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Differences Between Strategic and Creative Thinking

I was asked recently by a communications agency in Sydney to answer some questions about the similarities and differences of Strategic and Creative Thinking as they began their annual planning for its clients. I’ve posted my general notes from those meetings below.

What does Creative Thinking have to do with Strategic Thinking?

In a word, everything. Creativity is essential to Strategy, and vice versa. Yin and Yang, as it were.

Strategic Thinking sets a clear linear path to accomplish a desired business goal, and typically is based on three essential items:

  1. Concise and measurable objectives linking to the business outcome,
  2. A clear perspective of the problems to be addressed (and potentially, to leverage opportunities), and
  3. A thorough understanding of the resources which should be leveraged to implement the strategic plan, such as budget, personnel and operations.

Strategic Thinking is Convergent Thinking, or distilling different thoughts, information and perspectives to a distinct insight or solution to solve a true problem.

If Strategic Thinking reduces information down to an insight, Creative Thinking is its opposite. Instead of reduction or contraction, Creative Thinking expands or builds upon the insight to create as many different possibilities (also known as ideas). Different than Convergent Thinking, Creative Thinking is Divergent Thinking.

That said, one can be strategic without being creative, or be creative without being strategic. However, successful programs – and people – are always both. You can’t have a good strategic plan without an effective creative solution, and you can’t have a good creative solution without effective strategic thinking.

If the two processes were shapes, they’d look like this.


Side Note: There’s now a longer article outlining the differences between Strategic and Creative Thinking called Creativity versus Strategy: The Hourglass Figure. There’s also an article specific to Analytical Thinking and another comparing/contrasting Analytical vs. Critical Thinking.

How Should We Approach Strategic Planning?

Regardless of their industry, all organisations can follow the same process to be both strategic and creative.

Articulate the specific goal that must be achieved, both from the perspective of the business and the communications roles.

Even the most basic communications tactic should have a direct link between its implementation and the goals of the business. If you don’t, how can you prove the tactic was successful? And, can you actually measure your goal(s)?

Prioritise the communications issues which are preventing the goals from being achieved.

As much as possible, make sure you’re solving a problem and not a symptom. Symptoms might seem urgent – such as ‘Falling share price‘ – but they’re typically short-term. Problems are long-term and require sustained attention, such as the ‘Falling share price is a direct result of a poor reputation of the company’s leadership.

Be precise in deciding which audience you’re trying to reach.

‘Women’ isn’t a target audience, it’s a gender. “People who make the purchasing decision in the household’ is an audience. Don’t try to do too much.

Also, media is never the audience. They readers/viewers are the audience. I’ve seen too many communications teams produce unsuccessful results because the campaign generated media coverage but not business goals.

Understand the current mindset of the audience you’re trying to address – and don’t judge what they think.

You cannot change another person’s mind unless you know and understand what they believe now, and why. I’d also suggest you need to know the rational reasons and emotional levers which convince the key audiences to re-evaluate their opinions or change their behaviour. Otherwise, messages tend to sound more like propaganda than compelling reasons to change one’s mindset.

Define exactly what you want the key audiences to do. 

Any campaign tactic must directly reinforce to the audience the desired outcome. This outcome is rarely a 180˚ mindset shift from ‘I hate you‘ to ‘I love you.‘ Be realistic and transparent with what you want the audience to believe. Otherwise, your messages will sound self-serving.

Develop ideas which address all of the previous steps.

Clever ideas which are interesting but not engaging are a waste of resources, similar to an intelligent strategic plan without a cut-through idea. More so, you should also decide the criteria that you’ll use to select the best idea.

Anything you’re like to add? Feel free to add your comments below.

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