Inaugural Changemaker Interview: Brian Reich (the Imagination Gap)

This week we are launching the first of our “Impactful Interviews” with Brian Reich. I met Brian here in Boston about 8+ years ago (he is now based in NYC), and he is honestly one of my favorite people to talk about creative, disruptive, what should be next kind of ideas. I cannot keep up with all he does, but to provide a little overview, Brian is a strategist and speechwriter for executive leaders at global brands, media companies, startups, nonprofits, political, and advocacy organizations as a partner in Little M Media. He is also the author of three books: The Imagination Gap, Shift & Reset, and Media Rules! – and his work and views have been published in leading media publications, including the New York Times, Wired, AdAge, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

We’re talking to Brian today about his new book – the Imagination Gap.


First, a brief overview

Everyone has an imagination but most do not use our imaginations to their fullest potential or apply our imaginations to the challenges that we face. Our most important ideas and biggest ambitions never turn in to reality. In this timely new book, Brian shows us that imagination is one of the most powerful forces in shaping and motivating behavior to make real change. He explains how the most creative thinkers, forward-looking entrepreneurs, and influential change agents in every sector of our society harness the power of their imaginations to achieve their goals. The Imagination Gap helps leaders in every sector apply their imaginations to explore new, creative approaches to help them survive and thrive.

Q&A with Brian


What was the genesis of writing this book?


Through my work, I’ve been fortunate to work on projects trying to force massive changes in systems, that ask questions around “how do we try something completely different”. But I started to see a similar trajectory in these efforts, which looked something like this: projects kick off with great enthusiasm and support, and then after 18-24 months, I found that people tended to fall back into what (ideas, solutions, methods) that they’ve done before.


I kept hearing people say” “I can’t imagine that would work” – and I didn’t understand how you can’t ‘imagine’ something, as the idea of imagination is that everything is possible. I would even say in some of my presentations that there is this ‘gap’ between what we should be imagining and what we are, which led him to start researching ‘imagination’.


Imagination is extraordinarily powerful tool. It’s instinctive - we all have it – but it is also very misunderstood and it has not been not studied well (not like creativity or innovation). In doing my research, I found that there was hardly any on imagination


Concluding that imagination is the only way we’re going to get anywhere, I decided that we need to figure out this imagination “gap” and how to close it


After spending 18 -24 months researching, I actually wrote the book in about 3-4 weeks. The hardest part was trying to find what we did know about imagination. I kept thinking: “there must be someone who has thought about a, b, and c, but then I would find nobody. Any rigorous research seemed to be non-existent


I determined that I really had an opportunity to weigh in on this conversation. I think ‘imagination’ is a new front which will be important going forward.


Why is imagination important?


While there is nothing wrong with innovation – constantly improving, and advancing in what we’re experiencing – the only way to get to things we haven’t done yet is through imagination. It is the only unique force we have as human beings that allows us to create an ENTIRELY different world.


Everything throughout history has been born from our imagination – culture, government, language, art, etc. We know the power of imagination. Unfortunately, the problem is not just that people just don’t recognize it – it’s that we have this extraordinary power and we’re not using it. We are not thinking expansively enough


Take for example driverless cars: We have had cars for a long time – driverless cars are just a pivot (or incremental improvement) on something we know. Of course, it is important, but it’s not an entirely different way of travel. Where’s teleportation? Where’s the ability to be in 2 places at once? We have curbed our use of imagination so that we are NOT shooting for the stars - we’re simply shooting for the 22nd floor


Why is this exploration (topic) important now?


Two reasons:


1)    Being more efficient is not enough. We’ve clearly demonstrated the limitations of certain ways of doing things – we cannot seem to get out of our own way on things like climate change, poverty, etc..The only way to develop the world in a new way has to start with our imagination. What if the US is under water in 150 years – where do we go?


2)    Imagination is uniquely HUMAN. We are reaching a point where robots will soon take over the basic responsibilities of living – cooking cleaning, driving. If you think about it, that then opens up to things that only humans can do (uniquely). If we give this up because we’ve created such efficiencies through automation – then we’re not unique anymore. I believe that robots will eliminate the mundane that we currently concentrate on and open us up


If you look at the arc of history, human beings will be changing. Human beings as we are now are not the end stop. Our future will be humans + robots + other.


Why is imagination important for changemakers?


First, you have to believe we don’t have (now) what it takes to get to the next place. We’re not equipped to tackle the challenges that we have.


If you’re a leader, you go and take people to the place where they haven’t been before

Imagination is entirely ‘safe’. It is the ability to envision a world in which we have not yet lived. Imagination is beyond the trial and error. By design, it is the “what if”, “why couldn’t we”?


If we keep imagination as part of the process – the paths open to us are going to be very different. This is just very different than “we’ve done it before and it worked OK”. Nothing works so well that we couldn’t consider a radical idea


The only reason not to use imagination is because you’re afraid or because you genuinely prefer to maintain the power/control that you have


How is imagination relevant for job seekers/career changers?


There is an idea that you only qualify for a job if you have specific skills, experiences etc. But who is to say that my individual imagination won’t have a transformative impact on the organization that I go to work for?


If you’re looking for a new job, you should be thinking about what life is like in 50 years, what will the sector look like in 20 years. For example, you don’t need a social media manager to nominally raise your profile. You have a unique perspective on how to solve a challenge, so think about saying “what if we looked at this entirely differently”?


Imagination is how we should be thinking about what is needed next. Each next job that you take is one of these steps towards what is happening 50 years


For the sector as a whole, arguably the social sector is still an ‘infant’: the most compelling organizations are maybe 10 or 20 years old. I don’t think we have yet conceived of where the sector should go. I don’t even think we should have a ‘social sector’ at all – we don’t need the distinctions between sectors any more – the goal is to optimize life and build a better world


We impose limitations. What if we want to transform some aspect of human behavior – that takes the imagination of ‘all’ the sectors working together, not just one


The social sector should be on the bleeding edge of rethinking sectors and roles. For example - what is the future of education? Things like online credits, etc. are only incremental changes – what about 25 years from now?


The power of our community is mashing up all of our collective imaginations and experiences in ways that lead to solutions


What is one important take away from this book for this community?


1)    Everyone has an imagination and there is no one right way to do it. You have to use it, use it as often as you can – and just do it! If you don’t do it – no one will benefit.


2)    Not in a dark way, but I think we’re doomed without big new ideas and ambitious ways for society to advance. I don’t want people to think “I can’t do this”. You may have the spark, someone else may have the skills, the capital etc. We have to get out of the limiting ideas of “this is what success looks like” or “this is what you can achieve”


Capture your ideas and share them!


If someone has a question - share it. If someone has an idea – share it. Stop thinking that the path to success is keeping these to yourself


1)    Think! Imagine!

2)    Don’t dismiss your own ideas! capture and share


The Imagination Gap

Amazon link:

More information on book at

Brian's conversation with Forbes: