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Crisis-driven innovation

I first wrote this blog as the basis for a talk in the UK last year when the only thing worrying us was the ‘crisis’ of Brexit.  Now we’re facing some much more serious challenges – and yet the inventive responses from communities trying to think outside the box suggests that the core themes do hold up.  And may offer us some hope during these troubled times.

There’s a podcast version of this piece available here.

Imagine you’re flying over the Sahara desert.  Your plane runs into a sandstorm, the engines splutter and then die, one by one until there’s just the sound of sand rasping against the windows.  The nose dips, you feel a dreadful lurching in the pit of your stomach, the world outside the windows turns black, and you crash.  Miraculously no-one is hurt.  But the plane is smashed, the radios destroyed and your last known position was over 100 miles from anywhere. What do you do?

Fortunately this isn’t real – it’s the plot of a novel called ‘The flight of the Phoenix’.  But it does offer a powerful reminder of the ways in which human creativity can get us out of trouble.  In this particular scenario there is just enough of an airframe left, plus a trickle of fuel and one engine which could be coaxed back to life.  The plane had carried a strange mixture of passengers with different skills and experience,  including an old man who used to design aeroplanes. To cut a long story short, they manage to assemble a new aeroplane which just holds together long enough for them to fly back to safety  – the ‘Phoenix’ of the title.

That might be fiction - but we don’t have to look far to see similar stories playing out in real life. Crisis provides a trigger for innovation, not least because doing nothing is not an option even if conventional solution pathways are blocked. For example:

When Haiti was hit by a devastating hurricane in 2010 much of the city of Port-au-Prince lay in ruins. Within a very short time aid workers and locals began to piece together makeshift solutions to their problems, using resources such as mobiles phone and a cellular connection. Solutions co-created and diffused included:

  1. creating an ‘instant’ banking system across which aid agencies could distribute cash to buy food, medicines and other essentials

  2. open street mapping to provide up-to-date information about affected populations, damaged infrastructure, key emergency locations, etc.

  3. reuniting displaced persons using the phone network as a database and communications centre

  4. deploying 3D printing to quickly produce badly needed spare parts for hospitals – and mobilising an army of online volunteer designers to supply the key software

  5. providing translation services to render urgent information in regional dialects – again with the help of an international network of volunteer translators

Back in 1943 at the height of the war a small team at Lockheed’s Burbank factory were given the apparently impossible task of designing and building a jet aircraft within six months. They’d never built a jet before so there were no designs to work from, the technology was unknown, the only engine was in the UK and wouldn’t be available to them to experiment with until near the end of the project – and the factory was already working flat out on producing bombers for the war effort.  Kelly Johnson was the manager appointed to run this project and one of his first tasks was to rent a circus tent to work in because there was no space available for his team!  Time was of the essence – the Germans were already flying their Messerschmidt 262 fighter at speeds twice that of allied aircraft and had been working on jets since 1938.  Yet despite all these barriers his ‘skunk works’ team achieved their target with weeks to spare, producing and safely flying the Shooting Star.

Toyota wasn’t always the great car-maker we know today. Back in the post-war years Japan’s slow and painful recovery was hampered by resource shortages, its physical infrastructure still severely damaged and skilled labour in very short supply. All of this on an island economy which had to import most of its key industrial resources. The stuttering local car market was small and fragmented; under these conditions it was impossible to run a car factory in the profligate style associated with mass production.  Working under these constraints forced experiments towards a radically different approach to manufacturing emphasising reduced waste at every stage.  From these unhappy beginnings (and a long learning process) the idea of ‘lean’ was born, one which went on to become one of the most powerful process innovations of the twentieth century.

Crisis also plays a role in the world of the arts. For example, every time the Royal Shakespeare Company performs it faces the challenge of short time scales and the need to find something new in a repertoire limited to 37 plays.  And it has to take into account that they have all been performed many times over the past four hundred years.  Their challenge – which audience numbers and critics reviews regularly suggest they succeed in – involves finding new ways to push the edges of the audience experience.

Something is going on here which is clearly not about having lots of resources  – instead it’s often the shortage of them which forces a different mind-set.  It’s also about roadblocks – the obvious way ahead is impassable and so we need to find a new route.  Crisis triggers a different kind of search, one with a number of important characteristics:

  1. Ends not means drive the process – the presence of a challenging vision compels innovation, even if the ways of reaching the goal are unclear

  2. Extensive search – because the normal pathways may be blocked the search for solutions pushes out into new and unfamiliar territory

  3. Reframing – being able to see the problem from a fresh perspective

  4. Creatively combining – improvising solutions from what is available, often in novel configurations

  5. Experimental learning – improvising and building on what emerges, early prototyping, fast intelligent failure

  6. Tolerance of imperfection and incremental continuous improvement towards an optimal solution

Crisis provides a trigger for thinking differently.  There’s a clue in the etymology; the word comes from  the Greek and  means ‘turning point’.  Not necessarily a negative thing but a change in direction.  The Chinese characters for crisis capture this well; the word is assembled from two pictograms, one for ‘threat’ and the other for ‘opportunity’.

Psychology tells us something about why crisis can provide a useful trigger.  Human beings have evolved as problem-solvers – but we’re also rather lazy.  Faced with a challenge our first response is to search our repertoire of existing solutions and try to pull one off the shelf.  We might need to adapt it a little but we generally like an easy ‘plug and play’ strategy.  But if that doesn’t work we engage in an active search for something new.  We might feel annoyed, frustrated, might even  grumble about the work we’re being required to do – but the chances are we will eventually end up with a new solution.  This isn’t just a feeling; research shows that the brain is actively forcing new neural connections and pathways during the search process.  In studies at the University of Amsterdam it appears that obstacles and constraints actually help the creative process. 

So sometimes creativity doesn’t flourish as well as it might in comfortable resource-rich  environments.  It seems to thrive under difficult cond