What the response to Covid-19 can teach us about creativity

Individuals, teams and organisations are finding innovative solutions to the challenges posed by the pandemic


When Covid 19 gets seen off the global stage, we will applaud performances that will live long in the memory. Taking care of those whose lives are at immediate risk, health and social care workers have put their own lives on the line. Their unflinching courage has inspired millions of others operating in the eye of the storm, some in jobs we barely knew existed yet now know to be essential.

Humbled and mesmerised by the courage and commitment of key workers across the world, people from all walks of life are dedicating expertise, time, resource and ingenuity in support. Epidemiologists, data and behavioural scientists, academics, engineers, military logisticians and businesses are collaborating to solve seemingly intractable problems. Leaders are taking and acting on decisions that might typically take months to emerge from the treacle of bureaucracy.

In other words, in the most fearful of environments, the classic impediments to creativity appear have been given no quarter.

What happened to the belief that, ‘creativity is best left to those with the gift for it? What silenced the self-limiting voice in our heads telling us to get back in our box?

Sir Ken Robinson’s seminal TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? exhorting us to attach the same status to creativity as we do to literacy, has notched up over 64 million views;

The World Economic Forum ranks creativity as the third most important skill for the workplace (up from tenth in 2015); and How to Create books by creative luminaries abound, with easy-to-adopt practices to help us think differently.

But, with notable exceptions, many executives on our open programmes at London Business School testify to cultures at work that conspire to kill the creative spirit. Maintenance of the status quo, the pursuit of high margins and the tyranny of short- term (often unachievable) targets reward safe, not creative, play. Leaders crave outcomes that are guaranteed, generating the most guaranteed outcome of all – there will be no new idea. Decision making is opaque. Fear prevails – fear of failure, fear for the future, the organisation’s and one’s own.

Those courageous enough to propose an idea still have hurdles to jump – ‘will the regulator approve this?’; ‘can you prove to the CFO how this will generate an immediate return?’; and, possibly the most dispiriting, ‘will the CEO like this?’

What explains the extraordinary creativity that has been unleashed by individuals, teams, and organisations across the world to address the Covid 19 crisis?

Teresa Amabile, in her 1998 HBR article, How to Kill Creativity, identified creativity’s three core components. All have been evident in the world’s response to Covid 19.

Three components of creativity

Expertise – technical, intellectual, procedural – is one. Are experts being sought out and set up for success? Is their expertise valued?

In the High Performance Powertrains department of Mercedes AMG, experts typically apply their technical excellence to power Lewis Hamilton to F1 World Drivers Championships. With ventilators in short supply, they asked themselves, how can more patients be kept out of intensive care? Collaborating with engineers from University College London and clinicians at University College London Hospital, the Powertrains people created a new device, the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), secured the approval of health regulators, and launched it in less than a week.

Thinking skills form another component of creativity. How flexibly and imaginatively are people approaching the Covid 19 challenges?

Encouraged by an early invitation from Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip,  South Korean health authorities, businesses and students have used their technological expertise and creative thinking skills to produce – at pace – a drive-through test for the coronavirus; a body steriliser that sprays people as they enter exhibition halls; a mobile app to keep track of the health status of overseas visitor. A 27 year old student established the Coronamap website to counter fake news of cases around the country.

Like all skills, mastery of creative thinking requires practice and an encouragement to play, experiment, fail and persevere.

The component of creativity in Amabile’s article that sparks most discussion among executives I teach is motivation and a leader’s ability directly to influence this. Most of the Covid 19 problem-solving is being done by people with little extrinsic motivation. Keyworkers appreciate our sincere outpouring of gratitude but it is not Clap for Carers that draws them to hospital every day. Nor is it their wages.

It is intrinsic motivation that explains so much of the heroism and innovation we are seeing around the world, fueled by a desire – or sense of duty – to save lives. Problems are being solved precisely because people have an inner passion to apply their talents meaningfully.

Motivation can come from the task itself, and the encouragement from those setting it. How we frame that challenge really matters.

Some of France’s largest companies have joined forces to ‘produce 10,000 ventilators in 50 days’. Might the UK’s Health Minister have framed our need for increased testing in a way that was as immediately and intrinsically motivating? Instead, a goal of 10,000 tests a day was soon shifted to 25,000 and again to 100,000 tests. A challenge needs to be stretching and achievable if it is to instill confidence and to act as a magnet for the diverse talent it will need to solve it. Constraints – like lack of time and money – are more creatively overcome when the goal is certain, particularly when the uncertainty of the context – a pandemic – is itself debilitating.

"Constraints such as lack of time and money are more creatively overcome when the goal is certain"

There is another component of creativity, implied by Amabile, that merits explicit attention – the ability to make something happen. Ideas, said Peter Drucker, are “cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”

It is easier to find pioneering answers to the Covid-19 crisis from the comfort of an armchair than it is to get a new ventilator created, approved and on the market in weeks; or to get a system for widespread testing into supermarket car parks around the country; or to build a fully functioning 4,000 bed hospital in 9 days, as an already stretched National Health Service did with its new Nightingale Hospital in East London.

It takes a special kind of talent to solve a problem on paper and produce it in the real world. There are many great minds looking at the possibilities of 3D printing. There are only a handful of physicians like Gardone Valtrompia Hospital’s Renato Favero with the ability to conceive of adjusting a snorkeling mask already available on the market to plug the shortage of emergency ventilation; to connect that idea with Italian 3D printing company Issinnova and Decathlon (producers of the snorkeling mask); and the humility and generosity to share the patented technology freely. Together, they made it happen, collaborating in three dimensions.

As have so many people, teams, organisations – large and small, commercial, not-for-profit – all propelled by their own intrinsic motivation, in a climate of collaboration and a spirit of insurgency.

Leaders have the means to ignite that intrinsic motivation in their people every day. They need only look at the remarkable problem-solving going on 24/7 around the world and re-apply the same principles to their own contexts: set challenges from which meaning can easily be derived; foster an environment in which fluid teams are matched to the task, cast from inside and beyond the organisation; inspire teams with the autonomy and resources to solve the problem; and accelerate implementation with swift, transparent decision-making. 

"Leaders have the means to ignite that intrinsic motivation in their people every day"

They ought not to wait until the worst of the crisis is over to energise creativity in their organisations. Renewed by self-reflection, more mindful of what is intrinsically motivating, on return to whatever the new normal becomes, I predict people will have less time for leaders who lack creative ambition and the courage to innovate. 

Three actions to take now:

1. Frame challenges in ways that are intrinsically motivating to those who you need to address them. Make them ambitious, urgent, irresistible

2. Think creatively about all the talents you need to succeed and enlist them. Let your people surprise you with skills they have been aching to show the world; imagine what you might achieve in collaboration with your category competitors; seduce experts to your challenge with an invitation to achieve the impossible

3. Dare to challenge and ditch assumptions you have long (and successfully) held about your business and customers and imagine what people, post Covid, might truly value

Richard Hytner is Adjunct Professor of Marketing at London Business School. He teaches on London Business School programmes including the Senior Executive Programme and is the founder and CEO of beta baboon.

SEP-768X432 New

Senior Executive Programme

Elevate your impact, reignite your ambition and challenge your thinking with a programme designed to take highly accomplished senior executives to the next level.