Crisis and Scarcity

My clients take on big issues—homelessness, genocide, poverty, liberty, workers rights, workplace democracy, environmental and economic sustainability, and justice. In all cases, the need is great. The forces for the status quo are well-entrenched and well-heeled. The sense of enormity and urgency can be overwhelming. At the same time, these organizations typically work with budgets that are tiny relative to the challenges. There is just not enough—money, people, time, attention, skill—to address the issues.

What to do? Typically the answer is to do more with less, which often translates to more tasks with less sleep. People are stretched thin, perpetually behind, frustrated, and frazzled. The sense of responsibility and commitment can translate to limited social lives, stressed relationships, and sacrificed well being. How does this change the world?

Viewing the situation as one of crisis and scarcity—and the accompanying stress—is optional, though it can feel like a requirement. The irony is that by identifying primarily with the need for immediate action in perceived scarcity, leaders cut themselves off from the creativity needed to conceive and implement lasting solutions. If everything is a crisis and there’s not enough of what’s needed to address it, then the best recourse is a stop gap measure that will surely result in the next crisis, and soon.

The alternative? To see the situation in context and get enough perspective see beyond the confines of current circumstances. The challenges have been created and sustained over time and can be changed but only if leaders get off the gerbil wheel that is often organizational life. Emerging brain science confirms that insight comes in quiet moments and that stress is the enemy of innovation. [For a more complete review of emerging brain science and its application to organizational life, see David Rock, Your Brain At Work, 2009.] Insight, and the confidence to implement it, requires the reflection and quiet time that can feel like a luxury.

Finally, brain science affirms my mother’s wisdom. As a child, when I was stuck on a problem, she’d counsel me to take a walk. “Ridiculous!” I thought, but it turns out she was right. The psychological spaciousness needed to come up with innovative solutions and the sense of well-being needed to act on them comes from taking the time away from the issue so it can be seen in a new light. (Notice when your insights occur. If you’re like most people, they come while walking, taking a shower, or even in dreams.) Turns out, the commitment that drives people to work so hard and long can impede the creativity needed to solve big issues. Cultivating spaciousness can be the antidote to crisis and scarcity.

How often do you go to museums, art galleries, plays, live music events, other performing arts? Let yourself be inspired by the creativity of others.

Do you exercise regularly? If you don’t, what might you do? Walk, bike, swim, play soccer or basketball, join a gym, run?

Do you create art? It doesn’t have to be show quality, just a hobby you get lost in, such as photography, playing music, knitting, painting, pottery, cooking, etc.

How often do you get out in nature?