Imagination: the ultimate source of competitive advantage

I believe that our imagination is the ultimate source of competitive advantage. 

What is the Imagination?

When I talk about the imagination I don’t mean the juvenile-romanticised version of imagination that is associated with idle fantasy, day dreaming, self indulgent creativity and idealism. What I am referring to is the imagination as a world shaping and world revising power. It is our imaginative capacity that shapes what we perceive through our senses and transforms the information we collect on the way in to our minds and shapes the creation of business models, product and service solutions, competitive themes and value propositions on the way out from our minds.

Our imagination is the vital junction box between the material world and the world of ideas. Think of it as a ‘middle-ware’. The ancient Greeks placed a special importance on imagination and Aristotle used the term Phantasia as the imagination’s ability to ‘bring things to light’. Crucially it is the only capacity we have for considering things that are not actually present here and now. This means it is vital for the way we think about things such as past customer experiences and product and service offers that we might buy in the future. Okay so you might be thinking this is a load of philosophical mumbo jumbo? Well hang on a moment, here’s what marketing guru Ted Levitt and strategy experts Hamel and Prahalad have to say.

Ted Levitt in his 1986 book The Marketing Imagination invokes imagination as a necessary aspect of achieving meaningful and differentiation by giving customers compelling reasons to want to do business with the supplier. Significantly Levitt draws attention to the issue of absence when he states “Imagination means to construct mental pictures of what is or is not actually present what has never been actually experienced.” He notes at the onset of his discussion that ideas precede the deed and in that sense his view of imagination resonates with the idea that a value proposal precedes the solution and the creation of value. He claims in this context that The marketing imagination is the starting point of success in marketing.”

Hamel and Prahalad  in their 1991 book Competing For The Future refer to imagination as a characteristic of The Imagination Company that enables it to translate the ‘inconceivable to the conceivable’ by having the imagination to envision markets that do not yet exist”. Implicit in this take on imagination is a capability to use ideas to shape the material world differently. An imaginative company is one that fashions it’s markets rather than merely fits with what presently exists.

Michael Beaney in his 2005 book Imagination and Creativity characterise the imagination as the capacity to create images, to conceive of something non-existent and to come up with something new. So with that in mind this quote by economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding caught my eye:

“Man’s image [of things] is also characterised by a phenomenal capacity for internal growth and development quite independent of messages received from outside. So great is this capacity, indeed, that it can easily become pathological. In the extreme form we see the schizophrenic who builds up a whole imaginary universe out of the proliferations of his (sic) own images without any regard for contradictory messages from outside. It is this property of ‘imagination’ however which is also responsible for the greatest achievements of man

Eva Brann in her book Imagination Sum and Substance states that the rational world just ‘is’. This means our mind must interpret and manipulate the information and experience it receives so that the cold information means something. Brann also tells us that in order to operate in the world our imagination needs to be ‘gathered by reason’ too otherwise we will attempt the completely unrealistic. Think about that for a moment. What this means is that data capture and data analysis on their own don’t help us, we have to engage in the act of interpretation and synthesis. So the next time you are asked to just ‘tell me the facts’ it might pay useful to take that with a pinch of salt.

So with this in mind, think about anything happening in business and society things such as, big data, artificial intelligence, customer choice factors, customer complaints, service standards – whatever, at the basic level they just ‘are’. It takes the imagination of the sales and marketing minded professional to do something with the information they receive. This is more than perceive and interpret (inbound part of imagination) its is the outbound architectures of new, better and different solutions where the rubber of imagination hits the road.

Some definitions of Imagination:

Imagination is our capacity to think more widely , less literally to let our minds roam amongst possibilities be more ready to suspend belief and disbelief summon things from our minds not given by perception. Roger Scruton in A companion to Aesthetics 2nd edition Davies, Higgins , Hopkins, Stecker

Seeing things as – Wittgenstein

the thought of other past or possible perceptions of the same object  – Peter Strawson

embroidering and trying things out – Michael Beaney

Imagination is competence:

As you can see these are characteristics of an agile professional and therefore an agile organisation. It is a characteristic that is not seen in stultifying bureaucracy and individuals who think that doing good job is making sure systems and processes are unthinkingly policed and non conformists are punished and de-valued. Imagination is the skill of the consultative sales person, the ability of the collaborative co-worker, the habit of an organisation that learns.

Imagination is the antithesis of administrative bureaucracy and the associated massive cost burden and loss of competitive opportunity. Bureaucracy kills the imagination.  Imagination is a fundamental aspect of being able to act on the principles and ideas set out in our book Value-ology

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