Imagination is the first stage of any value generation journey — starting a development project, enhancing the customer experience, embarking on innovation, or building a business for the next year or the next decade. Imagination might sound like a fuzzy concept, but it’s a robust business tool, the engine of the entrepreneurial design process. Mark Packard joins the E4B podcast to put imagination into a business context and describe the possibilities it opens up.
Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights
Imagination is central to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, and to innovation and advance in all aspects of business.
We see business through mental models, as a kind of a movie our minds play for us. In this movie, we remember result and experiences from the past (which requires imagination) and we create images of what might have been, or, in the future, what might be. We know these images are not real, but they play through our mental model of business reality. They inform our plans and projects. We imagine cause-and-effect relationships between imagined concepts and ideas, and between actions and outcomes.
From new product development to efficient administrative processes, every aspect of business involves — and requires — imagination.
We can use imagination in simulating possible results.
Not only do we employ imagination in our regular business activity, we also use it for advanced complex modeling. We add new inputs to what we have constructed in our imagination — in the form of “what if” queries – to create a new mental model that’s different from the current one: a prospective reality that we can plan for and try to achieve.
As we try to achieve that prospective reality, we receive feedback in various forms, which we use adaptively to further adjust and improve the mental model we hold in our imagination. Imagination is dynamic, always changing.
Customers are also imagining, and entrepreneurs must imagine what they are imagining.
We’ve highlighted in earlier episodes, the Value Learning Cycle that customers complete in the process of learning what to want and what to value (see Mises.org/E4E_44). The cycle begins with predictive valuation — consumers predicting to themselves how much value they’ll experience from the product or service a business is pitching to them. That’s imagination at work. If they buy and consume, value is an experience that results — and experience is a mental representation that includes imagination. Then in their post-experience valuation, customers adjust their mental model based on their new value knowledge. Future predictive valuations will be imagined with this updated knowledge.
Imagination is central to customer expectations of value and to customers’ decision-making.
Businesses use three kinds of imagination to make a value proposition.
Businesses develop value propositions for customers, utilizing 3 kinds of imagination: creative imagination (imagining the design of a future product or service that will deliver a valued customer experience); empathic imagination (imagining how the customer will feel as a result of the experience); and predictive simulation (imagining what the world will be like after pursuing the contemplated action).
Creative imagination is a combination of needs knowledge (what customers want) and technical knowledge (what can be produced with available resources). In both cases, more knowledge is an aid to the imaginative process.
Similarly, empathic imagination can benefit from more knowledge about the customer’s mental model, developed through relationships and conversations.
Predictive simulation is aided by rapid learning from testing and prototyping and developing design artifacts (like landing pages and A/B tests) that enable interim simulations of customer responses.
Imagination can’t be shared but visions can.
When we work on a team or in a firm, it’s productive to be aligned on the imagined future at which the group is aiming and is working towards. Strictly speaking, we can’t share imagination. Everyone’s imagination is subjective and individual. You can’t imagine what I’m imagining.
What can be shared is a vision, because it can be described in words developed from a shared language. Of course, every individual may interpret the meaning of the words differently, but with repetition, explanation and persuasive presentation, the group can get closer and closer to shared meaning. The vision becomes a cultural artifact — how we think in this firm, what we aim for in this firm, how we see the future in (and of) this firm.
Similarly, in selling value propositions to customers, businesses are trying to get those customers to share a vision. We persuade them with storytelling, whether it’s in the form of advertising, or PR or social media or the words printed on a package.
Rhetorical skills — being able to communicate in a way that enable other people to see and share a vision, and to adapt it to their own vision — are key to successful entrepreneurship.
Some people are better at imagination than others — but you can work on the skill set.
Many business icons are or have been symbols of great imagination at work, such as Steve Jobs in the past and Elon Musk today. They’re better at seeing the future than others.
But everyone who understands imagination at the foundational level, as Mark Packard explained it in the podcast, can get better at it, and train others to get better at it, too.
Imagination is a simulation run through our mental model based on knowledge we possess. One important step is to improve the knowledge set available for the simulation — better quality knowledge, more accurate knowledge, more detailed or intimate knowledge.
More needs knowledge and more technical knowledge will improve creative imagination. Keep up with new technologies and with consumer trends and marketplace developments.
More customer knowledge will enhance empathic imagination. Spend more time with customers. Use qualitative research (such as the E4B contextual in-depth interview: Mises.org/E4B_151_PDF) to understand their mental model better, so that the empathic simulations you run through that mental model will improve.
Predictive simulation is an act of imagination that improves with learning about what works and what doesn’t. Run more tests and new kinds of explorations. Explore, explore, and explore more. Don’t take your own predictions too seriously; rather, expect to be wrong in ways you never imagined. Be humble, be adaptive, be agile, and recognize that you do have to predict in order to act. Triangulate with what others are doing because they’re imagining too, and they may have more and better knowledge than you. Try to reconstruct their mental models and assess whether they’d be helpful for you.
Elon Musk’s Imagination (Video): Mises.org/E4B_151_Video
“Subjective Value in Entrepreneurship” by Mark Packard and Per Bylund (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_151_Paper
“Empathy for Entrepreneurs: How to Understand and Identify Customer Needs and Wants from Their Perspective” (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_151_PDF
“Mark Packard on The Value Learning Process” (Episode): Mises.org/E4E_44