Amid the long and difficult unfolding of the Covid-19 crisis, we are all getting a crash course in how uncomfortable it is to be ruled by uncertainty and scarcity. We took for granted the basic freedoms of our society and its abundance. No one thought life could shrink for all of us so quickly and so completely. We didn’t expect to be told to stay home for so long or that even necessities like toilet paper and meat might suddenly be unavailable.
But we also didn’t know –and this is the good news– how creative we could become when faced with such severe limitations. Confinement has been incredibly fertile soil for work-arounds. The result is that many of today’s effective responses to the Covid reality are improvisations. We are seeing a huge burst of creativity all across our society, whether it is using 3-d printers to make ventilators, customizing Zoom backgrounds, or sewing face masks from old curtains. We’re proving to ourselves that, even though much is beyond our control, we have more agency than we thought.
For example, one of the start-up companies that I’ve been working with, SpaceMate, uses Artificial Intelligence to optimize workplace efficiency. Essentially, this technology takes in all kinds of data including company floor plans and information about the people working in those spaces and delivers suggestions on how to improve workflow. However, with all non-Covid-related work on pause, the company’s current clientele has largely delayed or canceled projects. As conversations began about the need to maintain social distancing in workplaces, SpaceMate’s CEO suddenly realized that he had the tool to provide safe distancing workplace analytics for companies. He just agreed to do a project for a global supermarket chain.
In this uncertain time, you too may be realizing that the path you thought lay ahead is no longer there. But there may be another path. It can be difficult to see that path, or paths, because you’re being bombarded with news headlines telling you that the world is collapsing, the virus is dangerous and tricky, and the best thing that you can do is stay home. Your emotions are running high. In this kind of situation, it becomes almost natural to rely on Salience Bias, which can make it harder to see those unexpected paths or unplanned-for options.
Salience Bias is the tricky mental flaw that focuses our attention on what is prominent, making it harder to see things that are less obvious. It’s the reason we notice one black sheep in a flock of white ones. It is often the reason there is a gap between our aspirations and our behaviors. We want to watch the Michael Jordan documentary but all our friends are talking about Tiger King. How can we not watch that?
But it is possible to create and put into place a plan that accounts for the constrictive Covid-based boundaries we’re all living within but enables you to dream up more flexible opportunities and feel a sense of agency and control over your future.
To push past Salience Bias and open up optionality, you first need to step back and think about a four-stage process.
First, ask yourself, what is my Vision of Success? What has to happen for me to solve my problem successfully? These new options will not be your first choices. But as the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, first shared in The Republic, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” A need encourages creative efforts to solve problems.
My SpaceMate client’s Vision of Success was helping companies improve space use and work flow. The company’s problem was that the clients they already had couldn’t move forward with redesigns. It’s likely that office space will be used very differently for the foreseeable future. To solve their problem now, SpaceMate needed to rethink what the company could offer to solve space use problems.
On a more personal level, a young couple I know were facing Covid-cancelling their wedding. The nuptials had been scheduled for 5/10/20, a numerically and personally significant date for the pair. They knew many couples who were postponing 2020 weddings until 2021, but as my friends began to discuss their options, they both realized that their Vision of Success meant a wedding on May 10, 2020.
Next, write down what you think you can’t do.
Sometimes, the first step to rethinking your problem is to face the problem because then you can identify where you might be making embedded assumptions. The young couple knew that they couldn’t gather all of their friends and family together outside of Boston, as they’d planned. Their venue was closed, and no one was making flight plans. They also knew that the officiant they’d contracted with wouldn’t be able to officiate at a May 2020 wedding. They ended their list of “can’t”s with the glum thought: “We can’t have our wedding.”
Then, write down what you think you can do.
As the young couple began thinking about what they could do, they realized that they could gather friends together in a different way: online. And they could gather with some of their family because they were quarantining together. The big question then became “Can we find someone who can officiate at a wedding without compromising the quarantine rules?”
Look for evidence that challenges each “No” and each “Can I?”
The young couple began to research marriage laws in their state, and whether there had been any changes to those laws because of the Covid crisis. With a little online snooping, the bride discovered that the state of Massachusetts is granting one-day licenses for individuals to officiate marriage ceremonies. She secured one for her father to perform the ceremony.
By starting with their Vision of Success, the young couple realized how important their 2020 date was for them. Their assumption that they couldn’t get married on their special date wasn’t true. The bride’s research unearthed that the entire wedding could occur — virtually. They could still have their ceremony, with special people “attending” and, instead of an officiant whom they barely knew, the bride’s father would marry them.
The crisis, while unwelcome and terribly tragic, has become an opportunity for many of us, like the bride, to exercise our agency. And while it is always difficult to see beyond the obvious, admitting that the problems we face are unfamiliar and poorly understood may be a first step toward making space to gather new information and conduct new analysis.
Being steady does not mean being static. SpaceMate’s CEO was able to remain steady and focused on optimizing workplaces. What changed for him was his understanding of the problem. He hadn’t imagined that workplace safety was an optimization. Now though, it’s uppermost for everyone. His journey through the four steps enabled him to see that he already had a product that could address this new working world. He just had to recognize that he was living in it.
SpaceMate’s result was a new business to promote workplace safety. The engaged couple’s result is a unique and meaningful ceremony on a special date.
By pushing past our emotions and our wish for things to “go back to normal,” and by clarifying our goals, we can understand where we want to get to and from there investigate what we know and what might be possible. The French poet Rene Char once wrote “How can we live without the unknown before us?” The future is always unknown. If we keep that in mind, perhaps this strange and terrible moment grants us all better access to the creative control that we do have in our out-of-control world.