Creativity, Strategy and Magic

I’ve spent my life in a quiet awe of musicians and creative people. People that seem to be able to create beauty out of nowhere. What an incredible gift, right?

Some things in life, we treat a bit like magic. Art and music are two. We classify ourselves pretty early on as either talented or not and assume there’s a gene that determines whether we’re one of the chosen few.

Listening to beautiful music, reading incredible writing or admiring art feels a bit magic, doesn’t it? Like there’s a mystical, creative process that determines whether we can be good at these things. 

Strong, visionary leaders are the artists of any corporate structure – to make it to senior leadership, they must have been born with something special …. Right?

Wrong. I’ve done a few things recently that have lifted the veil.

  1. I’ve started learning music theory for the guitar (more here)

  2. I just spent two days at a stand-up comedy 'bootcamp'.

For both, success depends largely on understanding rules, formulas and patterns.

Whether it’s musical scales or understanding how to structure an effective joke, each of these skills is less mystical than I’d ever realised.

Mastery, while helped along by flair, is about becoming so proficient at applying the rules and patterns that they become invisible. Behind any successful artist is a deep understanding of the rules and thousands of hours of practice and toil.

Making good decisions about the future is the same. There are rules and patterns that need to be learned and practiced. There’s no strategic thinking gene – like art or music, there are people that have a natural aptitude, but that doesn’t eliminate the importance of understanding the rules. 

"We assume that management and governance are strategists by virtue of their professional success. This is dangerous thinking, and these assumptions can hold back teams, boards and entire organisations."

We don’t teach these skills. Worse, we assume that management and governance are strategists by virtue of their professional success. This is dangerous thinking, and these assumptions can hold back teams, boards and entire organisations.

In her book ‘The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs’ Cynthia Montgomery talks about “the myth of the super-manager” – those confident, visionary leaders that blow us out of the water.

Once in a generation leaders, heading up companies like GE, Virgin, Starbucks, Apple, or LinkedIn. But, as Cynthia says “none of these strategies appeared out of the blue from the unfettered minds of super-managers. They came from a deep comprehension of the industries involved and the conditions at work in them.”

"Preparing our teams and leaders for the future means shaking the artist paradigm and learning the rules and patterns that help us be better decision-makers and strategists."

There’s no magic here, and mastery is within reach. The 2018 World Economic Forum report on the future of work is crystal clear on the skills we need to tackle our changing context, and they’re not technical. They’re about creativity, connection and critical thinking. 

Preparing our teams and leaders for the future means shaking the artist paradigm and learning the rules and patterns that help us be better decision-makers and strategists.

Does this mean the magic is gone? That art, life and music is nothing more than a series of predictable formulas? Of course not. Some of my favourite musicians have a unique sound that can be pinpointed to an unexpected shift in the rules. Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age (a totally overlooked lead guitarist…) is one example. 

His distinctive sound doesn’t follow any of the traditional scales. I was suitably impressed by this, until I googled “Josh Homme scale” and watched a 14-minute interview where Homme explains the patterns he uses – and has used consistently since he was 13 years old. Even a rebel like Homme is following the rules – his own, that he adapted from a clear understanding of the fundamentals.

Learning the rules opens opportunities – to experiment, explore, adapt and build a toolbox of skills for situations we don’t expect.  Even rebels and creatives need to know the rules to be able to break them to good effect. 

My favourite definition of creativity is buried inside a little book called ‘Mindfulness for Creativity’ by Denny Penman.

"Creativity is the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena and to generate solutions.

If that’s not what strategy is all about, I don’t know what is.

TL;DR
Strategy and creativity are one and the same.
Creativity is not magic.
Get to work!


‘Til next week

A