When faced with significant constraints, it’s easy to make them the center of attention. After all, they’re getting in the way. But focusing on the problem is not always the best way to solve the problem. It’s often better to focus on the possibilities. That shift, from problem to possibility, unleashes creativity and generates enthusiasm. The more significant the constraints, the more creativity and enthusiasm we need. So let this Provision be your guide. Creativity matters when it comes to making dreams come true.
Two weeks ago, in my Provision Constraints Matter, I wrote about the approach great leaders take to the inevitable restrictions and limitations that come our way. Instead of viewing and relating to constraints as problems, nuisances, or inconveniences, great leaders view and relate to them as projects, opportunities, and mandates. In other words, leaders become great by how we go about getting things done. Great leaders get things done with joy.
That’s not to say that constraints are warm and fuzzy, feel-good kinds of things. If Tropical Storm Alex strengthens into a hurricane and heads the wrong way, that could become a constraint for the containment and cleanup operations from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That would be bad. No one wants that. But those involved with the cleanup have a choice as to how they receive and respond to such news.
One approach, the traditional problem-solving approach, starts with expert knowledge to roll out the necessary protective maneuvers and best practices. It tends to be rather top-down, directive, and remedial in its effects. The constraint becomes the primary concern.
Another approach, the innovative possibility-generating approach, starts with full engagement to brainstorm new maneuvers and practices that may not yet have been invented. It tends to be bottoms-up, collaborative, and transformational in its effects. Creativity becomes the primary concern.
That is certainly what happened in the now-famous case of Apollo 13. Here is how Alan Blankstein tells the story in his book, Failure Is Not An Option:
In the spring of 1970, the Apollo 13 spaceship faced repeated crises as it circled the moon. Most Americans, including many of those working at NASA’s ground control center, gave up hope for the survival of the Apollo 13 crew. Newscaster Walter Cronkite described the challenge: “Perhaps never in human history has the entire world been so united by such a global drama.”
At one point, when the ground control team became aware of the ship’s inability to reach Earth with its current power supply, the director of flight operations, Gene Kranz, assembled the NASA team. He had been told that they had only 45 hours to get the astronauts home before the power ran out. Marking a point on the chalkboard halfway between their current position and Earth, he stated, “That’s not acceptable!”
The group exploded into a cacophony of reasons for their assessments and explanations of the limitations they faced. Then the voice of one team member rose above the rest to point out that everything depended on power. Without power the astronauts would not be able to communicate with the ground crews, they couldn’t correct their trajectory or turn their heat shields around. Everything would have to be turned off. Otherwise the craft would never make it to reentry.
When asked what he meant by “everything,” he replied “At the current rate, in sixteen hours the battery is dead; so is the crew. We have to get them down to 12 amps.”
The crowd erupted at this idea. “you can’t even run a vacuum cleaner on 12 amps,” said one. Another objected to the idea of shutting down everything, as he felt that the guidance system at least must be kept running. Another NASA scientist was concerned that this course of action had “never been tried before,” and still another added that it had “never even been simulated.”
Scientific data eventually prevailed over the fear of the unknown and the untried nature of the proposal to turn off the power. Kranz was adamant in response to his crew’s fear of the many unknowns, telling them they had to figure it out, that the teams in the simulators would have to work out scenarios for reentry to Earth. He ordered them to find all the engineers and assembly workers who had designed and put together all the switches, circuits, light bulbs, everything connected to the power supply, and to work out a way to reduce the use of every amp possible in the spacecraft. Pointing at the mark he had made on the chalkboard, he said, “I want this mark to go all the way back to Earth with time to spare. We never lost a man in space, and we’re sure as hell not going to do so on my watch!”
Gene Kranz’s motto was “failure is not an option.” And he led his crew to success by bringing the astronauts safely back to Earth.
Those who were focused on the constraint saw insurmountable obstacles. Those who were focused on creativity, saw ways to do the impossible. Best of all, Gene Kranz, the leader, got out of the way. Everyone knew the mission: to get the spaceship and its crew home safely. Not everyone knew how far Kranz was willing to go to make it happen. So he set the parameters, “Not on my watch!”, and turned people loose to make it so.
No idea was too crazy to be considered. No person was too little to be important. No setback was too impossible to be overcome. Everyone was encouraged to think outside the box and to contribute their strengths to help write a symphony of possibility.
That’s the way creativity works. None of us is as smart as all of us. It takes a village to raise a child. And the best ideas often start out as absurd ideas. In order to pursue them, all it takes is giving up the fear of failure. Fear and creativity move in opposite directions.
From the vantage point of creativity, there is no such thing as failure. There is only learning. Creativity requires that we shift from the mindset of “trial-and-error” to the mindset of “trial-and-correction,” from “win-lose” to “win-learn.: Everything is an experiment, whether we call it that or not. And nothing ever works forever. By fearlessly putting forward what we know now • the best of what is • we surprisingly call forth what we will know then • the best of what might be.
DeWitt Jones defines creativity as the moment when we see the extraordinary in the ordinary. It happens all the time, but we don’t always give ourselves permission to acknowledge and share what we see. That is what Kranz did during the Apollo 13 mission. He gave everyone permission to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. He opened up the conversation so that everyone could talk with each other. And he relieved everyone from the fear of failure even as he ramped up the pressure to avoid failure.
That is the ironic thing about creativity. Failure is the path to success. “Fail often to succeed sooner,” a design thinking mantra, is also the mantra of great leadership. We don’t want people to be afraid to speak up, to put forward wild and crazy ideas, to think outside the box, to dream big dreams, or to pursue unconventional approaches in the service of a noble goal. We want people to conduct experiment after experiment, learning as they go, with the hope that the possibilities they see today might soon become the realities they enjoy tomorrow.
Coaching Inquiries: What holds you back from being creative? How could you empower and trust others to think outside the box and contribute their strengths? What could you offer the world that would make a difference? How could you test that hypothesis? Who do you think of as a creative role model? How could you draw yourself closer to their circle of influence?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
In her Coaching Kitchen essay, Della’s BBQ Sauce, Kate asked, “Are you willing to live in the moment, appreciate what is good, and let go of the rest?” What a powerful question! It really brings it home that how we feel is ultimately a choice. How powerful we each are!
Thank you for this Provision and for all of them. Indeed, thank you for your work! I first “met” you during my Wellcoaches training a couple of years back and your energy stayed with me. I was glad to discover this series. I had no idea it’d be the training that kept on giving!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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