The Imagination Machine - Ideas for Leaders

The Imagination Machine

How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company's Future

About Author/s:

Martin Reeves is a Senior Partner and Managing Director at the leading strategy consultancy, BCG, and a globally recognised thought-leader. He is Chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute, the consultancy's internal think-tank. His current research themes include organisational stamina, business ecosystems and a template for the new learning organisation. Jack Fuller is a Special Project Manager with the Henderson Institute; he holds a degree in neuroscience from the University of Melbourne and a doctorate in theology. He writes on strategy games, transformation, play and goal-setting.


Business life-cycles continue to get ever shorter – outperformance quickly fades to the mean. In the 1990s only 10% of top quartile corporate performers were average performers 5 years later, whereas today 90% of outperformance has decayed within 5 years. There is a consistent imperative to reinvent your organisation, to continually have the hunger to do things differently – entrepreneurially. Entrepreneurship is often scrappy and chaotic, which is anathema to highly structured organisational behemoths – so there is an inevitable tension between the internal culture and the external context (which is closer to scrappy and chaotic, with events and issues such as the pandemic, climate change, inequality disrupting carefully laid plans). 

Imagination is both the root of and the route to new solutions – but as the authors note, those solutions almost inevitably bring the next set of challenges too. First though we need to reorganise the organisation to harness our human ability to enable higher-level cognition.

Core Idea

This book explores this cognitive dimension of humanity as it relates to the organisation and its ability to imagine and reimagine itself. Like so much of the content we champion here at Ideas for Leaders, it starts from the recognition that 19th and 20th century industrial performance was founded on treating humans as units of production – human resources – like a cog in well-oiled machines. In the 21st century the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to do mundane cognitive tasks will reduce the need for supervision and first-level management roles, so freeing-up people to use their higher cognitive skills for the benefit of the organisation and its wider ecosystem. As the authors say: "Businesses will need to become much more knowledgeable about and more competent at extracting value from unique processes in human brains". They liken this to the early days of oil-prospecting where people 'dug around and occasionally struck oil' but nowadays the process is much more precise and technical – we are still in those early days of neuro-prospecting, but it will become much more sophisticated as we learn more about the holistic way our bodies operate.

Imagination is, the authors say, 'counterfactual thinking'. The ability to see in your mind's eye something that is not yet here. Business tends to deal with the present and immediate past – the things that are here. The human mind can play and recombine things virtually – in a way that, as far as we know, no other animal can, and AI is still limited in its ability to. Imagination is different from dreaming though – as to imagine something it needs to have those real elements to it, while dreams have no constraints of an underlying reality or structure to them, "in imagining we alter some parts of reality while remaining grounded…".

The book is split into six core chapters that track the journey of an idea:

  1. The Seduction – encountering the unexpected and the new, that stimulates the possibility for changing your mental models – and doing something differently. This is the 'growth mindset' approach – keeping alert for anomalies, and spotting bottlenecks and hurdles that could be tackled differently
  2. The Idea – turning passing thoughts into mental models. Start messy, play with them, play with what they are for – expand or reduce scope, and my particular favourite 'balance arrogance and humility'. "…you have to have enough ego that you're willing to put forth ideas, have confidence in them, and the resilience to push them through to reach a certain level of development' they quote biologist Simon Levin as saying, but that needs to be balanced with an open-mind for weaknesses in the model and willingess to make changes.
  3. The Collision – if the mental model is the plan, then putting it into action is the reality and as Mike Tyson says "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." This collision is a vital part of the process and can be dealt with through refocusing, moving and probing.
  4. The Epidemic – socialising the idea/mental model and getting it to be both adopted and spread, as it mutates and evolves.
  5. The New Ordinary – taking the new idea mainstream. It is only when it is no longer seen as 'new' that it can be seen to have become properly embedded.
  6. The Encore – the ability to continue innovating. Amazon is the pin-up here from book store, to everything store, to cloud storage giant, to Kindle manufacturer, full-circle to now high-street stores…. It is vital to adopt commercial ambidexterity of exploring new opportunities while exploiting current assets.



Reeves and Fuller pull together an enormous breadth of research, insight and investigation in this relatively short book – just 156 pages, though it is imaginatively published in a trimmed landscape quarto – and is filled with cartoons, photos and diagrams to lighten the textual load. 

The case studies from LEGO to Amazon by way of the first burger franchise,White Castle Systems, and many others, frames the theoretical and observed best practices as well as enlivening the narrative. As you would expect from consultants there is no shortage of frameworks and diagnostics and instructional thinking. 

Whether the book breaks new ground is debatable, but it consolidates a lot of disparate concepts on innovation, organisational behaviour and neuroscience, with a highly readable historical narrative – and presents the reader with a clear set of ideas about ideas, how to get them and what to do with them.


  • Title: The Imagination Machine

    Author/s Name/s: Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller

    Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

    ISBN: 978-1-647-82086-2

    Publishing Date: June, 2021

    Number of Pages: 156

Author Knowledge Rating: 1-5 (based on their years of experience, academic expertise in subject areas, and exposure to cross-functional thinking in the area)

Readability: 1-5 score(1=dense and v academic; 5=frantic; page turner)

Appropriate Length: (1=could have been written in 25% of the length;5=could have been longer)

Core Idea Value: (1=nonsense (or entirely esoteric); 5=game-changer)