Take the Rest of the Day Off

I really am sticking to my policy of not playing the shoulda, woulda, coulda game over the Situation in the Gulf. Believe me, if I had anything close to a workable solution that would stop the flow in the next half hour, I'd share it. But earlier today, I did come across a couple of interesting takes on this Situation that I think may have some implications beyond just the current mess.

Thankfully, most of us have never been in a spot where all hell is breaking loose and we're expected to fix it NOW--at least not on the scale of the GoM mess. But we've all had mini-versions of it--with the clock ticking away, the lost dollars adding up and the suits looking over our shoulders asking, "Are we there yet?"

These takes come from one of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Sullivan, over at The Daily Dish. He links to two other authors, John Dickerson at Slate, with a political riff on the Situation, and Jonah Lehrer at the Frontal Cortex blog. Both of them cover the problem of creativity under pressure from different perspectives. Here's the link  to Andrew's post, which contains links to the complete posts of both Dickerson and Lehrer. Both of them are worth reading. But here are the money quotes.

From Dickerson: 

Federal officials who have been in big crises all talk about a moment when someone figured that the answer was not to apply more of the same remedy (or even "historic" amounts of it) but to look for an entirely new approach altogether. This sounds great in theory, but is very hard to do in the moment because the immediate needs take up 25 hours of the day. There's no time to think, and even if you have a great idea, there may be no organizational capacity to carry it out. There's also the problem that every hour someone spends on your creative idea is an hour they're not spending producing outputs that can be measured by the media and your political opponents. Also, creative ideas open you to ridicule. Why are you wasting your time on that and not ordering more boom?

 From Lehrer:

I imagine the poor engineers trying to fix this catastrophe back at HQ are working around the clock, swilling coffee by the gallon and trying to stay focused amid all the pressure. Their bosses are probably driving them crazy, demanding instant solutions to a seemingly impossible puzzle. And so the engineers drink more coffee. They pull yet another all-nighter. After all, a problem this difficult requires every ounce of their conscious attention.

This post is about why those poor BP engineers should take a break. They should step away from the dry-erase board and go for a walk. They should take a long shower. They should think about anything but the thousands of barrels of toxic black sludge oozing from the pipe.

The reason for this counterintuitive advice is that there appears to be a tradeoff between certain kinds of creativity and the frantic sort of focus that comes when people are put in high stakes situations.

It's not just the engineering that's complex in these kinds of situations. Dickerson and Lehrer might be something to think about the next time you're in a mini-situation and everyone wants a brilliant fix RIGHT NOW.