Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller on high-impact creative thinking: An interview by Bob Morris

Martin Reeves is Chairman of The BCG Henderson Institute, BCG’s think tank on strategy and management. He researches, publishes and pilots new thinking on business challenges, drawing upon both innovations in business and fields such as biology, computer science and mathematics. His work is regularly published in Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, Fortune and other journals. He is co-author of The Imagination Machine (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021), The Resilient Company (De Gruyter,  August 2021), Mastering the Science of Organizational Change (De Gruyter, 2021), Winning the ‘20s (De Gruyter, 2021) and Your Strategy Needs a Strategy (Harvard Business Press, 2015), and Adaptive Advantage (2012). Martin holds a first class degree from Cambridge University in Natural Sciences, an MBA from Cranfield University and carried out post graduate research at The University of Tokyo in biophysics.

Jack Fuller is the founder and CEO of Casati Health and co-author of The Imagination Machine (Harvard Business Press, 2021). Jack has a degree in Neuroscience from Melbourne University, and an M.Phil and D.Phil in Theology (Ethics) from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes Scholarship. Previously Jack was a consultant at Boston Consulting Group in New York, and a member of the BCG Henderson Institute. Prior to that he taught and helped develop products at The School of Life in London. His writing has been published in Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Review, The Conversation, and The Sydney Morning Herald. Jack was born in Birmingham, UK, and grew up in Brisbane, Australia. He currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Their book, The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company’s Future,  was published by Harvard Business Review Press (June 2021)

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Before discussing The Imagination Machine, here are a few general questions. First, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Reeves: I noticed as a strategy consultant that independent of the skill or resources of managers involved in formulating strategy that there was an incredibly strong status quo bias, and I gradually came to the conclusion that it was very hard to stretch your strategy unless you first stretched your mind. Through this I became interested in mental models and imagination and the role they plan in business.

Fuller: My interest in business actually started after I read a biography of Goethe called Love, Life, Goethe. I got in touch with the author, a philosopher called John Armstrong (who we actually interviewed for The Imagination Machine) and we talked a lot about Goethe’s career. Goethe was a poet, but he was also very interested in administration, accounting, and business. He wanted to bring together the two sides of life. And this inspired me to try to do this in my own life. So I went from studying theology and reading novels and poetry, to being a management consultant (!)

Who and/or what have greatest impact on the development of your thoughts about how to establish a workplace culture within which imagination is most likely to thrive? How so?

Fuller: Working at BCG, experiencing the diverse range of teams, projects, and clients—noticing how some conditions encouraged and inspired imagination and new ideas more than others.

Reeves: Bruce Henderson (the founder of BCG) suggested that ideas were a technology for reshaping the world. That has been a compass for my career. Also my mentor George Stalk’s encouragement to constantly reflect and abstract from the particular and to accumulate these ideas into files to be periodically synthesized. And current BCG CEO Rich Lesser’s philosophy that bringing smart people together, encouraging them and removing obstacles was an essential role for leaders.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Reeves: The quote illustrates the idea of self-discovered logic. Ideas need champions to do work in the world and we are the best champions of our own ideas. The idea cannot be divorced from the social context.

Fuller: I agree. Leaders have to work within the mental models that other people have. Learn the mental models and the language of the people you want to work with – these existing mental models are the raw material you and they can recombine to create mental models of What doesn’t yet exist – but can be imagined.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Fuller: This is a hard one to take to heart, especially if you have an active imagination. I would suggest that this applies sometimes and in some areas, not always. Part of your company should be investigating “what can we do?” – exploring, trying many things. Another part of your company should be determining “what should we not do” – focusing on scaling and executing well-known models

Reeves: Part of strategy is the discipline of focus and optimizing what is. But this focus must originate in exploratory, divergent thinking and action and will eventually be disrupted by the same. Porter’s statement applies to the steady state phase of strategy, which we can demonstrate is becoming shorter and shorter.

From Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Reeves: The quote reminds me of the paradox of ambidexterity. Start-ups struggle to find a commercially viable idea. If they succeed the need to exploit that idea through focus and optimization. But such success can easily be the enemy of future success, if it diminishes curiosity, humility, and exploration.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Reeves: Strategy is about the pursuit of sustainable competitive advantage. The rate at which out-performance regresses to the mean, the fade rate, is however increasing due to the velocity of digital competition and other factors. This competing on static advantages is giving way to the need to compete on the rate of learning. We could say that learning is the new execution.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Reeves: Equally execution without vision is stasis. Imagination and execution go hand in hand. Our book is really about harnessing imagination, and about the interplay of the mental and physical, the visionary and the executional, the individual and the social aspects of this process.

Fuller: I think the spirit of this quote is right: imagination and organizational ability need to be married, for either to be successful in the long run.

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Fuller: This is a great quote. It’s a reminder that sharing the emotion and motivation behind an idea is as important as the idea itself. Without the ethos (person) and pathos (emotion) the logos (idea) won’t spread.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Reeves: In stable times, pursuit of efficiency of an unchanging business blueprint makes sense. That’s essentially what one of the classical tools of strategy, the learning curve is all about. We do not live in such times. We never complete descent of a learning curve because the curve is interrupted by competitive disruption. We need to create and preserve a tension between running and reinventing businesses. The lure of efficiency is that it can be easily measured and is essentially a simple problem of maximization. Exploring the unknown and balancing this against the given is a far more demanding problem, but also a much more relevant one in today’s business environment

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which the imagination of workers — at all levels and in all areas —  is most likely to thrive?

Fuller: First, time is set aside for reflection and speculative discussion; also, it is normal to discuss multiple opposing perspectives on a question or proposed action; and there is widespread understanding that early-stage ideas which might evolve to become brilliant and valuable start off as messy, confusing, and not obviously valuable.

Reeves: In addition to Jack’s comments I would add that it would be a culture which is not dominated by fear or complacency, both of which are corrosive of imagination.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Reeves: Some of the greatest challenges for CEOs are avoiding the catastrophe of the commons with respect to climate change, reinventing how organizations work to leverage both human and machine cognition and leading in a context of increasing inequality and polarization.

Fuller: The greatest challenge will be attracting and cultivating the kinds of minds the business needs to succeed and stand out in industries that will become increasingly shaped by AI. Minds that combine imagination and executional ability, can learn fast, and can work effectively with evolving AI tools.

Now please shift your attention to The Imagination Machine. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

Reeves: We put on a creative dinner every year at TED, which explored through food, décor, and entertainment themes such as “less is more” and “serendipity.” In preparing for one dinner Jack and I discussed the topic of play and we were both struck by how unplayful most workplaces were. This prompted us to write a piece on The Playful Corporation. We both felt that there was much more to say about the topic and that prompted us to write a book about imagination in business over the course of the next 18 months.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Reeves: There were several pivotal insights for me. One was the Baysian theory of the brain as championed by Karl Friston, about how events, perceptions, mental models and actions interact. Another was the categorization of different levels of cognition by the mathematician Judea Pearl and in particular the idea that counter-factual thinking, or imagination, is grounded in causal thinking. A third was understanding the challenge of intersubjectivity, how we can be sure that we are thinking about the same idea, where are indebted to the phenomenological philosopher and expert on Husserl, Edi Marbach. If I were to give a fourth, it would be our discussion with the leading AI thinker Blaise Agiera y Arcas, about whether machines will ever be able to imagine and the realization that the question doesn’t quite make sense unless you consider the entire socio-technical system of man plus machine.

Fuller: One of the biggest revelations for me was realizing why cognitive diversity is valuable: because you have many different mental models to draw on – which is like having a large warehouse of construction materials for imagination.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Fuller: Like good consultants, we developed many frameworks. At some point we realized however that we could do away with this scaffolding, and reduce everything back to the valuable key points, which could stand on their own. We wanted to respect the reader, and leave nothing in the book that wasn’t either useful or imagination-provoking.

In your opinion, what is the most problematic misconception about creative thinking? What in fact is true?

Reeves: Its common to see imagination as a special gift of certain individuals which relies on some sort of instantaneous divine inspiration. We celebrate that image in heroic stories of figures like Steve Jobs. It invites us to believe that imagination could not possibly be harnessed systematically, whereas the central contention of our book is that it can – at least as much as any other complex aspect of human affairs.

Fuller: The biggest misconception is that creative thinking is the opposite of analysis and orderly thought. In fact, as we show in the book, the two are deeply linked. Having a clear understanding of something is a prerequisite for being productively imaginative about it.

What’s your response when someone tells you, “I’m really not very imaginative?”

Fuller: Everyone can imagine, it’s a capacity of our brain. The hard thing is making time for it, and persisting with a still-forming idea – which can feel marginal, not useful, and not impressive for a long time, before the idea might eventually evolve into something groundbreaking.

Reeves: As Jack says, we can all imagine. But we do so intuitively, without necessarily understanding how the process works and how it can be cultivated and harnessed. So in a sense, the book is about codifying and exploiting at an organizational level a capability which we all possess. Our book deals with the entire cycle of ideas from inspirations through codification and obsolescence and replenishment. Different people have different propensities along this path. Codifiers think very differently for example from keen observers. Part of the managerial challenge of harnessing imagination is to cultivate and configure this cognitive diversity to create motion through the cycle of ideas.

According to an African proverb, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. In your opinion, to what extent (if any) is this proverb relevant to a brainstorming session?

Reeves: It didn’t make it into the book but our collaborators at the London Institute of Mathematical Sciences have shown that difficult anagrams are best solved not by the best anagram solvers but by turn-taking among a diverse group of individuals. The “downhill moves” of each individual are different and can be combined in a synergistic manner.

If good is the enemy of great, what is the enemy of imagination? Please explain.

Reeves: Big businesses are often dominated by a culture of pragmatism and financialization. Action orientation and score keeping are of course not without considerable merits. But there is nothing less practical than to optimize yesterday’s business model beyond the expiration of it’s shelf life. And excluding or inhibiting early-stage ideas which defy measurement is a sure recipe for future poor returns!

Fuller: Like “great” being the enemy of “good enough,” sensible-sounding questions like, “Will it increase our margins?” and “How much will it cost?” are the enemy of early-stage imaginative ideas—which are always messy, unformed, and less impressive than they might become over time. Such questions are vital, but at a later stage, when the ideas are more mature.

What is the best process for formulating a mental model?

Fuller: Write down all the mental models which you want to draw on and list the elements. Say you were rethinking a hospital. You might write out the mental models behind gyms (components include: membership, training, interior design), nutritionists (personalization, daily routines), and coaches (mentorship, motivation). All these components of other mental models are things you might import into your new, imagined, mental model of a future hospital. Recombining these elements can create new models. And applying constraints can force the process of seeing new combinations. The whole process can be very visual using some sort of canvass or map.

Why is it necessary for ideas to travel from mind to world and back repeatedly?

Reeves: Surprises create the impetus to embrace new mental models. This can comprise accidents, anomalies or analogies. In this way an idea crosses from the world to the mind. After being refined in the mind, the idea is tested by collision with reality, which can also generate further surprise, triggering more counterfactual thinking. To catch on and to evolve, the idea also needs to enter and be acted upon by other minds – those of colleagues, investors and customers. And to do work in the world, ideas need to be operationalized. Thus the journey of an idea consists of a succession of jumps between the mind and the world. In this way, imagination is not solely a mental or individual activity

Albert Einstein once suggested, “If you can’t explain your great idea to a six year-old, you really don’t understand it.” Do you agree? Please explain.

Fuller: Yes. Writers and thinkers often use complexity to show off and defend their turf. Thankfully, in business, people appreciate being to-the-point and comprehensible. Simplification is much harder than complexification. Our experience is that business leaders are generally very open minded to new ideas which might be useful but they tend to be very intolerant of obscurity.

In your opinion, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from the reimagination of LEGO Group?

Reeves:  The continuous evolution of the offering from construction to wooden toys to plastic toys to plastic bricks to systems of play to theme parks and movies powerfully illustrates the importance of constantly balancing exploration and exploitation. Their philosophy of learning through play is central not only to their product but also to their management system. One under-appreciated aspect of Lego’s genius is the visual instructions which they have mastered the art of producing, which can guide a physics professor or a 5 year old to construct a complex model. In this sense, they are masters of codification, step 5 in our framework.

What are the most valuable lessons to be learned from Charles Merrill’s leadership style?

Fuller: He said it himself – in the early days of Merrill Lynch, Merrill wrote to his business partner Winthrop Smith about the importance of taking time to reflect: “You and George Hyslop [a partner in the firm], and when I am there, me, too, should never be so busy that we cannot set aside at least one hour each day to quiet, thoughtful study and discussion of the basic principles, as contrasted with current operations.

Reeves: Merrill also demonstrates the power of analogy in imagination. By asking why a bank could not be like a mass market retailer, at a time when brokerage was an exclusive, untransparent club for wealthy gentlemen, led to a radically new model with products, transparent pricing and educating a mass audience which ushered in a new era on Wall Street.

If a workplace culture is viewed as a “machine,” what would be the highest priorities in terms of preventive maintenance?

Reeves: Give as much attention, recognition and structure to the exploratory, future oriented aspects of the business as is usually given to optimizing and executing the current model.

Fuller: Assess and reward people partly on their ability to do useful counterfactual thinking; ensure at least one employee a month gets early-stage funding and support to explore a new idea; take a survey of when people last encountered something surprising, and if the number is low, encourage people to get out of the office and visit the field, or seek new information sources.

To what extent (if any) can — and should  — imaginative thinking be a basic component of an M.B.A. program? Please explain.

Fuller: It can and should be. MBAs should train people in the imagination-focused mindset and the execution-focused mindset—and how to be good at both simultaneously.

Reeves: I can’t recall any formal training in imagination beyond kindergarten. Most of my formal education was concerned with acquiring functional knowledge or deductive problem solving skills. This is a huge and non-inevitable omission in general and managerial education. Some professors and schools  like Mihnea Moldoveanu at Rotman and Tony O’Driscoll at Fuqua are beginning to address this with courses on integrative thinking and complex scenario planning respectively, but this is the exception rather than the norm.

In  your opinion, which non-business course in a liberal arts curriculum can be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career? Please explain.

Reeves: I think that exposure to a variety of worldviews and disciplines is advantageous in cultivating imagination. In this sense, an increasing tendency towards early specialization is not a good thing. Personally I try to read very broadly and I am more likely to gain an insight about creative uses of technology — from say biology, philosophy or literature — than from studying technology.

Fuller: I am biased, because I have a doctorate in theology, but I would suggest philosophy or theology. At their best these subjects can teach you to think and communicate clearly and powerfully, and help you explore the crucial questions of “What is human flourishing?” and “What is valuable and worth working for?” Having answers to these questions will help you be a leader, because you can think about what direction an entire business (or industry) should be heading in. And setting an ideal is a starting point for imagining how to get there.

Paraphrasing Henry Ford, I am convinced that if you think you can or think you can’t think imaginatively, you’re probably right. What do you think?

Reeves: Business is a pragmatic art, and I think as much about what it is useful to believe as about some absolute truth. A person may regard themselves as more or less imaginative, and in some sense they might be right, but this could easily lead to solipsism or defeatism respectively. I think its more useful to believe that we all have the capacity, we can all refine it and can all contribute to collective imagination.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in The Imagination Machine will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Fuller: Our advice on how absorbing many different worldviews and perspectives is the basis for a rich and useful imagination.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Reeves: I would underline what Jack says, by adding that a small or new business has no choice but to compete in a different way to incumbents and therefore will derive proportionally more value from reminding themselves that mental models are choices not facts.

Fuller: I think it would be our advice about how to put down the demands of the day to make time to imagine new ideas and where things could go from here.

To C-level executives in Fortune 500 companies?

Fuller: Our advice about how to reinvigorate companies that have lost their imaginative spark—by precipitating a crisis, getting people into the field, setting a strong ideal, or making bold moves.

Reeves: The economy is largely divided between small high growth companies with constrained cash flow and large, cash rich businesses with poor growth prospects. The latter need to adopt the entrepreneurism of the former  (or their former entrepreneurial selves) in order to sustain the business, through self-disruption, reimagination and rejuvenation.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Fuller: I wish you had asked “What’s your favorite chapter in the book?” I would say the chapter on whether AI is itself becoming imaginative, and different ways AI and humans can work together to enhance imagination.

Reeves: We never discussed that, Jack, but it’s my favorite chapter too!

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Martin and Jack cordially invite you to check out the resources at this website:

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