We can all agree that the current business landscape is rough, but it’s equally true that many leaders stand poised in the hope of conquering markets and reaping rewards.
This courageous attitude has to be matched with the right thinking and decision-making skills. As a leader one of your primary tasks is to set direction for your company that will overcome current threats, sustain value for all, outdo your competitors, infuse you with energy and ultimately break through everything that obstructs or impedes on the way.
This kind of leadership requires a high level of strategic creativity. Creativity in strategy allows executives to play with big ideas and break through boundaries. It deals with a way of thinking that allows leaders to go beyond what their competitors may be doing, what’s been done before and what they are currently doing.
The seeds of such creative thinking can be found in every good strategy.
If, however, creativity is about having new ideas, multiple solutions and unusual strategies, and if complexity and ambiguity increase as you ascend the corporate ladder, then nobody needs creativity more than the executive. But, creativity remains a largely unexplored source of positive change, especially for senior leaders.
Whether it is to compete on assets like Shell, restructure your company to be more nimble like Toyota, or carefully choose the release dates of your products like Apple, the logical choices in business remain important.
But alongside strategic planning, it has become high time to prepare for unknown futures, re-evaluate your relevance and shape tomorrow.
How do you do this? How do executives embrace a creative, counter-intuitive way of thinking to drive new results? Here are four practical tips for developing strategic creativity.
1. Ask, look and listen more.
When you expose yourself to wide-ranging viewpoints and information, you introduce new thoughts that challenge set mental patterns. It may be by sourcing new ideas from all ranks and challenging your employees to come up with new solutions.
Lazarus Ramashilabele runs an Exxaro mine and to drive a culture of high performance he has introduced a campaign called ‘Every second counts’. He wants hard results and the aim of this campaign is to let everyone generate creative ideas.
“Challenging everybody to be creative has resulted not only in useful ideas, but also a wave of excitement to make this culture happen,” says Ramashilabele.
Leslie Matthews, CEO of Tempest Car Hire has also experienced the value of contrary views. “New ideas come to the fore when I allow my colleagues to have a robust debate with me, without any concern whatsoever of reprisals. This then stimulates my thinking of alternatives in strategy, instead of me forcing my thinking on them.”
2. Play more.
In diverting your attention to less serious or pressing issues, you gain and generate energy. It is not about doing frivolous things, but doing things that allow you to test various risks. Tempest’s Matthews puts it this way:
“When people are relaxed in their interactions and communication, they become confident and confident people become creative and positive people.” In his experience, creating an energetic, playful atmosphere in the office brings a sense of happiness and subsequent out-of-the-box thinking.
3. Dream more.
In Distell’s Ghana office, Burton Swain, GM of trade marketing writes on glass, doors and walls to visualise his thinking
“If I draw the strategic roadmap, it helps us all to focus on the year ahead. Our strategic picture forms part of all our meetings, and helps us to add to our ideas or track our progress,” he says. This introduces creative shifts in your own perspectives and lets others see new possibilities.
4. Work more.
Developing creative skills also involves hard work and the discipline of putting effort towards useful, practical and relevant solutions, rather than illusions or fantasies.
It requires you to combine your divergent, outgoing thinking with your convergent, logical and practical thinking. Bruce Strong, CEO of the packaging business Mpact, has turned his strategy review process on its head to do this.
Instead of starting with the vision and mission in mind, he has asked all the leaders to first identify opportunities and only then to map it through analytical processes to strategic intent. Strategy for Mpact has become much more practical in the process.
What is certain is that all businesses will face completely new sets of challenges in the future and customers of tomorrow will have needs that differ qualitatively from what customers need today.
As a business leader in South Africa, strategic creativity should be embraced as a source of positive change, growth and resilience, especially for senior leaders.
It has to be developed through practice and as part of a personal development plan. Opportunities to learn, play, dream and execute should be actively sought out as part of strategic thinking towards new and better futures.