In the 2000 film “Castaway”, the lead character (played by Tom Hanks) sifts through some washed-up FedEx boxes, expecting that he may need the contents to help him survive. His adjustment to island living with zero preparation provides for uplifting movie entertainment. He adapts, figures out makeshift solutions for tools, shelter, fishing, and companionship. His creativity and determination to survive is inspirational.
We often try to attach the same romantic notions to creativity in the workplace, but is that a good thing?
Do the best with what you have. Adapt. Figure it out. Be nimble. Switch gears when needed. Work hard.
These phrases are commonly found in job descriptions, often considered admirable traits for prospective employees. When you bring these “virtues” to a complex situation, the outcome is either good or bad.
If you’re embarking on an after-hours project and hit a snag, people usually roll up their sleeves and “figure it out.” What if the equipment you unboxed is short by 3 power plugs? The “be nimble” employee might run out to the 24 hour store and get a power strip and “make it work.” High fives might be exchanged, it feels good in the short-term to alleviate a problem. The Macgyver solution is often fondly remembered over drinks years later.
But instead, let’s fast-forward to two weeks after the power strip fix. The janitor was cleaning and slightly bumped the power strip that was newly along the floor, knocking it out just for a few seconds. They notice it and plug it right back in.
If you’re in IT, this isn’t a far fetched scenario. One of the items on the power strip might be an external hard drive which unmounted, and didn’t re-mount because of the way it powered back on, causing the backup not to run for a week.
Then the accounting department accidentally runs a batch of invoices prematurely and needs to revert to the previous night’s backup. They make a tech support request, and upon inspection the IT team finally figures out that the external drive didn’t mount and now there is no usable backup for the last 7 days. You find yourself explaining to accounting they need to re-enter 5 days worth of data input in order to restore their data to its previous state.
That run to the 24-hour convenience store wasn’t an ideal option, but it “got the job done” - it was certainly adapting, being creative, doing whatever was needed. But now you’ve got a bunch of people upset, and they’re upset with IT.
Accounting is upset that they have to re-enter a ton of data.
Your manager is upset you didn’t “call her” even if it was 8pm on Sunday night.
Your coworker may now be changing their recall of the evening to “I told you that was a bad idea, dude”
Your operations team is frustrated that there’s a snag.
You may be upset with yourself for not anticipating a possible problem with the power strip. This all feels terrible.
Is all of this really happening because you tried to work harder to adapt when things didn’t go perfectly?
Power tip: ask yourself “what do other industries do when faced with the option to be creative?”
For the rocket launch, is there a discrepancy on a last-minute test on one of the thrusters?
“Sorry, your satellite launch is canceled. We’ll try again in a month.”
For the routine traffic stop: Is there a possibility that bike lock on the front seat is a handgun?
Sorry, we have to close the freeway during the commute for the next two hours.
For the patient about to go under anesthesia? Do you have a low grade fever?
Sorry, your surgery needs to be rescheduled.
For the airplane whose passenger jokes about a bomb onboard?
Sorry, we have to land immediately.
Knowing in the moment that what you’re doing could backfire often requires experience or wisdom that many people haven’t yet acquired. How do you gain experience without them being a painful lesson learned?
Practice listening to that voice in your head. It’s often pushed to the back of the line behind the voice whispering “you got this” and the voice that says “you’re smart, you’re creative, you can figure out anything you set your mind to.”
The voice you’re ignoring is saying “I don’t like this.” It’s a small whisper, but there’s something about the current situation that’s just not ideal. If you practice listening to that voice, you may be able to catch yourself before you do something clever, creative, “great”, or otherwise saving the day. It might be best to not save the day and just reschedule. It may upset a LOT of people. Voice your concern, and if it’s not your call to make, involve the necessary people. If it IS your call to make, involve others in it even if they want you to feel empowered to do “whatever is necessary” - you’re the first person they’ll blame if it doesn’t go great. That’s not worth the ego strokes of being complimented for your weekend creativity.
Island survival requires creativity. That same creativity at work may not be worth the risks and unforeseen pitfalls that lurk beneath.