Creativity Under Pressure

[In the fall of 2013, I completed a course on Coursera titled “Creativity, Innovation, and Change” presented by Drs. Jack V. Matson, Kathryn W. Jablokow, and Darrell Velegol at Pennsylvania State University. It was an excellent class. At the end, they invited the class (How many tens of thousands of us?) to submit short essays about our experence. The plan was to select the best of these essays and roll them into a free Kindle book. Today, they sent out this update:

We are sorry to inform you that we have decided not to proceed with the publication of a CIC eBook. The submissions were read and commented on by four reviewers.  The consensus was that the manuscripts for the most part would take efforts far beyond our capabilities and means to edit and upgrade to meet the standards for publishing.  We are very sorry that the plan did not work out.

What follows is slightly edited version of the essay I submitted for consideration.]

Creativity Under Pressure – When necessity drives innovation.


When you hear someone speak of an individual they know as being creative, what images come to mind? Often, they spring from stereotypes and assumptions about such an individual being an artist of some sort. Someone unconstrained by time or attachment to career, family, or a mortgage. My personal favorite is the image of a haggard individual wearing a beret, a thin cigarette balanced on their lower lip, and busy being inspired by things us mortals cannot see. A foreign accent adds the final touch to firmly set the speaker’s creative individual in the “That’s not me.” category. Our preconceived notions and assumptions assure us we are not creative.

The truth is all of us are creative. The artist’s Muses are not the only source of inspiration. Chance can inspire creative ideas by the convergence of seemingly unrelated circumstances and events. An activity as passive as sleep can lead to creative ideas. Moving away from beauty toward the other end of the inspiration spectrum, the source may not necessarily be pleasant. Frustration and irritation may inspire us to find a creative solution as we spend an inordinate amount of time searching for a way to scratch a just-out-of-reach itch. Crisis, too, can be a source of inspiration, often of the very intense variety. Chance surrounds all of us. We all sleep. And alas, we are all subject to frustrating or crisis situations from time to time in our lives. We are immersed in opportunities for creative inspiration.

Perhaps the least obvious or explored opportunities for applying creativity and experimenting with innovative ideas happen when we are under pressure to perform. At first glance, the tendency is to think that such situations require extensive knowledge, abundant prior practice, and scenario rehearsals in order to navigate them successfully. It’s fair to say that the chances for successfully responding to a crisis situation are greatly enhanced by deep knowledge and experience related to the situation.

The Apollo 13 mission to the Moon is a familiar example of crisis driven creativity by a team of experts. Survival of the astronauts following the explosion of an oxygen canister depended on NASA engineers finding a way to literally fit a square object into a round hole. The toxic build-up of CO2 could only be prevented by finding a way to fit a cube shaped CO2 filter into a cylinder shaped socket using nothing but the materials the astronauts had with them. Of course we know from history the team of engineers succeeded in this exercise of creative improvisation.

Individual experts have also succeeded in devising creative solutions in crisis situations, and in doing so introduced critical changes in protocols and procedures that have saved lives. For example, smokejumber Wagner Dodge’s actions in the Mann Gulch forest fire on August 5, 1949, introduced the practice of setting escape fires as a way to protect firefighters caught in “blow-ups.”

What I’ve always found interesting about these and similar examples is that, although the creative and innovative solutions were found while “on the job” and using established expertise, the solutions were counter to what the individuals and teams were expected to do. The NASA engineers were paid to design and build an extremely high tech solution for sending three men to the moon and bringing them safely back to Earth. Their job descriptions likely didn’t call for the ability to “build a fully functional CO2 scrubber from a pile of junk.” Wagner Dodge was expected put out fires, not start them.

The Course

What else is important in preparing us to respond creatively in high pressure situations? It’s a question that’s dogged me for years. The “Creativity, Innovation, and Change” (CIC) course offered by Pennsylvania State University and taught by Professors Jack Matson, Kathryn Jablokow, and Darrell Velegol offered an opportunity to explore this question.

The first insight from the course was the importance of the “adjacent possible” to creative and innovative problem solving, even in crisis situations. The phrase was originally suggested by the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman to describe evolutionary complexity. The idea is that innovative or creative ideas occur incrementally. While they may appear as substantial leaps forward, they are in fact derived from a collection of adjacent ideas that coalesced to make a single idea possible. As an individual explores deeper and farther into an idea space, they extend the boundaries around which adjacent ideas collect, increasing the potential for new idea combinations. In other words, increasing the likelihood of creative or innovative ideas.

In the case of Apollo 13, the deep experience and knowledge of the engineers allowed them to consider a wide spectrum of possibilities for combining an extremely limited number of objects in a way that could remove CO2 from a spacecraft. In the case of Wagner Dodge, his extensive experience with fighting forest fires allowed him to spontaneously combine a variety of “adjacent possibilities” in a way that lead to the idea of lighting an escape fire.

That’s the theory, anyway. There’s a difference, though, between theory and practice. Albert Einstein explains, “In theory they are the same. In practice, they are not.” The CIC course offered an abundance of techniques and methods that facilitated the transfer of learning and strengthened the connection between theory and practice. In particular, there were two important reframes that opened the door to deliberately improving how I approach creativity and innovation in stressful situations:
“Successful” failures are those that are strategic. That is, not random guesses about what will work, but deliberate experiments designed to succeed. Yet if they fail, the design of the experiments also reveal weaknesses that are preventing the eventual success. Unconsciously, I had already become reasonably good a doing this. But there was significant room for improvement. Using many of the methods and techniques offered during the CIC course, I deliberately unpacked my unconscious competence in this area, consciously explored how I could practice becoming even more competent with this skill, and am now exploring ways to integrate the new capabilities back into unconscious competence.

“Failure” is a necessary, even desired process for finding success. This ran counter to my get-it-right perfectionist approach to success. Likely the result of having to work in too many crisis situations where failure was not an option, it was nonetheless a poor strategy for finding success in day-to-day business. In concert with point number one, these failures should be strategic.
Each of these insights are encapsulated in the “Intelligent Fast Failure” (IFF) principle presented in the CIC course and further described in Prof. Matson’s book, “Innovate or Die!”:

The “Intelligent” part refers to gaining as much knowledge as possible from each failure. The “Fast” part means speeding up the trials to quickly map the unknown thereby minimizing frustration and resources spent.

The “fast” part also increases the pool of “adjacent possibilities” and raises the potential for successful innovations to emerge from the process.

The Test

Has all this experimentation and thought practice made a difference in my ability to respond more creatively in stressful situations? A full-on test in crisis mode hasn’t happened as yet. And frankly, I’d count my self fortunate if I never had to face such a test again. But there are indications the changes are having a positive effect.

These days, work typically offers the most abundant opportunities for stressful situations. Most recently, I was tasked with coordinating a significant change in how an organization went about the process of completing projects. The prevailing process had deep roots in the company’s culture and was incapable of scaling to meet growth goals for the organization. With so much personal investment into the old way of doing things, implementing a more agile and scalable process was going to require as much mediation and negotiation as it was process definition and skill development.
Using the techniques and methods that support the IFF principle, I have been successfully implementing a wide range of new ideas and process improvements into the organization in a way that makes them appear less as a threat and more as a value to each of the stakeholders.