Cascading creativity is a traditional decision-making model in which strategic choices are made at the top and then flow downward, level by level, to be executed by tactical teams along the path toward launch. In this model, project decisions move in one direction only, from internal company strategy to external user experience. At each hand-off point, the last decision is never revisited, so that the creative options are narrowed and the chances of strategic failure are minimized. 


The built-in assumptions of this model are threefold: 1) strategic decisions are the most powerful decisions (“our job is to get the big things right”), 2) company concerns are more important than customer concerns (“we need to look to our own interests first”), and 3) tactical teams will execute against the strategy faithfully (“we’ve done our job; they’ll do theirs”). It all rolls along like clockwork. What could possibly go wrong?


For starters, members of the strategy team may be working with outdated or irrelevant information about end users, so that their basic viewpoint is flawed. Or they may be focused so much on quarterly financials that they build a strategy based on short-term goals while the future is left unattended. Or they may not know how their strategy will make a winning difference at the user end, so they set the table for mediocrity or failure.

After the first decision gate is closed, the next teams down the line are saddled with a strategic direction they’ve had no hand in creating. Why is this a problem? Because they may misunderstand the full intent of the strategy. Or they may see their role in the decision chain as a chance to make a creative mark, independent of work done by others. Or they may simply feel alienated from the decision, and therefore execute half-heartedly. 

The result of any of these cascading disconnects is the corporate equivalent of “whispering down the lane,” the children’s game in which a secret is quickly passed from one person to the next, until the final secret bears no resemblance to the first. The secret may have begun as, “Mrs. Hunter’s dog is lost,” but it ends up as “Biscuits under Ronnie’s cot.” 

In most companies, whispering down the lane never gets that far—just far enough to create mediocrity. 

Take this scenario: The CEO of a car manufacturing company, alarmed by the commoditization that’s eroding the profits of SUVs, mandates the development of a new product platform for the company. 

The strategic team analyzes the market to see where the profitable opportunities lie, then hands off a competitive map to the research team. 

The research team uses the map to compile a list of proven features that fit the new market space, and increases the list with a few new features that customers have asked for in focus groups before handing it off to the design team. 

The designers take the list and begin sketching and modeling, blending in the latest shapes and visual ideas from successful competitors, plus some cool new ideas of their own, pulling all the features into some kind of unity that aligns with their stylistic heritage. 

Then the production team takes the drawings and sets to work value-engineering the design to fit the budget, substituting existing manufacturing techniques and off-the-shelf parts for more expensive ones. 

Meanwhile, the marketing team uses the strategy, research, and design decisions to develop a roll-out campaign. They write a creative brief and hand it off to their advertising agency, whose creative team decides that the best tactic for selling the new line is with lifestyle ads, which rely heavily on beauty shots of the car in a mountain landscape.

When the first product rolls off the line, it looks a lot like a sports utility vehicle. But the advertising copy says, guess what? It’s NOT an SUV—it’s an FUV! A family utility vehicle! Many car buyers, who haven’t been involved until now and can’t tell the difference, decide to buy a Prius instead. There goes another four-year development cycle, and another CEO, whose fall from the corner office is cushioned by a bag of cash.

It’s the same in industry after industry. Whether a company delivers products or services, sells to consumers or the trade, operates on a large scale or small, does business in America or Asia, the cascading model of creativity will always produce mediocre results in which the final result doesn’t live up to the original intent.

The antidote to cascading creativity is network creativity. Network creativity is a non-traditional model in which leaders manage with a light hand. They ask, listen, think, and design before they decide. They involve the whole company in both the what and the how of organizational moves. This is new territory for most leaders, but it’s territory that must be conquered to stay competitive in an age of nonstop innovation.

Tip: My new book Scramble shows how to do it. Top 100 Business Thought Leader John Spence described the book like this: “Scramble delivers powerful lessons about design thinking and agile strategy through the compelling story of a young CEO who must risk everything to get his company back on track. Insightful ideas, great characters, and a riveting story ripped from the headlines. This is one of the most surprising and valuable business books I’ve read in a long, long time.”