Strategy and creativity are two sides of the same coin.

Strategy relates to identifying clear, concise, long-term goals and interests, as well as the means to achieve them. We usually consider it “left-brain”: logical, analytical, objective, and linear.

On the other hand, what does the word creativity conjure up? Images of Van Gogh in a frenzy, attacking a canvas with frantic brushstrokes? Hemingway losing himself in prose and mojitos? Usually, we think of creativity as, well, somewhat mystical and ethereal. As a right-brain state in which there are no boundaries and in which we can produce imaginative, original ideas – the very definition of a flow experience.

Strategy and creativity, then, seem to be at odds. They are two separate processes. They engage different areas of the brain. And freelance rappers appear to prove the point. Their job is to stand on stage and create entire songs on the spot, completely improvised. They depend on their ability to think creatively and quickly.

Neuroscientists Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu set out to see just how creativity works in the brain by putting top-notch rappers into an fMRI machine to study them while they freestyled. Braun said, “We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity.”

In other words, the artists could quiet, or shut off, the part of their brains that handles things like attention, logic, organization, and self-censorship. When they took themselves out of reality, they could create.

I call “bull.” At least a little. Here’s why. Freelance rappers, like improv jazz musicians, have to know what their audience wants. They have to, to a certain extent, deliver targeted performances based on their audience’s expectations. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get hired to perform (or get to do so in a big, metal fMRI tube).

There’s a big AND or a big BUT coming here. The rappers were first given an 8-measure backing track with lyrics to memorize which they did. AND, they were supplied with the same 8-measure backing track and asked to improvise. BUT there was a strategy. There was an objective. They had a mission to accomplish and the groundwork had been laid. Does that mean they were less creative? No! In fact, they had to depend on and redouble their creativity to complete that mission.

Improv actors and comedians are challenged with the same task. They have to create an entire skit or show from virtually nothing. When you see your favourite performers at Second City, for example, they’re typically given a suggestion, a game, and a set of rules for that game. They have to stay within the parameters. There is a method to their madness. Their creativity is informed by strategy. Rather than mutually exclusive processes, creativity and strategy can, and do, enrich each other.

A study on improv comedians and theater actors conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology found that “Improvisation involves decision-making based on domain-specific as well as real-world knowledge.” Their skits and routines don’t come out of the ether. They come out of their knowledge, experience, and skills – strategy. Left-Brain, let me introduce you Right-Brain.

Pairing strategy and creativity only seems natural, especially in the context of marketing tactics and strategies. Any individual piece of creative is great only if it supports a brilliant strategy and has the legs to stand on its own.

Strategic creative may seem like an oxymoron on the surface. But when we redefine what we think we know, we can engage and motivate employees, facilitate flow experiences and creativity, and achieve measurable gains.

Challenge conventions, embrace contradictions, and infuse strategy with creativity – and creativity with strategy.