Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Creative Strategy: A book review by Irina Mishina

Review by Graduate Student Irina Mishina

The goal of Creative Strategy is to build a bridge between the concepts of strategy and creativity in the area of business. It is basically about how to make business more innovative.

The authors articulate the reason for writing the book by identifying what they call “false separations” – generally admitted beliefs about creativity and strategy that apparently place them in totally different realms. In essence, these beliefs have to do with generic understanding of creativity as something that requires spontaneity, diversity and flexibility, whereas strategy is seen as something rigid and focused that requires planning and hierarchy. To build their point the authors claim that creativity and strategy are not that different, and both require the same set of cognitive skills and approaches. In short, that all strategic is creative, and all creative is strategic.

To be able to build this bridge, we obviously need to first define both concepts. Bilton and Cummings build the book argument based on the one of the most accepted in the academic world definitions of creativity as something novel and useful. But they go far beyond that. They construct a theoretical framework that includes understanding of different aspects of creativity, such as content, process and outcomes. In this framework, creativity produces novel and useful content that is born through the bisociation process of integrating apparently contradictory concepts, which in turn leads to transformation of contexts (p.16).

One may agree more or less with the authors’ definition of creativity, but at least this theoretical construct gives a clear point of reference to understand further authors’ arguments. Things, however, become much more blurred when it comes to defining what strategy is. The authors’ parting point is that for the last decades there have been so many different approaches to strategy developed, that the concept became very elusive. Eager to maintain the creative operandi of bisociative process, however, instead of leaning to one concrete definition, Bilton and Cummings claim that creative strategy needs to integrate all those approaches together. This leaves us with a vague definition of strategy as a "keystone that coordinates and makes the organization create in concert", "the realm in which all of the myriad parts of an organization come together, clash, compete, compromise and work to solve collective problems to move forward" (p. 5).

Further, defining for strategy the same construct of content, process and outcomes, we find that the strategy content is basically anything that anyone may think of as strategy. Given the elusiveness of the concept, the authors state that the goal of a business is not to have strategy at all, but to become strategized, that is to say, to develop and maintain “progress toward generic outcomes like greater animation, orientation, and integration” (p. 39). Where by orientation we understand a general direction, animation stands for motivation, and integration refers to the same bisociative process of integrating contradictory concepts. It is not a surprise the authors end up with the conclusion that it is not clear what process may lead to these outcomes. Therefore they define their goal as identifying this process. And this is what the book is about: the process of becoming strategized.

My interest in the topic of creative strategies was born a couple of years ago with my encounter with Blue Ocean Strategy (Kim & Mauborgne, 2005). At almost the same time I was introduced to the Creative Problem Solving process, I was immediately struck by how these two methodologies fit together. This fit was opening immerse possibilities for our fast changing world that presents tough challenge of strategic positioning not only for businesses, but also for individuals. While we are undergoing the paradigm shift that radically alters the rules of the game of life, the ability to position oneself (or itself if we talk about a company) outside of the competition is becoming crucial. This positioning is achieved by offering a unique set of values to the external world, whether this world is incarnated by customers, employers, or society, is becoming crucial. This is what I had been calling creative business strategy until my next important encounter, this time with Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (Rumelt, 2011). Rumelt, proclaimed the strategy’s strategist by McKinsey (Lovallo & Mendoca, 2007) and a management guru by The Economist (“Richard Rumelt”, 2008) claims that currently there is a lot of confusion around understanding what strategy actually is, and that strategy is in fact about identifying what set of your own strengths and external opportunities you could use to overcome the most critical challenges you are facing, and being able to devise particular steps to address these challenges. Anyone familiar with Creative Problem Solving would immediately recognize that under this understanding a good strategy design requires CPS skills, and in this case any strategy is, in fact, creative strategy. In this case having a clear definition instead of an elusive construct created purely for the sake of theorizing allows one to identify a very specific process of developing a strategy.

What Creative strategy: Reconnecting business and innovation actually is about is how an organization may become more innovative. The book talks about different types of innovation and the process of innovation; about the importance of entrepreneurial attitude that is required to get an innovative product to the market; about emergent leadership traits wanted in our times - leadership based on trust and collaboration and creative problem solving; about the characteristics of innovative organization culture; and about new management systems. In short, it covers all hot topics of management and innovation widely discussed nowadays by professionals in academic literature and in popular press. The book is very well documented, so one may find in it a wealth of very interesting references, and the cases described in it provide some brilliant examples of really creative strategy (see the story of Billy Beane on pp. 176-181). However while the authors insist on using the term strategy when talking about innovation, management, organization and leadership, the reader can’t help feeling perplexed with the question “What are we talking about here?”

Using the definition of creativity the book is based on, one may say that it is definitely novel as it gives new forms and names to some well-known content. As for usefulness, I will leave it up to each reader to decide it for oneself.


Kim, W. C., & Mauborgne, R. (2005). Blue ocean strategy. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Publishing.

Lovallo, D. & Mendoca, L. (2007, November). Strategy’s strategist: an interview with Richard Rumelt. In McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from https://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Strategys_strategist_An_interview_with_Richard_Rumelt_2039.

Richard Rumelt (2008, December 26). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/12677012.

Rumelt, R. (2011). Good strategy/Bad strategy: the difference and why it matters. London, UK: Profile books.

IRINA MISHINA, also known under the name of Ima Blumm, is a creativity consultant and coach; she works in the areas of Creative Problem Solving, creative strategies and talent and vocation development. She is also a photographer, writer and multidisciplinary artist.

Creativity is her life's passion and she dedicates herself to help others to develop their creative potential, as the main premise of her work is that creativity is a human being's innate ability and it just needs certain conditions in order to flourish. According to Irina in our times of constant changes developing creative potential - whether of an individual or of an organization - is a must requirement for success.

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