As we continue our journey on creativity and innovation, Strategic Partner, Diane Janovsky, weaves a tale of how many great inventions and organizations were born, right out of thinking in non-traditional ways to achieve extraordinary results. Enjoy part one of a two-part story of: Why Didn’t I Think of That?

Innovation is the life blood of a business. This is a well-recognized and accepted truism, and wise leaders strive to create an environment where innovation can thrive. But how do people actually go about it, and what does it really mean to be creative…imaginative…innovative?

For most of us, what probably comes to mind first is what Napoleon Hill called “creative imagination” in his classic bestseller Think and Grow Rich. These are the flashes of brilliance or brand-new ideas that spontaneously and miraculously pop into our heads when we are connected to what he terms “Infinite Intelligence”. We all know people who seem to be naturally good at this, but it can be discouraging for those of us who don’t seem to have the “gift”.

Fortunately, Hill also writes about an alternative which he describes as “synthesized imagination”, where “you arrange old concepts, ideas, or plans into new combinations”. This was an epiphany for me when I read the book because I felt like it was a more practical and accessible way to approach creativity. And a lot less random than hoping the universe would speak to me!
Historical examples of synthesized imagination abound:

Johann Gutenberg created the printing press by combining the functionality of two existing tools with completely different purposes. The coin punch transferred an image on to a small area, and the wine press squeezed grapes over a large area. Put them together, and voila!


Thomas Edison successfully produced the first incandescent light by linking two previously unrelated bits of knowledge. While a wire could be heated enough to create light, it would only last minutes and then burn out due to the intense heat. His innovation of placing the wire in a bottle where most of the air had been removed came from his understanding of how charcoal is produced (by setting wood on fire but limiting air by covering it with soil so it can only smolder).


More recently, Amazon was the pioneer in combining technology with the sale of traditional products and services when they got their start selling books via the internet. With the advent of smartphones, that model has been further leveraged to disrupt multiple industries like hospitality (Airbnb) and taxi service (Uber, Lyft).


The good news is that using the concept of synthesized imagination can provide a path to innovation. In the words of Nobel prize winning physician Albert Szent-Gyorgi, “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different”. The challenge is that it is still easier said than done.

Even if we are highly motivated to see things differently and activate our synthesized imagination, how do we do it? According to creativity guru and author Roger von Oech (A Whack on the Side of the Head), we must overcome three main barriers that hold us back:

  1. We don’t need to be creative to live our day to day lives. In fact, we largely depend on our routines to enable us to function easily and efficiently.
  2. We weren’t taught in school to be creative, nor were we rewarded for it. Good grades came from learning and behaving a certain way, and from getting the “right answers”. The norm was “coloring between the lines”, not “thinking outside the box”.
  3. We all have underlying attitudes, perceptions and mindsets that guide us, and generally, they serve us well. However, when we want to rev up our imagination, these “mental locks”, as von Oech refers to them, may restrict us and keep us thinking the same way.

In our next Power Idea, we’ll take a closer look at the 10 mental locks and two ways to open them to let creativity flow.