But Sir, What Is Strategic Creativity?

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April 9, 2020

This post is about strategic creativity in business. How growing businesses can utilise big ideas to challenge the market leaders and create a profitable niche for themselves.

But before we delve deeper, let's understand what we mean by strategic creativity?

Strategic thinking is mostly rational. Or, that's what the perception is. Most of the strategic thinking models are linear. 'A' leads to 'B' kind of cause-effect thinking. Logical thinking.

On the other hand creativity is non-linear in nature. 

Unlike strategy which is rooted in reality, creative thinking employs playfulness, imagination, fantasies. 

So, 'strategic creativity' sounds like a paradox

Strategic Creativity: What It's Not?

There is much confusion about the term strategic creativity.
If we search the web you will find articles about--

  • Strategy needs creativity,
  • Importance of creativity in strategic thinking, 
  • How creative thinking processes like combining ideas and adapting strategies from other domains help us formulate strategy for our business.
  • Use of design thinking, innovation mindset and customer orientation in strategic thinking.
  • Product development and product innovation strategies.

That's using creative thinking in the service of strategy making.

These are about relationship between creativity and strategy, using creative idea generation technique in strategy formulation.

It's not 'Strategic creativity.'

  • People also confuse 'creative strategy in advertising campaigns.' with strategic creativity.

But these are 2 different birds.

So, what is strategic creativity, then?

This is about big ideas which get our business the strategic edge.

Strategic creativity is about overarching ideas!

Ideas which--

  • Disrupts the marketplace by creating a new, unexpected value.
  • Gives us the competitive advantage.
  • Helps us organise our business.

These ideas guide our future direction, offerings, product development, organisation culture, competency and skill building.

And impact our relationship and power-position with other players in the category. It reshapes our perception in the minds of the consumers.

Let us see, how strategic creativity sessions differ from usual strategy planning meetings?

Strategy sessions covers SWOT analysis, previous year's performance and challenges of a firm, and competitive environment. The game, as played in the status-quo.

The starting point is: Now. 

How to move ahead from wherever we are? 

The real questions remain:

How to get the best for our business investments? How to maintain our position in the marketplace with some incremental gain? And how to weave in the effect of emerging market trends into our product development and marketing plans?

The strategic creativity is about refusing to play the game by the given rules!

We choose to disrupt the status quo in the industry. We challenge the assumptions prevalent in the marketplace. We decide to put our neck out and ask some unconventional and uncomfortable question.

That decision, to disrupt the status quo, is the trigger for strategic creativity.

It is a long term commitment. Because dislodging the market leader from the top isn't easy. Changing the way the category thinks about products and brands isn't a cake walk.

To disrupt status quo, is a strategic decision, taken at the highest level of an organisation. CEO and CFO and their team of experts must sit together and work on the business intensively.  

Once this call for disrupting the status quo is taken, the leadership team gets into the detail-

  • What the customers are asking for but not getting in the current paradigm?
  • What are the frustrations of the consumers?
  • Do customers feel shortchanged by various offerings in the marketplace?
  • In what significant ways the expectations of consumers have changed, but the incumbents are not fulfilling them?

This is an intense exercise. The focus moves from the organisation and its motives to the consumer and the value they expect, or deserve.

Once this desired value is understood, the business leaders create a new value offering to the consumers. Something which answers customer's irritations and frustrations. Solutions which fulfills their unmet expectations. Puts a smile on their face--

Hey, why no one thought of that before?

For the purpose of clarity Domino's 30 minute pizza delivery guarantee is the best example. (Even if it is quoted too often.)

Domino's wasn't the first, or even among the first few pizza players. In a saturated marketplace if they would compete by the existing rules, they could make no dent.

They took a decision to do something unusual, something unexpected. 

They correctly understood the consumer expectation of receiving a hot pizza, as soon as possible. When someone is hungry, or have a desire to treat themselves, who wants to wait?

The idea addressed an unmet consumer need. It was memorable and engaging, too.

The 30 minute guaranteed delivery was an overarching idea. It was something that had an impact on the whole business.

When you promise guaranteed delivery in 30 minutes, the whole business needs to organise around that value. From order taking to the delivery everything must work seamlessly, must happen in given time and must be planned well.

The strategic idea guides the processes, machinery, the people skills and marketing promises. The whole organisation works around the organising-idea of delivery in 30 minutes.

Otherwise it isn't possible. 

And the strategic idea determines the resource allocation, not the current industry benchmarks. 

In essence, the starting point becomes the delivery of the new value! And everything works in reverse to make that happen. 

An Indian B2B Company Employs Strategic Creativity!

Opportune is an Indian company specialising in HR automation.

They have developed a payroll platform.

The market was crowded when they entered. So they took a strong decision. Rather than developing their offering as per the feature based approach followed by the industry veterans, they followed a scenario based approach.

They created the solution which could answer the challenges in extreme HR scenarios.

This made their payroll and attendance management system a unique one. 

They don't do a feature demo like other competitors. They ask prospective clients their most challenging attendance scenarios. And then demonstrate the solutions to those challenges. 

Today they compete with the best in the industry.

Many times the consumers seem happy with the current solutions. No one is complaining. Even if there are some irritations, or a wishlist, consumers accept it. They think--Nothing can be perfect. If it is good enough, why to complain?

But visionary leaders see the gap: Between what's available and what's possible.

They look at the new innovative technologies, rearrange their business model to create better consumer-value and then redesign the products and offerings to deliver the future of the industry. 

That's what Steve Jobs did with iPod. The music industry wasn't utilising the digital possibilities to its fullest. The leaders in the industry, like Sony music, didn't have an incentive in creating business models around the new technology. Why to sell an individual track when you can sell the whole DVD?

The music lovers were trying illegitimate pirated downloads. It wasn't a secure and good experience.

Steve Jobs played the role of the visionary and created a novel value creation and delivery model in iTunes. It was not about 30% more songs, or 10% better sound quality. It was a new, exciting and legitimate way to have the music experience!

It was an idea that disrupted the music industry. It was strategic level creativity. To deliver iTunes, Jobs had to collaborate with players in the music industry and to push the boundaries, break the assumptions.

If we look back, all the breakthrough products and businesses are created using strategic ideas. Ford's assembly line wasn't an increment on the existing automobile industry methods, it wasn't about bigger engine or superior body.

He created a whole new paradigm in production line. To make that vision possible he did a lot of work on standardisation, training to the labour. That also guided his offering of only black colour cars.

That sounds exciting, isn't it? Then, why don't business leaders make it happen?

In any mature category where the leaders are well established, keeping the status quo favours them. Because they have the major market share they wish to exploit their strength further. 

That's why usual strategic thinking happens in the context of the status quo. The competitive players are known, their strengths and weaknesses are known. We know what we can do or can't do? 

And the strategy experts, along with business owners and leaders, see how we can make the most for our own business and brands in the given circumstances.

It also seems the obvious way to move forward. Leaders in any category want the game to be played by the same rules. 

It helps them to play on their strengths, to utilise their technology to the fullest capacity. To get the best ROI from their investments.

It also ensures their upper hand in the marketplace, distribution networks and consumer perception. So they focus on exploiting the current scenario while adjusting for any new emerging trends.

On the other hand, smaller organisations and entrepreneurs are more concerned with day-to-day survival. Most small and medium scale enterprises are so focused on operations and contingency management that they rarely think about strategy. They follow the leaders. Mostly with me-too products and offerings.

That's an irony. Because strategic creativity can help small and medium scale enterprises get a foothold in the marketplace, to achieve brand salience, and acquire a larger market share.

Due to changing consumer expectations, and emerging new technology many new solutions knock at the door. All it needs is a challenger to recognise these signs and start creating a new solution.

When the challenger brand recognises the need and the frustrations of the consumers, they can create a successful run with new solutions. The leaders often take time to respond. They are too big, and have invested in the status quo too much, to change.

They wait and watch how the challenger fares in the marketplace? Once they are sure the new paradigm can't be avoided they try to catch up. But by that time the challenger brand can have a good standing. They can own the new paradigm.

If you are a challenger brand, or a startup, don't imitate the big boys. Don't try to accommodate yourself for the industry assumptions and benchmarks. 

Create a new business model. Offer a novel value.

Go for the strategic ideas.

Points To Remember

  • Strategic creativity is triggered by a refusal to play as per the current category rules. It's a long term commitment to create a new value offering.
  • It impacts the business model. Business model innovation is triggered. 
  • The starting point isn't now, or the current performance, but a new, possible future. We work backwards, and plan things. New processes, new skills, new machinery. 
  • The strategic idea has a long term effect, it decides the future of organisation for many years.

About the author 

Puneet Bhatnagar

Puneet Bhatnagar, popularly known as Creative Punito--is a business innovator. An expert on SME business growth. He is a well-known creativity and innovation trainer, author, columnist and storyteller.

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