What Does Creativity Mean in Safety-Critical Environments?


Iconic quote: “The quote became iconic because it fits into millions of situations people experience every day.” “Houston, we have a problem,” you seem to hear every time you turn. I wish I had copied it! The Apollo 13 crew and mission control team showed great creativity and ingenuity while working under time and resource pressure. It was creativity that saved their lives in this life-threatening situation. As a reactive force, it is activated when all else fails and one must discover or invent new ways to do things (King, 1997, p. 301). Many experts claim that “creative intelligence” is required to succeed in unexpected and extreme situations. Generating new ideas and approaches requires both intelligence and creativity.

Despite the frequent mentions of creativity in safety, little attention has been paid to the underlying processes. From decades of research on creativity psychology and neuropsychology, we can learn more about how experts create new solutions in unexpected situations. Though these are not new questions, this article approaches them from a fresh angle. Research on problem-solving and decision-making in safety-critical environments has focused on Rasmussen’s skill-rule-knowledge model and the naturalistic decision-making framework. The SRK model distinguishes between three types of information processing based on conscious attention control: An action plan is developed and executed in three modes: skill-based execution of highly practiced actions; rule-based (moderate implementation of prescribed rules with moderate conscious control; and knowledge-based implementation of prescribed rules with conscious control). Recognition-primed decision strategies are used in NDM to assess situation familiarity and recall information. According to NDM research on expert decision-making, people develop patterns that allow them to quickly size up situations and make decisions without having to compare options. ADM stands for “aviation decision making.” ADM’s most difficult action plan is to create a solution to an undefined or ambiguous problem, which involves both assessing the situation and creating a solution.

Since the 1950s, psychologists have studied the origins of creative ideas and innovations. Personality, intellect, temperament, experience, etc.) are all considered in the 4Ps model. Researchers have also looked into the underlying mechanisms or brain functions involved in the emergence of creative solutions using neurophysiological and neuroimaging methods. Basic research in human factors and neuroeconomics has not yet borne fruit.

In this paper, we will (1) define creativity and its relation to problem-solving and decision-making, and (2) examine the evidence of creative processes, underlying mechanisms, and multiple psychological dimensions of creative behavior involved in unexpected and extreme events such as the Apollo 13 mission, United Airlines Flight 232, and the infamous X-ray experiment.

What is innovation?

What is innovation?


Ability to produce novel, original work that fits task constraints and has context value. While intelligence relies on analytical thinking, prior knowledge, and routine problem solving, creativity relies on the ability to make non-obvious connections to generate previously unknown solutions (Sternberg, 1997). “Finding ways to use what you already know to go beyond what you currently think,” said Bruner (1983, p. 183 in Weick, 1993).

This describes a latent state that can be used if given the chance. Creative potential is part of an individual’s “human capital” and may be known or unknown to the individual. Recent research suggests that creative potential is influenced by many factors (cognition, personality, emotions, and environment).

Divergent thinking, Mental flexibility, Analytic thinking, Associative thinking, Selective combination, Openness, Tolerance of ambiguity, Intuitive thinking, Risk-taking, and Motivation to create are based on it (Lubart et al., 2013). These dimensions will be defined in the section Creativity Under Fire: Evidence of Creativity in High-Risk Environments.

What Are the Creative Processes?

What Are the Creative Processes
Compositional and improvisational creativity are two conceptualizations of creative processes that produce original ideas of value in their context. While composing and improvising are distinct concepts in music and theatre, they are used interchangeably in the context of safety.

Introspection by famous scientists like Poincaré and Helmholtz was an early source of information on compositional creativity. As a result, Wallas was able to formalize the four-stage iterative model of the creative process in 1926 preparation the incubation illumination.

Initially, there is no structure, no task, and no problem to solve; ideas do not present themselves as “problems capable of resolution or even rational contemplation.” To solve them, they must be posed and formulated in fruitful and often radical ways. The problem will be solved in the way it is posed” (Getzels, 1979, p. 167).

The creative problem solving (CPS) model is one of several stage models of creativity that have evolved from the four-stage model. Understanding the challenge, generating ideas, planning and executing solutions, and monitoring the results are all components of a recently accepted CPS model.

This CPS model is similar to the SRK model which is frequently used in the context of safety. In the section Creativity Under the Gun: Evidence of Creativity in High-Risk Environments, collaborative CPS will be demonstrated.

Fisher and Amabile (2008) suggest that preparation in compositional creativity can include developing specific skills and gathering information. Improvisation requires immediate action, so preparation is impossible. The role of urgency distinguishes improvisational from compositional creativity.

Time constraints often lead to improvisation. The actions have a high degree of novelty and a low temporal separation of problem presentation, idea generation, and idea execution. Thus, improvisation is a deliberate creative process that brings together the “design and execution of a new production”. No improvisation without action. Individual or group improvisation begins with a spontaneous action, without pause or thought. As a result, improvisation in safety often refers to an unexpected outcome or solution.

Bricolage, a new combination of available resources, is often associated with improvisation. However, improvisation differs from bricolage in that the constraint is time-related, whereas the constraint is resource-related, requiring the use of available resources. However, time constraints prevent searching for or obtaining additional resources, increasing the likelihood of bricolage.

Group improvisation is a collective creation. Interactions verbal and nonverbal build the creative performance. Musicians or actors perform as a group with no prior preparation, no script, and no director. They are sensitive, attentive, and adaptable to what other group members play or say.

In the words of Miles Davis, “Play what you hear.” Recent research shows that collective improvisation alters the brain more than individual or solo improvisation. Limb and colleagues studied musical improvisation using functional brain imaging. Professional jazz musicians played on a keyboard designed for use in brain imaging.

The social context of collective improvisation caused strong activation of the DLPFC. In fact, unlike solo improvisation, the interaction between two musicians requires active listening, putting a strain on working memory. This is different from group improvisation in music and theatre, according to a structured scoping study of improvisation in the scientific literature.


How Do Creative Ideas Happen?

How Do Creative Ideas Happen

Neuropsychology of creativity highlights possible underlying mechanisms that foster creative idea generation, selection, and implementation. According to domain-specific research and psychometric tasks2, creativity arises not from a conceptual void, but from ongoing knowledge base development and personal past experiences (Madore et al., 2016; Abraham, 2017).

Individuals accumulate knowledge and routines that must be both easily accessible and adaptable to changing situations. A great jazz pianist like Bill Evans3 said it took him 15 years from the time he started improvising at the age of 13 until he mastered the process and was ready to create something truly valuable. Evans’ musical approach was a mix of analysis and intuition.

This confirms the view of intuition as an expression of experience. Improvisation in safety-critical situations may require insight problem solving rather than intuition, as we shall see. Insight is a sudden understanding of how to solve a problem, while intuition is an association between situational information and memory (Klein, 2013).

Memory stores conceptual knowledge as an extensive semantic network with strong connections between related concepts (e.g., Bees-Honey or Table-Chair).

Memory access and retrieval are important for creativity, but they may also hinder original idea generation, leading to cognitive fixedness (Beaty et al., 2017; Agnoli et al., 2020). To overcome or inhibit over-learned responses, stereotypical associations, or salient concepts, for example, strong semantic associations may cause fixation on the strong associates (Bendetowicz et al., 2018).

The default mode network (DMN) and the control executive network (CEN) must be coactivated to form novel and useful associations (CEN). The DMN is known to support the divergent and open creative process; it is activated by diverse tasks that require the spontaneous activation of autobiographical and semantic memory, perspective-taking, and future vision.

The DMN is deactivated during externally-focused tasks (Buckner et al., 2008). An attentional shift from the external world to internal thoughts is controlled by the CEN, which also controls the selection and integration of semantic concepts. According to Bendetowicz et al. (2018, p. 228), optimal creative performance “requires controlled mechanisms such as strategic search and controlled retrieval in memory, the inhibition of interference caused by frequent and more salient associates, the integration or combination of the retrieved associates, and the selection and evaluation of a solution that meets the task constraints”.


Evidence of Creativity in High-Risk Environments

Evidence of Creativity in High-Risk Environments

This section addresses traditional safety issues through the lens of creativity psychology and neuropsychology within the CPS framework. Artists, musicians, and others who seek to express themselves creatively are considered problem solvers. Desperation drives people to invent new solutions in safety-critical situations.

Three successful safety events will be analyzed from the perspective of individual and team creativity, with the neuropsychological underlying mechanisms of such behaviors highlighted. Apollo 13 and United Airlines Flight 232 are good examples of collaborative problem solving while the Mann Gulch wildfire is a good example of individual problem-solving. Official accident reports, communications transcripts (cockpit voice recorder and technical air-to-ground voice communications), interviews, talks, and testimony were analyzed.

Collaborative Problem-Solving in Risky Situations

Collaborative Problem-Solving in Risky Situations

United Flight 232’s artistic flair
A seminar by Captain Alfred Haynes about United Flight 232, one of the most famous examples of CPS, was subtitled “Disaster in the Air, Are You Ready?” (NASA-Dryden, 1991). The flight crew had trouble managing the plane after the number two engine exploded, destroying all hydraulic systems. Managing “one or two problems, but never a full hydraulic failure” (NASA-Dryden, 1991).

A total loss of hydraulic-powered flying controls was deemed so remote by Douglas Aircraft Company, the FAA, and UAL that no proper procedure was required. The simulator re-enactment of the disaster landing demonstrated that line flight operators could not be taught to manage the airplane and land safely without hydraulic power” (National Transportation Safety Board, 1989). So, how did the crew handle this completely unexpected situation in the air with no prior experience flying an airplane in those conditions?

An efficient collaborative CPS for 45 minutes with great abilities throughout the four stages: analyzing the situation, developing ideas, planning and executing solutions, and monitoring the results. To make sense of what was happening on, the crew “read into their predicament patterns of profound meaning…

Sensemaking is built on ambiguous questions, muddy responses, and negotiated agreements (Weick, 1993, p. 635). It began with a disordered phase (mess) when the problem was described, according to Isaksen and Treffinger (1987). These authors distinguish between the problem discovery phase (something is wrong, unsatisfactory, or missing) and the information-gathering phase. The crew knew they’d lost one engine.

“The first thing it (the checklist) said was, close the throttle,” the captain of UAL-232 flight claimed. And I couldn’t get the throttle back. I’ve never shut down an engine in an aircraft in flight, so I had no idea. In the simulator, it always returned. This one was gone…” “We instantly realized that we could not manage the airplane: it would not respond to the crew’s inputs… We had lost all of our hydraulics, which gave us no control, and an issue dubbed ‘phugoid’… The two outboard engines continued to run, but no flight controls worked.

The crew had a goal (e.g., keep the plane aloft) but no clear methods or path to achieve it. They talked about the procedures, invited an off-duty DC-10 captain into the cockpit to help figure out what was going on, contacted San Francisco area maintenance experts to help with the loss of hydraulics, etc.

Throughout the process, the crew employed divergent and convergent thinking to produce, evaluate, and implement ideas. They had to circle back since the output was inadequate until they found an innovative way to fly the plane without control. A lack of hydraulics meant that maintenance experts and the off-duty skipper couldn’t identify anything that the crew could do. To deal with the loss of the hydraulic system, the crew brainstormed and tested options together, as stated by the cockpit voice recorder (CVR):

“If we hadn’t let everyone contribute, we wouldn’t have made it… We flew the plane like this: what do you want to do, let us try this, and you think that’ll work, beats me. The CVR transcript has a lot of that.” An openness and risk-taking attitude are among the 10 dimensions of creative potential (Lubart et al., 2013). The ability to solve or at least endure ambiguous, imprecise, conflicting, or nonexistent situations and/or information.

Openness to new things and new experiences contrasts with dogmatism and conformism. Several academics have advocated for the need to assess risk-taking in a range of domains to better capture its complex nature (Bourgeois-Bougrine et al., 2020). (Sternberg and Lubart, 1995; Sternberg, 1997; Runco, 2015).

To stop a phugoid, the team had to do the opposite of what they normally do. This cognitive capacity is synonymous with mental flexibility and the ability to assimilate multiple types of information. They also found opportunistic answers to some difficulties. “And we asked (to the off-duty captain), give us a right bank, bring the wing up, that’s too much bank, try to halt the altitude, he’d try to reply. After a few minutes, he could accomplish what we did with the yoke with the throttles. As a result, we were able to communicate with the second first officer.

Then we flew the plane and landed it.” “In the spirit of shared leadership, accountability, mutual support, and care,” this may be a unique and authentic group improvisation (Nisula and Kianto, 2018, p. 485). The crew coordinated and synchronized their movements in a spontaneous, unplanned, and inexperienced method. Members of the crew were alert and responsive.

There were no visible signs of panic, as suggested by the CVR and the Captain in his talk: “although we did not appear to be scared…

An airliner going to turn onto its back at 35,000′ is alarming enough that you do anything to stop it.” Negative mood states may boost the capacity to explore multiple options due to increased perseverance.

Mann Gulch Fire

Mann Gulch FireWagner Dodge and his 15 crew members were rushing uphill for safety in August 1949 when they realized they couldn’t outrun the fire. “The fire was too close, in my judgment, to continue further,” he testified8. This is when I stopped the crew and told those closest to me (at least eight men) that we would have to burn off some light fuel and climb inside to make it… After lighting a cluster of bunchgrass, I had a 100-foot square blaze… Despite my screams, no one came to the burnt area… Just seconds after the last man left, the main fire attacked my area… This lasted around 5 minutes, and I could sit up in the burned area…” To save his life, Dodge ordered the crew to plunge into the ashes, which they did not do. Lillquist (2006) states that when asked by the Board of Review if he had ever been taught to start an escape fire, Dodge replied “Not that I know of.” It just felt logical. I was told to get inside a charred area if possible.” He set the escape fire to “get into a charred area” he had created behind the approaching “wall of fire”.

It was a “burst of improvisation” in the face of an unthinkable life-threatening incident, according to Weick (1993, p. 642). This improvisation relies on problem-solving rather than intuition (Klein, 2013). It demands a mental shift from one mental model to another that is more pleasant and brings recommendations for new activities that can cure the tensions inherent in the prior mental model (Klein, 2013; Abraham, 2018). Klein and Jarosz (2011) define it as a “creative desperation path” induced by an impending risk and a stalemate caused by purposeful and often frantic attempts to avoid it. Unlike Wallas’ four-stage approach, a rapid reframing or restructuration of one’s mental model of a circumstance may occur without any purposeful preparation or incubation. Insight or revelation takes mental flexibility to produce a new perspective and reconstruct the problem.

According to Weick (1993, p. 638) “what we don’t expect under life-threatening circumstances is inventiveness.” So, why didn’t his crew consider escape fire as a lifesaving solution? Why was Wagner Dodge the only one who thought of this? The first question has been extensively studied from several angles. A “collapse of sensemaking” and the disintegration of role structure in this minimal transitory organization, according to Weick (1993). While the second point is still unanswered, we will present some basic study evidence of how insight problem solving differs from standard analytical methodologies (e.g., conscious and deliberate search through a space of potential solutions).


Conclusions: Future Research Implications

Conclusions: Future Research Implications

Based on the above research and safety incidents, we propose that creativity in safety-critical environments is “the ability of experienced individuals and teams to produce original, unconventional, and adaptive solutions to overcome unforeseen difficulties in life-critical situations.” Using this criterion, the solutions must be unique, adaptable, and interesting or intelligent to others (Kellner and Benedek, 2017). The process that leads to the effective conclusion should be distinguished from the solutions or “products”. Like the NDM model, research on creative behavior suggests that it involves a combination of cognitive and conative variables such as divergent thinking, mental flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity, etc.

Two major difficulties could be addressed in future research. The first issue would investigate the neurological foundation of creative and insight problem-solving in life-critical situations. The second topic lies within differential psychology and addresses the traits of creative people in safe environments. Goals include improving operational training and abilities and exploring design concepts for human-machine systems that support innovative behavior when needed.

When faced with life-threatening situations, how do we solve them creatively and with insight?

When faced with life-threatening situations, how do we solve them creatively and with insight

Stress and worry can cause substantial performance degradation due to cognitive concentration and mental blockage (Jouniaux, 2001). Inattention or cognitive tunneling on specific symbology or cues may result in failing to detect potentially vital events (Jarmasz et al., 2005). Based on creativity neuropsychology, we might hypothesize that these stress reactions would prohibit “sensory gating,” the inhibition of the most common response, and the access and combination of remote conceptual knowledge.

Thus, the research of creativity and insight problem-solving in a simulator or virtual reality environment should be given special attention. This would necessitate finding and assessing operational safety-critical occurrences that show signs of inventiveness as defined above. (1) the mental processes and environmental cues that lead to or prevent the emergence of new ideas and solutions in life-critical events, (2) ways to optimize attention control and emotional regulation when solving operational problems under extreme stress such as mindfulness (Klein, 2013).


What Are Creative People’s Safety Attributes?

What Are Creative People's Safety Attributes
experts concur that “crew training should be fundamentally orientated to deal with the unexpected” (AAE-Academy de l’air et de l’espace, 2013, p. 39). For example, Jim Lovell stated that the first astronauts were all test pilots. We kind of teetered. We tested experimental military planes; we expected failure” (Saraceno, 2018). Alfred Haynes also served as a Navy pilot during the Korean War before joining United Airlines. To improve CPS and decision-making in stressful and extreme situations, it is necessary to (1) understand how past experiences shape the creative potential of ordinary frontline operations without having to live on the edge.

To create this training, you must first define and assess the required competencies and capabilities. As previously discussed, the creative process in life-threatening situations is damage-control focused and represents expert creativity. Divergent thinking, mental flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity, analytical skills, and other cognitive and conative characteristics are required to make sense of the unfolding events. According to Lubart et al. (2013), assessing creative potential could help (a) identify individual strengths and limitations relative to group averages or top performers in a domain. And (b) adapt training to address specific weaknesses. It has been found that children, adolescents, and adults, such as managers or designers, have creative potential (Caroff et al., 2018). Is there a specific creative potential or skill profile that facilitates insight and CPS in life crucial situations, and how can these skills and abilities be developed?

In conclusion, we would like to stress the importance of four sources of resilience: creativity, role system, wisdom, and respectful interaction (Weick, 1993, p. 638). “Are you ready for a disaster in the air?” Captain Haynes replied. But you may be ready.” We think that examining the role of creativity in safety opens up new avenues for future study that will help build resilience.