Strategy is necessarily creative. It’s not just choosing from a number of future alternatives, but rather creatively imagining the future we can collectively craft. Research, however, reveals three creativity blockers that strategists need to understand and avoid:

1.  Poorly defined creative challenge.
In her classic paper from 1983, Teresa Amabile suggests that creativity is a process that comes up with something novel and useful (references below). She acknowledges that creativity often involves defining the problem to be solved as well as solving it, but this does not necessarily mean that creativity works best when it is completely unconstrained. Indeed, Amabile’s own definition begs the question – if we need to come up with something ‘useful’ we need to know ‘useful for what?’.

More recent research has shown that the right constraints can actually boost creativity.

  • Scopelliti et al’s (2014) experiments demonstrated that creativity increased when the amount of money that could be spent producing solutions was constrained.
  • Paulus et al’s (2004) experiments showed that having rules and adhering to them during brainstorming sessions could increase both the amount of ideas generated and the efficiency with which they were generated.
  • Baskerville et al (2016) proposed the term bounded creativity to describe creative work constrained to serve a defined purpose.
  • Richardson (2013) proposed that bounded creativity follows the Goldilocks principle: creativity is boosted by some constraints but hampered by too many constraints.

2.  Social creativity blockers.

  • The first social creativity blocker is feeling the need to conform: conformity crushes creativity. Much of the research relevant to this topic is in the field of psychological safety. In their in-depth review of 60 research papers, Edmondson and Lei (2014) connect the psychological safety felt by individuals in groups to their confidence and trust to have their voice heard, to engage in conversation and to share their knowledge openly. This in turn connects to creativity. By contrast an organisational climate of fear will lead to conformity with the HIPPO – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Wharton Professor and author, Adam Grant says the Hippo is the most dangerous voice in any meeting.
  • The second creativity blocker is, oddly, conversation. The need to listen attentively whilst others speak and to carefully craft and rehearse how to phrase your own contribution steals time from thinking up new creative ideas. This is one of the main reasons why Thompson (2013) suggests fifty peer reviewed research papers showed that teams are outperformed, creatively, by the same number of people working individually.
  • The third social creativity blocker is insider:outsider bias. Menon et al’s (2006) experiments showed that the ideas of colleagues inside the organisation are valued less and incorporated into one’s own creative thinking less than the ideas of outsiders (e.g. competitors or consultants). This may be because insiders are perceived as rivals and hence seen as posing a threat.

3.  Failing to facilitate deep creativity.

  • Creativity is deepened by diversity of opinion. One of the great creativity killers is having a group of similar people, from similar roles, with similar experience trying to come up with highly dis-similar creative ideas. Stated like this, it doesn’t sound that surprising but research has shown how tiny increases in diversity can boost creativity. Jia et al’s (2009) experiments showed that the creativity of an online group increased when one of the participants was believed to be located in a different country. Choi and Thompson’s (2005) experiments showed that adding a ‘newcomer’ to an established group increased both the volume and quality of creative ideas from the ‘old-timers’ in the group.
  • Creativity is deepened by deliberate use of different thinking styles. Meuller et al’s (2014) experiments showed that ‘big picture’ thinking (known technically as high-construal thinking) boosted creativity. Freeman Dyson (2009) called big picture thinkers ‘birds’ – they fly high, have broad vistas out to the horizon and “delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape” By contrast, ‘frogs’ “live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.” Dyson categorises Francis Bacon and the tradition of English intellectuals that followed (e.g. Faraday, Darwin and Rutherford) as frogs. Rene Descartes and the tradition of French intellectuals that followed (Pascal and Laplace and Poincaré) were all birds. Jogalekar (2020) extended Dyson’s thinking to suggest that some thinkers may combine the attributes of frogs and birds: Max Planck may have been a frogbird. Whilst trying to mathematically reconcile some inconsistencies in the thermodynamics of black-body radiation, he developed Planck’s Law which opened up the entire field of quantum mechanics, for which he earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. All of which leads to the conclusion that different styles of creative thinking work best in different situations and for particular types of creative challenge.

Notes and sources

The Strategy Manual discusses the importance of creativity in strategy development and how ‘Create’, ‘Inform’ and ‘Validate’ make up the Triple-Loop Model of Strategy Development (section 8.3).

Amabile TM, 1983. The Social Psychology of Creativity: A Componential Conceptualization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1983, Vol. 45, No. 2, 357-376.

Baskerville R, Kaul M, Pries-Heje J, Storey VC and Kristiansen E, 2016. Bounded Creativity in Design Science Research. Thirty Seventh International Conference on Information Systems, Dublin.

Choi and Thompson, 2005. Old Wine in a New Bottle: Impact of Membership Change on Group Creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 98:121-132.

Dyson F, 2009. Birds and Frogs. Notices of the American Mathematical Society 56 (2): 212-223.

Edmondson AC and Lei Z, 2014. Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. 1:23–43

Jia L, Hirt ER and Karpen SC, 2009. Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45: 1127-1131.

Jogalekar A, 2020. Birds and Frogs in Physics.

Menon T, Choi H_S and Thompson L, 2006. Tainted Knowledge versus Tempting Knowledge: Why People Avoid Knowledge from Internal Rivals and Seek Knowledge from External Rivals. Management Research 52: 1129-1144.

Mueller JS, Wakslak CJ, and Krishnan V, 2014. Construing Creativity: The How and Why of Recognizing Creative Idea. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 5: 81-87.

Paulus PB, Nakui T, Putman VL and Brown VR, et al., 2004. Effects of Task Instructions and Brief Breaks on Brainstorming. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 10: 206-219.

Richardson A, 2013. Boosting Creativity Through Constraints. Harvard Business Review, 11 June 2013.

Scopelliti I, Cillo P, Busacca B, & Mazursky D, 2014. How Do Financial Constraints Affect Creativity? Journal of Product Innovation Management, 31(5), 880-893

Thompson L, 2013. Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston.

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