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"The flavors are only five in number but their blends are so various that one cannot taste them all." Sun Tzu is making the point that you must be creative when building strategies and not merely do what your opponent expects.
Although Sun Tzu speaks about the need for creativity in strategy, he also promoted the use of drills to ensure soldiers were able to carry out their orders efficiently even under extreme stress. The "yin and yang" of process discipline versus creativity continues today and they are not always in conflict. There are times when adhering to a set process that limits creativity can be important, yet there are other times when one can actually use a process to "create" creativity.
For example, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration performed special experiments to study the problem of low-flying birds being sucked into airplane engines, which caused the planes to crash. Using a specially-designed gun developed at Texas A&M, dead chickens were shot at plane windshields to see how the windows could be hardened and angled to reduce the probability of explosive cracking. These experiments proved very successful.
Hearing of this, engineers in England wanted to use this same process to test the impact of birds flying into their high-speed train windshields. They purchased the special gun and set up the experiment. However, they had drastically different results. On their first try the chicken smashed through the train windshield, almost killed one of the engineers and embedded itself deeply into the back wall of the train engine.
Trying to understand what went wrong, the English engineers sent an urgent note to their counterparts in the US, describing their experiment in detail. They received a four word reply; "Try a thawed chicken."
While the above example shows there are times when deviation should not be allowed, there are other instances where creativity is crucial to success. A person who knows the importance of a process for creating creativity is Doug Hall, founder of Richard Saunders Inc. and author of the book Jump Start Your Brain. Hall's company assists others (such as Nike and AT&T) in creating break-through products and he uses a specific process to do so.
Hall knows that you can't come up with ideas that change the industry rules without doing something different; he believes that breakthrough ideas demand breakthrough thinking. Hall's process includes structured brainstorming pepped up with lots of external stimuli and fun. This enables participants to get out of their conservative mindset and enable themselves to think up what Hall calls "wicked good ideas" for the marketplace. Hall then takes these ideas and hones them by defining preliminary unique selling propositions, names and packages...all in three days.
Hall describes his process as guided creative anarchy.
Another strategic thinker, Gary Hamel (co-author of Competing for the Future and CEO of Strategos) also offers a process for strategic creativity. Hamel focuses on expanding input on strategy from outside the executive suite. Specifically, he is looking at getting new employees, young employees, middle managers, and employees far from headquarters involved. The reason for this is that executives tend to be the people most likely in the company to be entrenched in the status quo, while those on the "outside" are more open to the new kinds of ideas that will change the industry. Hamel proposes enlarging the strategic discussion and making it more democratic by holding the discussion off-site on "neutral" territory and building combined teams of executives and employees who work together to create strategy.
While there may be many different approaches that can work, in the end strategic creativity relies on the right doses of discipline and out-of-the-box thinking mixed together. They are interdependent.
Mark McNeilly brings Sun Tzu's strategic principles to life as the author of Sun Tzu and the Art of Business; with TV and radio interviews and with seminar presentations. For more information visit www.suntzu1.com
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