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Over his 30 years as a strategy consultant, Martin Reeves has noticed that managers are usually adept at grappling with the analytical side of developing a course for the future, but adrift when it comes to the imaginative element. To help, the senior partner at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) invites them to unlock the creative side of their brain at the start of strategy sessions by playing various games that push them to address the entrenched mental models that may be preventing new thinking. “You can’t stretch your strategy unless you stretch your minds,” he says.

Imagination is counterfactual thinking. It involves mental gymnastics. Through play, Mr. Reeves believes people can see that the mental models in their mind are not facts, but just notions – useful at times, but also dangerous if clung to when outdated. In his new book The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company’s Future, co-written with former BCG colleague Jack Fuller, he shares some of the games he uses to spark new ideas and turn them into reality.

One favourite is the Maverick Game. Every industry has its mavericks, those who try unusual approaches. The tendency is to dismiss them – but in this game, you can’t. You must list all the competitors, large and small, that are making a bet against your business model. Then pick five that represent the range of alternative business-model assumptions and imagine the implications of each becoming successful to the point of challenging your business.

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Still, it’s a game – and by its rules, you win, staying on top. But you need to figure out how that happened – what you would have done to successfully compete against the maverick. “The point is not whether the maverick actually succeeds – most challengers, especially startups, will likely fail,” Mr. Reeves notes. “Rather, the point is to test the disruptive potential of their ideas, to stretch your thinking – and in so doing, discover new threats and opportunities.”

Another such activity, the Bad Customer Game, helps with what Mr. Reeves labels the “seduction” phase of strategy – finding new sparks that attract your attention. The tendency is to dismiss bad customers and non-customers – people who are unsatisfied with your products or services or who have major problems with the way you operate under your current business model. Instead, meet with them or listen to customer-service calls to understand their needs and motivations. Then ask yourself: What would our business have to look like to be able to satisfy those customers? Maybe you shouldn’t bother – but maybe you should, because some disruptive challenger will appeal to them instead. “By the time you see and feel disruption, it’s too late,” Mr. Reeves says. “Games like this get you to act quickly.”

In the Wrong Meeting Game, you start attending meetings you wouldn’t normally join – perhaps being part of the marketing group’s huddle, or the purchasing manager’s check-in, or sitting in with a technical group working on a major project. Turning up in unexpected places may unearth equally unexpected ideas that intrigue you.

Disruptors often look for points of friction, where things aren’t operating smoothly. In the No Friction Game, you imagine a business like yours without any friction – perfect information, no search costs to find and purchase your product or service, full understanding of your offering, ideal availability, no mistakes, no quality issues and no delays.

Yeah, right – “No Friction” may seem like fiction. But the key is to observe where your business departs from this ideal scenario and then determine which sources of friction are the largest – and most susceptible to reduction or elimination. Mr. Reeves points to how Amazon and other companies have gone from delivery within a few days, to a day, to now often just a few hours. “Customers weren’t asking for such speedy delivery, but they did it anyway by taking out friction,” he says. This helps with establishing the “new normal” stage of your imagination machine, reshaping reality.

But a new mental model is just an indulgence unless you act. That’s why an important phase of the process outlined in The Imagination Machine involves the collision between imagination and action. News Headlines is another game to help. Choose a new, creative mental model you have been thinking about. For one week, go to The Globe’s home page and for every news story you find there, ask yourself: What is one way I can connect this story to my idea? Be playful. Next, consider whether any of those links raised any interesting or surprising thoughts about the concept. Then, refine your mental model and make it more workable.

Also at this stage, you can play the Money Game. Pick an idea and think of one way that you could act on it given $100,000 and three months; another way you could proceed with $10,000 and one month; a third way involving $100 and one week; and lastly, one cheap and easy way you could swing it today, using the resources at hand. Have others go through the same process and swap ideas.

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Games can be fun. They can free up our minds. And out of that combination can come the imaginative insights that otherwise might not arise if you stick with a purely analytical approach.

Cannonballs

  • It used to be common to begin strategic retreats with a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Kitchener, Ont.-based consultant Jim Clemmer recommends beginning with an assessment of your most significant successes and milestones of progress to delineate organizational strengths. That leads to a discussion of the top three strengths you can leverage for further success and the top three shifts you must make to attain your vision.
  • A gentle way to challenge a subordinate, suggests executive coach Dan Rockwell, is by asking, “How might you reach a little higher?” Another possible question: “What would make your goal a little more challenging?”
  • People wouldn’t quit your firm if they were able to do the best work of their lives, says recruitment specialist John Sullivan.

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