Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous – how creativity disappears

“What I wish I knew when I was 20”, (A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World) – good title for a book, which made me buy it at the Frankfurt Airport bookshop.

Tina Seelig explains how she teaches her course on entrepreneurship and motivation at Stanford Design School – the main idea being that problems can be viewed as opportunities for creative solutions. One of her assignments for the students might be the following: as a team, you have 5 USD and 2 hours or 10 paper clips and 24 hours, generate as much value as possible. Students surprise themselves – in  the first one, the average winning teams bring in about 600 USD. The main learnings from the course is that 1) opportunities are abundant 2) regardless of the size of the problem, there are usually creative ways to use the resources already at your disposal to solve them.

I was reading it waiting for my late evening flight from Frankfurt to Prague, and looking forward to some rest after three days of training in Germany. At the end of the first chapter, as I was wishing I had had classes like that), Lufthansa announced that the flight was cancelled.

What unfolded next was a problem – and an opportunity – for Lufthansa. A difficult customer experience that could either build or destroy trust with customers just like me. Unfortunately, they treated it as a problem. After waiting for an hour in the queue, Klaus, the desk clerk rebooked me for 9.10 a.m. flight the following morning, and informed me there was no hotel available, so I would have to sleep at the airport. And I cannot get my luggage back. And no, there is also no toothbrush available.

Wow, what an opportunity for a creative solution! Rent a bus to get the 100 people or so to Prague during the night, as it takes just five hours (so we would not miss our morning meetings)? Rental cars? Get us on time to the train station for the night train? Find some hotel even if far from airport? Open a special lounge? Find an entertainer in the group? Make it into a networking event? Speed dating? Toothbrush-making workshop? When I suggested some of those to Klaus, his answer was a resolute “nein”. Impossible.

What is happening here? I think that if Klaus and his colleagues were in a creativity class, they would come up with many more creative options – 100 people, 7 hours, what an opportunity. I don’t believe that Klaus is inherently less capable than Tina Seelig’s students to come up with creative solutions.

But when you sit at midnight at the Frankfurt airport as one of the countless Lufthansa employees, you might feel that you cannot make a difference. Maybe you are afraid to take an initiative that could go wrong. It is easier to say “no” or “yes, but” than “yes, and”.So, as Tina puts it, you miss the opportunity to be fabulous. And you destroy trust with your customers.

P.S. I finished the book during that night, as it is really quite impossible to sleep at Frankfurt airport.

P.P.S. This week’s Economist mentions the D.school, Ideo and more generally design thinking and its growing application to the voluntary sector and government.

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