Creative Strategy: A Guide for Innovation

"But for every goal you set, every initiative you design, there might be a better one just beyond your grasp – an innovation you don’t yet see. Creative strategy helps you see it."

- Creative Strategy, page 5

Creative Strategy uniquely contributes to the body of innovation literature by answering the toughest innovation questions of them all: How?  How do you get innovative ideas? How do you decide on which ideas to pursue?  How do you bridge from analysis to execution? How exactly?

In his previous book, Strategic Intuition, Columbia Business School Professor William Duggan laid out his case on how innovation works in our brains: flashes of insight that combine knowledge and experience (stored in our brains and in the world around us) to create new, innovative ideas. He left us with a 4 step mental process to generate innovative ideas and a team tool, the ‘what-works’ matrix, to use in a group setting.

In Creative Strategy, his follow-up book, Duggan goes into more detail on the steps of his proposed methodology and provides an extensive workbook on the process of how to apply strategic intuition to the real world.  That process he calls creative strategy. His book succeeds in motivating the reader to take the tangible and confident steps needed to use creative strategy in business and personal life.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Marrying Creativity with Strategy

"…analysis and creativity work together in all modes of thought. You cannot have an idea without both."
- Creative Strategy, page 2

Traditionally, we have held that creativity is open and strategy focused – generating from two separate parts of our brain. We manage them separately and then try to combine the results in some way at a later stage.  Creative Strategy makes this a one step process by marrying creativity (the generation of new ideas) with efficiency (based on what we already know is working elsewhere) and strategy (addressing only the key elements that are at the core of our challenges).  The fusing of these domains into one guided process provides the missing piece for many innovation efforts. 

Most importantly, Creative Strategy could spawn even greater corporate acceptance for more organized innovation efforts as it is a more “prudent way to experiment”. Following the what-works matrix and process will allow you to explain why your new idea is worth a try since it is a creative combination of past elements that have worked. Creative Strategy essentially provides a potentially better ROI – return on ideas – for management than random “try anything” notions, “wild ideas” or purely imaginative flights of fancy.

Further addressing efficiency, and backed by neuroscience, Creative Strategy as a methodology and thought process closely follows what we now know about optimal brain functioning. The “learning-and-memory” brain model has replaced the “two brain” (left brain-right brain) model as the current working basis of human brain functioning. “In this model, analysis and intuition are not two different kinds of thought, in two different locations, but operates throughout the brain as is proven by neuroscience”. It should follow that the methods of strategy and the methods of creativity have a connection and there is no need for conducting two separate sessions. Creative strategy offers a formal method that mirrors the way the brain works.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Break the paradigm

"The most common mistake in methods of innovation, creation and strategy is to rely on some type of formal or informal brainstorming to fill the gap between analysis and planning."
- Creative Strategy, page 73

Duggan is not a fan of brainstorming as it “relies on ideas just popping into your head in a matter of minutes”. Brain connections (good ideas), on the other hand, take time. Standard advice of brainstorming is to “encourage wild ideas”, “go for quantity”. Creative Strategy is very different: “look for pieces of the puzzle that someone, somewhere has already solved to some degree”. It is a treasure hunt that goes for quality.

Duggan states definitively that the what-works matrix and scan exercise create a better process for groups to work with. They focus, fine tune, and direct thinking toward definitive solutions, not just a lot of random ideas. Participants are being very selective, looking for exact examples needed that address particular elements of the problem, then combine them into new ideas that target the specific challenges at hand. Duggan characterizes it as “being a detective, spending time searching for solutions, not studying the problem.”

It’s important to break the habit, the corporate “inertia”, of following the “classic mistake” of focusing on elaborate analysis followed by conducting brainstorming sessions to “generate solutions”. “This yields strong analysis and weak solutions” and follows the old left brain/right brain model.  Replace this standard course of action with his creative strategy phases of:

1. Rapid appraisal: Break the problem into parts (most important elements)
2. What-works scan: Search widely for sources/examples of previously successful actions that address each element
3. Creative combination: Allow the brain to have flashes of insight in finding new combinations of elements.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Slaughtering sacred cows

"Creative Strategy comes much closer to how innovations actually happen."
- Creative Strategy, page 107

The second part of the book bravely dedicates itself to pointing out the flaws of the major business methods being used and touted today and explains how to alter them to make room for creative strategy. Duggan reviews a cross-section of creativity methods such as design thinking, Dragon’s Den, mind mapping, play, time off and TRIZ. He dissects strategy methods such as Blue Ocean, case method, systems thinking, SWOT, and gap analysis. He takes on Bain & Company’s annual survey of most used management tools, and a wide range of management and creativity staples like Jim Collin’s Good to Great, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan’s Execution, Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma & Innovator’s Solution, Ed de Bono’s Six Hats Thinking and Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy. It is quite an undertaking.

On his review of creative methods, he points out that many of these methods try to “stir up the pot of your mind so creative ideas pop out” which amount to “stimulating the right side of your brain “, not producing a strategy. You wind up facing a universe of possibilities and no guidance at all for how to decide which one to choose.

On his review of strategy methods, he warns that they are incomplete methods.  They help organize your thoughts – how to analyze a problem, but do not help you find a solution. You take an analytical framework that describes your current situation and “then have to make a magical leap to fill in the framework for the future you desire”.

The actionable item here is to actively use Duggan’s book as a way to challenge your thinking and your sacred cows.  The first step in being more innovative starts with a cold, hard look at what you are currently doing and what are your guiding beliefs. Creative Strategy becomes a singular book offering a different lens to review the major management, strategy and creativity processes in vogue today in relation to innovation creation.  This activity may help you expand or fine-tune your  innovation toolkit.


Creative Strategy is a brave work, like innovation itself, standing up to challenge status quo thinking. It deserves attention as it provides a much needed innovation creation process that strongly addresses real world constraints.

What process do you use to ensure you come up with a novel idea? How well does it work?

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Bill Hortz

ABOUT Bill Hortz

I’m an independent consultant and business catalyst focused on the game-changing nature of strategic thinking, innovation creation and strategic account management...
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