7 Decision Making Approaches: IMAGINIST / INTUITIONIST

Forrest Christian Decision-making, Theory, Warren Kinston 8 Comments

[I continue my notes on Kinston & Algie’s decision systems.]

As we continue with our exploration of the seven approaches to decision making that were originally developed by Jimmy Algie, reformulated by he and Warren Kinston, then extended by Warren [refs follow below], keep in mind that they can also be seen in two other ways.

Languages of Achievement: The words and syntax you use to talk about getting something done, how even your group should achieve a goal. Even when talking about getting to the same goal, people using two different approaches will argue endlessly about the approach.

Action Path: The way or path that you take in order to achieve your goal. This is why the decision approach is so important: it’s not just how you think but how you take action to achieve or solve a problem.

The Imaginist / Initutionist Decision Making Approach



  • Gestalt
  • visionary
  • imaginative


  • disquiet
  • charisma
  • intuition
  • imagination
  • vision
  • brainstorm
  • imagery
  • attunement
  • commitment
  • enthusiasm
  • feelings
  • meaning
  • inspiration

The Imaginist (sometimes “intuitionist”) decision-making approach is normally thought of as the Creative one. The reason is that it works by imagining new things. It’s focus is on internal experiences. This approach emphasizes vision and charismatic leadership. Imaginists succeed when the issue isn’t clear, when things are confused. These are people who lead you out of a fog of confusion by describing something that doesn’t exist.

Examples of Imaginist include Jim McCarthy’s Software for Your Head: Core Protocols for Creating and Maintaining Shared Vision, Dan Pink’s “right-brain revolution”, most of Peter Block’s The Answer To How Is Yes, and most of the “find your inner compass” people. Many of these people come out of Empiricist-dominated fields. McCarthy ran the team at Microsoft that developed the software that developers use to create software. My old high-school lab partner became an electrical engineer and is now a “passion expert” with a thriving private practice. They see the degeneration of their Empiricist values and look for something that can be more.

That something is the Imaginist system.

Pragamtists don’t have much time for Imaginists, for obvious reasons. But as our society tries to solve the problems of the Empiricist dominated society, we are moving ever more and more towards one dominated by the Imaginist approach. These people are in tune with how the world is changing.

The Imaginist helps us create a new reality, something unheard of. Creativity exists in each decision-making system but the Creative Change comes from the Imaginist system. They don’t care about the present: they see the future, what can be, what we can be, what wonders may happen if we just follow them, realize our potential and become all that we can be.

In cultural terms, though, the Imaginist phase needs the ones that should come before it to create the stable environment. They should be solid and firm before moving into it. “For example,” Kinston writes, “concern for people requires responsible line-management; personal aspirations must be oriented by organizational values and objectives; and creativity only works properly if the
hard realities are appreciated.” It’s only in the other cultural phases, dominated by the other decision systems, that these come into their own.

TABLE 1: Values in the Imaginist MODE-PHASE of the SPIRAL of Strengthening the Management Culture (generate in bold and degenerate in italics)
Handling Situations:
Essence Harness Aspirations
Cloud Cuckoo Land
Desired Effect Activate Potential
Means Deepen Relationships
Inappropriate intimacy
Handling People:
Participation Adapt to Needs
Communication Sensitize to Feelings
Emotional quagmire
Individualization Foster Self-Actualization
Handling Yourself:
Personal Growth Become Self-Aware
Smug arrogance

Imaginist Work Role

Imaginists have two roles at work. The supportive catalyst works in areas where there isn’t a clear leader, at least for the moment. Not a leader himself, he creates the supportive environment where people can relate to each other in a deeper way. This requires attentive listening and protecting the environment so that people’s vulnerability won’t be exploited. You encourage others so that they can be all that they can be, fulfill their personal potential. The organization exists for that; people don’t exist for the organization. We hear a lot of talk about how managers should be like this but for the most part this is consultative, either internally as a staff position or externally as a consultant brought in for awhile.

The charismatic leader focuses on his own creativity rather than on building others’ creativity. He inspires the group to success by constantly articulating a clear vision. People get excited by him, and their response excites him in turn. Charismatic leaders demand that people accept his vision: nothing less than being fully on-board is acceptable.

You might think, as I do, that the charismatic leader is a bit creepy and it indeed has a shadow side. But so do all the approaches. The charismatic leader gets people moving out of where they are, where they cannot stay, to somewhere new, someplace never seen before. The archetype for this (for me at least) is Moses taking the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, where they couldn’t stay, to a Promised Land that they had never seen.

If you’ve worked for me, you’ll realize that I manage strongly from the Imaginist Charismatic Leader role. You can take Warren Kinston’s comments in Strengthening the Management Culture on the Imaginist phase and say it describes my methods without much amendment. I may deliver Systemicist results as a worker, but I manage from a mostly Imaginist approach.

It’s all about personal relationships, about being honest, about compassionately confronting lies and deceits, “Foster a non-threatening non-pressurized atmosphere in teams,” Warren writes. “Wrestle with counter-intuitive or unorthodox ideas.” There’s lots of things that pragmatists hate.

While I have had great success with software development teams when I use this approach in management, it has had inverse success with my bosses. The numbers were amazing but I was still called in on the carpet. I now wonder if playing the charismatic leader to my subordinates threatened people who wanted to think of themselves as True Leaders. The lesson is probably that trying to use the Imaginsit approach before the rest of the company has matured may prove counter-productive to you.

Problems in Bringing Imaginist Values to Managing

There’s also the threat that bringing Imaginist values will release people’s desires and dreams, speaking of the Cultural Phase as opposed to simply one’s decision making approach. They start to trust you and the environment. Which means that you as their leader will have to fight, hard, in order to protect them. Because you encourage exposing “the real person” you have an ethical responsibility, in my opinion, to protect these people. You can’t back down, you can’t leave. You have to rage against the machine of management, who are threatened by the self-actualization of those in their command lest they see that the Big Boss is incompetent.

You also should resist bringing this until the culture is mature enough. Hear the warnings that Kinston gives:

Imaginist Action Process

TABLE 2: The Imaginist decision system in schematic outline
Express a felt disquiet; or realize that drive is missing.
Phase 2: Explore Attune and focus to explore perceptions, feelings and worries of all those involved. Open up the imagination.
Phase 3: Develop Possibilities Incubate and play with images and any ideas that come.
Phase 4: Resolve Crystallize inspiration.
Phase 5: Reiterate Articulate vision; and envisage growth-enhancement.
Phase 6: Implement Enthuse and lead with charisma. Interact fully with mutual support.
Phase 7: Review Monitor self, and engage in mutual counseling. Look for fulfillment of the vision and deep satisfaction with action and its results.
Phase 8: Overcome Failure Mediate afresh on the vision to refine it; or re-explore the worry area.

When to Use the Imaginist System

No system is useful all the time. Every system has its drawbacks and strengths. It’s therefore helpful to know what they are before you start applying them. Table 3 below describes the issues you should take into consideration.

For the most part, you will want to deploy the Imaginist approach when the group needs to see things in an entirely new way. And, yes, imaginists, not every issue must or should be approached in some brand new way. Most of our work gets long fine with ways that have already been developed.

You’ll also want issues where the person matters, where you really have to get behind it. It’s got to get into you, got to reach deep inside. The problem, again, is that Imaginist will often try to turn everything into a deeply felt issue. And most things just aren’t.

That doesn’t mean that Imaginist is useless, you Pragmatists and Empiricists! Imaginists shine where the nature of what’s going on is unknown, where you don’t know where you need to go but you know you just can’t stay here. The Imaginist system creates new reality, pulls on our deepest feelings, cares about us as people, not as resources.

If you want to start something new, go where no man has gone before, you’re going to need to use the Imaginist system. Nothing less will work.

TABLE 3: Aspects affecting one’s choosing the Imaginist decision system
Immediate Applications if:
    • The issue immediately touches on deepest feelings and personal concerns (e.g., staff development).
Preferred Structure of the Issue:
    • Any issue in which the individuals feel personally involved.
    • Any issue which needs to be looked at in a completely new way.
Involvement of Protagonists
    • All relevant individuals must become deeply personally involved and commit themselves to a course of action.
Value Drive to Act
    • Desire for personal and group growth.
    • Desire for realization of personal creativity.
Unique Strengths
    • Personal development is inherent.
    • Action feels in tune and both right and good.
Inherent Dangers
    • Dogmatism.
    • Messianism.
    • Inability to tolerate and use different decision methods.
    • Degree of awareness required is beyond many people’s ability.
    • Poor use of information.
Use may be inappropriate if:
    • Issue is factual or polarized.
    • Suitable modelling techniques are available.
    • Deliberate explicit phasing of the decision process over a long period is required.

Imaginist Decision-Making and Inquiry

Like the rest, the Imaginist decision-making system is linked to a system of inquiry, this time Contemplative. Just saying. More on that later.


Some of these referenced documents are available via email upon a request in the comments.

  1. Algie, Jimmy. 1976. Six Ways of Deciding. BASW.
  2. Kinston, Warren. 1985. “Measurement and the structure of scientific analysis”, Systems Research, 2:95-104.
  3. Kinston, Warren. 1986. “Purpose and the translation of values into action’, Systems Research, 3:147-160.
  4. Kinston, Warren. 1988. “A total framework for inquiry”. Systems Research, 5:9-25.
  5. Kinston, Warren. 1989. “Completing the hierarchy of purpose”, in: Ledington, P. W, J. (ed.), Proceedings of the 33rd Conference of the International Society/or the Systems Sciences, 3:245-264.
  6. Kinston, Warren. 1991. “Decision Systems, Inquiring Systems and a New Framework for Action“. (Submitted to Journal of Applied Systems Analysis but not published.) SIGMA Centre, London.
  7. Kinston, Warren. 1994. Strengthening the Management Culture: Phasing the Transformation of Organizations. SIGMA Centre, London.
  8. Kinston, Warren and Algie, Jimmy. 1989, “Seven Distinctive Paths of Decision and Action“, Systems Research, 6:117-132.

Image Credit: Waves of Inner Colors. © agsandrew. Via DepositPhotos.com. Licensed.

Comments 8

  1. Have you thought about whether a decision approach preference could switch between familiar conditions and pressured conditions (as is the case in some people for preferences measured by the Human Patterns assessment)? On that topic, I’d like to share a personal anecdote because I’m self-centered that way and/or learn complicated things best by applying them to an area of existing expertise (i.e., myself).

    For familiar things, pragmatism is a clear preference for me. If I’m pressed into a reactive state, imaginist (supportive catalyst) feels more likely. Yet, in your reference to pragmatists in this post, it sounds as though my reactive self would “hate” my proactive self, but that’s not the case at all. I find using imaginist approaches very practical when pure pragmatism isn’t getting results. So maybe this is a case of primary preference and secondary preference? You tell me.

    Anyway, don’t hate on us pragmatists. We aren’t all out to get you. 🙂

  2. Post

    Pragmatist to Imaginist is possible (all combinations are) but it seems unlikely that you would use both at once. I have a strong switch in my HP (“Coaching and enabling others” goes from 1.29 in proactive to -2.07 in reactive) which is probably indicative of a switch from Imaginist. Something my middle schoolers in the youth group noticed, not surprisingly.

    We’re all colored by our experiences. I can’t fathom using Imaginist in a crisis, but that may be a result of the types of crises that I have faced at as a kid and later at work. But it’s probably just how things are for all of us. Upon reflection, it’s clear that Imaginist could work in many reactive situations, perhaps even the ones that I’ve been in.

    I’ve faced too much of the degenerate side of Pragmatist management, obviously. Small companies are riddled with them. Pragmatist is the only phase in Organizational Culture that you go through more than once during the org’s maturity. Dynamism is the highest form of corp. culture, and it’s a very advanced form of Pragmatist. I’ll deal with Pragmatist at some point later.

    OBTW, Imaginist is the highest level of decision system, I think because Imaginists create something unseen and undreamed before.

  3. Is there a direct correlation between level of decision system and Levels of Work? I.e. If you have a strong preference for the Systemic decision system you would be a Level 5? I’ve looked through some of Warren’s material and can’t find a direct answer.

  4. Post

    There’s not a direct correlation, although Stan Smith has speculated a link. (Alicia should explain, if she thinks it’s right at this stage of development.) Warren doesn’t tie them. It’s like the seven approaches to ethical choice: you can be at a high work level in an business but use an ethical choice approach at the bottom of the hierarchy.

    I think that Warren and Jimmy’s description of Systemicist is colored by the fact that he was writing for a Systems Theory journal. It’s hard to imagine some regular Joe using that approach, but it really should be there.

  5. Nick,

    Sorry for the delayed response. There was some background communication going on to make sure I’ve got the The theory regarding any relationship between decision system and LoW is not fully developed, although Stan Smith has some well thought out opinions on the topic. The levels of work 1-7 align with the 7 fundamantal questions which share common characteristics w/ the 7 decision systems.

    Stan sees the Questions (or Q Levels) as the intersection between Levels of Work and Decision Styles. Each Question (What, How, Who/When, Which, Why, Whether, Where, in order of increasing complexity) has an inherent time span required for thorough consideration. The Q Levels also share themes and characteristics w/ the 7 Decision Styles.

    Having said that, it is believed that any Decision Style may be used to address any fundamental question (or problem at a particular LoW), although some Decision Styles may be better suited for a particular Q Level (or scope of problem) than others.

    In general, personal preferences, including preferences to use a particular Decision Style before others or in certain instances, do more to color an individual’s approach than does his/her LoW capacity.

    In the end, Decision Styles are tools in our “dealing with life toolbox.” There is not a better or worse style, although there are better/worse styles to be used in a particular context. We tend to be more highly skilled and/or trained in using some of these tools over others, but with consistent and focused efforts, that can be changed.

  6. Alicia, Forrest – thanks for clearing the link between the two up. I listened to Warren’s GO Society 2007 Conference presentation where he stated that Jacques work had inspired the levels of Decision Style – but I couldn’t see the direct connection. I’d not come across Q Levels before; something I’ll catch up through your blog Alicia.

  7. Post

    A lot of the work on the decision approaches predates any Jaques influence — Jimmy Algie first published six approaches in the mid-1970s and I don’t think he knew EJ at the time. Warren was the one who made them hierarchical, and I suspect that “General Theory of Bureaucracy” was influential on it.

  8. Pingback: How You Talk About Deciding Affects Who Thinks You’re an Idiot | The Manasclerk Company

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