By Leah Fessler
Lecturing this spring, Jay Rao caught his students by surprise.
“In good times, companies get fat, dumb, and happy when it comes to innovation. There are no boundaries, and it’s chaos,” the Babson Executive Education professor told his now-virtual classroom. “Innovation and creativity love crises and constraints.”
Bold as Rao’s statements may seem, they resonate. We are living through an unprecedented opportunity for creativity and entrepreneurial leadership. And while it’s impressive to see companies like Ford pivoting to ventilator production or Apple focusing on contact tracing, creativity doesn’t need to be mass-scale to make an impact.
“Creativity isn’t a singular personality trait,” humanistic psychologist and author Scott Barry Kaufman tells Quartz. “It’s a way of being that requires being constantly open to spotting and engaging in new ideas and experiences.”
Creativity flourishes during crisis because crisis shatters normalcy, forcing us to see beyond traditional rules and ways of thinking. In crisis, we’re willing to experiment because we have no other option. We don’t have cushy budgets to wade around in, or time to fall in love with a solution, then back our way into a relevant problem. Our problems are staring us in the face and demand resolution. Our goal is survival, and survival alone — whether it’s reinventing your client strategy or convincing your kid to stay quiet through one call — constitutes innovation.
“Creativity emerges when you are open to detours, not when you approach life, or a job, or an experience with a single goal in mind,” Kaufman explains, clarifying why we often have great ideas in unstructured moments, like when we’re in the shower. “Every time we reach out of our comfort zone and adapt to a new situation we are being creative. We all have deep reservoirs of creativity within us that we don’t even realize.”
Creativity is simply resourcefulness seen through a fancier lens. It’s recognizing the tools you do have and using them in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious. This reframing ought to encourage even the most by-the-books leaders to realize that they are also creatives.
Thinking of yourself as a creative isn’t just positive self-talk — it’s your path forward, especially when reliable strategies become untenable. As Chief CEO and Co-Founder Carolyn Childers recently shared, we ought to savor the optimal testing environment this pandemic provides. Holed up at home with normalcy thrown out the window, customers are uniquely open to new products and experiences.
“Just as we’re enjoying our super-ripe fruit instead of letting it rot, your consumers are primed to engage with what you provide them,” says Childers. “If you have a product that meets your consumer’s present needs (even in-part) take the win and test it. You have the unique privilege of a captive audience who will accept imperfection and appreciate your efforts to meet them where they’re at.”
During this moment of contraction, it’s easy to feel as if we don’t have the right to indulge creativity. There’s power in realizing the opposite is true. When life gets tight, leaders must expand their thinking, creating new resources out of what might seem null — be it a small budget, reduced team, low-self confidence, or insufficient flour and toilet paper.
We can expand our thinking by confronting, rather than avoiding, our limitations. Research suggests this confrontation is the key factor differentiating those who experience post-traumatic growth and those who don’t.
As Kaufman writes in Scientific American, psychologists now know that to turn adversity into advantage, we need to lean into unfavorable circumstances. This “cognitive exploration” enhances complexity and flexibility in information processing, and “enables us to be curious about confusing situations, increasing the likelihood that we will find new meaning in the seemingly incomprehensible,” he explains.
Being creative — or resourceful, open-minded, and willing to experiment — reminds us that there is a way out, and that each of us is capable of paving it. As Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl famously wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Published May 22, 2020