An example of ineffective strategy is a dry, one-inch-thick report that people only refer to when they need some market numbers, or a PowerPoint slide deck full of esoteric whiz-bang charts put together by a team of consultants.
Powerful strategy is the living, breathing force behind the actions of an organization. It is the bridge that connects people from where they are to where they want to be. It’s bold — definitely not business as usual — because it continually changes how the organization sees itself and transforms it into what you want it to become.
How can we bring this kind of life and boldness into our strategic planning efforts? I propose that creativity is the key to this, and that there are a variety of tools and techniques that are well suited to engaging people and tapping into their creative juices.
Mind Map Brainstorming. The word brainstorming has become an ubiquitous term for creative thinking. The core principle of brainstorming is to suspend judgment during the generation phase of thinking. Analysis, prioritization, and judgment take place after ideas are generated. This frees the mind to make connections and abstractions, shift perspectives, and explore alternatives without the constraints and structure that judgment brings. Unfortunately, typical group brainstorming sessions fail to be productive for a variety of reasons — judgment creeps in, ideas are not tracked, connections are not supported, etc. How can brainstorming be made more effective? I find that facilitated sessions with mind mapping software provide tremendous advantages over typical brainstorming sessions. Ideas can be captured and tracked with total freedom of association. Through powerful yet simple visualization, new ideas and connections are encouraged. At the end of a session, the group has a map of all the ideas generated in the session, which encourages further connections and ideas to develop after the meeting.
Improvisation. If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, you know what I mean by improvisation. It’s the practice of acting and reacting, to create in the moment and in response to one’s environment. Techniques of improv are widely trained in the entertainment arts (music, theater, and dance), but it is not well known that it can be a powerful tool in business planning. Its secret lies in suspending judgment and accessing the creativity of the present moment. There is no time to censor or evaluate, only to respond and build. It’s interesting to note that the mental and emotional states needed to practice the art of improvisation are very similar to those of Zen, and many of the same concepts are used in both practices. When people who have a thorough understanding of their disciplines practice improvisation, the result can be the invention of new thought patterns, new structures, or new ways to act. I use improv to help groups develop a more creative vision by asking them to improvise what their organization could be like at some point in the future, and capture their thinking in a tool called a Cover Story Vision. The result can often include nuggets of creative possibility that are fresh and bold.