Strategy Needs Creativity

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As NYU Professor Adam Brandenburger observes students often feel frustrated when they’re taught strategy.  Why?  Because there’s a gap between what they learn and what they’d like to learn.  Strategy professors (including Brandenburger) typically teach students to think about strategy problems by introducing them to rigorous analytical tools, such as assessing the five competitive forces, drawing a value network, and plotting competitive positions. The students know that the tools are essential, and they dutifully learn how to use them.  But they also realize that the tools are better suited to understanding an existing business context than to dreaming up ways to reshape it.  Game-changing strategies, they know, are born of creative thinking: a spark of intuition, a connection between different ways of thinking, and a leap into the unexpected.

They’re right to feel this way, even though they shouldn’t abandon the many powerful analytical tools that have been developed over the years.  Business will always need them to understand competitive landscapes and to assess how companies can best deploy their resources and competencies there.  But those who devote their professional lives to thinking about strategy need to acknowledge that just giving people those tools will not help them break with conventional ways of thinking.  That is, if executives are going to generate groundbreaking strategies, they must have the tools explicitly designed to foster creativity.

A number of such tools already exist, often in practitioner-friendly forms.  In How Strategists Really Think: Tapping the Power of Analogy” (in the April 2005, Harvard Business Review), Giovanni Gavetti and Jan Rivkin wrote compellingly about using analogies to come up with new business models.  In his book Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg talks about introducing carefully chosen creative “disturbances” into work processes to spur new thinking.  And in his May 2005, Harvard Business Review article titled “Break Free from the Product Life Cycle,” Youngme Moon, suggests redefining products by boldly limiting, rather than augmenting, the features offered.

What these approaches have in common is the goal of...

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