Thinking about Creative Strategy...
where do you want to be?
When you feel stuck in the same old thinking patterns or your ideas sound stale, how can you reboot your creativity to achieve your strategic goals? Taking the time to think about how you think sounds a luxury. It is not. Especially true if you have big plans for yourself.
Consciously or not, as creatures of habit, we usually stick to what we know. Thoughts and beliefs steer us into hamster wheel patterns of activity that serve us well - if we are lucky. So, whether you consider yourself small and furry or not, if you feel the need to find some fresh ideas, how can you shake up your creativity?
how are you already creative?
So, what does it mean to be creative? Hard to define, most of us would probably agree it’s the skill of being able to find something new. Accordingly, most of us are creative. We find fresh ideas all the time - just in many different ways.
Some of us can think in blue skies, outside boxes or off walls. And some of us find new ideas via any number of underrated creative activities – like being able (or prepared) to envision, hypothesize or to delve into the right facts to find themes, explore links, or identify meanings.
If your thinking feels in a rut, you may need to make the case for some purposeful and playful pondering. Taking time out to look above and beyond the parapet is rarely a waste of time. Not least because being busy is not always the same as being productive.
Aim for a couple of hours at a time, within a specified time frame. You’ll also need to find the right space away from distractions. Hopefully too, you might surround yourself with the right company.
the creative process
According to some, the creative process itself has different phases, which occur in the right environment and in different ways. Guy Claxton talks about the way our hare or tortoise brains may help or hinder creativity. Others, including John Cleese, refer to the way our open and closed modes of thinking work together through creative strategy. .
The open mode is strangely as it suggests - open. Open to pondering possibilities wherever they are presented and by whosoever. The closed mode tests those possibilities against reality.
You might already know your preferences. Working with others, it's important to stay aware of how their mode affects the process - and making explicit where each mode is most useful and when so that you can facilitate the most creative and productive atmospheres.
While thinking only about what makes immediate sense to you is pretty limited, getting excited about fresh ideas that don't align with the overall strategic vision can be pointless too. The key is to find ways to switch between modes in order to find exciting and workable ways forward. If your busy schedule or place of work has no time for open thinking, for playfulness, for tortoise thinking it may be time to shake things up.
If that proposition already sounds unrealistic or too difficult, what does that tell you about your patterns? Instead, what if you were to consider for a moment what this process might mean to you?
Imagine what it would be like if you had the time and space to turn up your creativity when you needed to. What would it feel like to have a formula in the future that enables to find creative solutions really easily?
If you’re already imagining those benefits, you’re already flexing one of the many ways of thinking creatively. It’s called envisioning.
For the purposes of grounding this process, it might help to try this now. Start by thinking in the open mode, which means putting on hold any thought of apparent realities and practicalities.
Think of somewhere you’d really like to get to in your personal or professional life. Where would you like to be in terms of your ideal future? What could it look like or feel like to be in that place?
Conjuring up the emotions of being there usually helps bolster your energy and kick-starts your determination to get there. Imagine it. Now make it even rosier. For example, you may have imagined yourself or a particular product being really successful within your company or organization. Imagine now that you have achieved worldwide recognition or that the product now has global appeal.
This is not about being realistic – it’s about aiming for the stars. You don’t need to know any of the details of how you might get there at this point. Instead, this is all about firing your imagination and silencing your sensible voice - which will want to edit and limit your future scope.
So, rosy-coloured dreams and aspirations are the first step. Unless you paint them across your visor of the future, they are probably never going to happen.
When Alice asks the Cheshire Cat for directions, she explains that she doesn’t mind where she's going to, as long as it’s somewhere. ‘Oh you’re sure to do that’, said the Cat, ‘if only you walk long enough.’
If you’re a hard walker too, why not play the envisioning game instead? Imagining your ideal destination means that there’s a chance you may actually find your way there. And when your idealised future aligns with wider professional missions or personal ambitions, you’re on to something...
After imagining the ideal future in open mode, it's time to come back down to earth and see how you might get there. You don't need to put yourself under tremendous pressure to generate ideas from thin air as the clues are usually there to find...
working in closed mode
Firstly, you need to understand where you are in relation to your dreams and aspirations. Unearthing the facts means shifting to the closed mode. Ironically, this could also be where you are at your most creative in how and where you find answers.
Revisiting the facts about your current situation will also help remind you of the consequences of doing nothing, of the potential dangers of sticking to the status quo.
Interrogating the facts may seem an unlikely place to find creative insights, especially if an issue or problem feels familiar. Yet doing so can expose rich seams of new possibilities or potential solutions. For example, if the the facts are that you never get to complete a particular task, asking more questions could point you towards new understandings:
Why do I never get around to completing this task?
What kind of tasks do I always complete?
What are the consequences of not doing it?
What would need to happen for me to complete it?
Is there anyone or anything else that could break this stalemate?
Uncovering where to put your creative energy and knowing why you might need to make fresh choices is vital - especially when you need to justify things to others. Having the details to hand also allows you to tie your ideas into bigger pictures or strategies.
Depending on your style there are different ways to take stock of your current reality. While the traditional approach, using a SWOT and or a PESTLE analysis can get a bad press, they can still be incredibly helpful in building your case for change.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, SWOT involves thinking about existing strengths and weaknesses as well as any external opportunities and threats to your overall aims.
PESTLE, can also be useful in making you dig deeper and think about how political, economic, social, technological, environmental or legal factors may influence latent threats or opportunities.
It is useful to go through all the answers generated to see what key issues might emerge. It may be that grouping things according to their SWOT position is enough, but sometimes rearranging your current reality into themes, whether historical, or in terms of resources or behaviours can help steer your future journey in a more focused way.
Seeing the facts as patterns or themes may also be useful in helping you to define the scale of your challenge. Physically grouping your ideas together under short, medium and long-term goals is another familiar way forward to help you to get organized and focus your creative efforts.
Creative practice always includes asking lots of questions, so here’s some more. For every obstacle that arises from your pattern finding ask ‘why’ five times. For example, if a recurring obstacle to achieving your mission is that you never have enough time, ask why:
1. Why do you never have enough time? - Because I am always being interrupted
2. Why? - Because other people need my help
3. Why? - Because they don’t have the confidence or skills to do what they need to
4. Why? - Because there is no urgency for them to develop their independence
5. Why? - Because I am addicted to helping
The next questions could include a round of ‘How could I’s?’ For example, to take the last answer – ‘I never have enough time because I am addicted to helping other people.’ So, ‘How could I handle my own addiction to helping?’
Your challenge here is to resist habitual assumptions and be scrupulously objective and rigorous. If you don’t, you remain under the spell of previous patterns of thinking - which may be way past their sell-by dates.
If SWOTs and PESTLEs aren’t your thing, there are other simple ways to generate the right questions to move forward.
For example, writing a list of all the facts about your current situation. Then make a list of all the elements within your ideal future. Between the two lists – identify the obstacles in the way and then generate a list of ‘how to’ questions, which will come up again as you draft your possible route map.
'How could we overcome the threat of our competitors aggressive marketing?'
'How could we capitalise on the expertise and knowledge of our team to handle the plethora of change initiatives?'
The rule is, you need to break the rules
How can you justify the sillier side of being creative within a professional environment? It could be a political minefield, but at the highest levels of strategic thinking, serious behaviour may not do.
In order to avoid your usual routes to finding a solution, you have to break the rules and investigate less travelled paths. It’s not always easy and there's a risk involved that new paths may be dead ends or even downright dangerous. Being prepared to take wrong turnings for the sake of trying something new is all part of the creative process - to see where they might lead.
stay open to creative possibilities
It’s worth noticing how many times you say or think, ‘Yes, but…’ to new ideas. If you’re ready to try to change your habits, try instead, ‘Yes, and...?’
The first rule has to be that there is no such thing as a silly idea, to encourage the generation of ideas for their own sake. This means allowing each idea to be milked for its potential worth. Later in the closed mode you will decide their ultimate validity, but clearly you just never know. Ticketless flights? Really?
Improvising can be a way of generating some possible solutions. Improvising in this context – to think about putting our ideas or available resources together in different ways. Randomly, for example.
As a method to free up your thinking, playing with arbitrary associations for their own sake can be very useful. In view of the serious professional challenge at stake, if the suggestion already sounds a bit too random– check that your modus operandi is not rearing its ugly head.
If your preference for what sounds realistic or practical is closing you down to new methods and ideas, try to resist the urge to dismiss the idea as being new age rubbish and give it a try. Alternatively, you might be up for a spot of playfulness?
Choose any object to get started. Give yourself a limited amount of time (no more than five minutes) to jot down the first associations you make.
For example, if the random object were a feather, your associations might include: lightness, tickle, floats, wispy, pillows, duck-down filling, allergic reactions, gentleness, birds, plumage, fly, birds of a feather stick together, featherweight boxers… You can go further and find associations to those associations to keep going until your time is up.
The challenge is then to find tenuous links between the words or ideas you have just generated and each obstacle in the way of achieving your ambitions. So, how could lightness and finding more time be linked? Or worse, what could be the connection between finding more time and featherweight boxers? Well?
Have a go and push yourself to cover them all off. It is usual to find yourself generating interesting and unexpected possibilities.
asking 'what if?'
Another way to find fresh solutions involves staying in the open mode to generate unashamedly ridiculous ideas.
Start with sensible possibilities, if you feel that you have to justify the exercise to yourself, then keep going. Allow yourself to come up with ideas from the utterly sublime to the completely preposterous. The more outrageous, counter-intuitive and downright silly the better - your solutions could involve industrial espionage, bribery or electing a pigeon. It doesn’t matter.
Before this sounds like a very bad idea – you need to know that some of the best ideas often come from what sound like the worst. So your practical self needs to remain bound and gagged and your tortoise brain pacified by the fact that this mini revolution will not be televised indefinitely, playing in hypothetical is only temporary, rational thinking will be resumed shortly. At this point in the proceedings being realistic will close things down and stifle innovation. The sensible thing to do is to allow silliness.
Be bolstered by the thought that our history has been shaped by mavericks, by those who dared to think differently. More than a few eyes must have rolled at the first mention of flying to the moon or travelling underwater. However, those around to hear those first ideas must have been in open mode. They allowed themselves to be persuaded in the first place.
So we know who mavericks are – they break the rules, they defy existing frames of reference and turn ideas upside-down, inside out, back-to-front. They find the opposite angle.
If you find it difficult to think this way, have a go. Imagine how you could make things worse. Strangely this often generates ideas of how to make things better.
Finding the meaning of each initially absurd idea and being able to find real life solutions is definitely a creative skill. If it is not one of yours, you may need to be patient where meanings aren’t immediately obvious.
As a thinking skill, meaning-making permeates through the whole creative process. It can be supremely helpful in connecting open and closed modes. Actively search for potential meanings, measure them later against the realities of your situation or resources so that you can remain open to potentially useful ideas. Clearly, you may find no meanings when the playfulness of open mode is over. Allowing for failure is part of the process.
Wasted creative muscles are lost opportunities
There are consequences of standing still for individuals and for organizations - so the case has to be made well. So if you can’t find fresh ideas what will be the consequences for you?
To consider the question, you clearly have to project ahead and rely on your educated reasoning powers. So hypothesizing plays a different role in the creative process, helpful in that it may inform your decisions of which new ideas or directions to embrace or jettison.
For example, where you have lots of potential courses of action you could make, reflecting on their hypothetical consequences may be helpful. What might happen after that and then after that, and so on?
Hypothesizing could help you to decide which options might be the riskiest or most useful in the long run - which ones will bring you closest to your envisioned future.
Going back in time could be useful too. In the absence of hard data, taking each obstacle at a time and interrogating what may have caused that …and back further, what caused that…and so on, could be useful. Clearly there is nothing to be done about those causes beyond your control, but recent history may highlight personal or internal choices that you may be able to address differently going forward.
Deciding on which new ideas to pursue might be dictated by which emerge as the most important and urgent to address. In closed mode, you can measure these possibilities against available resources or those you need to find to be able to fulfill your bigger ambitions. In which case, these again may become ‘How to’ questions.
You may have scheduled specific times to think creatively, but there’s also a great deal to be said for mulling things over. Especially when you don’t find immediate answers.
Those moments of inspiration in the bath are usually the work of the underrated art of mulling. When freed from the weight of staring at a blank page until you come up with the big new idea, Eureka happens. Let your subconscious do its stuff.
If you haven’t found the quality of ideas you’re looking for after an allotted period of time, usually no more than half a day at a time max, keep your objectives in soft focus and see what happens. And believe.
Creativity is a skill like any other and everyone can develop and practise flexing their creative biceps. Take a chance, because if you always do what you’ve always done - you’ll get what you’ve always got.
Often the patterns of thinking that feel the most uncomfortable or pointless are the ones to have a go at. If you want to find fresh, new ideas break one of your thinking patterns on purpose and see what happens.
return to creative strategy...