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Strategic Creativity

The backbone of every strategy is based on a creative idea--and all interesting, creative ideas are fueled by extensive research and detailed insights.

Four approaches to building a breakthrough strategy ( 4Cs of Ground-breaking Strategy)

(1) Contrast. The strategist should identify—and challenge—the assumptions undergirding the company’s or the industry’s status quo. To create a strategy built on contrast, first identify the assumptions implicit in existing strategies. For example People pick up videos at a retail location close to home. Why is the physical location necessary? Mailing out videos would be cheaper and more convenient. Is there a way around the high fees for new releases? If the studios were open to a revenue-sharing agreement, both parties could benefit. Those two changes allowed Netflix to carry lots more movies, offer long rental periods, do away with late fees—and remake an industry.

(2) Combination. Steve Jobs famously said that creativity is “just connecting things”; many smart business moves come from linking products or services that seem independent from or even in tension with one another. The combination is a canonical creative approach in both the arts and the sciences. In business, too, creative and successful moves can result from combining things that have been separate. Often these opportunities arise with complementary products and services. Products and payment systems, for example, have traditionally been separate nodes in value chains.

(3) Constraint. A good strategist looks at an organization’s limitations and considers how they might actually become strengths. That constraint can spark creative strategies that may seem paradoxical. This attitude toward constraints is very different from that suggested by the classic SWOT analysis. Strategists are supposed to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats impinging on an organization and then figure out ways to exploit strengths and opportunities and mitigate weaknesses and threats. In stark contrast, a constraint-based search would look at how those weaknesses could be turned to the company’s advantage. Constraint plus imagination may yield an opportunity.

  • List the “incompetencies” (rather than the competencies) of your organization—and test whether they can in fact be turned into strengths.

  • Consider deliberately imposing some constraints to encourage people to find new ways of thinking and acting.

(4) Context. If you reflect on how a problem similar to yours was solved in an entirely different context, surprising insights may emerge. Start with a problem in one context, find another context in which an analogous problem has already been solved, and import the solution. It may mean uncovering entirely new thinking about problems (or opportunities) by finding pioneers who are ahead of the game. At the bottom, it’s about not being trapped in a single narrative. Stop being a frog in the well.

  • Explain your business to an outsider in another industry. Fresh eyes from a different context can help uncover new answers and opportunities.

  • Engage with lead users, extreme users, and innovation hotspots.

If the distinction between strategy and innovation is less clear than it once was, do we really need to think carefully about the role of creativity in the strategy-making process?

The answer is “YES” At its core, the strategy is still about finding ways to create and claim value through differentiation. That’s a complicated, difficult job. To be sure, it requires tools that can help identify surprising, creative breaks from conventional thinking. But it also requires tools for analyzing the competitive landscape, the dynamics threatening that landscape, and a company’s resources and competencies.

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