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Thought Thursdays
Creativity and innovation should be an integral part of strategy

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Most strategy workshops are dull, overly mechanistic and extrapolative, drawing largely on left-brain, numbers-driven analysis. This often results in strategies that are generic and uninspiring. Whereas the senior executives in many organisations talk about the importance of creativity and innovation – and often include innovation in their Values Statement – the majority of organisations do not sufficiently embrace this critical element in their strategic planning process.

So, what can we do to introduce more non-linear strategic thinking, where imagination, bold and creative ideas and re-invention can play a much bigger part?  

To add the appropriate creative flavour to our strategy sessions, we need to start by having the right mix of participants. This will broaden the range of insights and perspectives. For example, we need both old and young participants, men and women (not for the sake of being politically correct, but because they have different natural talents and attributes), and functional specialists from different backgrounds – accounting, engineering, IT, human resources, etc. I also like the idea of including one or two mavericks. These are people who are unconventional and are keen to try new and untested ways of doing business. (In my strategy classes, I half-jokingly like to suggest that “the cracked ones let in the light”.) Rather than invite a business executive or a business school professor as the guest speaker, why not ask a musician, artist or science fiction writer to fill this slot?

In order to gain maximum benefit from the creative and innovative components of the strategy process, it is essential to entrench the right climate upfront. Here one emphasises the following:

  • Let’s leave any stress or anxiety out of the strategy venue. This is bad for strategic thinking.
  • In co-creating a new future, we are allowed to break (or modify) rules and challenge assumptions.
  • ​Being child-like and playful is encouraged. (In this context, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quote is applicable: “If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever happen.”)
  • In this environment, there is no such thing as being wrong or making a mistake.
  • Do not think in silos (i.e. in a way that is too compartmentalised)
  • Most important, let’s have fun! Being overly serious can actually reduce the value-add of the session.
Besides creating the right psychological climate for the strategy workshop, the physical environment should also be conducive to innovation. The size and shape of the strategy venue, the seating arrangements for the participants, the lighting, the decor, and background music can all play a role in setting the right tone and mood.

To get the most out of a strategy workshop, make it very visual and – to the extent that it is possible – also experiential: making it a multi-sensory experience helps to embed the critical learning points, and this also makes it far more likely that the strategies will be implemented.

I have also found that creating a large ‘Wow’ board or a board containing ‘Aha!’ moments can play an important role at strategy sessions. Another powerful way to establish a shared context is to create a large visual timeline of relevant events and trends. Participants are invited to add their personal stories to it, thus creating a very meaningful ‘graffiti wall’ that people can relate to.

It is worth considering a non-traditional venue for the strategy workshop. Most strategic conversations are held in office buildings, conference centres or hotels. What about holding it on a boat, in a cave, on a wine farm, or on Robben Island?

Of course, it makes sense to use some of the traditional strategy tools such as SWOT analysis, Michael Porter’s Five Forces Model, and the Balanced Scorecard. However, in order to enrich the process by bringing in fresh, new and original insights and ideas, I have found it useful to also use creative techniques such as the Stanford Design Thinking Process (based on five stages: empathy, define, ideate, prototype and test) and Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats.

The Design Thinking Process is an excellent way of combining the creative and visual elements of design with the more formal and analytical strategy techniques and tools. Design Thinking is a human-centred and collaborative approach to problem solving that is creative, iterative and practical.

Instead of using the Six Thinking Hats in the usual way, it can also be used to consider issues and problems from different perspectives – for example: How would engineers view this issue? What benefits would teenagers look for in a particular product? What entrepreneurial perspective would someone like Richard Branson bring to the discussion? 

Besides new perspectives, it is important to bring in new voices, new conversations and also new passions if we want our strategy workshops to really ‘sizzle’.

In many organisations, a massive premium is placed on being right – as a consequence, there is not much room for imagination and experimenting. When dealing with the innovative part of strategy, I like talking about the 3 Es, namely Exploring, Experimenting and being Entrepreneurial. This is about going to new ‘places’ (e.g. markets, new technologies, and new channels); trying out new things (e.g. new products and new packaging); and taking (acceptable) risk with new business ventures. The important point is that one is initially looking at possibilities, and not immediately wanting to find the answer.

In my strategy workshops I have also used the concept of an ideas pipeline or innovation funnel. Here we start with many ideas, some of them literally ‘wild, wacky or weird’. They are then subject to initial screening and filtering processes, after which some ideas are retained, whereas others are rejected. Further screening, filtering and testing then takes place and – once again – some ideas are rejected, while others stay ‘alive’. Those ideas with greatest promise and potential obviously ‘survive’ in the pipeline for longer than the others. Eventually, out of 30 initial ideas (for example), only four may emerge as worthy candidates for implementation. It is important to ensure that our screening and filtering processes are not too narrow in scope and are not based exclusively on traditional criteria. 

Whereas strategy has traditionally focused heavily on left-brain thinking and in-depth analysis, today we realise that it is vital not only to allow a lot more space for feelings and emotions, but actually to encourage them. At Apple, for example, it is all about “thinking like an engineer, and feeling like an artist”. This is a very powerful combination.

It has been found that creativity flourishes when we:
  • blur the boundaries of disciplines, and do not view industries and business segments as having clear-cut boundaries.
  • connect and/or combine things that are not usually connected.
  • understand that great ideas often come from a collision of small ideas.
  • allow hunches to come together.
  • allow people to make mistakes.
While visiting Siemens in Germany a few years ago, a key learning point for me was that creativity usually happens in small groups, away from the desk. 

Significantly, for innovation to make a substantial contribution to the performance of any company, it should be a natural add-in, rather than a cosmetic add-on. Innovation should become part of the mindset of the organisation, part of the culture, as opposed to being viewed narrowly as a set of tools and techniques that get ‘rolled out’ on certain occasions.

Linking creativity, innovation and strategy, we realise that the job of the modern-day strategist is similar to that of Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, namely “to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before, at warp-speed”.

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Dr Edmund Rudman is a strategist, leadership specialist and executive coach, consulting across a wide range of businesses. He has also worked extensively in the areas of innovation and the development of talented young professionals. Rudman is a part-time faculty member of USB-ED.

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