Note: On July 30, 2012, Jonah Lehrer, one of the authors I mention in the post below, admitted to fabricating quotes in his book Imagine. I’ve elected to leave up this post because the majority of ideas in it come from other authors or researchers or my own experience.
Many of the most famous concepts in strategy help us evaluate or explain ideas but do not help us come up with ideas for our businesses in the first place. Two books I’m familiar with, William Duggan’s Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement and Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works, help fill this gap in the strategy literature. They discuss how new ideas happen, which is essential to Woodlawn’s work in growth strategy.
Our brains are mysterious but increasingly well understood by researchers. To create new ideas, our brains spontaneously and selectively recombine various previous elements into a new whole. Duggan calls this “flashes of insight,” while Lehrer calls it “conceptual blending.” I call it “strategic creativity.”
This type of work is the province of the right side of the brain, which is better able to see hidden connections and remote associations than the left hemisphere. For the brain to do this work, however, it must be in relaxed state. I can remember “a ha!” moments I had while on a leisurely jog, on an airplane, and while dreaming. It’s sort of like involuntary muscles. They work, but they aren’t under your conscious control.
Encouraging Individual Strategic Creativity
If strategic creativity is not under our conscious control, how can we create the conditions under which we can regularly benefit from it?
According to Duggan, one way to encourage this is by having plenty of examples from history available in one’s memory. These are the raw materials from which a new insight can be developed, and they can come from personal experience or that of others. Perhaps one reason we associate wisdom with age is that older people have had more time to acquire a library of strategic examples. Consulting work can also help people see many different situations in a short period of time.
More generally, it helps to have a broad, eclectic set of experiences or knowledge to drawn upon. Lehrer suggests several ways individuals can do this: attend lectures, read, and consume other media about subjects not obviously related to your main specialty, spend free time working on unrelated problems, travel to places outside your comfort zone, and spend time away from work. (Every writer can tell you their work looks different to them after being away from it, if even just overnight.)
Sleep helps. German researchers have shown that individuals who have had a proper night’s rest are far more likely to solve insight-driven puzzles than those who are sleep-deprived.
Finally, if you want to encourage strategic creativity by individuals within your firm, encourage intellectual risks. Lehrer contrasts the results of two large medical research sponsors with different approaches to risk: the U.S. National Institute of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. At the NIH, experts judge proposals based on the extent to which the ideas are supported by preliminary evidence. At HHMI, they judge proposals based on the history of the scientist, not preliminary evidence. The results are clear: although the HHMI funds more projects that are total failures (whose results are never cited by other researchers), overall the research they fund is cited twice as many times and wins six times as many awards as NIH-funded research.
In your firm, encouraging intellectual risks means supporting those who come up with new ideas and being very careful not to penalize them inappropriately when the ideas don’t work out. Sure, some ideas fail due to poor execution, but others fail for reasons that were unknowable a priori. If you punish these failures—even if only by lack of advancement—you are sending the wrong signals to your innovators.
The Social Aspects of Strategic Creativity
Interacting with other people is strongly associated with strategic creativity. Tom Allen, a professor of organization studies at MIT, has shown that high-performing employees—those with the most useful new ideas—are those who engage the most interactions with other people. Martin Ruef, a sociologist at Princeton, has shown that businesspeople with diverse social and business ties are three times more innovative than people with small networks of close friends. People who talk with more other people have more creative ideas.
As companies and as individuals, we can take advantage of this phenomenon. Socialize inside your company, especially with employees in different divisions you don’t see every day. Socialize outside your company, too. I’ve had several conversations with executives who regretted they regularly fell into the trap of thinking they were too busy for outside lunches. If you have the ability to influence the architecture of your workplace, design spaces for spontaneous and fortuitous interaction, like coffee shops, atria, and so forth. Attend industry conferences. At cocktail receptions, strike up conversations with people you don’t already know.
3M, which allows employees to spend 15% of their time on speculative new ideas of their choosing, has one significant requirement for this benefit: employees must present the results of their work to their peers at an internal conference.
Strategic Creativity in Groups
Sometimes, we want a group to work on a problem. Perhaps the problem is so complex no one person can have the expertise to solve it. Perhaps having more people thinking about a problem increases the likelihood of a new strategic insight. There are few things we can do to maximize the strategic creativity of groups.
First, it is important to have the ideal “Q.” Q is a measure of the density of interpersonal connections in a group developed by Brian Uzzi, professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. If Q is too low, a group has a hard time working together efficiently because they are basically strangers. If Q is too high, the group suffers from a lack of creativity. Ideally, you want groups that have some people who know each other well and others who are relative outsiders. As consultants, we often fill this role in growth strategy engagements. In any event, outsiders should know enough about your field to understand the problem, but not so much they use the the same frameworks to think about it you do.
Criticism and debate are also important to creative productivity. Let it be known that “no criticism” group brainstorming has been thoroughly debunked. Although it is nice to hear positive feedback, groups that use this technique come up with fewer, lower quality ideas than individuals who come up with ideas alone and then discuss and debate them as a group. The “alone” part allows people to really think through their own ideas before using the group’s time on them. The “discuss and debate” part allows the group to identify additional strengths, weaknesses, and connections associated with the ideas. It also causes us to fully engage in the ideas of others. If I’m not allowed to criticize your idea, I don’t have as much incentive to really think about it.