The familiar phrase, “necessity is the mother of all invention,” is traced back to Plato’s Republic. For at least that long, we’ve recognized a motivational drive to find novel ways to address the pain that is part of the human condition.
Since the calendar turned to 2020, nothing has created more pain in our lives than the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for social distance has sent waves of disruption through our lives and the economy. For some industries, the trouble presented an opportunity. Video streaming and grocery and meal delivery services have experienced an incredible increase in demand. Some, such as Netflix, have shown the ability to scale deftly. Others, like Instacart, have found seizing the opportunity a bit of a challenge.
Other industries are struggling to survive. In New York City, restaurants have turned sidewalks in to dining rooms or have set tables in repurposed parking spaces. Businesses are sending people to work at home or are investing in modifications to the workplace designed to create safer ways to be collocated. Hotels are working with local governments and the health care industries to offer short-term housing for the displaced or for medical workers needing to quarantine from family.
Finally, some industries face an existential threat with no clear, economically viable path forward. Concert venues, airlines, cruise ships, and movie theaters are examples of these most vexed industries.
Whether any particular industry has executed a strategy to limp through the recession, many adaptations are not sustainable. It is hard to imagine that come February too many people will be enjoying a dinner seated at a table on the street in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. In most organizations, we see today a hodgepodge of improvisations that might delay pain. We don’t yet have creative, viable, and sustainable re-imagination of businesses that will thrive in the next normal.
If ever necessity was begging for invention, now is the time. The challenge leaders will quickly discover is that tumultuous times are less friendly to innovation than might be hoped because, in fact, Plato likely overestimated us. Jeremy Schoen, a professor at The University of Auckland Business School and a specialist in creativity, reminds us that “research shows even in the best of times people are resistant to creativity and they become especially so in the face of uncertainty. This resistance is apparent as we see a societal rush to ‘get back to business as usual.’” This is understandable – we knew how to get through a normal day. No one can be sure how a new normal day will work.
This individual preference for what is familiar is protected as it becomes enshrined in organizational policies, procedures, and norms. Employees have a long experience with being rewarded for demonstrating behavior that conforms to the expectations each of these sets out. Thinking and acting ‘outside the box’ is not natural for everyone, nor has it likely been as rewarded in the past as we might now wish it had been. Leaders need to convince employees that encouragements to find the way to prosper in the next normal are not a trick. Leaders need to structure situations for employees so that whatever latent creative talent they have can be safely unleashed.
How can leaders create such a structure and communicate the right message? Schoen offers these suggestions:
1. Listen to yourself and notice when you’re shutting down creativity. For example, responding to employee suggestions with a “how would that work?” reinforces creative thinking better than a “no.”
2. Be willing to examine sacred cows. Elements of mission, vision, and values that were carefully aligned to support success before the pandemic may be limiting the choices that will create success after the pandemic. There may be elements of the company’s sole which are non-negotiable, but it is essential not to let something no longer useful become a ball and chain on the journey to the next normal.
3. No one plans for a pandemic. That’s a problem because we know from research in project management that disruptions are a constant even if any specific disruption isn’t. Tools like scenario planning allow us to at least think about possible futures. That effort must include some previously unthinkable futures to provide a safe forum for employees to unleash their creativity.
4. While some people seem to overflow with creative ability, most of us must work for our useful ideas. As a result, set aside time for a deliberate focus on creative thinking. Purposeful application of scenario planning and other tools can certainly help. Knowing that people become more risk-averse during uncertain times means we know creative ideas are less likely to come just when we need them most. Protect time for creativity, just as you do for exercise, hygiene, and sleep.
Thinking back to Plato’s observation, today’s challenge for leaders is grounded in our continuing inability to understand necessity in its proper context. The economic, social, and geopolitical implications of the pandemic remain shrouded in uncertainty. Current social and political unrest, and climate change only compound this uncertainty. As Schoen notes, “A vision of how things will or could be offers the creative thinker a beacon with which to refine their inspiration.” Consequently, the most important thing for leaders to do now to prepare for 2021 is to cut through the fog, give permission to let go of the past, and support employee efforts to think expansively about the changes most likely to create and capture value in the future.