Transformational Thinking

By James Lees


About 6 months ago, the APG ran a Young Strategist Essay competition inviting young strategists to answer this brief:

What is transformational thinking and how should we use it?
We are looking for challenge and inspiration from the new generation of planners and strategists who will be shaping our future at work and beyond.  We want to harness your imagination and energy and strategic vision to help us write the prescription for the best practice of planning and strategy in the world you are set to inherit.’


I entered and I didn’t win (which means fortunately I can share it here.)

So, why would I want to share a losing essay?


A). Its central point about bias and trying to beat our limited perspective (the enemy of a strategist), I still believe is an important thing us strategists should always strive to do. (You can’t transform your thinking without acknowledging its flaws)


B). It’s not total bollocks, I put some time & effort into it and I don’t want to just resign it to a draw


And hey, I tried to make it an entertaining, 4 minute read.

So enjoy!

APG Young Strategist Essay


That door’s never gonna move, Fred.

Let me tell you why…

James Lees
Creative Strategist @ Sword & Stone


As a young kid I used to love watching Scooby Doo. I used to hum the theme tune. Filled endless colouring books. Forever ran out of the colour brown.

But quite suddenly, I stopped loving Scooby Doo.

It happened because I realised something. Something that allowed me to accurately predict what would happen in every scene that was supposed to contain a surprise.

Do you know why I know that door’s never gonna move, Fred?

Because it’s just a backdrop.


It’s drawn by someone different to whoever draws the characters and the active elements of the scene.


It’s the same way I know a bad guy’s going to jump out of this sarcophagus in the next scene.




We all know the human brain is not a sponge. It’s a complex machine capable of continually making better sense of the world by slightly or radically readjusting what it believes to be ‘right’ in light of new stimulus.


However, more often than not we filter out new or contradictory information that doesn’t conform to the reality we have created in our minds (iii) – this is called ‘selective exposure’ or ‘confirmation bias’.


Typically it takes an astounding piece of stimulus, or a revelation, to significantly change how we see things.


So… Our perspective is naturally biased, favouring comfortable and confirmatory information over the new.


And that’s a big problem for strategists tasked with creating change.




Exacerbating this problem is time – specifically, the shortage of it. As time shrinks in our professional lives and we are continually forced to do things faster and faster and faster it is tempting to go purely on our gut. To propose solutions that are instinctively right.
And maybe sometimes they are right.


But there’s usually a bigger, more transformative idea out there. Unfortunately, less time to ruminate on problems and think up solutions means we can’t rely on that revelatory moment coming along to transform our thinking.


We have to create revelations for ourselves, at speed.
For me, transformational thinking is exactly that.


The ability to quickly disconnect from a default (biased) frame of reference and forcibly adopt new perspectives to find alternative solutions.




Recognising that we’ll be inclined to think more narrowly than we’d like, we need to consciously force ourselves to adopt different perspectives to our natural one. How we best do this depends on what kind of problem we’re trying to solve.


However, a simple (cheap, and fast) method is to build-in prompts for ourselves at various stages of the project that challenge us to disconnect from a default mode of thinking e.g.:


• If the brand was a cartoon, what would the conflict in the story be?


• What would my strategy be if I had to solve this with £100?


• If I asked a *INSERT EXPERT to answer this client brief, what would their approach be?


*Architect, Army General, Caveman etc.


These are just illustrative. Whether we actually write down and answer written prompts like this or not, what’s important is that we deliberately find ways to get out of our own heads to transform our thinking throughout the strategic process.


That might include looking at an analogous category for the answer to the problem in our client’s category, or throwing seemingly contradictory visuals together if it’s a design problem, or speaking to someone completely different and bouncing stuff off them.


So, ‘How should we use it?’ – Deliberately. To find new perspectives that can lead to answers that are unobvious and therefore valuable.




Innovation companies are good at quickly employing this kind of transformational thinking in their immersion and ideation phases to develop a wide range of solutions. A good example of this is the Racer’s Edge water bottle developed by IDEO several years ago for Specialized Mountain Bikes.


During an immersion phase that involved the observation of mountain bikers, the team noticed that one of the biggest issues was the bottle cap. Sports caps are awkward to get open with your teeth, especially when riding, and usually get covered in mud on trails.

Rather than taking an iterative approach to improving the product, they searched far and wide for a different, more transformative solution:


“Could a heart valve inspire a sports bottle? we wondered. What if you sealed the top of the bottle with a rubber septum that opens like a heart valve? Asking that question led the team to design a simple self-sealing valve at the top of the bottle […] All you’d need to do to get a drink was grab the bottle and squeeze. And you’d never have to stick your mouth around a muddy spout.” (iv)






Clever examples like the one above are great for illustration. But rather than just show someone else doing this, why don’t we try to employ transformational thinking right now?


Below are a few prompts I’ve put together. Have a go with a brand you’re working on, or use the example I do:





1. If nature was our product designer, how would it evolve our product?


2. What do these images say about the category and our brand?


(vi) (vii)


3. If we told our grandmother to sell it, how would she talk about it to potential customers?


(If you like, have a go yourself before reading on.)


Here’s a few first thoughts of mine:


1. Nature’s good at spreading stuff. The format of a Mars bar doesn’t encourage sharing. It’s at a disadvantage against things like Maltesers here. Seed pods are a good example of nature casting the net wide to hit multiple targets. What if on the side of pack you had knife marks for ‘chunking’ a bar?


2. (ROAD) For most of us, chocolate has been a long winding road with various reference points en route. As we’ve matured and premiumisation has occurred, Mars has been left behind. A familiar reference point but often not the chocolate bar of choice.


(PUG) The brand could seek its fortune in embracing its role as an ugly comfort. It’s not the pretty, luxurious chocolate bar. But sometimes you don’t want luxury. Sometimes you want a bit of Ruff.


3. Grandma’s guilty pleasure: Mars bar in a bowl, dentures in a glass, pop the bowl in the microwave, 37 seconds, *Ding* – eat it with a spoon. Mmmmmmmmmmars.


*You can skip the dentures part


Yes, some of mine are silly. But imagine where a more exhaustive transformational thinking approach could take us if applied day to day?




When our thinking looks like the client’s old thinking.


When our thinking looks like the client’s competitors’ thinking.


When we’ve got to fix this…




…on a shoestring budget.


When we think we’ve got the one true answer, 30 seconds after we’ve heard the brief.


When we’re pitching.


When we’re up against it.




Transformational thinking is one tool in our strategic arsenal. It is not the arsenal and it is not a replacement for hard work.


Nor should it replace our everyday attempts to broaden our own perspective by reading books (written by cleverer people), or trying new music or experiencing other countries, cultures etc.


If we look at it like this…



… transformational thinking is a hack.


It’s just one way of trying to beat our limited perspective and a ticking clock.


And it is only ever useful if we believe the ‘far out’ hypotheses or ideas it produces are actually viable to explore/prove out.(Something that again, we’re back to trusting our gut on.)


Despite all this, transformational thinking can be a powerful tool. And while there’s always the worry of being the young planner that presents the foolish ideas, I always take heart in thinking that if anyone should be going too far it should be us young planners.


But hey, I’m probably biased…


Word Count: 1492




(i) Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, Hanna-Barbera, 1969

(ii) Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, Hanna-Barbera, 1969

(iii) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Leon Festinger, Stanford University Press 1962

(iv) The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelly with Jonathan Littman, Harper Collins Business 2001


(vi) Photo of winding road by Felix Russell Saw, Royalty Free Image from

(vii) Photo of pug in snug by Matthew henry, Royalty Free Image from

(viii) Superman, Warner Bros Pictures, 1978

(ix) Spider Man, Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962, but FUN FACT, likely based on a quotation from a collection of the decrees made by the French National Convention, May 8, 1793:

FR: Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir. 

EN: They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.

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