Passion, determination and fearlessness are qualities most successful entrepreneurs and small business owners are known to possess. But where does imagination fit in? It’s imagination, after all, that leads to creativity. It’s imagination that fuels innovation. And, as conventional wisdom goes, if you don’t innovate you may not survive.

While memories of childhood — of looking towards the stars to create your own worlds or playing games with friends while making up new rules as you go — are normally the first things that come to mind when thinking of “imagination,” the ability to imagine doesn’t disappear upon entering adulthood.

Of course, as a small business owner, when you’re in the throes of paying bills or seeking funding, hiring or firing employees, and finding new customers while keeping the ones you have happy, there doesn’t seem to be much room for letting your imagination run wild.

How do we get past the barrier of day-to-day responsibilities and pressures to get to a creative space? I know from my work with start-up founders involved in the Constant Contact Small Business Innovation Program that these tricks work for anyone looking to unlock their imagination.
1. Inspiration is everywhere, so go out and find it

There is no limit to the number of places where you can find a great idea. However, it does take some practice to train your mind to be constantly on the lookout.

To begin, I recommend these activities:

Scour the news and competitive landscape. Keep regular tabs on what is happening in your industry, what your competitors are doing, and what trends are occurring among both businesses and consumers as a whole. You can often discover ideas that can apply to your business.
Become aware of what you like in the products and services you use. Hypothetically, take your interest (bourgeoning on obsession) with Instagram. It’s just a photo sharing app on its surface, so what makes it so addictive? For you it may be streamlined and simplified layout, or the pre-set filters that allow you to easily create something beautiful that you otherwise would not have been able to make, or maybe you just like to stalk your friends. You may find an idea in your favorite products that can strengthen your own business offerings.
Get out of the office and observe the world around you. While customer surveys are certainly valuable (more on that later), it is also valuable to go out and see consumers in the field. Observing how the world works with a lens of “how can I make it better” can go a long way in developing your professional imagination.

2. Listen — and I mean really listen — to your customers and their pain points

A lot of businesses only talk to customers in order to mitigate problems. Take your business one step further and use conversations with customers to spark an idea to improve your business. Some easy ways to collect feedback include sending out surveys via email, asking questions of your Facebook and Twitter followers, or simply having a conversation with someone at your place of business.

For example, innovation and design firm IDEO recently worked with State Farm Insurance to find ways to better build relationships with millennials. Through extensive rounds of interviews with consumers between 18 and 35 years old, IDEO discovered that millennials found insurance companies to be intimidating and unwelcoming. With this information in hand, State Farm and IDEO sought to introduce brand-new State Farm brick-and-mortar locations, designed specifically to accommodate and educate millennials on insurance. The results were, well, quite welcoming.
3. Step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself in new ways

We all have a tendency to think in limited perspectives based on our strengths and experiences. If you have a marketing background, you may look at your product in an entirely different way than if you have a design background.

When stuck in a creative rut, many songwriters will switch to an instrument other than their one of choice in order to become re-inspired. Push yourself to consider different perspectives and think of problems from a different angle and you too may soon see great new ideas form.

Similarly, push yourself to think bigger. It’s perfectly fine to have “pie-in-the-sky” ambitions as long as you remember that not every idea will result in success. Search engine giant Google is particularly good at this. Take a look at its recent ventures: wearable technology, self-driving cars, smart thermometers. Do any of these fall in the category of its “bread-and-butter” search engines? No. Will all of them succeed? Probably not. But it is through Google’s willingness to push itself that it has become one of the most successful companies on the planet.
4. Make distractions mandatory

At our Small Business InnoLoft, it’s common to see Nerf gun fights and skee ball competitions. Taking a step away from your everyday tasks gives your mind the space to wander — or simply not think at all — for just a bit.

The benefits of distraction have been scientifically proven. The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that 20-minute “progressive relaxation” midday breaks reduced stress in the afternoon, helped blood pressure, produced better sleep quality, and more.

The benefits of fostering imagination and creativity are many, from the creation of a rewarding work environment to the discovery of those “wow” moments (big or small) that make your business a success.

And remember, as George Lucas put so well, “You can’t do it unless you can imagine it.”


Andy Miller, Chief innovation architect at Constant Contact.
Portland Business JoInterviewurnal