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.
Backcasting. Backcasting is the opposite of forecasting. Rather than predicting the future based on current trends or actions, we look at a possible future state and seek to understand what trends or actions would need to happen to get us there. Backcasting is an incredibly useful tool for developing strategy, because it allows us to develop potential future states, or visions, and then work backwards to develop the actions and opportunities necessary to get us to those end states. Thinking this way can lead to entirely new possibilities compared to working directly with strategy, as most organizations do.
Strategy Tables. The sheer number of variables, actions, and resource allocations involved in strategy can quickly make for a very complex problem. Most leaders respond to this complexity by learning to follow their gut or intuition. But what if you want to develop strategy collaboratively and/or make the decision process and its assumptions more transparent? Strategy tables can help. Based on an analytical technique called morphological analysis, they allow us to map out all potential strategic options and structure them into a map of the “choice space”. Doing this allows people to see new ideas and develop creative combinations of them. Strategic themes can be “strung” through the table to clearly define and compare various strategies. I use a visual planning tool called a Strategy Spectrum to work with groups with complex strategic choices, and it usually leads to a wider range of options and deeper insight into why the chosen strategy is the best option to pursue.
Storytelling. Human beings are natural storytellers. People in all times and places have told stories. In organizations, stories become the fabric of cultures. Stories can be used to instill knowledge or values, communicate a vision or strategic plan, or to develop a culture. In the definition phase of strategic planning, stories can be used to flesh out visions and make them more real. Storyboarding and success stories can be used to help groups visualize their future with more clarity and creativity. In the communication phase, it is critical to get employees and stakeholders engaged with the new direction. Visual stories can integrate organizational information with visual metaphors and graphics to tell a story that makes learning more personal, powerful, and effective. I work with groups to develop Storymaps that can educate and align people around an organization’s history, a change in strategy, a new business venture, or an emerging vision.
Scenario Planning. The future is of course unknowable, yet strategy must be defined in the face of dramatic uncertainty. Scenario planning is a process that attempts to address this by defining a set of scenarios based on trends and facts about the environment. These scenarios are then examined to understand their stories, implications, and opportunities. Team members can then generate ideas for creating value particular to each scenario, and build strategies that are more robust across a wider range of future possibilities.
Benchmarking. One of the easiest sources for new ideas is to compare what we are doing to what others are doing. Through reading and research, teams can understand what other organizations are doing in their industries — and learn about best practices and standards of excellence. They can then brainstorm how they could embody these practices in their organization, and which could fit their culture and goals. A related technique that can yield new perspectives and ideas is to work with metaphors — organizations in unrelated industries that could serve as a metaphor for what we might want to be like. For example, we might ask a question like “What would we look like if we became the Google of the newspaper publishing industry?” The result can be a whole new way of seeing and communicating the organization’s direction.
Legacies. Working with legacies changes the question from one of “What do we want to be or do?” to one of “What do we want to be known for?” or “What impact do we want to make on the world/environment/community?”. Legacy thinking can work equally well on an individual level (“What would I want people to say about me in my obituary or at my 80th birthday party?”) or on an organizational level (“What do we want customers, stakeholders, or the press to say about us?”). Asking these kind of questions shifts perspective and can result in new ways of seeing the purpose and vision of an organization. It can also help a group expand its thinking beyond a short term financial perspective.
In this article I’ve tried to survey some of the most powerful creativity tools that work in strategic planning. Using them effectively is an art akin to a jazz musician’s use of the tools of his art. Many of them can be used in combination with each other. Processes can be designed to satisfy any level of depth or complexity, or any organizational culture. By combining and using these tools artfully, we can dramatically improve the creativity and boldness of our strategic thinking. I hope some of these ideas help you in your quest to bring more creativity into your organization’s strategic planning.