Boost Creativity to Achieve Business Success

By Davide Sola

Creativity is inherently tied to strategy: You cannot have strategy without creativity. That’s because the creative aspects of a strategy are largely what distinguishes it from being simply a standard operating policy.

Strategy arises from the need to overcome a challenge when no given procedure or obvious solution exists. Either the challenge is unique in nature, or the organization lacks the means to overcome it with standard methods. You cannot create unique solutions without creativity, yet this concept is often overlooked and is seldom developed by businesspeople whose prime focus is on strategy.

The average businessperson usually doesn’t identify him- or herself as “a creative type.” In fact, most people don’t think of themselves as creative. However, that doesn’t mean that they are not creative, nor does it mean that they can’t develop creativity.

Creative thinking does not arise out of greater intelligence—or any other trait. Creative thinking is not a trait; it’s a skill that can be honed and developed. It is the ability to look at situations differently, see things in a new light, blend seemingly unrelated thoughts and approach problems from unforeseen angles.

Creative thinking is likely the most undervalued skill in business. It is integral to creating the best solution for any problem, preemptively preventing obstacles that may otherwise go unforeseen, and producing the advances and innovations necessary for success. As I noted in a recent book I co-wrote, How to Think Strategically, “It is creativity that enables a great chef to produce an amazing meal from ingredients that are readily available to anyone.”

The way you can develop and hone this skill is by getting outside of your comfort zone. You have to practice thinking about things differently—using different resources and competencies from those you normally use. You can do that by restricting the usual go-to sources and standards so that you’re forced to look elsewhere for answers.

There is a story about a champagne company that wanted to expand, but the various methods it tried all proved fruitless. The company brought in an expert in creative thinking who ran a workshop with management on this topic.

The managers were asked to create lists of words and phrases that described the company and its offerings. The lists were consolidated into recurring themes and phrases, such as “luxury products,” “memorable moments,” “sparkling wine” and “made in France.”

The same managers were then asked to repeat the task without using any of the words on the list. They were forced to think outside of their typical routines—an often uncomfortable and difficult request—but doing so prompted them to question and delve into the roots of the company and its purpose.

The statement the managers came up with was: “We are a firm dedicated to enabling successful celebrations.” This sentence, in turn, inspired the company to affix a booklet of hints and tips about speech-making to each champagne bottle, since people are often nervous about giving toasts on special occasions. This novel, low-cost idea was the direct result of thinking creatively and was followed by an increase in the company’s market share.

This story shows the direct benefit of being able to step outside your comfort zone. By overcoming the barriers in your mental processes, you can develop new and unique solutions to problems.

That is what business is all about, and a company that creates solutions effectively is one that will succeed. It takes courage and effort to take that step, but, by doing so, you can hone your ability to innovate.

Davide Sola is professor of strategy and management at ESCP Europe and visiting faculty at Business School in Finland, India and Italy. He is also a principal at 3H Partners, which works with multinational organizations and governments in Europe, the United States and Africa.