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Strategy and Creativity: Part I.

“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”
                                                                                                -Carl von Clausewitz, On War

“Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities….Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.”
                                                                                             – Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

This blog is read by many people with a deep interest in strategy coming from different philosophical and professional perspectives. While I have my own speculations  based on years of study, I would like to begin by first posing a few questions to the readership:

  • What is the relationship between strategy and creativity?
  • Or between strategic thinking and creative thinking?
  • Is “doing strategy” primarily an act of planning, calculation and rational problem-solving or is it also a profoundly creative and intuitive enterprise?
  • If we get better at thinking creatively, do we become better, more effective strategists? The reverse?
  • Is creativity more useful in “grand strategy” (or “statecraft”, if you prefer) and policy than in straightforward “military strategy”?

The floor is yours, strong argument is welcomed.

15 Responses to “Strategy and Creativity: Part I.”

  1. Steve Metz Says:

    Strategy is like entrepreneurship: it takes creativity to undertake a great breakthrough but a different set of talents to institutionalize it.  The problem is that the U.S. does not select for creativity.  We only get it when it sneaks into the system.

  2. Moon Says:


    I am challenged to even consider strategy and creativity without in the same thread also holding forth on tactics and destructivity.  Strategy reflects guidance from the top down, but its implementation emerges, synthetically, from tactics, bottom up.  Tactics reflect reality from the bottom up, but their collective employment evolves, analytically, from strategic concerns, top down.  Creativity is what gets you from the tactical parts to implement the guidance of your strategy, whereas destructivity is what gets you from the strategic whole to understand the nature of the constituent set of atomic tactics.

  3. seydlitz89 Says:

    Hi zen-
    In the original German, Clausewitz uses the term Seelentätigkeit connected with the play of chance and probability.  Paret/Howard translate that as “creativity”, but that is not a direct translation.  A direct translation would be “activity of the soul” which is something different.  Dreams for instance are examples of Seelentätigkeit . . . I would also mention that this is connected with probabilities and chance which Clausewitz associated more with the military commander, but that is not all of strategy, which would have to include all three “codes of law”.  So a “creative” military commander would still be an unsuccessful strategist unless he were able to both understand the passion that organized violence causes/promotes/expands and able to support the political purpose of the political community he represented by means of the military instrument.  What we are talking about is very much a person of their times in every sense of the word, able to understand and operate in a specific social, military and international political environment, in effect combine various sources of power to strategic effect . . . that is contingent.      

  4. slapout9 Says:

    Love the subject matter. I had the idea(have had it for years) that Strategic Thinking…pure Military thinking is more like CRIMINAL Thinking than anything else which is why it is so hard for normal people to do. Again just my personal opinion.

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi slapout9, 
    There is much to admire in your last comment, except criminal thinking typically evolves in a ruthless meritocracy—decidedly unlike the typical Western military bureaucrat.
    After 12 years of war, the US now has quite a number of senior officers who spent their early days in combat as company grade officers—and I’m not sure how the promotions have worked as a result—just hope there was more merit based promotion, as opposed to a pulse and time in grade. 

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Gents,
    Thank you very much for your insightful comments, all of which were useful.
    Big Steve – I think you are right: these are two very different skill-sets – and more likely to appear in a partnership or an entourage than in one man. And the one does not always welcome the other.

    Moon – very plausible thesis. I had not wanted to delve into the iterative relationship with tactics but it is often a driver ( or one of them) in an unfolding strategy
    Seydlitz – My exchanges with you are beginning to make me think that there are no good translations of On War.  “Seelentätigkeit” is a far cry from “creative” and sounds to me to be more akin to “soulcraft” I agree that simply being creative by itself does not a good strategist make. That said, all things being equal or casually approximate, the ability to construct novel solutions or generate insights could create difficulties for a more orthodox opponent (these could also backfire).
    Hi Slap,
    There is an element of strategy where having the will to take the most ruthlessly efficient logical action is present. Calling it criminal is not a bad way to describe “amoral” or “unscrupulous” thinking. As Scott said, a  meritocracy” of a Darwinian kind.

  7. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Hi.  Good topic.  I’m not sure if I agree that strategy must necessarily be creative, nor destructive.  Rather, I think strategy is merely politics=the art of the possible, which is just another way of realizing ends using ways via means.  To be sure, there’s a great element of the unknown involved, especially when dealing with opposing strategies.  So, in terms of forcefully implementing a strategy, I suppose it is the most supremely creative act imaginable–but not necessarily “artfully” creative.
    When you bring this topic up, I’m reminded of two things:
    1)  Winston Churchill’s supposed quote to the effect that “The Americans always find the right strategy, after they’ve tried everything else.”  Is that creative?  Maybe not, but it can work.  And it’s hard to begrudge politically or militarily those things which work.  If we do begrudge or praise that which works militarily or politically, we’re not really commenting on the art so much as our own sense of aesthetics.  What is more politically aesthetically pleasing?  What is more militarily aesthetically pleasing?  Though there is such thing as bad tactics, bad strategy, and bad policy, much of the aesthetics of strategy/policy is in the eye of the beholder.  Aesthetically, as a Marine, I prefer an 80% complete, violently executed solution now, vice a 100% solution later.  Other services, I think, are less apt to find my sense of aesthetics pleasing.  And that’s just one microexample.
    2)  Any discussion of strategy and creativity necessarily comes back to coup d’oeil:  The strike of the eye, the ability to discern possibilities from the noise.  But coup d’oeil is a thing of perception, which in turn causes us to build or change a strategy, and therefore cannot legitimately be called a creative force, but only a trait that a statesman or general has.  Perhaps the true creativity of statesmanship or of a general is not found in the strategy, but rather in the practice of cultivating a coup d’oeil.
    Good topic.

  8. seydlitz89 Says:

    All translations of weighty texts are approximations.  Also those translations will change with time, a 19th Century translation being different from a 20th Century one.  “Creativity” is an adequate translation, but it loses some of the nuance of Seelentätigkeit.  Clausewitz’s original German is at least accessible, unlike say ancient Chinese . . .
    Soulcraft has an advantage here since it brings up the idea of service to a community and the goals of that community which provide the actor with meaning, thus justifying sacrifice.  From a strategic theory perspective, we are talking about collective concepts, pertaining to political communities, not individuals.
    NTL brings up a good point regarding coup d’oeil (Takt des Urteils in German) and what we are talking about in at least military commanders.  Given Clausewitz’s dialectic approach, Takt des Urteils is the opposite model of a planned out, academic, methodical, decision making process, that is very much intuition, an ability to quickly size up a situation, sense an opportunity (or danger), the mark of a military genius.  The ability to achieve this at the political level and achieving strategic effect would be very difficult and also very contingent, the person having to be essentially one with their times.   

  9. Daniel F. Bassill, D.H.L. Says:

    Hi Charles. This is an interesting topic. I’d like to see a practical application in efforts to solve world and local economic, environmental and social problems through collective action and not through aggression and military force.
    I think you have an interest in gaming, thus perhaps you might offer some links to games that involve strategy and creativity with a focus on real world rather than fantasy world.
    I posted this blog article titled “Battle plan for war on poverty” at http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2012/02/battle-plan-for-war-on-poverty.html and would love to find some game-designers who might try to build a game with these ideas in mind.
    Perhaps we could teach creativity, strategic thinking and social problem solving in such a project.
    I enjoy skimming through your posts. They are all interesting, but not all as relative to my own work as this one was.

  10. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Daniel:
    This blog is the brainchild of “Zenpundit” Mark Safranski, who kindly allows me to post here — but this particular post is one of Mark’s.  He’s an educator in Chicago, your neck of the woods, and as you see, has a keen interest both in strategy and creativity…
    As to games with a real world focus, do you know Asi Burak’s game, Peacemaker
    You might want to contact the game designer Jane McGonigal re your ideas.

  11. larrydunbar Says:

    I have been trying to ink-out what strategy is, and how it is different than tactics or process, but its relationship to creativity is a good question.

    I believe all strategy is flawed, and creativity is that flaw.

    Strategy is adding creativity to an environment that is either generating diversity or trying to enforce conformity, as Howard Bloom talks about in his book “Global Brain”.

    Strategy then can be thought of as a movement in time, within an environment that has two ends, past and future.  

    Strategy is not only trying to  counter the enforcement of conformity and change the direction in the generation of diversity, between the past and future, but possibly change that which is conforming and to conform that which is diversifying.  

    Countering the force of conformity and changing directions in diversity takes creativity. 

    The flaw is in thinking that one possesses the creativity to do either. 

  12. J.ScottShipman Says:

    LtGen Paul Van Riper in a recent Infinity Journal article said of strategy:

    “…strategy is specifically about linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals, and ensuring the selected military ways and means achieve the policy ends in the manner that leaders intend.Today this normally involves two steps. The first is to determine a nation’s grand strategy, or national security strategy in contemporary terminology,which lays out how that nation expects to coordinate and employ all elements of national power—diplomatic, economic, military, and informational— to protect its interests.The second step is to determine how the nation’s military actions are to achieve the stated policy goals. This step includes the creation of operational plans, as well as the conceptual ideas that lead to operational doctrine.” 
    This may be one of the most unambiguous definitions I’ve found, and the creativity Zen is searching for is probably located in “linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals…” 

  13. slapout9 Says:

    I finally came to the conclusion that in the end…….. Strategy is Targeting. Sooner or later it comes down to choosing what you are going to put you available energy against in order to accomplish the mission. 

  14. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    And, slap, targeting goes to the imperative of “ordnance on target…”

  15. slapout9 Says:

    J. Scott Shipman……you got it man!!

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