Creating a Creative Crisis

by  Dan Rockwell  |  Leadership Development

Organizations sputter and stall quickly. Insider focus seems to be our default mode. We naturally work to create personal comfort rather than value for customers. How can stalled organizations re-energize their zeal and reinvigorate their vision?

One strategy to get a stalled organization moving is creating a crisis.

Webster says a crisis is, “The point of time when it is to be decided whether any affair or course of action must go on, or be modified or terminate…”

How to Create a Crisis

The leadership team I work with created a crisis by setting a deadline.  After months of pursuing a desirable solution to a pressing problem, we drew a line in the sand.  Here’s what we said to our organization.

If we cannot find the property we desire by July 1, we will accept a less desirable, temporary option.  Furthermore, by August 9 we plan to vacate this property and move into the best available location. July 1 arrived and the solution we hoped to find didn’t materialize.  We identified a less desirable solution and moved on schedule.

Getting over it

We kept looking for the “perfect” solution. While looking we turned down several opportunities. A deadline helped us let go of perfection. Perfection is the enemy of progress.

Creative urgency

A crisis forced us to get creative and consider unconsidered options. Setting a deadline opened our minds and created urgency.


It turns out the less desirable option has many advantages.  It’s not perfect.  It’s creating discomfort.  However, it freed us from a strangling bottleneck and presents new exciting opportunities.

Eight suggestions for crisis makers:

  1. Be willing to fail and be prepared for the consequences
  2. Be up front with everyone (never deceive)
  3. Only create a crisis if your mission and vision are in peril
  4. Don’t even think about it unless trust runs like a river through your organization – it’s going to be tough even with trust
  5. Stick to your word
  6. During the crisis act humbly, confidently, and compassionately
  7. Acknowledge the negative while focusing on opportunities
  8. Keep repeating your values. Values establish stability during the destabilization.


What other suggestions do you have for creating a crisis?  What other dangers?

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

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What People Are Saying

Sonia Di Maulo  |  03 Mar 2011  |  Reply


Creating a crisis… in itself is a very unique idea. Setting a deadline seems to be a necessary element of any project… and I would not necessarily say that I have created a crisis by setting a deadline! I would call it good business sense and creating urgency.

Then I went back to the definition of a crisis… sounds a lot like setting a deadline, doesn’t it!

A “crisis” to me sounds like a state of PANIC! But you describe a very organized, thoughtful, and logical process to moving the project forward! I guess that being a crisis-maker does not necessarily mean that you announce your plans for creating a crisis… right?

Of your 8 suggestions, I think number 4 is CRITICAL: Don’t even think about it unless trust runs like a river through your organization – it’s going to be tough even with trust

How can we know for sure if trust runs like a river through the organization, team, or department? Getting to this trusting state is so critical for moving any initiative forward!

As always, Dan, I always learn something new from you! :)


Dan Rockwell  |  03 Mar 2011  |  Reply


Thanks for great feedback. I chose the term “crisis” not only for the definition but because the scope of the project was much larger than normal. Additionally, I chose crisis because we had been working at it for some time with no luck.

It was very helpful to me when I read your comment.



Connie McKnight  |  03 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Great title Dan! Definitely an attention getter. I didn’t know where you were going, so I read on. Since a crisis is creating urgency it makes total sense. It seems to me that there are a lot of people that need a deadline or they don’t put forth their best efforts.

The 2 suggestions that I feel are absolutely necessary are: #2. Be upfront with everyone. If this point wasn’t done, the next time this method was used it wouldn’t be effective. It would be like crying wolf. #5. Stick to your word. This goes hand in hand is #4. I would assume that the group would only believe you if you are a person of you word, which is trust.

Thanks for the post; it was very thought provoking.


Dan Rockwell  |  06 Mar 2011  |  Reply


I couldn’t agree more. If you aren’t upfront, not only do things become a cry-wolf situation, people feel manipulated. Thats a looser too.



Tanmay Vora  |  03 Mar 2011  |  Reply

I liked the term “creative crisis” – a kind of crisis that creates constraints and helps people become more creative. Creating a crisis or simply setting a deadline is a great way to push people to edges specially when something important is not being accomplished after prolonged effort.

However, there is an other extreme, where business leaders make every problem sound like a crisis (crying wolf syndrome). I have seen such leaders from a distance, and have realized that they do so only out of their own insecurity. It also tells that they don’t trust their people. And it doesn’t work always.

Your tips are very valuable, specially # 3 and #8.


Dan Rockwell  |  07 Mar 2011  |  Reply


Thank you for your encouraging words. Your warning is well stated.

You aren’t the first person to explain how creating constraints enhances creativity. Love that idea. I’ll say that sometimes constraints aren’t fun but they can be effective.



Leigh Steere  |  03 Mar 2011  |  Reply

A pediatrician once told me, “Creativity is a product of boundaries.” By self-imposing a deadline, you created a new set of boundaries to bring the challenge into crisper focus.

I particularly liked your statement, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” A few years ago, I was in a meeting with a project management firm here in Colorado. The discussion had gotten bogged down and the CEO finally said, “We tell our clients, ‘Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.'” Instead of striving for perfection, he encouraged his team to pick a “good enough” solution for the particular task and move on.

Both individuals and companies can lose sight of the economic value (or cost) of a particular activity. One company I worked for had 20 or more reviewers for each piece of marketing collateral. Each of these reviewers had to take time away from higher priority tasks to read drafts. It took forever to get consensus (too many cooks in the kitchen). In the search for “perfect,” this company wasted a lot of brainpower that could have been used to solve customer problems and build new products. We finally put a price tag on all the reviewers’ time. Then, we asked management, “Is this $5,000 marketing flyer worth $25,000 of review time?” Sometimes, a “crisis” comes in the form of a question.

Dan Rockwell  |  07 Mar 2011  |  Reply


There that constraint principle is again. I love it.

Thank you for your story. Nothing like an illustration to drive home important points.

The challenges businesses face often have more than one solution. Perhaps its best to consider the alternatives, choose one, and make it work. After all, you can usually make adjustments along the way.



Keith R. Szewczyk  |  06 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Dan…great concept!

Isn’t it ironic that not making a decision causes a crisis, and yet using your approach it is still necessary to create a crisis to get decisions made :)

I work with engineers and believe me the saying “paralysis by analysis” does apply!

Over analysis and not using your gut to make the best possible decision is paralyzing to the organization and great benefits/opportunities are missed. Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’ talks about the importance of thinking without thinking…using your gut and experience. All leaders have this ability, and often they tend to over analyze data that is old and misleading. There are no perfect answers, only decisions backed by mitigation strategies.

I absolutely agree with Sonia, that if #4 (Trust) is not well established within your organization then DO NOT use this concept…creating a crisis will backfire on you.

Once again Dan…nicely done! Thanks…

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