Creativity at the Push of a Button – How IT Processes Facilitate Strategic Imagination
A comment by Alexander Zimmermann,
CEO & Partner of SOLYP Informatik GmbH
Some say strategy is all about working with hard data. They support each and every argument with financial key figures and statistics. Others believe strategy is essentially playing with the future. They consider soft data as an opportunity to gain valuable new perspectives on the business environment and use it to create scenarios of possible futures. You may be familiar with these attitudes towards the strategy process from your own company; maybe not as an open controversy, but as subliminal attitudes of those responsible for strategy development.
After discussing the conflict between bottom-up and top-down planning in my first blogpost, today, I would like talk about another two alleged antagonisms of the strategic planning process: free-floating creativity vs IT-based process. One thing seems clear: both are essential for developing a successful business strategy. But who will dominate this fight: the anarchic momentum of the imagination or the standardization between 0 and 1?
Ideas Need a Framework
The appeal of strategy work is closely related to the creative shaping of the future. Dr. Helge Beyer, Head of Corporate Development of KWS SAAT AG emphasizes the creative drive to face the tomorrow:
"Freedom, creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm for finding answers to the challenges of the future are the key drivers of successful strategy work."
But is that how a valid and sound corporate strategy is identified or even implemented in business practice? Certainly not! Without the structuring force of a strategy process, "curiosity and enthusiasm" alone don’t yield tangible results; Dr. Helge Beyer agrees when he continues:
"A systematic, consistent strategy process utilizing a broad mix of methods and in conjunction with workshops for developing common solutions provides the necessary basis and framework for this."
With a practical perspective, Beyer solves the apparent antagonism between creativity and rational process: the latter provides "the necessary basis and framework" for the creative energy which drives and motivates the strategy process.
In other words, but going into the same direction, Dr. Michael Gable, Head of Process and Quality Management Job AG formulates his experience:
"Successful strategy work is an integral part of the managerial function and requires professionalism in process leading and guiding. It combines intuition and analysis aiming to create customer value. Implementation planning and translation into operational objectives, means, and measures are critical to achieve the business purpose and objective by means of a consistent strategy."
Free-associative intuition and rational, dissecting analysis constitute the poles that are held together and reconciled by "professionalism in process leading and guiding."
Both expert statements illustrate: Creativity without frameworks remains mere fantasy - useless for business practice. Frameworks without creativity are dead terrain – infertile for strategic planning.
This is where we must begin to further sharpen the quality of strategic planning; to further increase its robustness; to ensure the lasting success of the company. My entrepreneurial effort aims to optimize a strategy process, to design its rational framework in such a way that its creative drive can flourish. What should such a process look like?
Using Creativity Purposefully
First, I would like to distinguish two types of creativity: The first type is the actual creative drive of strategy work, as mentioned by Beyer and Giebel: that detection of "white spots" in the company's portfolio, the identification of growth opportunities in mature markets, the formulation of unique features compared to competitors.
In an IT-based strategy process, as facilitated by SOLYP3, this strategic creativity is enabled by the merging of hard and soft data. Only the synthesis of hard financial key figures (sales, market share, return, etc.) and soft data (trend analysis, competitor surveys, assessments, etc.) provides the creative freedom for strategy work. Quantitative data is qualified under the perspective of "soft" assessments, while the SOLYP3-questionnaire provides the framework, so that the latter do not get lost in arbitrariness. Thanks to the use of rating scales, opinions, trends, and assessments get quantified and, thus, made analyzable. Only through this quantification, qualitative data is usable in the strategy discourse and, in the interplay with hard data, forms the boundaries of the creative freedom.
The second type of creativity which we see in business practice, I would like to refer to as a parasitic or misguided creativity. However, quite frequently it is "sold" as the actual creative work. I am talking about colorful, flashy, animated presentations which strategists use in their “PowerPoint battles.” After all, isn’t it the one who we instinctively call creative who clicks on hundreds of colorful backgrounds, changes effortlessly between pie, column, and bubble charts, and excites us with animations and sound effects?
How much time and misdirected energy is lost in such supposed originality which indulges in seductive surfaces without filling the strategy process with creative life!
Here again, an IT-based strategy process, as rolled out by the strategy platform SOLYP3, serves as the enabler of the actual creative strategy work. By automatically creating presentations in the corporate design of the organization, such a process relieves strategists of pseudo-creative chores and frees up time for truly creative analyses and the developing of imaginative scenarios. What matters in preparing presentations is not the how, but the what with and what for! These questions need to be answered by the creativity of those involved in the strategy process.
Our analyses have shown that the use of SOLYP3 reduces tiresome routine work, such as the creation of presentations, by up to 60%. How many person-days saving potential does that mean for your strategy process? But more important for me than this economic factor is the following question: What creative potential is wasted due to this routine work and would otherwise be available to optimize the business strategy making it more sound and sustainable. Creativity needs to be used purposefully to create this strategic added value. Only in this way the most valuable asset of your company - the heads of your employees! – will unfold its full power which is necessary for shaping a successful future.
Yes, "creativity at the push of a button" sounds contradictory, but it is possible: When the right process provides the right button! Then, this easing of the workload opens up space for curiosity, intuition, and imagination without which our strategy work would neither be fun nor would it ensure sustainable business success.