Deep Intangibles: Using the film Inception to develop a 21st century value-creating mindset

Before getting to Inception, I want to kick-off with Richard Branson who writes (in ‘Dream On‘):

“We should all dream, and encourage others to do so too. Dreaming is one of humanity’s greatest gifts; it champions aspiration, spurs innovation, leads to change, and propels the world forward. In a world without dreams there would be no art, no adventure, no moon landing, no female CEOs, and no civil rights. What a half-lived and tragic existence we would have.”

So what has this got to do with Inception?

Everything, I believe. Inception is a film about perceived-reality, as experienced through the medium of dreams. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a conceptually impressive film with many complex ideas by Christopher Nolan. Just browse ‘inception info-graphic’ and prepared to be stimulated. Or see who launched a competition on the subject. This is the winner, Taylor Holmes info graphic of the concept being used in this article to draw parallels with the nature of ‘differentiated decision-making’.

What we are dealing with here is both the perception of value between people, and the means of using that perception to achieving it by hauling people aboard a train-journey to La La Land. In Inception, we have anything between 4 and 7 dream-states of perceived reality. We can compare a state of reality to the environment within we are forced to navigate. When we act, we need to decide what to do. The type of actions, and decisions we make, are based on the nature of the reality we are within.

It’s the same for the boardroom, the team-space, the learning space, the lady at the desk dealing with customers. It’s the same for all of us: Our perception of who we are feeds our actions and decisions based on the perception of ourselves in the environment we see ourselves in. Now what if we could become different types of people using different skills in different contexts, all of us, pulling in the same direction creating different kinds of value?

We have two choices

See who we are and act according to our perception of ourselves. Or? I’ll get to the second one in a moment. Let’s think about the first choice: How many people come across people who see themselves in a role, act accordingly, or make types of decisions in accordance with who they want others to perceive who they are? Or they be forced into adopting a mode of behaviour based on expectations of payroll or mode of dress even? (Okay, I hate ties as much as Richard Branson does). The point is, our environment and the codes of that environment not only influence how we behave, but also how we think and engage internally with our own internal processes.

The second choice is to see what kind of decisions we make, then reflect on the nature of the reality those decisions imply. We need a freedom of action and decision that is right for context, right for value, above all else and often, the labels and dress codes just get in the way. Like inception, if we can code any situation, we can know what kind of decisions are made and adopt the right mindset for that given situation. In the contemporary climate of enterprise adaptation and change, removing barriers and plugging into the stream is more important than ever before – what Sir Geoffrey Vickers called the ‘idea and events stream’, the basis for Peter Checkland’s seminal work Systems Thinking Systems Practice.

So what kind of ‘reality’ can we think of? 

In a word – intangibles. A ‘problem’ is an intangible. Or a recognition of a challenge. Or a concept that someone is trying hard to get others to see the value in. The greatest common denominator that characterises the 21st century from the 20th century is not disruption, not global warming, not even social media, it is the degree we need to work more with intangibles. When we talk about developing value, but do not have anything to measure yet, we are dealing with intangibles. Tangibles are those things, instances, bits, bytes, that all can be seen, comprehended or measured, without too much work on our own part to place them within a system of value, belief or action.

The difference working with tangibles and intangibles is in the use of different cognitive processes and the senses shared by people in developing understanding. It all sounds a little pocket-book philosophy but isn’t hard to understand. Think how value can be developed, applied or leveraged. Developing value in things yet to be comprehended before even being invented, is based on perceiving. This can be perceiving the nature of a challenge, or the future state of some state that has yet to be.

Both exist firmly in the domain of design. Comparing tangibles to intangibles, I believe most value lies in ‘the domain of intangibles’. This is not the domain of measurables, but in driving change that will end in things we can measure, that measuring provided the means of objective assessment of how it is all going. The key word is perception – perceiving value in driving the process ending in things we can measure. All of a sudden KPIs are less interesting, since they reside higher up the surface and lower down the value-depth if they are dependent on something else – our different kinds of decisions.


In the movie, we become familiar with certain characters and the journey’s they undertake in different dream-states of altered reality, one state embedded within the next, such that a minute for example in one dream, is the time spent in that level, as the dream seems to last an hour in the dreamers own dream. If the dreamer himself is not sleeping, but also part of a dream above, then this minute of dreaming lasts but seconds in the unknown state of reality above.

I see this as making different kinds of decisions, making the journey deeper and deeper below our comfort zones into new territories where everything is more dreamlike – what some people call ‘fuzzy’. Here we migrate farther away from the ‘bounded reality’ we know from Inception, into alternative realities that become more cognitive, but the deeper we can go, the more gold lays waiting to be discovered.

Depth in Decision-making

If we perceive ourselves to be in a certain state of existence, we make decisions based on that perception. Inversely, we can see how different kinds of decisions need to be made according to different perceptions of what kind of landscape we are a part of. Gene Bellinger lists 6 different kinds of decision-making:

1 Programmed decisions

2 Rationale decisions

3 Bounded reality

4 Intuitive decisions

5 Creative decisions

6 Unbounded rationality

In Inception, the lowest, deepest level of existence is one where the characters aren’t alive – or dead – they are in limbo. I see this as the ‘unbounded rationality’ of Bellinger. More importantly, I see it as the place we need to spend more time in and get used to being a part of in order to drive different kinds of processes all related, all aigned in depth, yet allowed to live their own sense of reality across the horizontal place of – in Inception it’s time. But it need not be so.

Going below the surface

We need to go deeper away from the surface of programmed decisions in the data-information landscape, or the decisions made in the comfort zone of rationale. If we talk about transformation, Johan Rockstrom tells us it is necessary to open the window for innovation – adopting new ideas and new paradigms (TED talk Oxford, UK. 2010). He talks about sustainability challenges and the leverage of science. Think of this as one of those levels. Here we are somewhere deep, below bounded reality and intuitive decisions – somewhere between strategic development and strategic innovation (deeper than development).

If we think of inception, how deep can we go? 

Taylor Holmes has identified 7 dream layers in Inception for those of us interested in the cognitive realm of Inception (I’m a fan).

We can talk about value in experience. This lies deeper, since we are dealing more with intangibles – experiences yet to be invented as service and customer experience – or UX. We can go even deeper – to change itself, descending – as in Inception – deep into the realm of unbounded rationality. Or we can go deeper, into dreamed experience and beyond into transformative change – a deep intangible that sends ripples up the cortex of the other realities above us – the ‘kick’ of Inception.

The value of alternative reality

In bounded rationality we think we can see things objectively. On the surface of bounded rationality we have our KPI’s. Go below the surface, we come across a depth where we define our drivers. Go deeper still, we find… that’ll be the subject of an other article. What we find deeper down is an understanding of ‘alternative realities’ – ripped apart by the wicked currents of events and ideas.

Get used to Intangibles

When we deal with more intangibles, we have to be prepared to veer off the path set before us and see it where it leads. We need to get used to making different sorts of decisions and the ways we go about making them. In short, we need to get used to a journey from having the comfort of programmed decisions and immerse ourselves in more intangible-oriented decision-making, passing through the reality of bounded rationality to unbounded.

If we don’t have an understanding of these different depths of reality we face the danger of operating in the reality of convincing ourselves we are in control. Control is an illusion itself. It is the current state of culture we are part of, or know what kind of decisions to make to which type of value being aspired to, communicated or promised, then really, it’s a waste of time.

Conclusion for Change

There are different levels of existence based on the mix of tangible and intangible. We need to realize that there are different kinds of decisions for different contexts and the deeper we go, the more value we can create.

By making the journey from tangibles and programmed decisions to creative ones in deeper levels of value development, we need a simple common framework – or risk losing the audience who we share our realty with. The more we are able to speak a common language so we can appreciate the nature of the context, the more we adapt. However, the more the sense of shared cultural identity – even ‘unbounded’, the more we understanding to mutually beneficial advantage and the more adept we become at being in a new zone of comfort.

That appreciation of context can be value-perceiving or value-achieving. So it is really okay to be allowed to dream – as long as can show where value could lay and how we can go about realizing it. When we talk about change management, we really can’t manage anything at all – it’s just an illusion we convey onto others so we can sit there with that jacket and tie. Neither Richard Branson or Steve Jobs for that matter went around in a jacket or tie. They didn’t need to. Like Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception) – these are the kinds of people used to making these kinds of journeys.

About the Author

Mark has over twenty years of experience in the design, architecture and innovation industries, Director of Innovation and Development for the hybrid consultancy-development company Base.

Base works by aligning the bases of value, integrating data drivers with innovation. Mark is at the time of writing developing a framework for data-integrated value innovation.