/ 24 May 2024

Adaptability trumps answers in these elections

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(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

Is it an accident that South Africa’s elections fall in the same week as Africa Day? 

That may not seem like the most important question to be asking at this historic moment. But when we’re struggling against wicked problems we usually don’t ask the right questions. Asking the wrong questions is often why we get stuck. 

Africa Day 2024’s theme, Educate an African Fit for the 21st Century, does offer a different way to approach the elections, because as you know if you have read this column, creativity and adaptability are two of the most essential future skills demanded now. 

So, I’m suggesting we ponder how we might be inspired by Africa Day to use creativity techniques in, and after, this election to create a better South Africa.

The theme has a complex sub-title featuring words such as “resilient”, “inclusive”, “lifelong” and “relevant”. The word “lifelong” is a good start, because we should look at this concept not just around schooling, but in terms of educating all of us to be fit to attack today’s problems. 

Demanding we get ready for the century we are a quarter of the way through might feel a touch ironic, as if the African Union is insinuating that we’re still thinking in the 1990s — which, in a way, maybe we are. 

The wave of younger leaders throughout Africa over the past year has brought with it more flexibility and new ways of thinking — something older leadership often lacks, including perhaps our own.

People are calling the election “historic” mainly due to the possibility that the ANC will lose its majority, leading to a ruling coalition of plurality parties. 

There’s also the introduction of independent candidates without a party at all. Although this innovation has not flooded us with unattached candidates, it does suggest the potential impact of more independence —and how political independence can lead to independence of thought.

Party politics tends to shoehorn potential solutions into a platform that leaves no room for spontaneity. But in a coalition of parties with differing viewpoints, authentic debate could become more robust. Creativity might have more room to flourish. But how?

We could start by believing that there are solutions that we might not have thought of and that the failures are not all someone else’s fault. Maximising creativity requires approaching problems with an open, positive mindset — which I’m not sure we have right now.

InfoQuest reports that three in four South Africans said corruption will increase this year, three in five said crime will spread and more than half said the economy would struggle and job security worsen. Two-thirds said the power grid would fail worse than ever. 

We’re not Afro-futurists — we’re Afro-pessimists. South Africa ranks 83rd on the World Happiness Index, just behind Armenia and Bulgaria and only six spots ahead of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — which has been at war since before we became independent. 

And the local Bureau for Market Research index shows we’re more dissatisfied than we’ve been in a decade.

But we need to become Afro-futurists to implement the Africa Day vision, because the answer lies not in pointing fingers at each other, but in creating a joint vision of a better tomorrow. 

Luckily, Africa Day’s theme of resilience can help us overcome challenges, no matter how many times we have to go back to the drawing board. And the good news is that South Africa is resilient, trending upward in the top half of the Global Resilience Index. 

We’re also among the top 25% of countries that have improved their resilience score this year on the Country Risk Atlas.

Africa Day’s inclusion of inclusivity can also help, because inclusivity supports resilience. It strengthens creativity and democracy. And both resilience and inclusion are key factors that drive adaptability.

More good news is that the bureau shows we are becoming more adaptable as a country. Although we’re less happy, we’re also less stressed. 

And although it might seem that stress can help drive adaptability, it’s not true. When stressed, individuals and organisations (including countries) are afraid to change and resist adapting.

Creativity — thinking differently — requires adapting — being different — first. Being adaptable helps us shift approaches to solve problems in new ways, quickly.  

But adaptability can also be used to help us accept that certain problems are not going to get solved and we might have to rather come up with better ways to cope.

It can also help us to adapt our questions. As I mentioned, the quality of the solution often depends on the quality of the questions we are asking about the problems. 

And it’s common to get that wrong. Roger Firestien, who has led more people through problem-solving processes than anyone in history, says that more than 90% of the time organisations start with the wrong questions. Taking the bridge off the top of the stuck truck is expensive when you can just deflate the tyres. 

Could it be that we are asking the wrong questions about corruption and crime and the economy? 

Maybe we’re not asking enough questions and need to ask more. 

If there’s a person whose picture should go next to the word “rigid” in the dictionary, it’s a politician. I’m personally less interested in a candidate’s opinions than in knowing they are open to shifting when a better solution shows up. 

What if we elected people who were more interested in asking the right questions than in knowing the answers ahead of time to the wrong ones? What might be possible if our candidates gave up running on policies and instead ran on a platform of core creative principles, such as curiosity, open-mindedness and a collaborative mindset? 

What if we got parliament to engage in divergent-thinking brainstorming sessions where nobody wants to settle on the right answer until we’ve exhausted 200 potential options, using the basic principles of “defer judgment”, “generate many ideas”, “make connections” and “look for breakthrough solutions” first? 

What if we created those solutions from values rather than from opinions or dogmas? Say, for example, the 10 values listed in section 1 of our Constitution?

I know it all sounds naive but we can dream, right?

As an official global ambassador of creativity, I am compelled to request of you this: please, in the short time left between now and your visit to the voting booth, ask yourself more, new and better questions and don’t try to come up with answers right away. Ask questions, too, of your friends, family, neighbours and colleagues. 

Most importantly, where possible, ask questions of our candidates — and instead of listening for whether you like their answer or not, listen instead to how open they are to creating something new, from nothing, collaboratively. 

Then we could celebrate Africa Day properly, honouring the principles the African Union has asked us to bring forth on our continent, and at least catching up to the present elections, but hopefully, creating a future fit at least until the next ones.

Michael Lee is an advisory board member of World Creativity and Innovation Week/Day and a Radio 702 creativity contributor.