I Need Ideas, and I Need Them Now: Generating Creativity in a Crisis
It’s hit the fan…in a big way. In fact, the hits keep coming. This is a crisis. You need ideas, and you need them now. There is no time for training, prolonged studies, or weeks of analysis. You only have a few days to come up with a plan to respond and put your organization back on track.
There is good news—the spark of a solution probably already exists in the brains of your employees, teammates, and partners. The best way to quickly develop a crisis action plan is by uncovering those hidden ideas and bringing them into the light of day.
I began to understand this phenomenon when deployed to Afghanistan as an Air Advisor developing the Afghan Air Force. In 2014, President Obama announced US forces would be leaving Afghanistan, and we would be taking the dozens of Coalition aircraft providing close air support for ground forces with us. The remaining airborne firepower in Afghanistan would be 5 Soviet-vintage Mi-35 helicopters—and only 3 of them were routinely flyable.
Giving up the high ground would fundamentally change the fight in Afghanistan. Since the Americans arrived in October 2001, our enemies had to worry about Coalition airpower. They couldn’t move around freely, and they knew any sustained attack would eventually be met with overwhelming firepower from above. Without air support, the Taliban would have new opportunities, and the Afghan forces would lose one of their greatest advantages. The planned withdrawal would begin in a few months, and on typical procurement timelines, we were far, far behind if we intended to field new equipment.
Fortunately, a great team had already started thinking about the problem. Unfortunately, no one was executing any solutions, and the most senior Coalition leadership did not yet understand the problem they faced.
Within a week, or so, our team produced a briefing for the Commander, General “Fighting Joe” Dunford…or as we called him, “Sir”. He quickly understood the problem and gave us explicit guidance for the maximum amount of resources we could use and the minimum capability he wanted. Specifically, the solution would be airborne combat capability, operated by the Afghans, capable of attacking the enemy in less than a year—a virtually impossible task in the Department of Defense procurement system. He told us to explore every alternative…and report back in a week.
Faced with a nearly impossible challenge, our team worked day and night from Kabul calling back to the US asking strange questions to a variety of companies to see what was in the realm of the possible. Within a week we had a good start and updated the General. Within two weeks, we had enough information for General Dunford to make a decision. He chose to a customized, light-attack helicopter built on an airframe the Afghans were already using for training. Through some amazing teamwork around the globe by dozens of committed professionals across government and industry, the aircraft were built and delivered in time to train the Afghans before the next “fighting season” kicked off.
Although US forces did not ultimately withdraw, the helicopters gave the Afghan Air Force capability to support their ground forces without the Coalition. In the initial plan, we bought 17 of the MD-530F Cayuse Warrior helicopters. They were so successful the fleet has grown to 35 with the expectation of adding another 20 in 2019.
You might expect this is the time when I highlight the teamwork and design thinking that led us to this solution. In actuality, we spent hundreds of hours working to carefully arrive at a solution one of our teammates understood months earlier. When he initially suggested the MD-530, he was mocked for believing the small helo would be able to operate in the hot weather and high mountains of Afghanistan.
The idea never left the room, and the problem lingered with no solution in sight. Of course, his willingness to offer similar solutions evaporated. The solution to one of the toughest problems facing the Afghan Air Force, and the entire Afghanistan campaign, was there the whole time, hidden. While the consequences of our crisis would not be felt for several months, our ability to respond to it was constrained to only a few weeks.
It is worth mentioning that all crises are not emergencies. A crisis is a critical turning point. An emergency is an occurrence requiring immediate action. While a crisis may not require an immediate decision, it usually requires an expeditious one to seize an opportunity or to prevent the future from being determined for us.
Here are 8 steps a leader facing a crisis can take to expeditiously generate creative ideas:
1. Explicitly define the problem, the minimum requirements for an acceptable plan, and the resources available. You may only get one chance to do this right. General Dunford was explicit about how much money and manpower we could use and the amount of territory he wanted to be able to defend with airpower. Finally, he gave a specific date by which the solution had to be effective. In a previous article, I discussed the importance of asking the right question. The same applies to defining the problem. A poorly-stated problem puts your team to work finding a solution to a problem you don't have.
If you don't have the authority to commit resources, get buy-in from the person who does. You don’t have time to staff a solution through multiple layers of bureaucracy. Getting directly to the decision-maker, or getting authority to make the decision yourself, is the only way to get an expeditious solution.
The best way to do define the problem is in writing. Draft a three paragraph note explicitly defining the problem to be solved, the requirements for an acceptable solution, and the resources available. This document will guide the team’s work and be a persistent reference during the creative process.
Pro-tip: Include the phrase “the team should look for creative solutions”. Repeated academic studies show simply asking for creative solutions generates more creativity. Asking for creative solutions encourages people to think differently and implies a leader’s willingness to consider non-standard approaches. This article explains why.
2. Find a trusted, selfless agent to lead the team. This person should see their role as a facilitator and draw on a deep well of interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to guide a team through this process. The people coming up with the plan may join the team with bruised egos, trepidation, or fatalism. You need a leader who can give them, quickly, the psychological safety (more on this one later) to expose the ideas they have kept hidden. If you don’t have a person on your team who meets this requirement, you need to hire a facilitator who can be flexible enough to coax the ideas into the open where they can be combined and shaped into a plan.
Pro-tip: When the crisis passes, read Amy Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. She defines psychological safety as “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking”…”it is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able—even obligated—to be candid.” In my experience, the lack of this interpersonal safety is the #1 reason good ideas stay hidden. In a crisis, you can’t afford to let good ideas stay locked away.
3. Set an aggressive timeline. American composer Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Your crisis may define its own timeline, but if not, the leader should establish a timeline short enough to arouse discomfort, but not despair. A short, defined timeline focuses effort. Team members know the effort will conclude soon, and they are more willing to sprint to a finish.
If your timeline is impossibly short, creativity plummets according to creativity researcher Teresa Amabile’s article in the Harvard Business Review, “Creativity Under the Gun.” If you followed Rule #2, your trusted agent will let you know whether the timeline is achievable or if the problem definition needs to change to allow a solution within the time available.
Make the deadline stick by scheduling time for the final presentation to the decision-maker.
Pro-tip: Teams will be challenged to sustain this level of effort for more than about 2 weeks, and the lure of emails going unanswered will tempt them away from this important project and back to their desks.
4. Form a team of volunteers. Putting out a broad call for volunteers--no more than about 10 for the core group—is a psychological shortcut to enable creativity. Even corporate giant Procter & Gamble employed volunteerism when they needed to develop new products. According to a Harvard Business School case study, the director of the Corporate New Ventures division allowed employees to choose the projects they wanted to work on as long as they were able to justify the potential importance of the product. Google invented Gmail by allowing people to make choices about the work they take on.
Why does this work better than forced labor?
First, people who respond are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. That is, they are working on the project because they want to rather than because they have to. People who are intrinsically motivated produce more creative ideas than those working for rewards or other extrinsic goals. Freedom, including the freedom to choose what you think about, leads to creative thoughts.
Second, having a leader ask for help, rather than demanding it, expresses vulnerability and demonstrates trust in the organization. The act of expressing trust makes a person seem more trustworthy. Trust encourages the brain to release oxytocin, a chemical that lubricates social relationships and the generation of creative ideas.
Third, when a person volunteers, they feel more free to express creative ideas because social and financial risk is minimized. There can be no punishment for a job with no rewards.
From a practical standpoint, an employee's volunteer status is mostly a psychological construction. The team of “volunteers” working on the Afghan Air Force project were sequestered on a remote base in Kabul, but the feeling that we chose to take on the project was powerful.
Pro-tip: Having a team of volunteers may also help navigate bureaucratic politics. There is likely some office officially responsible for preventing the crisis you are in now. A team of volunteers allows for fresh ideas while not alienating those who would normally work the issue…after all, they are welcome to join the team, and you need their expertise.
5. Don’t start with a clean slate. This seems contrary to everything you know about generating creative solutions. Ideating without guardrails allows us the freedom to push boundaries and find unusual idea combinations. In a crisis, however, the appointed team leader has to accelerate the process. One way to do this is by preparing some starter-ideas. These ideas should range from the expected to others pushing the edges of the constraints in #1 above.
These purpose of these ideas is not to find the ultimate solution before the team meets. These ideas are designed to both demonstrate a range of acceptable solutions and the leader’s willingness to accept constructive criticism as the group shapes and reforms them into something new. The team leader can (and should) join the group in criticizing the initial ideas further demonstrating ideas are more important than egos.
Pro-tip: This technique can be effective as you divide the main problem in to smaller parts. Tasking subgroups or individuals to work on elements of the main problem can be an effective means of weaving between the divergent thinking needed for idea generation and the convergent thinking needed to identify acceptable solutions.
6. Limit the number of options to be presented. You don’t have time to produce three complete options with implementation considerations and analysis of the pros and cons. You should aim for one thoughtful solution that can be scaled or two solutions with significant overlapping considerations. In Afghanistan, we presented two helicopter solutions, but the timelines for training and implementation were essentially the same.
A team could spend months fine tuning a plan; considering risks; establishing high, medium, and low-risk timelines. During that time, you will lose your opportunity to act, and circumstances will change requiring re-planning. Let General George Patton be your guide: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
Pro-tip: Several academic studies investigate the effect of “choice overload” on decision makers. Paradoxically, people believe they want a broad selection of choices, but they tend to actually make a choice less often and second-guess their choice more often when presented with many options. This is particularly true when a decision maker believes they have to justify their choice to someone else. In a crisis, senior decision makers will likely have to justify their choice to shareholders, a Board of Directors, or someone more senior in the organization. Presenting a choice along a continuum allows the decision-maker to choose without facing a paralyzing array of options.
7. Disband the team as soon as a decision is made. Once the decision-maker chooses a way forward, it is time to release the volunteers. Executing the plan should be the responsibility of those who normally would manage that function rather than the crisis team. The people normally tasked with execution should be a part of the presentation and the leader’s decision-making calculus. With a clear decision from the leader and a plan for moving forward, the execution team is well positioned to turning the plan into action.
Pro-tip: Disbanding the team returns experienced creative thinkers to their normal jobs. Having experienced the benefits of a psychologically safe, creative environment, they are well equipped to bring that atmosphere to their future teams.
8. Prepare for the next crisis. When you began responding to the current crisis, the conditions were set. There was no time for training or culture change. Now is the time to prepare your organization for future challenges. Emmit McHenry, the founder of Network Solutions, the company responsible for the code that puts .com at the end of your internet address, works to prepare the minds of his teammates for future creativity. “The first thing I do is try to have them understand that imagination is important; that to be able to have fantasies is important; that reading is important; that science fiction is a feeder to creativity…if you do those kinds of things, those things will support you because your brain is elastic,” according to McHenry.
James Kendra, a researcher who published “Creativity in Emergency Response to the World Trade Center Disaster,” concluded:
The World Trade Center disaster response shows that creativity is such a significant feature of response to an extreme event that planning and training should move explicitly toward enhancing creativity and the resultant improvisation at all levels of responding organizations. Given that creativity undergirds improvisation, and is an important dimension of resilience [it] should not be left for emergency managers to acquire by chance, nor should it rely on emergency managers fortuitously bringing these skills to the job or developing them on their own.
When disaster struck the World Trade Center, some teams responded more creatively and effectively than others. Emergency responders who build improvisational skills are more prepared to respond to tomorrow’s disasters. We can never develop a perfect disaster response plan, because we never know exactly how the disaster will unfold. We can, however, develop improvisational skills enabling us to flexibly respond to whatever happens.
Being creative is being elastic, and being elastic enables creativity.
Besides improving individual skills, practicing team creativity improves organizational elasticity. By developing creative skills outside of a crisis, your team will be more mentally agile and creative when the next crisis comes. Whether you face a crisis in a startup in Silicon Valley or in the valleys of the Hindu Kush, once you have exhausted all available options, it is time to get creative.
Dan Manning is the Founder of Firepower Concepts, LLC where he helps businesses, non-profits, and governments apply creativity to solve their toughest problems. He would be a great facilitator when you face your next crisis. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.