I recently heard a fantastic, memorable phrase, which captures how creativity and innovation flourish during the global crisis. My good friend, Martin Stewart-Weeks, a Sydney consultant, expressed this question, “Are we seeing a "covid dividend" - a derived positive effect of the crisis that we may look back on and recognize as an unexpected gain in an otherwise dark time?” I think he will be right. Once the major and significant negative consequences of the crisis have been minimized, and put somewhat in the rear-view mirror, we will likely develop inventions that would not have come into the world, had we not experienced the pandemic. But how can a crisis spark new innovation and creativity?
A slightly stale cliché when it comes to creative processes is that you have to think 'outside the box', but there are many indications that creativity thrives in quite the opposite conditions. A few years ago, McKinsey management consultants examined how innovation occurs within organizations. They did a thorough analysis of new solutions and investigated how they came about. The conclusion was surprising. Generally, innovations did not arise from thinking wildly, openly, and freely. They had arisen from thinking within a defined framework, apart from the existing one.
Our greatest obstruction
The same insight was the basis for Lars von Trier’s moving short film “The Five Obstructions” (2003), in which Trier explores the nature of creativity by exposing his subject, in the film Jørgen Leth, to increasingly crazy challenges to stimulate his creativity. In short, Leth will be recreating scenes from his 1967 short film, The Perfect Human, in five alternative variations, each of which must follow a framework, a set of rules, set by Trier. Jørgen Leth takes on the tremendously difficult challenges. If you have seen the movie, you will likely remember the scene where Leth sits on a densely populated street in the poorest slum in Bombay and eats a gourmet dinner while hungry locals watch him devour the meal through a glass pane.
The corona crisis is perhaps the greatest obstruction we have faced in a generation. It has the potential to increase creativity massively, simply because we now have a new box and framework that challenges our habitual thinking. We are already seeing the effects: From new local communities where citizens help the vulnerable buy groceries, drive-in rock concerts and gourmet take away, to the more high-tech solutions, where Danish companies are reshaping their production to manufacture hand sanitizers or 3D-printed protective equipment for healthcare professionals. You hear about organizations that have become digitalized in three weeks rather than three years, as well as legislation being developed and passed at express speed, and companies that are building a new successful business while the old one is dying.
Set up your box
For designers and other creative professionals, like von Trier, it is natural to set up barriers and frameworks to stimulate one's thinking process. In my own organization, we often use challenges when working with idea development. For example, if you want to try thinking in another box, you might ask, how would your children handle this issue? What would the solution do for you, if you had lost your mobility? What would they have done in the old Soviet Union? What if the solution was to work on Mars? (Sadly, I have to admit that we have never used the seemingly far-fetched challenge, "What if the world was affected by a pandemic?").
We can only hope that the most acute threat to our health and societies will soon be over. But the lingering effects on creativity and innovation will hopefully remain with us for a long time to come.