AMICULUM Consulting Blog
Creativity and structured decision making: Mutually exclusive?

In an industry built on innovation but overrun with process and regulation, today we ask can creativity and structured decision making co-exist in the modern world of pharma? Is there room for both? Is there a need for both? Will embracing one aspect negate your ability to harness the other?

Firstly, it should be acknowledged that, yes, creativity and structured thinking are opposite sides but, importantly, of the same coin. To me they are the yin and yang of problem solving and decision making. By embracing this philosophy we can learn to integrate the two, harness the benefits of both, and in doing so shine a different light on the problems that we face.

Jin And Jang

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Creative thinking is a wonderful gift to mankind - without it we wouldn’t have iPads, modern medicines, or have put man on the moon. However, ideas only get you so far, and that is where structured thinking comes in.

Applying a reasoned and logical thought process can add structure, consistency, and help ensure that your idea moves forward. But if applied in isolation, however, there is a risk of structured thought models being too dry and self-limiting. You may fail to truly understand the problem and may only look at a narrow range of solutions. (Indeed, how often is pharma criticised for being too inward-looking?) So not only is there room but an absolute need to employ creative and structured thinking side by side.

Before we go any further, I want to point out that there is a creative side to each and every one of us, even if we have perhaps conditioned ourselves to hide it. Show me an uncreative or unimaginative 4-year old child and tell me that it is fundamentally alien to us... The trick is reminding ourselves to think like a 4-year old. To quote an ex-colleague, when wishing to tap into the creative side of our brains he would exclaim “I want you to think mild to wild!”. When I first heard this I applied a hearty dose of English cynicism and dismissed it as pithy but trite turn of phrase – we all think, don’t we - isn’t just thinking enough? Why does our thinking need to be mild or wild?

However, when challenging myself to think about how I could improve my decision making, I realised the wisdom underpinning mild to wild. It struck me that a fundamental part of any good decision is truly having your eyes open. By this I mean open to viewing the decision from a range of angles, open to the concept that it can sometimes take a good deal of creativity to ask the right questions in order to fully understand the decision, and open to all possibilities in terms of the options and choices available.

To put it another way, mild to wild is simply imploring us to look beyond the obvious. I have since found the following five principles helpful for encouraging creative and ‘beyond the obvious’ thinking when faced with a problem:

1. Don’t take a problem at face value

  • Problems by their very are nature tricky beasts. Sometimes they require a good deal of cunning, persistence and creativity to look beyond the obvious and understand their true scope. Don’t be afraid to take your time - you need to be clear of the exact question you are addressing. To quote Einstein: "If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions."

2. One technique that can help is the ‘5 whys’

  • There is a lot we can learn from 4-year olds... by repeatedly asking ‘why’ we start to strip back the problem to reveal its true cause. A good explanation of the 5 whys is given here – but what is not acknowledged is the need for you to engage with the creative side of your brain when asking, why? Effective use of this technique is an exercise in expansive thinking – go for a walk, remove yourself from distractions, let your mind zip back and forth as you explore different levels of ‘why’ and different possible answers.

3. What are your options? Are they mild or wild?

  • A key part of any good decision or problem solving exercise is understanding the options or choices available. This sounds straightforward, but are you being constrained by prejudgments, biases or time pressures? Are you being influenced by your company’s cultural norms or political pressures? Are you overlooking the obvious, or the extreme? Creative thinking is critical here - after all, why limit yourself? It can be very helpful to look at opposite ends of the scale, and remember there is no such thing as a wrong answer, just capture the ideas and move on – evaluation and prioritisation of ideas for action comes later.

4. How will reality play out?

  • A creative approach to the evaluation of the possible outcomes will shed valuable insight into what those different futures may look like. You need to envisage the journey and outcome for each option, assessing both the possibilities and risks. Structured thinking can definitely help here (for example a systematic scenario planning exercise), but it takes imagination and creativity to truly visualise the future.

5. Empower the creativity of others

  • Each of the above steps can be performed in isolation, but you risk missing something as you will be limited to your personal experience and imagination. However, when done as a creative and expansive-thinking group exercise (ideally with appropriate experts armed with a deep understanding of the area in question), you will likely see things in an entirely different light. This is also a great opportunity for cross-functional collaboration and can help with buy-in to the decisions you may end up making. These sessions can also be enlivening - empower the group to think creatively then sit back and enjoy the results!

So whilst 2014 is still young, my challenge to you is this - can you identify one area where you might be able to employ these principles? What problem are you facing right now? Do you truly understand it? What if you thought about it and the possible options a different way? What if you embraced both structured and creative thinking? You might just be surprised by the results...

For more information about this blog topic or to discuss any of these ideas further please contact the team at team at

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