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Constructed Crisis?

Constructed Crisis?

| On 15, Dec 2019

Darrell Mann

The main thesis of last month’s Book of the Month, Crisis & Renewal, is that real change only happens when there is a crisis. This creates a potential problem for innovation teams, because, turning the book’s finding the other way around, if there is no crisis, it is very unlikely that their innovation efforts will come to anything. A potential answer to this challenge, therefore, involves creating a crisis. Which in turn creates the potential for a number of far bigger problems. If we create a real crisis and fail, then it’s likely that we sink the ship. If we create an artificial crisis and get found out, we lose the trust of the team and they throw us off the ship.

I made a point, when I was studying for my engineering degree, of socializing with people who weren’t engineers. This had its downsides. The most noticeable of which was engineers had a lot more lectures than philosophers, historians, zoologists and mathematicians. One of my best friends was studying philosophy. The last three months of his final year was ostensibly dedicated to writing a 30,000-word thesis. In practice, however, the first two and a half months was spent watching daily matinee performances of Return Of The Jedi, and constantly flipping a homemade tape with the best of Creedence Clearwater Revival on one side and Bob Dylan At Budokan on the other. The first of the 30,000 words was typed two and a half days before the submission deadline. He finally submitted the requisite 30,000 words, bound and photocopied, with approximately two minutes spare before the deadline. This remains, today, my default example of the use of constructed crisis to ensure a job got done. To an extent, what Colin did with his thesis, a lot of us are prone to do with our own work: procrastinating for as long as possible and then starting only when there isn’t quite enough time to sensibly achieve the goal before the deadline. Most of us make use of constructed crises to ensure change happens. Per the Leonard Bernstein quote, ‘To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time’, not having enough time is a simple way to construct such a crisis.

A less visible, but equally important aspect of what is happening in these situations is that we need to have some real skin in the game. If Colin missed his deadline, he would have failed his degree. If I submit a late tender document, I lose the bid.

An extreme example of this skin-in-the-game attribute, the epitome of decisiveness and entrepreneurialism, is Hernan Cortes. Cortes and his small band of 16th-century adventurers risked everything in a bold gamble for the Aztec empire. Cortes famously ordered his men to sink the ships they arrived on in order to ensure they fought to the end. If they didn’t beat the Aztecs, there was literally nowhere to run away to. Let’s label Cortes’ action at the far end of the constructed crisis axis, and use it as a way to dig deeper into some of the universal phenomena associated with crisis and change.

A good place to start is Joseph Campbell’s work on the Hero’s Journey:

The critical part of the Journey as far as constructed crisis is concerned is the ‘Call To Adventure’. In many ways, this is what the crisis is: a call to change. Campbell, however, sees this critical moment being followed by a ‘Refusal’. The Hero finds an excuse not to embark on the adventure. Luke Skywalker ‘can’t’ leave the farm. Or, ‘we missed our last quarterly figures, but it was because of Brexit uncertainty, everything will be okay again next quarter’. Etc.

Figure 1: The Hero’s (Innovation) Journey

Next, though, comes a very important part of the Journey, ‘Meeting The Mentor’. Here’s the bit where the Hero receives a nudge that triggers them to Cross The Threshold. Crossing The Threshold – i.e. literally jumping off the cliff that is the current S-curve, even though we have no idea what the new S-curve is going to look like yet – is very likely the most crucial stage of any innovation project. In many ways, the entire purpose of the crisis is to force the team to jump off this cliff. For, once they’ve jumped, there is no un-jumping that will bring them back to safety.

The Mentor – which might be a physical person from inside or (more likely) outside the organisation or it could simply be a new piece of knowledge, a magazine article, for example, or the words in a book – bears a lot of the responsibility for the jump. If we need to construct a crisis in order to ensure the jump happens, the Mentor possesses a lot of the control over how and when this jump happens. It is the Mentor that tells us we don’t have enough time to finish our dissertation. It is the Mentor that tells us our biggest competitor is about to launch an industry re-defining product. Or that our industry is about to be disrupted by a heavily backed outsider.

One of the biggest advantages of having the crisis constructed (and/or ‘confirmed’) from outside the organisation is that there is someone that the blame can be handed to afterwards without jeopardizing the harmony of the internal team. Indeed, on more than one occasion, I’ve seen consultants brought into an organisation supposedly to act as the bringer of bad news where in fact their primary role has been to increase internal harmony. Humans are strange creatures. Every ‘us’ needs a ‘them’. And very often ‘them’ makes for an excellent basis for constructing crises. Even if their advice or provocation turns out to be wrong, provided the team harmony-boost sees them safely across the project Threshold, and the ‘point of no return’ that comes with it, it has done its job.

To some extent, having the outsider deliver the message that triggers the crisis overcomes the trust problem inherent to tricking people into believing there is a crisis when it later transpires there wasn’t one. No-one likes to feel like they’ve been cheated. Especially if it happens more than once. There are only so many times a person can cry wolf before their credibility is shot. That number is about one. Which means playing pretend-crisis is a dangerous game indeed. And especially so if we try and achieve it without a one-off outside Mentor.

The smart innovator (or mentor) would be well-advised to stay away. Certainly, if they know TRIZ and the importance of contradiction-solving, they’d be well advised to see the constructed-crisis-versus trust as a contradiction to be solved, rather than one to be manipulated and managed.

One possible ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card way of bringing potential crises into play involves the exploitation of complex meta events that no-one can ‘know’ for certain will play out one way or the other. The ongoing Brexit debacle in the UK is perhaps a good example of such a crisis trigger. If the UK leaves the EU with ‘No Deal’, the vast majority of commentators have been saying, it will be catastrophic for the economy. As such, I know several large UK-based organisations that have used the fear and uncertainty these kinds of prophecy carry to spark some major ‘anticipatory’ change programmes. The media might be seen to be serving as the Mentor here, but more importantly, the general dis-ease across the entire population also comes to the assistance of the prospective change agent. If everyone in the team is feeling uncertain, it is far easier to nudge them over the edge of the cliff in the search for better, more certain, times ahead.

All that’s required is that team members mentally click their own ‘crisis’ switch. Once we have flicked this switch, we give ourselves permission to break the rules and start the process of looking for better rules. Prior to the switch being flicked, there’s always the temptation to think that ‘maybe’ the current rules are still the right ones to be using.

Figure 2: The Business-As-Usual/Crisis Switch

The trick for the change agent here is to achieve a critical mass of team members to flick their own personal crisis switches. Once a critical mass has flipped, it creates a thermal-runaway-like reaction which causes everyone else in the team to flip. The really smart change agent works out who the influencers in the team are, and works to make sure their crisis switch is flicked as early as possible.

As with all things ‘meta’, the parallel skill required by the change agent is knowing how meta to go. Brexit has reached a point where it works as a trigger for a critical mass of British employees, but, to take another example, ‘the impending environmental catastrophe’ for the most part hasn’t. It is too big an issue for any but the most ardent individuals to get their heads around. This is certainly the case when it comes to flicking a genuine, ‘the-rules-have-changed-now’ crisis switch. Only people that have lived through a local version of climate-change catastrophe will have done that. And, large as that number of individuals is, it is nothing like the critical mass needed for mankind as a whole to really start taking the problem seriously.

In many ways, if we look at the other, climate-change-denier, side of the environmental story, we see the perfect example of what happens when the experts are perceived to be ‘crying wolf’: ‘you told us fifty years ago that there was a problem, and still nothing has really changed’. A big part of the issue here is that another set of human flaws – our inability to think either long-term or comprehend non-linearities – make it all too easy to come to the conclusion that the climate experts were wrong before and are therefore wrong now.

Achieving a critical mass of real solutions to the climate-change challenge is only going to happen after a critical mass of local climate catastrophes have occurred. Or, at each the level of individual industries or enterprises, they need to hear from a Mentor that can convince them that their own crisis is real and imminent.

Like, I imagine, when Bob Dylan read the reviews that described the At Budokan live album as the worst thing he’d ever done. Enter constructed crisis. And, not long after, another step-change wave of amazing records.