How to stay creative in times of crisis

CEO World | Mykel Dixon 29 June 2020

It was Winston Churchill who said, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’.

Judging by recent events, we have plenty to choose from. This year we’ve already seen bushfires, a global pandemic and now a recession. If we’re to be successful in the next decade, we’ve got to be more than just comfortable in a crisis, we must find opportunity within them. And the best way to do that is to stay creative.

Research by the Boston Consulting Group, found that the companies (and individuals) who do reinvent themselves during an economic downturn, become the winners for years after a crisis. And history is littered with examples of breakthrough creativity coming during or shortly after a crisis. I bet you didn’t know that Newton came up with his theory of gravity and Shakespeare wrote King Lear, both in times of plague.

But that’s easier said than done. When faced with a crisis, we usually slip back into a ‘fight or flight’ response. We narrow our focus, protect what we have and jettison anything superfluous or inconsequential. The danger, however, is that we don’t change with the change. Driven by a need for security or comfort we shut down, retreat to the familiar and close ourselves off from emerging opportunities.

So how do we resist our instincts and keep creating when the world gets turned upside down? And how do we channel our natural fear of uncertainty in constructive and generative ways.

Slow Down.

Many of us already possess an unhealthy obsession with productivity. During a crisis, this addiction is amplified. We get busy, work harder, and strive to further optimise our lives. Research shows, however, that overworking in times of great change is a sign of avoidance and denial. And that overwhelm and exhaustion wreak havoc on our creative capability.

You’ve got to give yourself time to process the madness unfolding around you. Let your mind adapt in its own way, in its own time. Give yourself permission to feel more and do less. Only once you’ve had time to reflect on what was, what you might’ve lost and what you’ll miss, will you be able to reinterpret your circumstances and reimagine possible futures.

So slow down, take it all in, and let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.

Stay Open.

The second thing we must do to stay creative in a crisis is to remain ruthlessly curious. To ask more questions, listen for longer than is required, and accept whatever insight emerges without judgement or expectation.

Our brains are hardwired to take in information, process it with old memories, and produce new and original ideas. In times of great change, we’re exposed to conversations and circumstances we’ve never seen or heard before. This is fertile ground for creativity.

Open yourself up to all possibilities. Actively seek alternative people and perspectives. Fill your mind with any many diverse experiences as you can. This will form the foundation of a new library of insight and inspiration you can draw on later to begin building your way out of the mess you’re in.

Just Play.

One unexpected gift many of us found during the COVID-19 lockdown, was a clear calendar. Schedules were wiped clean and we suddenly had a wealth of unstructured time. This time is precious and the best way to maximise its value is to play. With ideas and intuitions. With the way you structure meetings or set up your desk. With how you start an email to what you wear.

Allow yourself to find and follow what fascinates you. Mix and match anything and everything and most of all, enjoy the process.

Lewis Carroll  said, ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there’, and in times of crisis, we can apply the same approach to our work. Try something new, or reignite something you used to do. Let yourself remember how enjoyable it is to make, shape and recreate your everyday.

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