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New human capacities in emergency and crisis management: from soft skills to creativity

Unprecedented future disasters will require emergency managers to be creative in their thinking. The backbone of creativity is divergent thinking; cognitive thoughts that do not converge on a correct answer but diverge on a range of possible options. Preliminary research with emergency service organizations, non-profit organizations and the critical infrastructure sector has identified an increase in creative output when staff faces a set of constraints, both in terms of resources and context, in which "think differently".

Therefore, the future challenges for decision-makers in emergency and crisis management are to identify when creativity is required and how to use constraints to enhance creativity when organizational cultures demand compliance. This document provides an overview of creativity in the context of decision-making and what it means for future leaders in the sector.

When the 9-11 Commission handed down its final report, they identified the set of failures associated with the event. They wrote: ‘We believe the 9-11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management’ (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States 2004, p.339).

This was not the first, nor the last report following a major event to indicate the need for different ways of thinking (college admission essay examples free, thinking) for preparing and responding to such unprecedented events. The Royal Commission into the Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria noted that ‘the state-level emergency management arrangements still faltered because of confusion about responsibilities and accountabilities and some important deficiencies of leadership’ (Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission 2010, p.8). Arguably, one of these failures in leadership was a failure to recognize and respond to the magnitude of the event; a similar failure of imagination identified in the 9-11 Commission report but with respect to a natural disaster.

Other types of crises have suffered from similar problems. Haiven (2010) considered the Global Financial Crisis and financial crises in general as ‘crises of both capital’s imagination and of the social imagination more broadly’ (p.1). Imagination, it seems, is – or at least should be, an important component of emergency and crisis response and recovery regardless of the industry or the origin of the event itself.


In recent times, one of the most significant changes in capability has been for emergency services organizations to embrace opportunities to ‘build agility’. This is particularly important when facing non-routine and novel events. Contributing to this, previous research (Brooks et al. 2016) has explored cognition in the context of decision-making, developing training and aide memoirs to support personnel in areas such as the management of cognitive biases and maintenance of situational awareness.

The research supporting this work identified other problems related to developing options analysis and predicting consequences for out-of-scale events. This has led research end-users to question how they can prepare future leaders for the new norm. For human factors research to adapt and remain relevant in this changing environment, the simple answer is: we need to build new human capabilities. The future will demand that leaders think outside the box and use higher cognitive skills such as creativity and divergent thinking to address failures of imagination.

Processes in creativity include thinking skills that are conducive to taking new perspectives on problems, pivoting among different ideas, thinking broadly and making unusual associations. These will be required to ride the wave of change. However, it is not enough to explore creativity solely from the perspective of a single sector. Emergency and crisis management necessitates a joint capability that transcends the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Importantly, it is the managerial function charged with creating the frameworks within which communities can reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters (FEMA 2007).

This differs to crisis management, which is organisationally focused and can have a material impact on an organisation’s shareholder value, reputation, ability to deliver services to the community and, potentially, the viability of the organisation. Both require input from the highest levels to respond to and manage the actual and potential ramifications. Thus, emergency and crisis management are intrinsically linked. Society requires a collaborative, tri-sector approach to solve ‘wicked’ problems. We need to understand how to enhance creativity and if it differs between sectors.

If it does differ, how can the positive and creative attributes be transferred between sectors so they can learn from each other? This paper explores these challenges and seeks to answer two key questions: How creative do emergency and crisis management personnel need to be, and can they be trained to be more creative?


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