Arjan Frederiks: 'Imagine this!'

| Mariska Roersen

Entrepreneurs see things. They recognize opportunities that others don’t, create solutions and have visions for the future. This describes the way many people look at the self-made businessmen. All those characteristics result from one thing: imagination. Arjan Frederiks studies how it works.

Photo by: Gijs van Ouwerkerk

‘I don’t believe that entrepreneurs have more imagination that others. It is a general human trait.’ Arjan Frederiks is cautious to position entrepreneurs as “some other kind of species”. Be that as it may, the correct deployment of imagination seems to be one of the success factors in business. Arjan: ‘There is much ado about imagination in the field. You can find many case studies where entrepreneurs state that they simply imagined breakthrough products or creative solutions to problems. But it is never explained what imagination really is and how it helps to get good business.’

Imagination ≠ Creativity

To get the record straight: Imagination is not the same as creativity. Where imagination is a way of thinking, creativity requires action. Therefore, creativity can be a result of imagination, but it is not always present. Now we sorted that out, we can delve a little deeper into the imagination processes at play. Arjan identifies three of them: counterfactual thinking, prospective thinking and perspective taking.

‘In counterfactual thinking, a person looks back in history.’ Arjan explains. ‘He tries to think of what would be the situation today, had he done something alternatively in the past.’

The same “what if” question applies to looking into the future. ‘That is called prospective thinking. Entrepreneurs use their imagination to predict future situations or events that could result from their current actions.’ The researcher believes that such processes force entrepreneurs to get outside their comfort zones, which makes them more open to recognizing business opportunities. Arjan found that this technique really helps to find additional commercial applications for technologies.

In perspective taking, you position yourself in the shoes of others. Arjan continues: ‘This increases the ability to predict reactions from different people, and thus how they should be approached best. Ultimately, this increases the chances of success. For example, if you prepare for a meeting with a customer and you imagine how this customer could react, you can already prepare for possible answers.’

Arjan uses an impressive database that evokes positive feedback on international conferences. ‘For a whole year, about 200 entrepreneurs filled out weekly diaries in which they reflect on the past and future. This offers extraordinary insights into the future visions they have and how they want to realize those.’ In a next phase, the PhD candidate is eager to apply experimental settings as well.

Too much to handle?

The question of course is, can someone have too much imagination? Arjan: ‘Yes. Too much imagination makes people incapable of making decisions. A person will only think in scenarios and he will see many problems along the way. That destroys entrepreneurship. There must be an optimal level of imagination.’

Arjan does not only research entrepreneurship. He used to be one himself. ‘With three others, I had a student company. We developed a device that enabled companies to send advertisements to mobile phones in a range of 50 metres, using Bluetooth. This was in 2007, the pre-iPhone era.’ Now, the world looks fully different and the device hardly offers any added value. Arjan is not sorry though. ‘We all got full-time jobs, so we quit the company. I don’t mind, I like my job too much.’