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Crisis driven innovation

Research in creativity suggests we’re good at solving problems – but we can also be a bit lazy! We satisfice, finding good enough solutions and then calling a halt. Brainstorming sessions work because we allow a free flow of ideas, everybody throwing their contribution into the ring. It’s exciting, energetic and fun – and usually there are plenty of ideas to choose from, spread all over flipcharts or scribbled on to hundreds of post-it notes.

The trouble is that these are often variations on some emerging themes, trajectories which quickly become established across the group and which act as a focus for further thinking. They open up new thinking but then channel it along particular lines, refining and improving on the early insights.

As anyone who works in brainstorming sessions knows getting wilder ideas, jumping the tracks, moving to very different trajectories is important. The evidence is that if we are told that there are more solutions of a different kind then we open up our search more widely. We find this uncomfortable, our lazy brains grumbling about having to get out of their chairs and go hunting around to try and find new solutions, but the process usually works.

The well-known problem of ‘functional fixation’ is another good example of the challenge. In this research groups are presented with an open-ended problem – the famous example is that of trying to stick a candle to the wall so that the wax doesn’t drip on to the table below. Given a box containing a candle, matches and some tacks most participants explore solutions involving trying to glue the candle to the wall or using the tacks to hold it in place. Very few think of using the box itself as a candle holder and attaching that to the wall. Karl Duncker’s research has been replicated many times and highlights the way we become ‘fixated’ on the normal ways of seeing – for example that a box is a container – and fail to recognize alternatives.

The good news is that with additional prompts we can break out of this bubble. In creativity training giving people a nudge can move their thinking in new directions. Functional fixation can be overcome if we prime people to take a different view or break away from their ‘normal’ interpretation of the function of certain objects. Wilder ideas can be stimulated by using metaphor and analogy or by forcing random connections.   And sometimes deliberately generating a sense of ‘stuckness’ can force open the doors into a new insight.

We know from many studies of creativity that the sense of being stuck, of not being able to solve a problem is an important part of the process. It feels frustrating and uncomfortable but on another level it is a reminder of our capacity for search. Our brains don’t give up on the problem but go into a search mode which is often unconscious. We sleep on the problem, go for a walk, distract ourselves – and suddenly there is a flash of insight, an ‘aha!’ moment and we know we are on to a new and promising direction for solving the problem.

Organizations behave in similar fashion. They can innovate but often do so along tried and tested pathways, deploying creativity but in a bounded form focused by dominant designs and technological trajectories. Plenty of research highlights the difficulty of breaking away from this – not for nothing do organizations yearn for the skills of breaking out of their particular box.

That’s where crisis comes in – it forces us to jump the tracks. Necessity really can be the mother of invention, and sometimes being backed into a corner is the key to finding a radically new perspective. We may not like the feeling of being pushed but the stuckness triggers powerful new search behaviours.

Consider the case of ‘lean’ thinking – something which revolutionized first manufacturing and then a growing set of services, public and private. This approach to process innovation grew up because the dominant design based around mass production couldn’t work in post-war Japanese factories with extremely limited human and physical resources and with markets which were fragmented and small. These crisis conditions triggered the search for a radical new alternative; it didn’t emerge overnight but the learning and problem solving associated with it opened up a rich new field of possibilities.

Our work on humanitarian innovation suggests that crisis conditions can offer a powerful space in which new thinking can emerge. In the terrible aftermath of disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes or tidal waves many of our ‘normal’ systems break down. There is an urgent need to provide food, clean water, shelter, to enable effective communications so people can reconnect, to establish effective logistics across broken roads and fractured rail-lines. Our existing set of solutions may simply not work under these conditions – but the evidence is that crisis of this kind brings out creativity, enabling new pathways. Importantly these not only solve the immediate problem, they also provide a template for dealing with future versions of it.

For example after the 2010 Haiti earthquake mobile phones became the basis for an effective crisis information system, a communication device for reuniting shattered families, a substitute banking system to replace smashed ATM equipment and a food distribution and retailing system which meant that families could quickly and effectively manage getting their own lives back to some semblance of order. None of this arrived in the holds of planes carrying emergency aid but rather it emerged bottom up from people experimenting and implementing new solutions.

Google have a phrase – ‘creativity loves constraints’ – and it’s not a bad motto. Sometimes there are alternative solutions out there but we need to be stuck and pushed out of our comfort zones to search and find them

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