Is Strategic Imagination the Next Key Business Skill?

To be successful in 21st-century business, students must become adept at imagining solutions that set out in completely new directions.

Strategic ImaginationInnovators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders who want their ideas to be successful will need to be able to imagine solutions that people don’t even yet know they want, say Violina Rindova, professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles, and Luis Martins, director of the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business.

Rindova and Martins point to standout examples of business success such as Whole Foods Market and Starbucks. Whole Foods, for example, “required a different imagination of the future to combine an organic farmers market with a big grocery store, and a strong focus on conscious capitalism,” says Martins. Starbucks had the same transformative approach to coffee when its co-founders envisioned a future when more people would be willing to spend six dollars to drink high-quality coffee.

The researchers call this skill “strategic imagination,” and they argue that most business schools don’t place enough emphasis on teaching it to students. Instead, most faculty ask students to analyze past business strategies and adapt those strategies to present contexts—a process that rarely leads to business breakthroughs.

In his own courses, Martins helps students develop strengths in three key components of strategic imagination: anticipatory thinking, analogical reasoning, and design thinking. In the process, Martins encourages students to imagine how current trends could lead to completely new goods, services, and markets.

“We are running out of runway for mass-market thinking,” Martins says. “I think strategic imagination will become an ever more important aspect of the strategist’s job.”

“The Three Minds of the Strategist: Toward an Agentic Perspective on Behavioral Strategy” appeared September 10 in Advances in Strategic Management.