Creativity versus Strategy: The Hourglass Figure3
It’s interesting to me how often the words strategy versus creativity are used in business conversations, to the point that I’m not 100% certain we always know what the words mean.
Think about it. When someone at work tells you to be strategic, what do they mean exactly?
Or when they tell you to be creative. Again, what are they asking you to do, exactly?
More so, if you and this other person (like a supervisor) don’t agree on what you’re being told to do, what are the chances you’ll do what they want successfully?
If we want people to be strong problem solvers – which means being both creative and strategic – we need to have agreement on what each thinking process is, what the differences are between them, and how they are inter-related. Otherwise, being effective at work, whether creative or strategic, will be something we do by accident, not through purpose.
The Hourglass Figure
To explain, indulge me with this drawing: the hourglass figure.
Think of any time at work when you were given a new assignment to manage. After the supervisor placed the Tiara of Responsibility on your head, it’s likely he/she sped off in the other direction without giving you any detail, direction or suggestions. In other words, you had to decide what to do for yourself.
In an ideal world, you would have done one of two things, if not both.
- Set a SMART goal, and
- Gather background about the situation to understand it, such as historical/current data (from reports, from staff, etc) and future data (management expectations, required outcomes, etc).
The thick orange line at the top of the figure represents your goal, which at the very least is a benchmark from where to start. (An outcome is where you’ll end up.)
Each piece of information you gather is represented in the first row of green dots. Hopefully some of your information came from internal sources, such as talking to employees or team members, reading internal documents. or reviewing in-house procedures or protocols. Other info came from external sources, such as talking to clients, searching the internet, or making a site visit.
(As an aside … always remember it’s important to research externally, not just internally. If you only use internal sources, it could lead to bias, if not biased decisions.)
As you face all of this information, you may realise you have too much. To avoid the common affliction known as analysis paralysis, you need to analyse what you have.
- Some of the information is good. It helps guide your decision making toward achieving your goal.
- Some of the information isn’t as helpful as you originally thought. But, it may lead you to research other areas which is probably a good thing.
- Some of the information was bad. In fact, when you compare/contrast information against other information, you may realise it’s actually wrong.
(As a second aside … consider this key learning from Walter Shewhart. Information without context is useless.)
In other words, as you analyse your information, you reduce. You have less – but better quality – information. Think of it like boiling down chicken broth into consommé. You start with a lot, but as you boil it, the liquid becomes more concentrated. In other words, you have less green dots. But that’s not enough.
At some point, your thinking has to culminate or draw to a conclusion. What do all these green dots mean, or what does it suggest we do (or not do)? This change from general information to a specific conclusion or decision is represented by the red circle.
This is a hugely important step because you are progressing from data to information to knowledge to insight. More so, the red circle is a key turning point, because insights without action is a dead end. Each potential action is represented by one 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 Divergent Thinking – 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.
This is terrific, Andy! I enjoyed reading this article and will pass it on to others. Thanks for the insights and organizational tool to think about ideation, creativity and overall strategic thinking.
You use quantity to measure whether a person is more creative or not while often we are more impressed by one single interesting idea.
I think apart from quantity, spectrum of thoughts and how you can dice and slice and pick out interesting and unnoticed elements on a different dimension also tells if someone is creative (in his observation) or perhaps imaginative. This can be reflected by the amount of thoughts one can generate. However, if someone is not as expressive and eager to speak his mind, the spoken few may already be the refined and adapted result of the many unspoken ones.
Point well taken: but if you only generate one interesting idea – and then it gets killed for a variety of reasons (internal politics, budget), then you have nothing. You want quantity so you have context and options.