Does Structure Inspire Creativity?

January 7, 2013

In strategic planning, it just might…

When we hear the word creativity, we often envision a wild, unfettered environment in which great ideas seem to pop up effortlessly. It brings to mind artists being suddenly struck by inspiration and spending two days painting a masterpiece.

But do we have to wait for creativity to strike? Or can we make it happen?

This is often a fundamental question for nonprofits as they approach strategic planning. Everyone acknowledges that a “new year, same plan” approach to our work is not working. Everyone is eager to find new and creative ideas that will help to advance their mission. And our rapidly-changing environment means that the traditional ways of running a nonprofit often are not working well anymore.

So how do we call on our creativity to find new ideas that can be explored during strategic planning? Surprisingly, adding a little more structure to your process will often inspire creativity in the group. Vague conversations that start, “well, what should we do next?” do nothing to stimulate new lines of thinking. Try one of these techniques to inspire some creative ideas in your planning discussions:

1) Bring new data to the conversation. Strategic planning is a great opportunity to talk to people, conduct some research, and surface new issues that might inspire creative thinking. Remember that the board and staff members participating in the planning process have a familiarity with the status quo that is often a creativity killer (either they’re comfortable with how things are, or despairing of ever being able to make a change). Before your planning retreat, send the planning committee out to talk to stakeholders, look into trends that might affect you, and analyze your past program results. Distribute this information widely prior to your retreat, giving people a chance to think it over. This new perspective will often lead to some creative thinking. Visit for some ideas on how to conduct this kind of strategic analysis at the start of your process.

2) Add some rules to the discussion. People often complain that meetings are boring or unproductive – and this is usually because the discussion is too broad and vague to be engaging. Structured discussion encourages creativity because it keeps your mind from following the usual path, and often insists that you discover new options. One of my favorite techniques is the TOWS Matrix, which expands on the traditional SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis and asks you to think about how your actions will be influenced by those four factors. When you think of the SWOT as a list-making activity, it doesn’t really inspire creativity – it just asks you to write down what you already know. Instead, ask yourself: how can we use our strengths to take advantage of an opportunity or combat a threat? Which of our weaknesses is keeping us from capitalizing on positive trends? Where do our weaknesses and threats interact to create truly dangerous conditions? These are the kind of questions that spark new ideas and new lines of thinking that bring creativity and energy to your planning.

This short video explains what I mean:

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3) Play things out. Brainstorming is often heralded as the key tool for creativity, but it’s really only the first step. So, when a brainstorming session yields an idea that starts to gain momentum from the group, insist on playing that idea out fully before you adopt it. Ask the group: if we did this, then what would happen? And then what? And then what? Look for the best results you could hope for, as well as unintended consequences – surprising results (good or bad) that come about because of your strategy choices. Building this fuller, more complex picture will keep the ideas coming, and often cause a more innovative concept to be born.

People often laugh at me when I say “strategic planning is supposed to be the fun part,” but I mean it! It’s a great opportunity to bring creative minds together to find the best pathways forward for your organization and its mission. Putting a little structure on those great minds often helps them work even more creatively to find the innovative ideas you need.

For more helpful videos featuring some of the highlights from the Dodge Foundation Board Leadership Training series, go to

Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity, a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also an affiliated consultant and instructor at The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.