CRISIS AND CREATIVITY: Surviving and thriving in turbulent times

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Stress seems to have become a way of life for South Africans. If it’s not a national crisis such as crime, political instability or the energy crisis that’s top of mind, a global crisis related to the environment or the economy dominates our conversations.

But while some individuals and organisations seem to expend all their energy just holding it together during turbulent times, others seem to not only survive, but thrive. Look around and you’ll see individuals and organisations that are energized, looking for new opportunities, learning and growing and what’s more, apparently enjoying the process.

That’s not to say they have been unaffected by stressors, but they seem to have used them as catalysts to elevate their personal and professional performance. They have the much sought after quality of resilience.

Given that the combination of organisational and personal resilience has become such a critical commodity, two obvious questions emerge: what determines our level of resilience and how can we grow it – in our organizations, our employees and ourselves?

The first step is to identify the common qualities of resilient people and organisations.

Once we have identified these predictors of resilience, leaders need to assess their current levels of personal and organisational resilience and then provide the necessary, focused support to build these essential qualities.


While there are naturally many related factors, our research has consistently highlighted the following three building blocks of personal and organisational resilience:

  • Character
  • Courage
  • Creativity

The pillars of Character

Individuals with strength of character have an immutable sense of what’s important to them. These are the ‘constants’ in their lives.

A constant could be strong spiritual faith, commitment to one’s art, relationships, professional ethics, or a personal value. Whatever it is, a constant is something you always carry with you that keeps you centred. An individual’s set of constants gives them ‘backbone’. Similarly, organisations with character have a clear sense of their immutable values. These are areas in which they will not tolerate compromise. An organization with a clear knowledge of its constants knows what gives it its unique identity.

Paradoxically, knowing where it stands firm gives a company the strength to change and to withstand change. A manufacturer whose hallmark is product quality may change its packaging or product mix to suit changing tastes, but the company will retain its identity as customers know they can rely on a high quality product.

Courage: doing what needs to be done

Courage is not glamorous. Contrary to popular belief, courage in action does not look like Superman catching a woman falling out of a building. Courage looks like the unemployed father who gets in his car to go to yet another job interview. Courage starts with the ability to look the situation squarely in the face and see it for what it is. And then it involves action – the act of putting one foot in front of the other and doing what needs to be done.

Often the necessary action is to let go of the familiar and embrace the new and horribly scary! When well trodden paths are simply causing soil erosion, one has to travel further afield. If, after years of study, your newly launched career as a video repairman is looking less than secure when DVDs flood the market, courage is the ability to start from scratch and learn a new technology.

If your Butter Rich Scotch Shortbread bakery is not reaping the same profits when cholesterol concerns are gripping your market, courage is hiring a lean, mean nutritionist team and adding some new variants to your product mix.

Creativity: shaping your world

Can you make something new from something broken? This is creativity. When faced with a crisis, do you retreat and diminish your space or do you enlarge your space, filling it with people who inspire you to new heights? The latter approach is a creative response. It is not only artists who can be creative. In my opinion, the highest form of creativity is shaping your world.

A very useful, perhaps essential ingredient in creativity is humour. Edward De Bono defines humour as the fork in the road where one can suddenly see a situation from a different perspective. So maintaining a sense of humour in a crisis is not only valuable in helping to lift you up by your own bootstraps, it can also assist you in generating alternative solutions to your challenges.

A New York restaurant frequented by Wall Street bankers and traders was hard hit during the recent financial crisis, when many of its regular patrons were retrenched or lost their life savings. This establishment came up with the clever idea of offering free meals to all those who had lost money in the notorious Bernie Madoff scheme. This drew huge media attention as well as considerable goodwill.

There is always another way – and often the patch sewn over the tear actually enhances the style and individuality of the garment.


In order to build your organisation’s capacity to deal with crises and change, the first step is to ascertain your organization’s relative strengths and weaknesses by taking a measurement of where you stand with respect to each of these dimensions.

An Employee Resilience Assessment should be conducted to measure employees’ personal resilience levels by means of a self-completion questionnaire. Statistical analysis of results will give you information on, for example, which departments, which skills categories or which levels of employees are more resilient than others and who needs to build their Character, Courage or Creativity.

The organization’s resilience levels as a whole should also be measured. Examples of the types of questions that would be included in an Organisational Resilience Assessment are as follows:

Assessment of Character

  • What are your constants?
  • Are they, for example, product qualities, service delivery or corporate culture?
  • Do you have an established, integrated set of values?
  • Who are your Constants?
  • Do you have visible leadership?
  • Are they sustainable, i.e. are the constants constant?
  • Do you have the systems and technology to support your superior service delivery?
  • When are your leaders likely to retire and do you have a succession plan?
  • Do you invest in your constants?
  • Are you rewarding your most valuable employees sufficiently?
  • Have you invested in market research to support your culture of innovation?

Assessment of Courage

  • Have you got a good grip on reality?
  • When last did your executive team perform any form of scenario planning to gauge the impact of market forces on the business?
  • Are employees fully informed of the potential impact of any crises?
  • Do you tackle problems head on?
  • Are your leaders able to take tough decisions?
  • Are action plans clearly expressed and easy to follow, or are plans mired in theoretical musings or diplomatic double-speak?
  • Do you have persistence and tenacity?
  • Do you follow through on action plans?

Assessment of Creativity

  • Are employees empowered to develop solutions?
  • What is your capacity to deliver in less than ideal circumstances?
  • What proportion of the documents that you refer to regularly are more than three years old?
  • How often do you conduct true brainstorming sessions?
  • During tough times, have you contracted your activities or expanded in other directions?


When any one of these dimensions are lacking, the organization or individual cannot be truly resilient:

Character + Creativity → ‘Great ideas that never get off the ground’;
Character + Courage → ‘All dressed up with no place to go’;
Courage + Creativity → ‘A loose cannon’.

A low score in any of these areas needs to be addressed by focused interventions such as coaching, action learning, experiential workshops or strategic planning. In all interventions, individuals need to be both inspired and provided with practical tools to understand and experience that they have it in them to create their own destinies.

While many factors such as education, experience, hard work and often good luck are required to establish success, it is resilience that sustains it – both in business and in life.

Jenny Fisher is a Business Strategy Specialist employed by DMSA to ensure that research findings are meaningful to the client and to assist them in addressing issues that arise.

Further reading

What constitutes a great leader? Does a particular mix of personality traits and skills set one on the inevitable path of a leader…
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