Consider it. When a supervisor tells you to go be strategic, what do they mean?
Or be creative. What are they asking you to do, exactly?
And, if you and your supervisor didn’t agree on what you are to do, what are the chances you’d be successful?
If you want to be a strong problem solver, you must know what each thinking process is, what the differences are, and how they’re inter-related – if not how you rely upon both to be most effective at work.
To explain, indulge me with this drawing: the hourglass figure.
Think of the last time at work you were given a new assignment to manage. In many situations, you may not be given a lot of background, and your supervisor isn’t planning to stick around to tell you what to do.
In an ideal world, most people do one of two things, if not both.
- Set a goal, then
- Gather background about the situation to understand it better. By ‘background’, I mean its history, people involved, objectives, management expectations, etc.
Imagine if you will the answers to these two points come from a big orange cloud of data representing everything in the world to know, although the vast majority of which you’ll never be able to find nor access. There’s so much density of information in this cloud that I draw the ‘cloud’ as a solid orange line.
From this data, you select key information to examine further. Some of the information will be from internal sources, such as interviewing team members, reading reports, or reviewing in-house procedures or protocols. Some of the information should come from external sources, such as searching the internet, making a site visit, or talking to key influencers.
From this orange cloud/line, a green dot represents each piece of information you select. In other words, you turn data into information.
As you examine each piece of information, a few things happen.
As you consider what you’ve gathered – in other words, you learn (data to information to knowledge) – you realise some information is great. Other information isn’t as helpful as you originally hoped. When other information is put in context to other information, you realise it’s actually wrong. (To paraphrase Walter Shewhart, information without context is useless.) Of course, each conflicting perspective might compel you to do more research, but generally as you examine your information taking iterative steps forward, you reduce the volume of information you have. If you didn’t, you have what’s commonly known as ‘analysis paralysis.’
Think of this step as boiling down chicken broth into consommé. You start with a lot, but as you boil it, the liquid becomes far more concentrated. If I could draw a truly accurate hourglass, each green dot would actually get bigger as you move down.
Eventually all of this thinking culminates in your core understanding of the task/topic. In the most simple terms, you decide what the information means or what the information suggests to do. This fundamental understanding is represented by a red circle.
This essential knowledge suggests you do this (or sometimes, you shouldn’t do this) – but your knowledge is becoming action. Each potential step is represented by a blue line radiating from the red circle. Good insights should inspire many actions, so much so that you might have many blue lines (aka, you have several options).
Like your previous information (the green dots), not every action step (the blue lines) is good. Most are in fact bad. (See another post on The 90-10 Rule which governs every brainstorm.)
As time progresses, you select the best potential solutions to examine more closely – usually to refine, improve and adapt to transition a potential solution into workable reality. At the bottom of the hourglass figure, the purple arrows represent those best relevant solutions.
If you have several potential solutions, you might do some research to decide which of the ideas are best. Perhaps you realise that to do so, you start the hourglass figure from the top: green dots to red circle to blue lines, etc. And that’s exactly what you should be doing.
Strategy to Insights to Creativity to Innovation
With the hourglass now fully drawn, the key terms emerge.
The top of the hourglass (the inverted pyramid) is Strategic Thinking, also known as Convergent Thinking – where information from different sources are gathered, assessed and reduced to an essential understanding – which is known as an insight. (The insight might also be a decision, but a good decision is always based on a good insight.)
The bottom of the hourglass (the upright pyramid) is Creative Thinking, also known as – where an insight/decision is dispersed, expanded, re-imagined, destroyed, re-combined with other information to create new solutions. When you select your best ideas among others to put into action, this is Innovation.
More important, you may also notice that Strategic Thinking and Creative Thinking are opposite and complementary. Neither way of thinking is right nor wrong. They’re simply different ways of thinking. Each has a separate and vital purpose.
The switch between the two ways of thinking – the insight – is vital because it bring a natural conclusion to Strategic Thinking or ignites your Creative Thinking. You aren’t thinking strategically if you can’t reduce what you’ve learnt to a single understanding. You aren’t thinking creatively if you develop lots of ideas but it’s not built from an insight. In the end, you can’t be an effective thinker if you don’t use both strategic and creative thinking in a compatible way.
Depending upon which psychologist you trust, aren’t these two ways of thinking the majority of your thinking every day? Isn’t it also possible that if you don’t know what your brain should be doing, you might pick the wrong style of thinking? Remember when someone was playing ‘devil’s advocate’ in a brainstorm? Censuring and judging ideas is another way of editing. They were using strategic thinking in a creative solution. Remember when someone kept coming up with ideas when you needed to finalize the right idea for the project? They were using creative thinking in a strategic situation.
Do you have other ways to define Strategy and Creativity? Please post your thoughts below.
And, before I leave, here’s a final link to a related topic – the Information Chain which explains the step-by-step process from Data to Information to Knowledge to Insight to Ideas.