During crisis times, whether it’s a global pandemic or a fundamental shift to your business, being creative is imperative to survival. To be creative, you must give yourself space to allow your mind to wander, be inspired, and explore new possibilities. Crises test us, and our first instinct is to go into tactical problem-solving mode. This reaction is human nature; our “fight or flight” response. We end up playing DEFENSE. While this state is natural, understandable, and even necessary, continually playing defense is a losing proposition in the long-term. We must Move to Offense.
Studies of the 2001 dot-com bust and the 2008 Great Recession have shown that companies that invested for growth and doubled-down on new products or services outperformed companies that took a more risk-averse approach by 2X. A 2010 Harvard Business Review article titled “Rolling Out of Recession,” highlights this strategy:
“Just who are the post recession winners? What strategies do they deploy? Can other corporations emulate them? According to our research, companies that master the delicate balance between cutting costs to survive today and investing to grow tomorrow do well after a recession. Within this group, a subset that deploys a specific combination of defensive and offensive moves has the highest probability—37%—of breaking away from the pack. These companies reduce costs selectively by focusing more on operational efficiency than their rivals do, even as they invest relatively comprehensively in the future by spending on marketing, R&D, and new assets. Their multi-pronged strategy, which we will discuss in the following pages, is the best antidote to a recession.”
I believe most business leaders and entrepreneurs are creative types. Not necessarily creative like artists or musicians, but creative in that they started their company by recognizing a need, innovating products that filled that need, and developing models and processes for delivering their products. I could write a whole series of articles on this, however, for now, I recommend leaders read Rocket Fuel by Mark C. Winters. I believe you will agree, the key in times of crisis is to tap back into the creativity, reassess your markets, identify new needs, and adjust your products to those needs. I realize this is easier said than done, but here are three tips that I have found helpful to get back into my creative space.
- Schedule Specific Creative Sessions. I mean to really schedule/block time on your calendar for creative time. Let everyone know when you are doing your session and what you hope to accomplish. Protect that time fiercely and do not let anyone infringe on it — staff, partners, family, or friends. Remove all your distractions. Better yet, do not bring any electronics into your sessions, just a blank notepad. I schedule a “Jam Session” four times a week, Tuesday through Thursday mornings from 8-10 a.m.. I am partial to a whiteboard, but always carry a pad of paper with me. Everyone knows by now that I won’t respond to phone calls, emails, or Slack messages during this time. The goal is to get into your “flow state.” Trust me, getting into your flow state is addicting.
- Get Inspired and Become a Student Again. Creating from scratch can be very difficult, so sometimes you need a spark. Don’t feel dejected about this, as someone inspired almost every great artist or musician. One of the fastest and best ways to be inspired is to listen to podcasts and read stories of other companies. Even if these stories are from different companies with unrelated products, you can still get inspired about how they thought about their customers, products, or people. Intentionally schedule a time to listen to podcasts or interviews with successful business leaders. I listen to 2-3 podcasts a week while I walk (walking stimulates creativity) and follow several business mentors online. Even if you only get one nugget, that can spark your mind to explore many new products or services.
- Engage Your Team in Brainstorming Sessions. There is power in numbers. As with your creative sessions, schedule these team conferences and ensure that all distractions are eliminated. Before being forced to work from home, I mandated all laptops closed in face-to-face meetings. Now, I enforce video meetings. Last week several of my executives and I got together on Zoom every morning from 7:00 - 9:00. We started on Monday by stating where we want to be in 5 years and ended the week with a completely new marketing strategy that we are rapidly executing over the next 30 days. Some people struggle with brainstorming sessions, so see my article on a technique I learned from my time with Vistage.
- Give Your Brain (and self) a Break. Working nonstop isn’t sustainable or productive. It’s critical to give yourself time to recharge. Wherever you find joy or relaxation -- singing, writing, cooking, biking, playing a game with your family -- do it and let your mind recharge and reset. Giving your brain that opportunity to find balance is important to getting into a growth mindset that will fuel your creativity and inspiration at work.
As leaders, we are designed to deal with crises, and our staff needs us to step up. We are creative types, and, as difficult as it is to pull ourselves out of the daily firefight, someone has to see the forest beyond the trees. Forging a new path will take work, work that only you can do. So, put on your oxygen mask, create space for your mind to wander, and do what you are great at -- CREATE.