Imagination & Creativity – The Most Critical Foundations For Strategic Planning

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

–Albert Einstein

Where do new ideas come from?

I’m not a physicist, but many people are writing about and discussing the field of infinite potentiality as a bridge between materiality and spirituality.  They are suggesting that everything is composed, at its core, of subatomic particles that are energetic and that can assemble and disassemble according to some underlying laws and structures.  And some people go so far as to say that the creative element – the element that gives structure – is thought.  In other words, when we give thought to some idea, the subatomic particles in the atmosphere, coagulate or condense into a form of that idea.  As I said, I am not a physicist, and I’m prepared to take some flak for this, but… it seems very reasonable to me.

I became interested in all of this through food.  I love food.  I love to cook it and eat it.  I love new and exotic foods and spices.  And it always puzzled me – how did people know, for instance, that some hard, green, bean-like things could become a delicious drink when roasted, ground and steeped in hot water?   How did people discover which herbs and spices were edible, and others poisonous?  (That one may be easier, as people got sick or died!)  But what caused them to try?  What caused them to think about inventing wheels, chemicals, metals…and so on up to the present day?

Every single thing that mankind has ever invented, developed and made has come from our imaginations.  It has been thought about, and then we have acted creatively to bring it into form.

So where now?

The future is about potential and possibility, not regurgitation of the past. This is the most important and least understood, part of strategic planning.  Change is occurring all the time—both externally and internally to the organization—and successful businesses are those that have learned to thrive on change. Thriving on change means being aware of what is going on in the external environment from major global, political, and economic events, to what’s happening to your customers, competitors, and suppliers. Understanding the context and setting the scene for future activity is all part of planning. It means anticipating change and being ready for it. And it also means “seizing the day” and taking decisions and calculated risks. Successful organizations do more than cope with change or adapt to it—they exploit it.  This requires identifying possible/potential desired directions for the organization using creative and imaginative techniques. Although these activities should be the most important part of the process, most people tend to omit them.

Indeed, many strategists are more like historians – analyzing the past, extrapolating trends, developing theories of why things occurred in the way they did.  This is all useful and may give insights about what works and what doesn’t work, but it doesn’t lead to new ideas that produce revolutionary technologies, products, and services.  We need people who can expand their minds, develop new ideas, see things from different perspectives, and be willing to take risks.   There are such people around – involve them in strategic planning – rather than the risk-averse and the bean counters.

Sometimes our clients who are engineers or military officers want to gloss over this creative and imaginative step. They ask us: “When will we start work on the vision and plan?” or “When will we get to the real work?” Yet after they have gone through the process, they realize their minds did expand and they did develop new ideas and directions for their organization. They saw things differently. And in some cases, even though it was not designed as part of the process, new ideas for technologies, products and systems emerged from the workshops. They also learned more about themselves and each other—both key elements of working together toward a shared vision.

It’s worth mentioning here that we always advise clients to develop their strategic plans during interactive workshops where the leaders, young mavericks and perhaps key stakeholders have the opportunity to go through some major brainstorming.  We have found workshops to be the fastest and most effective approach to developing, coordinating and disseminating strategies for complex organizations with multiple stakeholders or partners because the organization’s leadership and stakeholders work together to produce shared results (a genuine consensus) to which they will be committed.

Of course, we need to be aware of the past – what business the organization is in, and how it got there.  And therefore it is very useful to go through analyses such as SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental, political) but in our view, people generally spend far too much time and effort on them – and far too early in the process.

In general, these kinds of analyses (especially STEEP) are conducted by analysts who scour the operating environment for information about the future—trends, events, changes, and so on. But before they start, the analysts need some frame of reference. How should they categorize the scanning? Are they going to look for information by regions of the world? Or by broad disciplines (social, technological, economic, political, other)? Or by categories that are particularly meaningful to their client’s organization? Frequently horizon scanning is conducted prior to an organization developing its strategic plan. Some of that can be very useful in thinking about the future environment in which the organization will be operating. However, if it is conducted at this stage – prior to the planning – then the directions given to the scanners will be based on the historical trends and current circumstances of the organization. We prefer to conduct the planning in a creative and imaginative way, using right-brained creative and imaginative methods, and especially using reframing techniques for the organization.  Only after we have done that, do we recommend that the client conduct the scanning and analyses, based on this new perspective of the organization.

So, for instance, if we are working for a construction/development organization that is thinking about its future business as building houses, then we would want to scan for developments in urban planning, building materials, construction techniques, infrastructure, power/energy, waste disposal, appliances, consumer electronics, furniture, furnishings…and so on. But if we were to reframe its business into HOMES for the Future (as we did in an early project) then it would include those areas and a whole lot more, such as trends in working from home—the need for office space that is appropriately designed to accommodate office equipment, office and communications technology, improved sound insulation…etc.

If we imagine that trends in working from home, more homes in rural areas to be closer to nature or to get away from urban sprawl, and homeschooling all converge, then the home will need facilities for homeschooling, for more entertainment, more need for fitness equipment, and perhaps for monitoring family-members’ health situations. To explore all these kinds of ideas, we use metaphors, futuristic guided imagery, science fiction, and many creative techniques in this part of our workshop process, and frequently arrive at significantly different solutions for future directions than the leadership had before we started.  We then help our clients synthesize these new ideas into a truly shared vision, mission and strategic plan – all the way down to action and implementation plans.  So then, with the plan and those different perspectives in hand, the leadership can identify the areas for the horizon scanners and analysts to focus on, and their results then feed directly into the new plan much more effectively.


Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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  1. A fascinating article Christine – thanks so much for sharing.

    Paragraph 6 really resonated with me when you mentioned the more procedural roles taking more time to engage with and organic decision or working environment. I really believe the way in which people like to work, and especially learn, needs to be taken into account more.

    • Thanks, Nathan. Yes, I think the days of “one size fits all” for almost anything are over. People are unique, with unique abilities and preferences, and if anyone – teacher or employer – wants to keep them engaged, then those need to be taken into account.