Imagined Worlds

How Imagination Drives Innovation

By Darren Clift, Writer

It’s easy to exercise creativity during childhood, when imaginations are unrestrained. But as we grow up, we learn to leash our imaginations, to criticize our own creativity. The open parks of childhood become the closed spaces of our grown-up selves.

Design thinking seeks to re-liberate our creativity, but the forces and learned behaviours pushing against it are strong. To see how design leadership can nurture fresh ideas, I spoke to Gabriele Simmons, a Senior Project Assistant at the Innovation Hub.

She recounted two projects: UofT Concierge and the Latinx Student Experience project. The two had different goals and scopes—UofT Concierge tried to help all students navigate campus services, while the Latinx Student Experience project studied the experiences of Latinx students.

Yet both depended on strong teamwork. “We can only do so much as individuals,” Gabriele said, “and a large group can do a lot.” One way to expand creativity is to include more points of view. Everyone knows something that someone else doesn’t, so all team members need to work together.

While working on these projects, Gabriele’s understanding of creativity evolved. She once thought that she wasn’t creative—because creativity was all about arts and colours. But the Innovation Hub introduced her to a new definition of creativity: one that relies on strategy and empathy. Designing interview experiences that engage stakeholders may not be a visual art, but it is a highly intentional interaction that requires reflection and planning.

On teams, leaders need to inspire these skills in others. Gabriele found that open communication best nurtured creativity. Leaders need to humanize themselves and acknowledge collective wisdom. She begins by asking “How do you like to communicate?” By catering to the communication preferences of the group, she can share openly and encourage others to do the same. And when team members share, following up on their recommendation with “Yes, and…” further encourages ideation.

“Yes, and…” can take the group to some … interesting places. In a brainstorming session, Gabriele and her team were bouncing around ideas to improve commuting. “Why doesn’t someone provide massages on the subway?” she asked. And then: “Why doesn’t Ryan Gosling provide massages on the subway?” Out-of-the-way ideas might seem off-kilter, but they also enrapture. They inspire everyone else to think bigger, or to think differently.

They return us to the freedom of childhood, before we learn our limits, when our favourite question is, “But why not?”

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