Great innovators are nothing if not imaginative. Imaginative in coming up with new ideas. Imaginative in finding ways to explore and test and implement those ideas. Imaginative in how they observe the world around them and gain awareness. Imaginative in how they make sense of those observations. They do not just invent new possibilities. They synthesize creative ideas with fresh insights and a clear-eyed understand of the challenges they confront, of the problems they need to solve. Being imaginative is about developing hunches, intuitions and hypotheses about what customers want, what solutions will work, what will produce genuine value.

This is part of a series of posts on newly published research into personal innovativeness, its impact and its attributes. If you like, you can download a white paper on this body of work. In previous posts, I wrote about the importance of awareness and openness. This post has been more of a struggle to write because saying that innovation requires imagination is about as profound as saying that swimming requires water. It is just too easy and too obvious. So let me focus on what I think is the primary obstacle we face when we apply our imagination—one that is self-imposed.

If innovation has an enemy, its name is Expertise, and it is one sinister adversary. It knows we need it. In many fields, a great deal of expertise is required to even begin to look for needed solutions. (This is often true even within the field of innovation.) Yet, it can also put a powerful drag on our imagination, and without imagination innovation is certain to stall.

In her book, The Innovation Killer, former Intel innovation lead Cynthia Barton Rabe, compares what she calls ExpertThink to the more familiar groupthink, saying,

“If Groupthink is like the earth’s gravity, ExpertThink is like the force of a black hole, where not even light gets out.”

Or, as Mark Twain put it,

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Throughout our lives, we have been taught to value knowledge. We were rewarded for acquiring it when we were in school, and we are rewarded for possessing it in our careers. Yet that same knowledge can be a trap we are all too easily lulled into. When we think conventionally, we tend to be most comfortable with what we already know and are convinced will work. It feels safe and reliable. We think of our imagination as secondary to our knowledge, because imagination is untested and unproven.

Innovation requires that we reverse those priorities and elevate imagination above knowledge. It demands that we recognize that our knowledge is always incomplete and therefore tentative and subject to revision. Yes we need knowledge, but we also need to question it and find ways to move beyond that expertise. When we fail to do that, we remain locked into the status quo. As valuable as our expertise can be, it loses much of that value when we cling to it too tightly. That dampens our originality. It makes us resistant to new ideas. It leaves us with fewer options.

Some of the negative pressure we feel is social. We may have worked hard to acquire a body of expertise. It has become part of our self-image and a source of status among our peers. We are reluctant to challenge it because that would mean doing things that we think we-should-know-better than to do. Another source of tension is cognitive. Our expertise becomes part of our mindset, part of how we explain the world to ourselves, often in ways that are not fully conscious, and that creates assumptions and biases we may not realize we have.

There are hundreds perhaps thousands of techniques that have been developed to help us generate ideas, everything from brainstorming, to free association to incubation to metaphor. But none of them will take us very far if we are not willing to let go of our expertise and move beyond what we think we know. That frequently means not just extending our knowledge, but revising it.

One of the oldest techniques used in brainstorming is to delay judgment. The intent is to allow a free flow of ideas without critiquing them, reserving that for later. It is just too easy to shoot new ideas down based on what we think we already know. When we allow prior knowledge to become our initial filter, very few ideas can survive. But it is those imaginative ideas, not our knowledge, that have the most potential value precisely because they challenge what we think we know.

Great innovators are relentless in their desire to move beyond conventional wisdom, and not just when they are brainstorming. For them, it is about more than being a skilled ideator; it is about being creative and intuitive as a sustained way of thinking. Elevating imagination above knowledge does not mean rejecting our knowledge, but always being willing to reconsider it, in light of new evidence and ideas. For innovators, knowledge is a source of possibilities and the status quo is one option among many. They not only imagine; they value imagination (in both themselves and others) more than they value expertise. It is a shift many find hard to make, and it makes all the difference.