and innovations.

  • When Marco Polo returned from China and was told of the use of paper money, that paradigm or mental concept was simply too foreign for his own people: only metal money could be real and have value – a mind-set that endured well into the next century. Consider your PC keyboard. Its layout was designed in 1873 to slow typing down, because early mechanisms jammed easily.
  • More than 100 years later we use the same keyboard layout. Car indicator lights were installed by manufacturers only long after flashing light technology was available. Bicycle chains only became a reality long after drive-chain technology was employed in the manufacture of bicycles.
  • Frank Whittle’s radically different concept was to introduce an aeroplane with no piston engine, no propeller! Sucked-in air was used in order to produce thrust. He did this, by all accounts, against enormous odds and strong bureaucracy, with no financial or other support. Indeed, some considered him to be just plain crazy.

Hence Swami Vivekananda’s statement: "Each work has to pass through these stages — ridicule, opposition, and then acceptance. Those who think ahead of their time are sure to be misunderstood”.

Innovation is now seen by many businesses as the way ahead.


Surviving and thriving through continuous and rapid, even ‘rhythmical’ innovation is viewed as the way to stay in the game, take the lead. Innovation of processes, products and services, technology… Innovation appears frequently as a core value for many organisations. Daniel Pink says “the future belongs to a very different kind of person…These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys”. Something new, something different, something that adds perceived value. Hence innovation examples such as liquid soap, diet soft-drink, disposable nappies, scented petrolatum, biodegradable chain lubricant.

Innovation Examples in the Motor Car industry

  • 1910’s: Carburettor, side valves, drum brakes, cross-ply tyres
  • 1940’s: Hydraulic brakes, overdrive.
  • 1950’s/60’s: Servo-assisted brakes, overhead camshafts, alloy cylinder heads, disc brakes.
  • 1970’s: Semi-electric transmission, automatic transmission, fuel injection, radial ply tyres, front wheel drive.
  • 1980’s: Anti-lock brake systems, turbo charging, electric microprocessor engine management, multi-valve engines, four wheel drive.
  • 1990’s: Electronically controlled suspension, ceramic engine parts.
  • 2000's. Driver and passenger on-board conveniences such as global positioning systems, ergonomic design, and hybrid and alternative fuel choice. And experimentation with driverless cars…

Innovation and 3M

Since its inception 3M has been a company that has innovation as part of its DNA. One of their mantras is ‘the chain reaction of innovation’, where an innovation in one product or application is transferred to another, then another. Something that succeeds in one environment is lifted and used to solve a problem in another environment. A solution in one area often leads to new applications and solutions in other areas. Developing a new compression system to treat a painful venous leg ulcers, their inspiration came from the functional properties of giraffe skin…

They have many innovation examples. Here is one about the 3M's Insulate:

Birds are vulnerable to oil spills and contamination, and it’s interesting that the molecular structure of their feathers is very similar to a reptile’s scales. The very first bird, probably evolved from a reptile, experienced a chain reaction of benefits:
  • An escape from predators through flight. (Contour feathers shape their wings).
  • Down feathers provided thermal insulation against water and cold temperatures by trapping heat.
  • Feathers are light and allowed for easy, comfortable travel to warmer climes.
  • Feathers gave warmth to nesting young.
  • Their colouring allowed for camouflage when flying, and attracting mates.
  • Feathers protect by blocking UV rays.
  • The feathers of cormorants soak up water, help in reducing buoyancy and thereby allowing them to swim submerged.

Insulate is made of super resilient, absorbent fibres and was first used for industrial purposes. Its’ incredible absorbency made it ideal for use in cleaning up oil spills, helping to protect our environment. 3M engineers noticed that during oil spill clean-ups, volunteers wrapped Insulate around their shoulders to stay warm. That led to another application, and another… a chain reaction of benefits for humans. Insulate has in many ways become a human substitute for feathers – a sort of ecological intelligence in action: It provides:

  • An escape from some of the effects of environmental pollution.
  • Thermal insulation against water and cold temperatures is provided by trapping heat, which has resulted in a range of cold weather outerwear, hats, gloves and footwear.
  • Outerwear which is light and allow us easy, comfortable travel.
  • Warmth to our nesting – draperies and bedding applications have followed.
  • Protection from UV rays.

Imagination precedes innovation.

There is one thing common to all innovations. They are preceded by imagination.

There are many ways of innovating, many innovation examples.

Innovations may be radical, disruptive, a step change. They may be vertical and incremental, one innovation building on or leading to another. Innovation may be horizontal, spreading across disciplines, products, technologies.

When nuclei collide there is a nuclear reaction, which triggers another, leading to a continuing, exponential number of reactions. It’s much more than simply a linear snowball or domino effect. So too with some innovations.

The capacity of imagination allows us to see something new (insight), and come up with a creative solution or advance that is different and better. (The Latin innovare means to bring what is new, an idea put into practice).

  • Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine needle, was struggling with design – how to incorporate a needle in his machine. (In the conventional needle, the point and the eye are at opposite ends). In a dream he was being chased by savages carrying spears. He noticed that at the head of the spears there were eyes. He woke with the machine needle design.

Jay Walker refers to imagination as the fuel that drives innovation, saying: “…if you're not thinking about imagination, I guarantee you're not going to have meaningful innovation”. 1

  • He gives a fascinating example of “an imaginative leap changed the world: London, 1665, was the last great year of the Plague. The king was getting tired of people claiming they were dead and not paying their tax, so the English came up with a great idea: You needed a certificate to die.
  • Then somebody said, "Each week, why don't we write down all the reasons people died this week, and we'll issue that as a weekly summary for the king."
  • Here's what happens next: They see a pattern in the data—and nobody had ever seen a pattern in data before. They had seen patterns in your palm. They had seen patterns in the sky. But this was patterns in the data.
  • Then they realize, people aren't dying because God is killing them. They're dying because there's some kind of statistical probability projection going on. So, from this one book, three industries—statistics, life insurance and public health—are born.”

And Story is a driver of Imagination.

Story and imagination are bedfellows. They belong together. Imagination produces stories. Stories evoke imagination.

Emily Evans referring to a talk by Bran Ferrin at a Technology Frontiers event writes:When he looked for unifying characteristics in the great inventions of history, he observed that “every time something came along that did a better job of story-telling… it fundamentally changed the course of civilisation and was permanent”.

Stories have driven innovation in the following way:

  • We long for connectivity. In the beginning we walked to get to a different place, meet up with someone else, share stories, connect. Then those who could afford it, used the innovations of wheels and harnessed energy to meet up and get around. Tell their stories. We created forward movement using our legs: not to walk but to cycle, and drive-chain technology made it easier. The advent of the internal combustion engine led to movement powered by a new energy, the motorised bike. And of course, the car. Faster travel and more connectivity came with air travel and jet propulsion ushered in safe, fast, long distance travel for many. Every year, 700 million or more of us fly to another country, this new, mobile community of travellers and story-sharers being smaller only than China and India.
  • And then came the relatively recent, life-changing, world-shrinking technologies that we now take for granted -the internet, personal computing, television, cell phones, a convergence of information and communication technologies. They allow us to ‘travel’ immediately to where news is breaking, events are unfolding, stories are being told. We can connect virtually with anyone, anywhere. Convey our experiences, memories, share stories, have our imaginations stimulated. Connectivity without proximity. Perhaps we are coming out of the information age and moving into the story age.
  • From paper to movies, to TV, video cassettes, DVD, Internet downloads. From vinyl to cassette tapes to CD to Internet downloads. Together this constitutes an enormous, growing variety of visual effects, background music apps, story containers to convey information, knowledge, and wisdom. We can tell our stories to a bigger and growing audience, faster and at virtually no cost.

In the same article Evans goes on to say, “Adrian (Hon) and Michael (Bove) agree that future stories will be more immersive, as technology becomes better at blending fiction with the real world around us. For example, tracking technology makes it possible to create personalised smart tales that are tailored to the listener’s immediate environment. Michael predicts that in the future story-telling technologies will be designed to recede so the audience is only conscious of the tale, not the technology that’s communicating it”.

Imagination is used to construct stories and is triggered by story. Imagination precedes innovation. Innovation that spurs better storytelling possibilities leads to changes in how we connect, how knowledge and wisdom is spread, how we behave in society, how the world ticks.

Graham WilliamsGraham Williams is an author, coach and certified management consultant who has worked all over the world. He is a thought leader for the Institute of Management Consultants in South Africa. Formal disciplines are psychology, economics and business strategy. Graham is a neuro-linguistic practitioner. You can read further articles by Graham on his website.

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