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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Friday I was stuck in New York City.  I wasn’t sure I would ever get out.

The Tri-State area was getting hammered by a snow storm.  I was scheduled to leave at 1PM, hours after the snow began.  The airports were closed. And to make matters worse, earlier in the day, two people were struck by a train on the tracks outside of NYC.

This combination of events caused a ripple of delays throughout the rail system.  In fact, every seat on every train for the next few hours were sold.

Knowing that the ride out of New York’s Penn Station can be crazy on a normal day, I decided to invest the few extra dollars for a first class ticket.  This was perfect as I could wait out the delays in the (relative) comfort of the Acela Lounge.

The board said that the train would be delayed about 90 minutes.  Not too bad considering the circumstances.  Right on time (well, an hour and a half after the scheduled time) the announcement came over the loud speaker.  “Train 2164 is now boarding on track 13 East.”  That was my train.

About a dozen of us exited the lounge and headed for track 13 east.  But the escalator was going up?  How would we go down to the tracks?  We looked around but couldn’t find anyone who knew anything.  After a few minutes, our train disappeared from the board indicating it had departed.  We discovered that it had indeed left without us.

The dilemma was not lost on me:  There were no more seats on any trains until late into the evening.

Most people were furious.  Admittedly, I was a bit amused.  Fortunately I did not need to be in Boston by any particular time, so the delay was an inconvenience, but not the end of the world.

We went back to the lounge to discover that the woman there announced the gate information long after our train arrived.  Other were screaming at the woman and the manager.  There were a lot of angry and stressed-out people trying to get home.

I watched.  I let them do the screaming.  And then I started to think through and investigate the options.

  1. I could wait for the next train that day, whenever that might be.  I had plenty of work that I could do while waiting.
  2. I could stay over night in a hotel.  There were many friends I did not get to see while I was in the City.  And fortunately I did not have anything pressing the next morning.  All of my business could be conducted via phone.  And I knew rooms were available somewhere in NYC.
  3. I could rent a car.  Maybe that wasn’t an option given the chaos, but it was worth investigating.  A quick check via my BlackBerry showed that it might indeed be possible.
  4. I could share a taxi with someone to Boston.  There were plenty of taxis available.  Although a taxi might be more expensive, it might only be $100 more than the train, if I shared it with a few other people.  Or maybe I could take a taxi to another city, for example, Stamford, CT and either catch a train from there or rent a car.
  5. Hitch hiking was not high on my list, but when “brainstorming” (even with yourself) it is best to keep all options open.
  6. Take one of the trains that did not require reservations, but did not guarantee a seat.  Worst case would involved sitting on my luggage for 4 hours.
  7. Take a train SOUTH a few stations and then try to catch a train from there.  I do this with hotel elevators sometimes.  If I am going down to the lobby from my room during peak hours, sometimes all of the elevators that stop on my floor are full.  So I will take an elevator UP to the top and then catch it down from there.  Surprisingly, it can be faster.

Anyway, the list goes on.  Because I was relaxed, I was able to consider lots of different options.  While everyone else was stressed out, I got creative.  And it got me thinking…

Does stress kill creativity?

The answer is of course, yes.  I wrote about this in the past in articles on the “Performance Paradox” (this link brings you to the AMA website where the article was published).

Stress causes a reduction in athletic and physical performance (read my article on why Barry Bonds performed 10x worse as he got closer to his 755th home run).

Stress also causes a reduction in intellectual abilities to an even greater degree than the impact on physical abilities.  (A brief anecdote is included in the Performance Paradox article)

But stress has the most profound impact on creativity. Or, as I said in the article…

The more creative the work, the less motivation required to hit peak levels of performance. Studies reveal that creativity diminishes when individuals are rewarded (externally motivated) for doing their work. Why? The desire to achieve the goal overtakes the personal interest in the endeavor. A myopic focus on the outcome overshadows the intellectual stimulation of the process. As a result, risk taking becomes reduced and creativity vanishes.

Goal-orientation is one form of stress.  Missing your train when you have a goal of getting home is certainly another.

How did my story end?  There was a 3PM train leaving at 3:15PM.  The manager simply stamped all of our tickets, allowing us on that train.  Of course, given that the train was previously sold out, that caused other problems.  But I’ll write more about that another time.

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