Is Creative Thinking An Oxymoron in Your Strategic Planning?

Posted by on Jul 18, 2011

Why strategic thinking stops during strategic planning

In his book, “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning”, Henry Mintzberg noted that strategic thinking occurs more or less continuously in most organizations. Paradoxically, it seems to stop only during strategic planning sessions! After leading strategic planning sessions for 22 years, I agree. During strategic planning sessions ideas are presented, socialized, debated and polished . . . but seldom actually created. The vast majority of the new ideas presented in planning sessions were conceived before the planning session – often long before.

For two decades we have used advance preparation assignments to bring participants’ strategic thinking to a peak before strategic planning sessions. We see a noticeable decline in the quality of plans when participants don’t do their homework. But strategic thinking isn’t synonymous with creative thinking. People may show up well prepared to discuss strategy, but it may be no more creative than a photocopy. Creative thinking can benefit from preparation, too, but it’s a different kind of preparation.

What’s the biggest barrier to creative strategic thinking?

Creative thinking is crucial in all aspects of human endeavour, but it’s often absent in strategic planning. Why is that so, and what can we do about it? To understand how to stimulate creative thinking, we must consider the mismatch between the demands of the strategic planning process and the creative strengths of the human brain.

Strategic planning requires logical thinking in a somewhat regimented step-by-step process. Planning meetings are often long enough that boredom and fatigue set in. This combination of a familiar process, long discussions, and plenty of evaluation and criticism, stop creativity in its tracks. Struggling to express and summarize strategy ideas takes participants into editing mode, not thinking mode. The sequential, left-brained, numbers driven and accountability-focused planning process, with its long, drawn-out discussions, isn’t one in which creativity thrives. Bored, tired and regimented brains just aren’t very creative.

However, humans have another strength that aids creativity if we learn how to exploit it. Our brains are actually very good at something related – recognizing connections between ideas and concepts, and seeing new opportunities in these connections.

Novel or unexpected events trigger brain processes that lock in memories and stimulate creativity. This is one reason why we often come back from vacation with new ideas we’ve come up with while away. When you stand in a different place, it’s easier to see the world from a different perspective.

This is also why brainstorming produces more ideas when we encourage wild ideas and forbid evaluation and criticism during the idea generation phase. I’m sure most of you know someone with whom you like to spend time because you play off each other’s ideas, riffing like jazz musicians. Of course, it’s a lot easier and more natural when you’re having fun. It’s hard to be creative “on cue”.

How to stimulate your creativity

Do you want to gain new insights into the strategic possibilities for your business? Attend a conference related to your work. Mix with others from your industry or whose job function is like yours. Take a course that’s related to your industry or your job function. Even regular exercise can help – I get some of my best new ideas on long bike rides. Read the latest business best-seller. Take a “business holiday” – visit companies like your own and find out what they do differently. Go with the aim of finding at least 3 new ideas you can bring back to your company as candidates for innovation. Don’t worry about “completely new” – there’s very little under the sun that has never been used anywhere. If these ideas are new to your company, they’re new!

Opening one’s mind to new ideas is only the first step. Many other changes are needed to transform yourself, and then your organization, into a hotbed of creative thinking. Foremost among them are becoming a more fertile idea generator, changing the language your organization uses for ideas, and promoting constructive dissent as a tool to nurture ideas. This article is far too short to delve deeply into this subject, but this is a beginning onto which you can add much detail through further inquiry.

Idea generation

We’ve long been enthusiastic about mind-mapping as a technique for drawing out ideas from people who thought they had none. A mind map is a diagram used to represent ideas, words, tasks or other items linked around a central goal, idea or key word. Ishikawa, or “fishbone” diagrams made popular in Quality Assurance are slightly more structured versions. When an individual or a small team draws a mind-map or fishbone diagram to identify possible actions in support of a goal, the participant(s) are usually amazed at the volume of ideas they produce. When these ideas are organized into a hierarchy, few are discarded but the priorities emerge almost spontaneously as the group recognizes the differences between the big ideas and their constituents.


The words your organization uses for ideas can stimulate or stop creativity. For example, the notion that one must generate many “wrong” ideas to find each “right” one makes it clear that the volume of ideas matters, and eliminates the pressure to hatch perfectly formed ideas, ready for implementation. “Imperfect” is another important word, denoting that the programs, initiatives, methods, processes your organization adopts are always open to change and improvement. “Perfect” does just the opposite. The literature on creating thinking includes many more examples of how language can unleash or smother creativity.

Constructive Dissent

We’ve used a formula for stimulating constructive dissent to improve the quality of decisions for more than 20 years. But we used it without explanation. We were initially pleased with how it stimulated creativity in planning and problem-solving sessions. Then, 8 or 9 years ago, we began discussing the technique explicitly with our clients. We were even more impressed with the results. We found that “naming” the technique, and discussing it as a requirement for effective team functioning, transformed “disagreement” from a negative into a positive way to add value to existing ideas. Again, much more discussion is possible, and we encourage you to inquire further if increasing your own or your team’s creativity is of interest to you.

Focus on the other 360 days

In summary, the combination of our planning process and the way our brains work isn’t a very good recipe for creative strategic planning. But we don’t think the solution is to change the planning process. All organizations still need plans that are sound, aligned, and complete with measurable objectives, milestones and assignments of responsibility for results. Rather than revising the planning process you use for perhaps 5 days per year, we’d opt to bring more creativity into the other 360 days. After all, if Mintzberg is right (and we think he is), it’s the other 360 days during which the real creative and strategic thinking happens, so that should be the focus of your efforts to think more creatively.

You’ll never see the world in a different way if you always stand in the same place. Hunt for new experiences, exposure to new ideas, opportunities to see how others do things – in short, feed your brain with new ideas and observations so that it can do what it does best – make connections and see new opportunities in them. You have nothing to lose but the status quo.

© Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. 2011