Strategy Talk: How to Help Your Team Get More Creative

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Leaders should draw on the past to spark ideas that are both novel and practical.

Dear Ken,

I’ve been asking my leaders to get more creative in how they tackle the biggest challenges and opportunities for our strategy. I might as well be telling them to get taller. They either bring me outside-the-box ideas that are wildly impractical or stuff that’s much too small to move the needle. Is there something I can do to help my team generate ideas that are both big and practical?

—Stuck in a Creative Rut

Dear Stuck,

I applaud your efforts to demand creativity from your team. Creativity is essential to innovation, and innovative strategy is the only way to avoid long-term stagnation, no matter how good your execution might be. Fortunately, creativity is a skill that you can foster. Yes, just as some of us are, to your point, inherently taller than the rest, some people instinctively exercise more creativity than others. But unlike getting taller, anyone can get better at generating new and useful business ideas. The key is to reverse engineer how creative breakthroughs actually happen in the business world, and then ask your team to mirror that when they need genuinely new thinking and ideas.

Albert Einstein observed that creativity is an exercise in “combinatory play,” which requires a willingness to recombine what we already know. Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” Mark Twain told us, “There is no such thing as a new idea. We simply take a lot of old ideas and…make new and curious combinations.” And Pablo Picasso is often quoted as saying: “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

For example, Reed Hastings created Netflix by combining the models of monthly gym memberships, centralized warehousing of boxed software inventory, and online ordering and payment. Warren Buffett, longtime CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, turned a failing textiles company into a value-creating juggernaut by connecting two insights: one from legendary investor Benjamin Graham on the “intrinsic value” approach to investing, and the other from Lorimer Davidson, then an investment officer for Geico (and later its CEO), on “insurance float” as a source of free capital. Hastings and Buffett — and their strategic innovations — exemplify what Henry Ford said about his then-innovative model for building and selling cars: “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of others.”

Ford’s reflection tells you in a nutshell how creative breakthroughs actually happen and thus how to get more of them: Find the most relevant discoveries of others and assemble them into a novel solution to whatever problem your challenge or opportunity presents.

To do this well, you must escape the trap of industry thinking and domain expertise that will inevitably constrain your team. The best way to do this is by getting away from the specifics of your particular situation. And this means recognizing that whatever your challenge or opportunity might be, you are not the first to face it.

For example, if your opportunity is launching a new product and your challenge is doing so in a crowded field, you might look into how JetBlue differentiated itself in a highly commoditized sector. Or if your opportunity is changing the way an industry works and your challenge is to avoid the buzz saw of established-industry inertia, investigate how Intuitive Surgical changed the practice of surgery in the face of enormous resistance to da Vinci, its robotic surgery machine. Or if your challenge is a growing, perceived stigma associated with your product — because, for example, its ingredients are being questioned, or it’s associated with labor abuse, or it has lost its “coolness” factor, or it’s gained a reputation for being dangerous — study what McDonald’s Australia did about its Big Mac, how Nike addressed protests over its overseas production, how Lego became cool again with kids, and how the city of Medellín turned around its tourist industry.

Whatever your challenge or opportunity might be, you are not the first to face it.

William Duggan, who teaches strategic innovation at Columbia Business School, has recommended that, to think outside the box, you should look in other boxes. What you’ll find in those other boxes is the feedstock for reassembling the old into a new idea that’s both big enough to crack your challenge or opportunity and whose antecedents also have been proven successful.

Coming back to your question, here’s what you can do: First, turn your challenge or opportunity into domain-agnostic questions. For example, if you are looking to commercialize a novel solution that goes against the grain of an established industry, here are six questions that might fit the bill:

1. Who has successfully commercialized a new category of products or services in an industry with pervasive inertia, and how did they do it?

2. Who successfully moved an industry from one pay or contracting model to another, and how did they make that happen?

3. Who successfully transitioned an industry from buying products to buying an outcome, and what made it work for them?

4. Who successfully changed the way an industry works by introducing a new technology, product, or service, and what changes did they make?

5. Who successfully changed the standard of customer service, and how did they succeed?

6. Who successfully made a complex product or service as easy as possible for customers to implement, use, buy, etc., and how did they do it?

Next, ask your team members to search their memory banks, talk to others (particularly those outside your particular domain), crowdsource, or do whatever it takes to find innovative precedents guided by specific questions such as those listed above. Once you feel satisfied that your team has looked in enough other boxes and found a rich enough set of precedents that are relevant, applicable, and proven, challenge them to recombine the most promising of those precedents into new ideas for solving the business problem you face.

These three steps may seem like a simple answer to your question, but beware: Doing them well is cognitively taxing and inevitably entails multiple dead-end searches for inspiration that feel like a waste of time. It’s much easier to default to incremental improvement based on what you already know or to blue-sky brainstorming that has no grounding in what’s worked before. I can assure you, though, that the more your leaders practice these steps, the better they’ll become at bringing you ideas that are big, novel, and practical. They might even stand taller as a result.

Ken Favaro

Ken Favaro is a contributing editor of strategy+business and the lead principal of act2, which provides independent counsel to executive leaders, teams, and boards.

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