How the COVID-19 crisis will make us more resourceful

How the COVID-19 crisis will make us more resourceful
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The proverb “necessity is the mother of invention” is truer now than ever. Almost overnight, as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold worldwide, the health care system has become overwhelmed, small businesses have been crippled, the travel industry has been battered, schools have closed and parents have faced new tests of their ability to balance work and home life. There is a shortage of everything from critical medical equipment such as ventilators and personal protection equipment to basics like hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

It may be the greatest challenge we’ve ever collectively faced. But hardships like this also present an opportunity. Research shows that times of crisis can bring out hidden reserves of human resourcefulness — and we’re starting to see what happens when humanity comes up against seemingly insurmountable constraints. Scientists and physicians are working together to find existing drugs that could be used to fight COVID-19 in record time, and municipalities are repurposing public buildings into makeshift hospitals in days rather than years. Dyson designed a ventilator in 10 days, distilleries are making hand sanitizer and clothing companies are sewing face masks. Office workers are adapting to doing their jobs from home. Restaurants are dropping to-go orders into customers’ trunks without any personal contact. School systems are using video-conferencing to educate students. Routine grocery runs are a thing of the past, as is going to the gym. Instead, we’re getting creative with cooking with the ingredients already in our pantries. My workouts now use water bottles and cans of beans instead of dumbbells.

As an organizational psychologist and business school professor at Rice University, I’ve been studying resourcefulness for nearly 20 years, both in times of crisis and times of prosperity. The scientific evidence on resourcefulness shows that constraints activate the flexibility and creativity we need to overcome hard challenges. When resources are scarce, it becomes easier to discard conventional thinking and invent new uses for what we already have. But first we have to adjust our mindset to see the possibilities inherent in hardship — and not just the problems.

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A threat of this magnitude is scary, of course, and fear can have a paralyzing effect, constricting our natural creative abilities. But we can choose to respond differently. An opportunistic framing – finding the benefits of a challenging circumstance – allows our creativity to flow and helps us devise innovative solutions.

Last week, for example, I taught an MBA class on leadership to 60 students online. Despite having no experience with online instruction and limited familiarity with the technology, I transformed classroom exercises into virtual ones and connected with students through video conferencing. I announced our change in format to my students as an opportunity to modernize our learning. By framing it this way to them, and to myself, I created a positive learning environment for both of us.

Resourcefulness research also shows that we use only a fraction of the utility of our current resources. We can unlock the full potential of what we already have during these trying times. During World War II, households dealt with food rationing by adding breadcrumbs to meatballs. And the board game Clue was created during air raids to combat boredom as people were confined in their movement. Suddenly, backyards are science classrooms for young children, and household objects like straws are turning into toys (bridge-building, anyone?). Times of struggle bring out clever solutions and sometimes our greatest work. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and King Lear while in quarantine during a plague. Sir Isaac Newton did his breakthrough work during the Great Plague of London.

My research, and research done by others in this field, encourages us to accept uncertainty and look for positive meaning where we can find it. This pandemic is not going anywhere anytime soon. Fighting it by trying to create the perfect plan for how to cope only sets you up for disappointment. If we become too rigid, our plans don’t flex with a changing environment and quickly become irrelevant. Instead, we need to get more comfortable improvising, which frees us to constantly learn and adjust our actions to what’s currently unfolding.

Ultimately, the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic is a temporary state, and while the disruption and destruction it brings are very real and tragic, it is survivable. When we emerge from this crisis, I hope we leave it with an important lesson. When we are resourceful, we can do more than we ever imagined.

Scott Sonenshein is a professor of management at Rice University, author of “Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less and Achieve More than You Ever Imagined” and co-author of the forthcoming book (with Marie Kondo), “Joy at Work.” Learn more at ScottSonenshein.com and follow him on Twitter: @ScottSonenshein.