A metaskill is a master skill—a skill that magnifies and activates other skills. In a period of great change, such as the one we’re living in now, our most important metaskill may be imagination. Imagination lets us invent new business models, create differentiated brands, and reframe a growing number of problems as opportunities. Yet it’s also our most mysterious skill. How is it possible to conjure up images, feelings and concepts that we can’t perceive through our senses?

It turns out that when people talk about “dreaming up” an idea, they’re not far from the truth—imagination has been closely linked to dream states. Neuroscientists Charles Limb and Allen Braun studied the brains of jazz musicians, revealing a “disassociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex” when they played improvisational music. This pattern was absent when the musicians played memorized sequences. These disassociated patterns, they say, are similar to what happens during REM sleep. Dreaming is marked by a sense of unfocused attention, unplanned or irrational associations, and an apparent loss of control.

Dreams don’t simply visit us. While we’re asleep, we actively create them the same way we create our perceptions while we’re awake. What makes dreams so fascinating is the absence of logical narrative. Even though the scenes we create in our dreams may seem random, their emotional trajectory often makes complete sense; our emotions are fully engaged, while our reasoning is disconnected.

Dreaming can be harnessed for any purpose using what I call applied imagination. Once we learn the “trick” of dreaming—of disassociating our thoughts from the linear and the logical—we can become wellsprings of originality.

The tar pits of knowledge

It’s axiomatic that, to innovate, you need to move from the known to the unknown. You need to hold your beliefs lightly so that what you believe doesn’t block your view of what you might find out.  

This is difficult for most people. When asked to imagine a new tool for slicing bread or a new melody for a song, they may stare blankly, as if to say, “How could there be such a thing?” They may recall many of the knives or popular songs they’ve known, but nothing new will come to mind. At most, they might try to combine the features of two or more existing examples to come up with a hybrid.

The number-one hazard for innovators is getting stuck in the “tar pits of knowledge.” While knowledge can free us to imagine new-to-the-world ideas, it can also trap us into believing opportunities are smaller than they are. When we’re stumped by a problem, or when we feel hurried to solve it, our brains can easily default to off-the-shelf solutions based on “what everyone knows.” You might say the problem-solving mind is a sucker for a pretty fact. What we know today may not be what we need to know tomorrow. So to avoid jumping to conclusions, we need to hold off on solving a problem until we can perceive the general shape of its solution.

There are three steps for generating a creative solution to a problem:

  1. discover what is;
  2. imagine what could be;
  3. and describe the attributes of success.

Let’s examine each in turn.

What is? This is the body of known facts about the problem: Why is it a problem? What is its history? What is the conventional thinking about it? How have similar problems been solved in the past, perhaps in other domains? And what are the practical constraints of the problem?

Constraints are the limitations imposed by the context of a problem, which might include budgets, time, manpower, habits, conventions, or fears. They squeeze the problem down to a size you can focus on. Without constraints, solutions tend towards the ungainly, the unfocused, and the unimaginative. Unbounded challenges are anathema to innovators; bounded challenges provide not only a starting place, but a booster shot of adrenaline.

In a famous 1854 lecture at the University of Lille, Louis Pasteur said: “Dans les champs de l’observation, le hasard ne favorise que les esprit préparés.” In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind. Pasteur’s statement is often used to support the idea that hard work trumps talent, but it also suggests that the better you understand the facts and constraints, the better your chances of solving the problem.

What could be? Facts and constraints are necessary but insufficient. To envision what’s possible, you also need imagination. One way to get started is by asking deeper questions. For example, when Thomas Edison imagined the light bulb, he didn’t frame the question as, How can we create an alternative source of light? Instead, he framed it as, How can we make electricity so cheap that “only the rich will burn candles”? While you can easily overreach the possibilities by thinking too big, it’s much easier to tame a wild idea than to reanimate a dead one.

The attributes of success. The shape of a missing answer is formed at the intersection of affordances and desiderata.

Affordances are the counterpoint to constraints: they are creative possibilities that are native to the subject, the method, the tools, or the challenge. For example, a movie about the early days of movies contains the affordance of being a silent film (The Artist); a car designed for the poor population of India contains the affordance of being extremely minimal (Tata Motors); and a company with a breadth of experience but a commoditized product line has the possibility to become a consulting firm (IBM).

Desiderata are secondary objectives that support a goal or a solution, and this principle can be applied to any number of problems. It’s really as simple as compiling a wish list. Ask yourself this question and fill in the blank: Wouldn’t it be great if ______? When you finish your list, call out the wishes that would create the most compelling outcome. These will form a sort of matrix that defines the shape of your answer.


To make your wish list more than an ordinary shopping list, you’ll need to engage your imagination. Imagination is the key to originality, and originality is the key to building sustainable businesses and brands. By definition, originality is the only thing that can’t be copied. Let’s take a look at how to get started.

Reviving the play instinct

Imagination is the child of obstinacy and playfulness: it comes from a refusal to settle for the comfortable answer while having fun doing it. During the Industrial Age, fun was discouraged. It took time to have fun, and time was the non-renewable resource that needed to be maximized and measured. Employees were paid by the number of pieces they could complete or the predetermined function they performed, not by the number of new ideas they brought to the table. Time was money, and money was time.

After the clock came to Europe in 1307, it took less than a century for mechanical time to sweep the continent. With clocks, you could agree on the delivery of a shipment, regularize the baking of bread, and estimate the completion of a brick wall. Clocks paved the way for sophisticated banking, transportation, mass production, and eventually computers. They brought precision to business; but they also brought an undue emphasis on quantity over quality.

The ancient Greeks understood that time comes in two flavours: objective time, called chronos; and subjective time, called kairos. Chronos could be measured by the sun, the moon or the seasons. Kairos could not be measured, only judged by the quality of one’s experience. My kairos is different from your kairos, but our chronos is the same. Today we use the term quality time to describe the experience of living in unmeasured time. We find that as soon as we measure or limit quality time, it quickly turns into quantity time.

Think back to a day in your childhood when you were so busy playing that you lost track of the clock. The minutes and hours blended seamlessly, one into the next, while your mind focused on some engaging activity. As you grew older, this play instinct began to fade. The requirements of society demanded more attention to objective time—an adherence to deadlines, agreements and social courtesies—until play became more and more associated with non-productivity, a kind of time that had no commercial value.

Yet quality time is the state in which imagination flourishes best. You can’t decide to produce an insight in 30 minutes, or to have an idea by 3:15. But you can decide to forget about the clock and focus on the challenge at hand, in which case you may well have an idea by 3:15—or even five ideas. Imagination takes as long as it takes, and rushing it usually slows it down. This is the central conflict between the world of business and the world of creativity. They need each other, but can’t seem to understand each other. They’re working in two different kinds of time.

The solution to this dilemma, in my experience, is for business ‘doers’ and creative ‘dreamers’ to focus on goals instead of deadlines. Goals form the common ground that unites both workstyles. Focus on goals, take away the clocks, and start playing as soon as possible. What you’ll find is that generating ideas ‘out of time’ can produce results much faster than holding yourself to a deadline. If you wait until the last minute, however, leaving little opportunity for play, you’ll find yourself clutching the first idea that floats by. Quantity time will enter the picture and force a mediocre result.

If you could pry the roof off of all the mediocre companies in the world, you’d see an army of adrenaline addicts working on perpetual deadline, madly checking boxes instead of thinking ahead. You can get an immediate buzz from getting things done, but innovation requires something more: unmeasured time spent in the ‘dragon pit’, the space between what is and what could be.  But what should you be doing there? What are the rules of creative play? How do you know when you’re winning?

Here’s where quantity plays a crucial role. The best creative thinkers are usually the most prolific ones, because innovation, like evolution, depends on variety. In fact, you could say that innovation is really just ‘evolution by design’. The more ideas you have, the better your odds that two of them will combine to create a useful third idea.

Einstein’s term for this process was combinatory play. While there may be nothing new under the sun, there is no restriction on combining old things in new ways. The importance of connections is echoed by the recent discovery in neuroscience that the brain forms new ideas when two old ideas suddenly overlap. Cortical cells make new connections, rewiring themselves into fresh networks. Once the insight has been formed, the prefrontal cortex can ‘name it and claim it’. Of course, some connections offer a better fit than others: the real genius lies not in making interesting combinations, but in separating the great ideas from the merely crazy ones by applying the principles of aesthetics.

So, where do combinable ideas come from? Happily, they come from learnable techniques. While some people may be naturals in the realm of imagination, we can all improve our skills with deliberate practice. Here are six strategies that can help to trigger new ideas. 

1. Think in metaphors. A metaphor is a way of making a comparison between two unrelated things. “All the world is a stage,” is an example. The world is not a stage, but it is like a stage in some ways. Shakespeare could have used a simile instead of a metaphor—“The world is like a stage”—and it would have had the same meaning, just not the same impact. By saying the world is a stage, a fresh idea is forced to emerge: that every person is merely playing a part.

Thinking about problems metaphorically moves your thinking from the literal to the abstract, so you can move freely on a different plane. To a literal thinker, a rose is a rose; to a metaphorical thinker, a rose could be a young woman’s cheek, a seductive trap, or the morning sky before a storm. If your challenge is to invent a new name for a store that sells footwear to active girls, you could call it Active Footwear. Or you could think in metaphors and move beyond the first pasture. For example, maybe active footwear for girls is like the ballet slippers in The Red Shoes, or like a bouncy pop song from the sixties, or like—wait a minute. What if we call it Shubop?

2. Think in pictures. Many people assume Einstein was a logical, left-brain thinker, but he was actually the opposite. Rather than using mathematics or language to crack a tough problem, he preferred to think in pictures and spatial relationships. He recognized that visual thinking can strip a problem down to its essence, leading to profoundly simple conclusions that ordinary language might not be able to reach. The problem is, our brains build up patterns of experience that make it hard to think in new ways. Your best shot at clearing this hurdle is not to try and jump it, but to go around it: start from a different place—a place that doesn’t make any sense. Better yet, think of the worst place you could possibly start, and start there.

Let’s say your task is to negotiate a peace treaty between warring states. So far, no amount of reasoning has been able to bring the two sides together. You could try more reasoning, or perhaps the threat of draconian intervention, but these are likely to cause further entrenchment. So you start from a different place: what would be the worst way to structure the talks? How about suggesting that the two leaders declare immediate, mutual, all-out war? Obviously, that’s crazy; but what if you suggest it anyway, just to make a point about the absurdity of war? Then, when the two parties reject the idea, you can propose a less dramatic solution: arm wrestling to the death, winner takes all. No? How about this: arm wrestling, and whoever loses buys the other a beer. Now we’re getting somewhere. At least they’d have to be human, which would count as progress (and make for a great photo op, as well.) By following the trail from the worst idea to a workable idea, you can avoid being imprisoned by old patterns.

3. Poach from other domains. Voltaire said, “originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” What could be more judicious than stealing ideas from other fields? While doing this is not the same as pure imagination, it still takes a mental leap to see how an idea from one industry or discipline might be used in another.  For example, Gutenberg got the idea for the printing press from watching the mechanics of a wine press. This mental connection launched the book industry, and did no harm to winemakers. And in 1921, a 14-year-old Philo Farnsworth got the idea for the electronic television while tilling his family’s potato farm. The back-and-forth plowing pattern suggested the back-and-forth scanning pattern for cathode ray tubes. Talk about stealing ideas from another field!

4. Arrange blind dates. It is also possible to force connections by introducing two unrelated ideas. What do you get when you cross a bank with an Internet café? A shoe store with a charity? A Broadway show with a circus performance? You get successful business models like ING Direct, Tom’s Shoes and Cirque du Soleil.  Of course, you can also get the business equivalent of kitsch, as Clairol did when it crossed yogurt with hair care and got Touch of Yogurt Shampoo; or as Omni did when it crossed a TV hit with a carbonated drink and got Tru Blood Beverage. Don’t fall in love with your first idea: novelty and innovation are two different things.

5. Reverse the polarity. Reversing the polarity in an assumption can release conceptual energy. Here’s how to do it: let’s say your challenge is to get your employees to wash their dishes instead of leaving them in the sink. You can start by listing some assumptions about the problem:

  1. Employees don’t like doing dishes.
  2. It’s hard to tell whose dishes are in the sink.
  3. The dishes are company property.
  4. Dishes are easier to clean after they soak.
  5. Dishes tend to pile up.

Now, reverse the assumptions to see what happens.

  1. Employees love doing dishes.
  2. It’s easy to tell whose dishes are in the sink.
  3. The dishes are employee property.
  4. Dishes are easier to clean before they soak.
  5. Dishes never pile up.

What would it take to make these true? Well, employees might love doing their dishes if there was a great music system by the sink. It would be easy to tell whose dishes were in there if each item were personalized with the employees’ names or initials. Maybe employees could be allowed full kitchen privileges, but only if they agreed to use their own kitchenware. Or maybe you could install a large-capacity dishwasher that makes it just as easy to put dishes there as in the sink. Of course, you could just lay down the law, then enforce it with a surveillance camera; but that seems a bit draconian.

6. Find the paradox. If you can describe the central contradiction within a given problem, you’re well on the way to solving it. When designer Mitchell Mauk noticed a problem with the storm drains in San Francisco, he took it the initiative to propose a solution. The city had been concerned about people dumping motor oils and chemicals into the sewers, where they would flow into the bay and pollute the fish habitats. The usual warnings posted near the drains weren’t working.  The central contradiction might have been stated like this: people won’t stop dumping toxins through the sewer grates unless they can read the signs, and they won’t read the signs if they’re too busy dumping toxins through the sewer grates. So Mauk asked the question another way. Can the sewer grates and the signs be one and the same? He quickly imagined a grate in the shape of a fish. His elegant Gratefish now sends an unambiguous message: whatever you put down the drain goes right into the fish.

The 20th century made us believe that everything of value can be bought in a store; that the answer to the question lies at the back of the book; and that design is something only designers do.  But in the 21st century, we are being nudged forward—by our customers, our employers, our economy, and by the robots nipping at our heels—to be original.

Originality doesn’t come from factual knowledge, nor does it come from suppressing factual knowledge: it comes from the exposure of factual knowledge to the animating force of imagination. Sadly, the metaskill of dreaming—the ability to cut ideas out of whole cloth—is not currently taught in business schools—or any other school. This seems downright odd in an age when innovation is the dividing line between success and failure. With any luck, this situation will change. A person can dream.

Adapted from Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age. Originally published in Harvard Business Review.