The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers

With thanks to a tweet by Donald Farmer, I recently came across an impressive graphic representation of the increasing degrees of human imagination.

Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination was designed by John Maeda based on his conversation with Patti Brennan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Similar in design to Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Needs, the Hierarchy of Imagination is represented as a pyramid progressing from the base of reactionary behavior with little or no imagination (Reflex), proceeding upward to Problem Solving, then Creativity, and finally the pinnacle of “completely unrestrained” Imagination.  It is a very thought-provoking, very useful model.

I had a few thoughts on Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination and its application to the workplace and product marketing/management in particular:

  • The hierarchy should not be interpreted as disparaging jobs in which little creativity or problem solving is expected. What sets a worker in such a job apart from others is the level of wisdom they bring to their job (Read more here). That said, a person in the Reflex category had better not find himself in a Peter Principle job situation and be expected to proactively solve problems or provide creative leadership.
  • Many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination. A product manager who spends his time gathering customer enhancement requests and prioritizing bug fixes (Problem Solving) will likely find himself in trouble with his VP who expects him to creatively identify new, ground-breaking features for the next version of the product. Conversely, a “left brain” business owner who prides herself as a Problem Solver is more likely to fail to appreciate the creative work of her marketing manager. She might even be reluctant to recognize new business leads are being generated by creative, engaging marketing programs, choosing to be preoccupied instead with supposed “flaws” as to “how” those marketing programs were executed.
  • Problem Solvers should beware of creativity blind spots. With the thought in mind, I read an article linked on John Maeda’s blog on the challenges creative people might face when pursuing leadership roles. I’m willing to wager that many of those surveyed demonstrating ambivalence towards creative people tend to fit into the imagination hierarchy as Problem Solvers themselves, strongly focused on successful project administration but also generally unaware of the creative value and ultimate business impact of a project’s deliverables. To paraphrase a passage I recall from a Tom Peters book, ‘the project was ahead of schedule and under budget… but no one cared about the final product!’ Such Problem Solvers risk losing their creatives, and with them, their capacity to innovate, gain the attention of new prospects and keep existing customers.
  • In fairness to Problem Solvers, creativity needs to be directed carefully. Product manager turned CEO Barbara Tallent warns product managers to avoid working on “just the cool stuff” instead of what customers have already said they need and will pay for. Read more here.
  • The further you go up the imagination hierarchy, the more vital your skills of persuasion will be. In order for a creative person or someone with “completely unconstrained” Imagination to achieve his vision, he will need to effectively brief others in the organization on the merits of that vision. And if their boss is that prideful Problem Solver, they must effectively “manage up” and earn the boss’ buy-in, enthusiasm and support. Read more here.
  • You can’t “teach” creativity, but you can help cultivate it. On this issue, I really like Patti Brennan’s comment: “teaching creativity doesn’t work but expanding their imaginations might work better.” In her work in patient healthcare, Patti Brennan believes “that in order to get patients to take control of their health, they need to imagine what it looks like to be more healthy.” Well said! The ability to visualize something better than what you are already doing is vital for creativity. Similarly, creativity requires a capacity to empathize with others, whether we are talking about the health problems of patients or the challenges and frustrations of our customers. Good product management and product marketing professionals can translate their empathy towards what customers are going through into well-defined products and clear, relevant, engaging messaging and content.

I found Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination very insightful and I look forward to reading more from John Maeda’s Creative Leadership blog.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Product Managers and Product Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”? [Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers]

Today’s “New Rules” Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”

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