Great expectations: strategy as creative fiction

It is a truth universally acknowledged that innovation is core to competitiveness. But much strategic planning undertaken by firms ...

It is a truth universally acknowledged that innovation is core to competitiveness. But much strategic planning undertaken by firms drives out the very creativity that is so vital to successful innovation. Peter Brews advocates looking at strategy as creative fiction to spark new ideas to transform the crippling blank sheet of paper into profitable, innovative products.
Great expectations strategy as creative fictionWhat should go into a business plan? Any manager worth their salt will probably start with a mission statement and a plan of strategic intent, augmented by more specific goals and objectives that are to be accomplished through achievable, realistic action plans. Finally there will be specific programmes tied to specific budgets intended to achieve specific bottom-line increases.

These are all worthy, sincere statements of intent that fit well with ongoing business operations and keep the people in the blue pinstripe suits content. And all are entirely antithetical to innovation.

For innovation to be fostered, developed, implemented and managed successfully, a different approach to strategy and how it is formed is required. Yet despite widespread acceptance of the belief that innovation is fundamental to sustainable competitiveness, few organisations really understand how to foster innovation.

One thing is clear, however. Innovation does not emerge from the tightly planned, carefully budgeted business plans that we are used to seeing.

The way we live now

If imagination and creativity are the starting points to successful innovation, it does no harm to consider strategy as creative fiction. Fiction is an invented story – and what better way to get the creative juices going than to consider an imaginary situation, and wonder what it would be like if it became reality? The pinstripes can worry about how many beans make five later on – first, we want to imagine a brave new world that might have wonders in it.

The challenge is to move from a blank page, a sharpened pencil and a lot of head-scratching to a model that becomes reality. Strategic fiction needs to be transformed from imaginative thoughts into real products or services that connect with customers. For our purposes, strategy implementation is no longer about drawing a graph that shows where we want to be compared to where we are now. Instead it is more accurately described as the process through which fictional ideas move from abstract conception to profitable reality.

A work of creative fiction starts with a clear and accessible description of the new product, service, solution or idea that is to be created. And, instead of starting with “Once upon a time”, the starting point could be, “Imagine in the future where a customer, faced with problem X, utilises product/solution Y, which helps achieve Z.”

Once it’s understood that any strategy document must reflect the substance of an innovative idea which waits to be created, it becomes easy to disqualify language that does not represent such ideas. A statement like “Our mission is to be the highest quality provider of XYZ in ABC markets” does not contain any creative fiction. Nor does it provide any insights into the future products, services or solutions that are to be developed. As a result, it is a stagnant, uninspiring platitude that is unlikely to stir employees, shareholders – or customers.

Similarly ineffective are objectives framed in terms of “doubling sales by 2006” or “achieving an ROI of 15 per cent by 2007”. They may well be realistic, achievable and timebound – but they’re also uncreative and rather dull. Would anyone want to read David Copperfield if, after stating “I am born” he then went onto declare what return on investment the reader would get by reading up to page 500? Of course not, because that’s not what we read a work of fiction for.

The same is true of a business strategy. Financial goals provide measures to evaluate strategy outcomes at best. But at worst, they represent operational goals more suited towards achieving efficient operations than promoting creative strategy. The important question is not how sales (or earnings or market share) will be increased, but with what product/service, offered to which customers, with which characteristics? In fact, until these questions are answered, no strategy exists. Any estimates of financial outcome are estimates – made mostly for control purposes.

Three important questions must be answered when reviewing strategy proposals:

  1. Does the plan describe an innovative product/service/solution that does not yet exist?
  2. Will customers value and adopt the offering if we create it?
  3. Assuming the product/service/solution is new and customers will rush to adopt, is the innovation easy to replicate?

If replication is easy, caution is needed. Second movers have huge advantages because they can copy innovative ideas without the upfront cost of idea generation. They can also learn from any mistakes made by the first mover.

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