Creative vs. Strategic Thinking: What’s The Difference?

So you have an idea you want to develop: do you approach it creatively or strategically? If you’re working with an approach that favours fast and fruitful collaborative innovation, the key to success is probably a combination of the two. In this blog, we explore how to use the sweet spot between strategy and creativity to develop ideas within your team.

Phuong Kieu
by Phuong Kieu
strategic creative thinking

For most businesses, every day is an exercise in problem-solving. From managing your team, to running your office, to actually doing the work that’s paying your bills, even the most repetitive role is likely to involve some degree of decision making. After all – it’s what gets most of us out of bed.

That’s because humans are natural innovators. We’re driven to collaborate, challenge and create. If the conditions are right, meaningful change can evolve from the smallest seed of inspiration; an observation, a discussion, or even just an interesting question. If you want to speed up your rate of productivity, you can use an idea management tool to collate these kernels of innovation from your entire team, but what should you do with them next?

There are two distinct (though complementary) ways to work through a problem and develop a solution: we might label them ‘creative thinking’ and ‘strategic thinking’. There are many possible definitions for these two modes of thought, but practically you can think of them in terms of the following principles…

The key principles of creative thinking

Take your time: a creative thought can strike any time, day or night. Often this will be after mulling for a while and directing your thoughts elsewhere.

Dare to dream: scrap any used, boring or obvious ideas and move on to the next round. Creative thinking focuses on capturing the unusual, unique and unchartered.

Make sideways moves: look outside of your own environment for a solution, seeking inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Don’t take the obvious route.

Focus on the big picture: think big and challenge any old ideas you’re holding on to. “Where would we like to end up?” comes before “How will we get there?”

Create a unique solution: Find something surprising, enlightening and even a bit risky. You’re in uncharted territory, and it should feel exciting.

The key principles of strategic thinking

Limit your time: strategic thinking is all about efficiency. Allocate your time and resources to get the job done as fast and as well as possible.

First things first: you’re trying to find the simplest and most effective solution to a problem, so you need to break it down into constituent parts and tackle them in order of priority.

Take linear steps: “If [this], then [that]” is a good rule to follow, but keep it grounded in reality. Everything needs to be achievable, manageable, and simple to communicate. If it isn’t relevant; save it for another time.

Grasp the details: Ensure that your solution is a perfect fit for the reality of your problem. Don’t plan for a fantasy future, deal with how you’re going to implement in the here and now.

Find the obvious solution: There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Do what needs to be done, and do it well.

It may seem simple enough to break them down in this way in theory, but when you think about it, there are very few situations that are this cut and dry. Most of the time, you’ll need to wear both hats simultaneously. This also means ensuring that when you bring a team together for a collaborative innovation project, it has members who are bringing each type of perspective to the table, even if they sometimes appear to butt heads.

If you rely on one without the other, you may find that the creative approach leads to your plans spiralling out of control, while too much of an emphasis on the strategic approach leaves you with a solution that is uninspiring and lacking impact.

So what does the ideal interaction between the two actually look like.

Where strategic and creative thinking meet

Rather than a division between creative and strategic thinking, the world’s most agile companies understand that the key to successful problem solving, design and innovation is, in fact, a symbiotic interplay between ‘strategic creativity’ and ‘creative strategy’.

This means using the principles from each mode of thought to challenge and inform the process of the other. You can do this by guiding your team’s thinking with the following prompts:

Questions for cultivating strategic creativity:

How does this single big idea become many actionable small ideas?

Can we constrain our brainstorming session to a fixed time frame?

Does this solution use all of our existing resources before calling on anything external?

How does this creative idea fit into our larger strategic vision?

Questions for promoting creative strategy:

Are there any other conceivable ways of solving this problem using only 5% more resources?

If we had to change one thing about this plan, what would it be?

How might we explain our thinking to the wider team using a creative framework or metaphor?

What is the next step after this? How many steps ahead can we imagine?

As you can see, if you understand the principles behind each approach, you can be flexible in encouraging your team to frame their own default thinking patterns in a new way.

Using a combination of the two approaches, you can take any idea and turn it into something meaningful, powerful and actionable.

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