crisis creativity

As I write this, it’s been a rough month.

First an obscure Icelandic volcano grounded all European air travel. Then three young bankers were burnt to death by rioters in Athens, while Greece’s debt levels suddenly looked like bringing down the Euro. Finally a blowout in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico turned BP’s exploratory well into a financial and environmental nightmare.

Time and again warnings were ignored because the risk seemed too scary, too distant, too improbable. The Greek financial system had been clearly unsustainable for years. In 2000, the US Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service published a report warning of the risks of deep water drilling and that a blowout could be “a potential show-stopper”. Since at least 2007 the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Volcano Watch Group has been calling for the aircraft industry to agree sensible safe levels of volcanic ash and warning that without it, “airspace shutdowns are likely”. Nothing happened, because everyone was too busy optimising their existing business processes on the assumption that tomorrow would be like yesterday.

Crises get far too little attention before they happen, but the reality is that they’re great for creativity: there’s a clear and challenging problem to solve and the rule book gets thrown out of the window.

In the first “Ash Crisis” some passengers had a terrible time. I heard of one holiday maker, who was stranded for 2 weeks in transit in Dubai while paying over £500/night for a room. I can’t imagine anything worse. On the other hand, others flooded onto Eurostar, who somehow found 66 extra trains and carried 100,000 extra passengers. For many of these it was the first time they’d ever been on a modern high speed train and they were amazed at how fast and easy it was in comparison to the cattle shed horror of budget airlines. This, together with concern to avoid the cost and inconvenience of getting stranded is leading to a dramatic shift in travel and holiday preferences in favour of “near-European” holidays destinations over more “risky” long haul ones.

It’s odd that it’s often fear that blocks people from planning for a crisis because in reality the creative solutions are often quite simple.

Stansted Airport now has a supply of folding beds available for stranded passengers in the next ash crisis. The operations manager now knows that lots of his security staff are good linguists and are very happy to be let out into the concourse to help stranded non-english speaking passengers in emergency. Hardly earth shattering stuff, but very useful components in a crisis management plan.

Crises stimulate creativity, but as BP has found, waiting for the crisis to happen is a dangerous game. That’s why smart organisations don’t wait, they use the possibility of a crisis to stimulate their creativity in advance.

I was recently asked to run a workshop for pharmaceutical client, where the head of development had a lingering concern about whether they’d get regulatory approval for their new drug, due in 18 months time. Failure to get approval would have created a major crisis, so he wisely took action to prevent it. During the workshop it became clear that Steve, the head of manufacturing was bravely rising to the challenge of preparing to make the drug in a facility that was so tightly packed with equipment that only their slimmest staff could reach some of the kit. He knew that it would be a struggle to get this approved by the regulatory authorities but was quietly doing his best.

Running a workshop gave him the safe space to discuss his concern..and his dream solution: to pull down a decrepit set of porta-cabins and extend the manufacturing building in their place. The team rapidly agreed, and when the project finance manager realised that with a bit of creativity the money to build it was effectively already in the budget, Steve’s smile went from ear to ear!

Similarly, the Port of Felixstowe has quietly started thinking about how to address the impact of climate change on their operations. As 40% of the UK’s container freight comes through Felixstowe and a shut down of just three days would be “critical for most customers” this is clearly an issue that merits serious thought. As so often, when they started thinking creatively, it revealed ideas for things that would have significant benefits even in normal operations. For example, allowing their cranes to continue operating in higher wind speeds would help improve the reliability of operations, even with current weather variability.

Last year Hilary Clinton commented “Never waste a good crisis.” She was thinking of the economy, but the good news is that even the prospect of a good crisis is a great stimulus for creativity … even if the disaster never strikes.