The Role Imagination Plays In Innovation

Sarah Robb O’Hagan, Gatorade president, North America, and global chief marketing officer, sports nutrition, for PepsiCo, talks with Fast Company about how an active imagination can help drive business growth.

The Role Imagination Plays In Innovation

“Innovation to me is creating the future. It requires a relentless desire to challenge beliefs around ‘what is’ and ‘what works’ in order to provide new solutions to problems,” says Sarah Robb O’Hagan, Gatorade president, North America, and global chief marketing officer, sports nutrition, for PepsiCo.


Robb O’Hagan defines creativity as “a very personal thing and it should mean very different things to different people.” In her case it’s the process of “following my instincts and using my imagination to see ideas and solutions that haven’t existed before. I was one of those kids who had an imaginary friend (her name was Sally!) and my mother still recalls everything about the life that Sally lived because I described it in such detail. In some respects what I do today isn’t really that different to what I did by creating Sally’s little universe. It’s about seeing something you want to create that doesn’t really exist today.”

Fast Company sat down with Robb O’Hagan, who is participating in the upcoming Innovation Uncensored conference on Wednesday, April 18 in New York City, to discuss her thoughts on innovation, leadership, and creative thinking.

FAST COMPANY: We know your mom approved of imaginary friends, so would you consider your family to be creative in any regard?

SARAH ROBB O’HAGAN: Yes, absolutely. Most prominently I come from a musical family–my mum insisted that all of us learned musical instruments from a very young age. But on my dad’s side I had a grandmother who was a florist, and I think that instilled a real appreciation in him for art and the beauty of nature. Fast-forward to today and I have a brother that is a guitarist and two sisters that are known for bringing to life the most incredible experiences when it comes to entertaining! So yes, I think we grew up in a very creative environment. I also think I’m really lucky that I had the benefit of growing up in a very creative country. I come from New Zealand, and it’s a very small, but highly entrepreneurial little country. We have a real pioneering spirit as a nation, and I think it’s something that has been a big part of shaping the creative mind I have now.

What object that you own or interact with regularly most inspires your creative thinking?


My iPad, because it is basically an external representation of my brain! I love my iPad because it’s a place where I have everything that inspires me. Little notes and thoughts that I jot down throughout the day alongside my sources of new ideas like Twitter and Pinterest, and of course music that puts my brain into a creative place.

Speaking of music, do you have a go-to artist, album, or song that you listen to for inspiration?

It’s too hard to pin down one song that is an all-time favorite, as I love so much music. But when I am sitting down with the intention of creating new plans or ideas, I often find myself turning to Mozart to stimulate my mind. Pretty much everything he wrote was perfection, and it puts my mind in a calm and inspired place.

Mozart aside, how did you find your last great idea?

By running! Running is the time every day when I have space to think and reflect and be inspired. It is a very creative time for me when I turn over in my mind the many things I may have read or talked about the previous day, and frequently I can see new solutions to problems because I’m digesting information that comes at me from many sources.


On a bigger scale, thinking of your team at Gatorade, how do you create a culture of innovation and encourage creativity?

By setting the example for my team. I try very hard to stimulate thinking in the team by acting like the chief “curator” of interesting ideas and stimulus that might propel our creativity. I also like to make it clear that my expectations are for everyone to constantly be curious. I read recently that people who are intent on proving they are right are usually the same people that are not particularly curious. I try to watch out for that kind of attitude that might suppress the team’s ability to innovate. It’s so important to believe that things can always be better and that there actually never really is one “right” answer.

What do you think is the most important trait in a leader?

I truly think it’s the ability to inspire people with a vision. You can’t be a leader if people don’t want to follow you, and they need to be truly inspired to come along on a journey. I think it’s also really important to be approachable and to have a style that is authentic that people can really connect to.

What was the most valuable experience you’ve had as a leader that made you a better boss?


Spectacular failures! Truly, I have had some pretty awesome “misses” in my career, and I think it really helps you to have a sense of empathy with those around you when you’ve made mistakes and you are still standing to tell the tale. When you are trying to lead an innovation culture, by definition the things you are doing are scary for the team, so I think it helps them to know that failure is okay and that you will be there to be the safety net if they need it because you have been through failures before and you know what a learning opportunity they can be. 

What is the biggest blind spot in leaders today and how do you correct it?

Someone advised me once that the more senior you become, the lonelier it gets and the more disconnected you can become from the energy and needs of the team. This is so incredibly true and I think it can become a real blind spot for leaders. It’s human nature that people don’t want to give the boss the “bad news,” and as the leader you don’t get brought in to many of the interpersonal dynamics between the team so that disconnection can happen easily. You need to challenge yourself to constantly “check in” and make sure you are asking people at all levels how they are doing. That way you can be in touch with the energy of the team and be sure they are still following you!

What can a big company learn from a startup?

That you have to swing for the fences if you are going to change the game! I recently gave a speech at a conference for the Global Entrepreneurs’ Organization (@entrepreneurorg) and was so inspired by the courageous attitudes of all the startup owners that I met. They don’t have the resources that big companies have to try prove that things are going to work through pre-commercialization testing methodologies. Therefore they don’t over think things, and they put a premium on action over debate and discussion. I think there is a lot to be learned from that.


This post is part of a series giving readers a sneak peek at some of the speakers and the ideas we’ll be discussing at Innovation Uncensored on April 18 in New York City.

Read other interviews in the series here:

KAYAK On Creating A Culture Of Innovation

What is Generation Flux? Kate Brodock Of Girls In Tech

Has Innovation Lost Its Meaning? Percolate’s Noah Brier On Its True Definition


How To Get From A Great Idea To Actual Innovation

Everything You Need To Know About Innovation You Learned In Grade School

Here’s a quick look at some of the other speakers featured:

  • Bob Bowman, President & CEO, MLB Advanced Media
  • Bob Lord, Global CEO, Razorfish
  • Tory Burch, Designer and CEO, Tory Burch LLC
  • Ajaz Ahmend, Founder and Chairman, AKQA
  • General (Ret.) Stanley A. McChrystal, U.S. Army; Cofounder, The McChrystal Group
  • Stefan Olander, VP. Digital Sport, Nike

If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time! Click here for more information.

We invite you to share your own thoughts on innovation and leadership in the comments below or in our Innovation Uncensored LinkedIn Group. Join the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #IU12.


About the author

I was previously the Special Projects Editor at Fast Company. I curated content and booked speakers for Fast Company events such as Innovation Uncensored, Most Creative People, and Masters of Design