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Why strategy and creativity are like yin and yang by Susie Bell

© AdobeStock/ olly 

As most of us are knee-deep in planning mode for the year ahead, it can be hard not to adopt a similar plan to the previous year and, importantly, find some time and head space for some much-needed creative thinking.

I recently sat down with Andy Eklund, a creativity expert who’s worked with Honner in the past, to see what advice he has to offer to the Australian financial services sector on how to more easily incorporate creativity into the strategic planning process.

So, Andy what does creativity have to do with strategic planning?

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

Strategy is setting a clear linear path, based on concise and measurable objectives, a clear perspective of the problems to be addressed, and a thorough understanding of the resources which should be leveraged to implement the strategic plan, such as budget, personnel and operations. Strategic thinking is also convergent thinking, or distilling down different thoughts, information and perspectives to a distinct insight or solution to solve a true problem.

Creativity is the opposite of strategic thinking. Where strategy is convergent thinking, creativity is divergent thinking. It’s creating as many different possibilities (aka ideas) as possible, which build upon the insight as well as solve the business problem. Where convergent thinking reduces down information to an insight, divergent thinking expands and explores upon the insight into all types of possibilities.

That said, one can be strategic without being creative, or be creative without being strategic. But, successful programs (and people) always are 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.

You regularly train and advise large corporates and blue-chip companies on strategy and creativity. How do you think financial services organisations should approach strategic planning?

Regardless of their industry, all organisations can follow the same process to be both strategic and creative. In order:
  1. 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 you were successful?
  2. 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 company leadership.”
  3. Be precise in deciding which audience you’re trying to reach. Media is often the simple (if not simplistic) answer for many communications programs, which is understandable but not always the right solution. From my experience, I’ve seen many communications teams (or their agencies) who don’t keep their roles if a campaign generates great media coverage (traditional or social), but doesn’t address either the business goals or its related problems.
  4. Understand the current mindset of the audience you’re trying to address – and don’t judge it. It’s even more true when the media is seen as the primary audience. While it’s essential to ensuring an article is placed, never forget the journo is always targeting their readers – and so, their readers (or viewers, followers, etc) are the primary audience. But, to change anyone’s mind, you have to know that they think now. Otherwise, how can you ever write compelling messages that don’t sound like your own propaganda?
  5. Define exactly what you want the key audiences to do.  Any campaign tactic must directly reinforce to the audience the desired outcome, and it’s 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.
  6. 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. The best ideas are always:
    1. Compelling – it engages the audience on their terms
    2. Relevant – appropriate, speaks to the audience’s needs, not an organisation talking to itself
    3. Credible – it’s believable, honest and genuine
    4. Defensible – will stand up in a court of law
    5. Differentiating – always separates the organisation from perceived competition. If you could replace your organisation’s name with any of its competition and the program still ‘works,’ you don’t have a differentiating program. Or worse, your campaign helps build their profile and not yours.
    6. Sustainable – this one is optional, but only if your campaign messages aren’t meant to last beyond a limited period
What common challenges or misconceptions do firms often come up against in the process?

Many people think that because creativity involves fun and play that it’s also easy, when it’s actually difficult, if not time-consuming, to develop ideas that truly move the proverbial needle. Creativity is compounded with the problem that you can’t ‘see’ someone being creative, and because you can’t see or experience it directly, it’s far easier to discount its value, particularly when compared to strategy. Also, good creativity is far more subjective than good strategy. For example, you can put a price tag on a research document. You can’t exactly ‘price’ an idea – but virtually everyone would pay far more for a brilliant idea than they’d pay for a brilliant research document.

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