Imagining Strategy: Using Imagination in Strategic Planning


Games are a serious matter. Yes, they are fun. But more importantly, they enable the player (whether a toddler or an adult) to experience a story and to actively write it as they go. Games are a great way to experience a certain scenario (fiction or nonfiction) – even more so than reading a book or watching a movie. Games require active involvement. They don’t have a preset end. They force the player to take responsibility and determine the course of events and the end results. This responsibility creates a strong psychological element of real-time decision-making and the need to cope with the results of one’s actions.

What I really like about games is that they force you to use your imagination. And imagination is a powerful tool for decision-makers, strategists and analysts. Lack of imagination is in fact the inability to think creatively about the future, preparing for past challenges instead of for what’s in store.

But how can one define imagination? And how can it influence decision-making?

Literature identifies three types of imagination: descriptive, creative and challenging. Descriptive imagination helps us turn an abstract world into a tangible one. This is the type of imagination that identifies patterns, regularities and pathologies (or the lack thereof) out of a glut of information. It enables us to analyze and make educated judgment calls based on years of experience. For managers, having descriptive imagination means they can identify challenges and opportunities, make sense out of them, and thereby form a strategy. Think of SWOT analysis or the BCG growth-share matrix. These tools help us to describe what we imagine; they turn the abstract into something tangible and cognitive.

Then there’s creative imagination, or what is commonly referred to as “outside-the-box” thinking. While descriptive imagination enables us to see and explain “what’s out there” in a new way, creative imagination enables us to see and explain what’s not out there – i.e., to create something truly new, sometimes even completely different from what already exists. This is the type of imagination that is identified with business innovation. It needs to be applied when a certain organization comes to the conclusion that its business model, service or product is outdated and a paradigmatic change is required. In other word, the main driver behind this kind of imagination is a sense of discontent regarding the present.

Finally, there’s challenging imagination, which stands in contrast to the other two. With challenging imagination, we criticize, challenge and sometimes even destroy what was achieved by way of the previous two. This is the kind of imagination that undermines all previous rules and assumptions, and provides a clear cognitive playground to test the unthinkable. It doesn’t presuppose anything, and it doesn’t use previous knowledge as a given. It simply starts everything from scratch. It deconstructs existing knowledge, perception and language. It uses cynicism and sarcasm, and see nothing as sacred.

But – and this is the gist of it – it requires reconstruction after deconstruction, and the translation of the new, radical insights into actionable ones. Nokia, IBM, Philips and Alcatel are examples of companies that started within a certain industry and whom have along the way changed themselves completely, now operating in substantially different fields.

This leads us to a fourth type of imagination heavily associated with game-playing. Strategic imagination is based on the three different types of imagination, and is conceived as a product of the interactions between them. Based on my experience in conducting dozens of imagination-based exercises, I have found that providing a game-based framework to experiment with these three imagination types in order to create the fourth is most beneficial. The reason is that individual and collective imaginations require the sharing of previous knowledge and the transformation of the generated second- and third-order insights into new actionable ideas. Games do just that.

About the author


Dr. Shay Hershkovitz
Wikistrat Chief Strategy Officer
Director of Analytic Community

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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