Enhancing Creative Organizational Culture In Disability Services
“One cannot be creative without learning what others know, but then one cannot be creative without becoming dissatisfied with that knowledge and rejecting it for a better way.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996)
In looking at domains where creativity is needed, one that is often overlooked is in human services and community health. Within human services, these are often Government and non-profit organizations supporting people with developmental disabilities, mental health conditions and other marginalized populations.
Background of the need for creativity in human services
Over the years, some leaders in the disability services sector have realized that one of the reasons for low quality services is due to professionals adhering to old ways of providing service. Often, these are services where systems and institutions become the focus rather than the people served, (Pitonyak, 2002). To get our minds unstuck from old assumptions, some questioning and fresh thinking is required. As Michael Kendrick, a world leader in disability services has said,
“The culture of innovation is one in which there needs to be a great deal of questioning of status quo assumptions or other apparent givens. It is through the ability to look at practices with new eyes that the much vaunted paradigm shifts become possible.” (Kendrick, 2007a)
Finding ways to help people and organizations to look at practices with new eyes has been a passion of mine ever since I connected with human services. Around 13 years ago after leaving the art and experimental music world , I jumped into community disability services because I saw it was a field where innovation was needed and where the population served had yet to be truly valued… Well, maybe it would be more truthful to say I had extreme youthful ideals and thought it was too egotistical to spend a lifetime making art without tangibly helping others. I soon discovered I could be just as much of an ‘ass’ in human services and realized over time it’s not about the field one is in that matters in how you can benefit others, but the kind of attitude and view one brings to whatever one does. In other words, egos can be found in any field and meaningful contributions to community come from many areas, including the arts. In addition to services not really helping people increase quality of life, one of the reasons for why there is so much need for relevant creativity is because the field is really only about forty years old and has never existed in recorded history (Kendrick, 2010). Essentially, many social and disability service organizations are not only stuck in status quo assumptions but also still figuring out the best ways to design and deliver quality supports.
Moving from institutions to creative community building
In the seventies and eighties within North America, many people with disabilities were liberated from institutions where they were often subjected to various forms of oppression such as being forcibly sterilized on government orders (CBC, 1999). Think of One flew over the cuckoo’s nest(Fantasy films, 1975) kind of stuff and worse. As people with disabilities came into community, organizations developed to be able to support them to live rich lives and find out how to help them contribute their gifts. At least that was often the intention. Today, most quality organizations supporting people with disabilities are striving to find ways to help them be heard and valued as contributing citizens. There are still huge inconsistencies in how services are delivered and very often the systems do not really empower and help people live good lives. Quality services focus less on trying to make the client fit system needs and focus more on tailoring the service to each individual based on their unique needs, aspirations and gifts (Kendrick, 2010). Many organizations have not figured out how to tailor services to each person and make it cost effective…paradigm shift needed.
The innovations that are often sought after are around better processes for how services are designed and carried out. Organizations want a service design process that helps staff see each person from a fresh and less biased perspective, gives persons served what they really want and finds ways to creatively connect unique gifts with community. For instance, a story from one of my students was how a team worked with a person who had a keen interest in putting scotch tape uniformly across her pictures in order to ‘laminate’ them as she called it. Most people did not see the potential gift in scotch taping pictures all the time. The team had to think of a creative way to link this person’s interest in taping stuff to a valued role in her community. They broke open their minds and thought of connecting this lady with a job at a print shop, where she could transfer her interest in ‘laminating’ to getting paid for something she loves doing. This approach of finding ways to help a person discover and give their unique gifts is often much more empowering and can be a factor in increasing quality of life (Brown, Raphael & Renwick, 1997).
Exploration of creative processes that lead to quality services
After years of working in the field, one thing I noticed was that the people and organizations that did quality work in human services often were creative, had fun, had an awesome sense of humor, were curious about everything, were willing to try things they weren’t sure would turn out and expressed an idealistic sense that they had to do whatever it takes to better the lives of people they worked with. As I experienced and saw this trend over and over again I became fascinated and wanted to find a way to help more organizations learn how they could enhance creative thinking in their design and delivery processes. This set me on a path to complete a master’s of arts degree in leadership from Royal Roads University in Canada. For my graduate thesis, I did action research around what practices might enhance creative thinking in how disability services are designed and delivered. Essentially, over a six-month period I gathered qualitative data from employee participants that were engaged in a pilot project aimed at developing creative community connections for persons with disabilities served through an organization called SKILLS Society. The research focused more on the creative process of how the service team came up with ideas for meaningful service. The research particularly explored how integrating humour and serious play into the process of designing disability services might have fostered fresh ideas, jarred assumptions and led to quality outcomes.
My hypothesis was that services designed through enhanced creative thinking could lead to imaginative service options that were more in line with the aspirations and needs of the recipients.
Without going into too much detail, I’d like to pass on some key learnings from the participants whom engaged in this research. Hopefully this will spark some ideas for enhancing creative thinking even if you are from another field.
1. Value of taking time for reflection
“We often cannot see the value of innovations in the present because we are usually so caught up in surviving the many responsibilities of the moment. Consequently it is only by stepping back, and looking ahead, that we can bring perspective to bear on what might be important for us to do.” Michael Kendrick
The first learning was around the importance of putting in time to regularly reflect on one’s practice. Often times, we get so caught up in the many responsibilities of the present we can miss taking time to deeply think about our practices and their impact on persons served. Generally what is needed is scheduling focused time to reflect or else it won’t happen. Becoming more creative in any discipline starts with looking at our assumptions, where our views are coming from and trying to look at our practices with fresh eyes. We will have very little perspective if we don’t schedule time to reflect with our colleagues. A fresh perspective may come from stepping back and asking really essential, core questions, like “What is the main point of our work?” My mentor and thesis supervisor Jim Force, PhD. often spoke about sparking creativity through “the art of the dumb question“. These ‘dumb questions’ or core questions often shed light on the root of our work and can lead towards seeing where some creativity is needed. Asking core questions and challenging status-quo assumptions all can only be done effectively when there is strong trust, and safe zones to think differently.
2. Strengthening trust through play and humour
“Humor has a way of bringing people together. It unites people. In
fact, I’m rather serious when I suggest that someone should plant a
few whoopee cushions in the United Nations.” Ron Dentinger
What helps fosters trust was the second key learning in developing a more creative service design practice. The thing is, people will not reflect honestly on their own practice or come up with fresh ideas, if they feel inhibited, or afraid to share an idea because of ‘looking dumb’ or whatever our fears may be. A surprising aspect of the research to me, was that what helped people feel at ease to share ideas openly was through cultivating a playful atmosphere. Before the research, I had thought that maybe playfulness and humour sparks creative ideas directly, but the research showed that a playful atmosphere led to strong trust and when there was strong trust, people felt open to share creative ideas. One participant spoke about play fostering trust, the following way,
“I think that when people play together, there is more of a sense of trust and sharing. For people, myself included, that are a little more reserved than say Larry [laughter], the laughter and the silliness we engaged in made it, as you said, Murray, comfortable to express creative ideas.” (Weinlick, 2010)
3. Play and humour fostering creative thinking
“There is a close relationship between the “haha” of humour and the
“aha” of discovery” Roger Von Oech
There is also a vast amount of literature that showed how cultivating a playful organizational culture enhances creativity and innovative outcomes. Often creative people have a great sense of humour that feeds their creative endeavors. Check out this video of Tim Brown from IDEO talking about the value of play for creativity. There was also some interesting research done by Fredrickson (1998), on how humour and play caused people to become more creative. Fredrickson found that humour could help designers to see beyond the common solutions to a problem and broadened their thought-action repertoires (p. 308). In other words, humour helped them come up with more ideas and solutions to challenges they faced. Much of the literature was echoed by participants in my research, for example one participant said, “The humorous interactions and spontaneous verbal jostling created a positive mood, and often a natural switch to engagement in a creative, task-oriented discussion on how to connect clients would ensue.” (Weinlick, 2010)
4. Right thinking style at the right time
The forth key learning outcome was around enhancing creativity in a group process. Often times in a group trying to come up with new ideas and action plans to roll out the ideas, a conflict arises between task oriented styles of thinking and the creative, dreamer style of thinking. It was important for the participants to know that both creative/dreamer and critical/task oriented thinking were needed. In creativity research, often these two styles necessary for effective creative thinking are called divergent thinking and the convergent thinking. Problems would often arise when people in the think tank team mixed the styles at the wrong times. We learned that in the beginning of a creative group process there needs to be more dreaming, playfulness and uninhibited thinking. Then at a certain point there needs to be a decided shift towards engaging more task oriented, critical thinking to sort through which ideas to use and act upon. Similarly, Csikszentmihalyi (1996) found in his research, “Divergent thinking is not much use without the ability to tell a good idea from a bad one”. One thing that can help to avoid time wasting personal dramas caused my mixing thinking styles at the wrong times, is to help all team members to see everyone has strengths and then offering opportunities to utilize those gifts at the appropriate phase in the creative process. Often a steward of the process is needed to help draw out the styles at the right times and keep the divergent and convergent phases flowing.
5. Creative process steward
The participants in my research suggested this creative leadership role should be called a steward and not a facilitator. This was important because they said a steward was more an active participant in the process. Participants expressed that they would not be able to really relax and let loose with ideas if they felt they had an outside, distant facilitator trying to manage them. To also avoid egos getting in the way, the participants suggested rotating the steward role among participants for each creative think tank session. The steward needed to be able to model playfulness, divergent and convergent thinking abilities, manage naysayers during the divergent thinking phase and needed to be good with people. In the convergent phase the steward also has to be able to ask good questions to help the group figure out if an idea is really creative and relevant to client needs. The steward might say, “is this idea what the client wants? How do we know this idea is creative and relevant? Does it fit the goals of the person we are working with?
6. Creative environment
“The world’s most creative companies use space to reinforce their internal culture” Tom Kelley (IDEO)
The participants’ expressed caution that conventional professional office spaces are not really suitable for feeling relaxed to share novel, relevant, creative ideas. The participants’ recommendations were to create a thought-provoking, creative environment that had some of the following features:
Relaxed Furniture: They recommended “comfortable seating like couches in a circle or facing each other”; “Have cool chairs, unconventional seating arrangements, maybe a bunk bed!”
Thought provoking decor: For decor, the participants suggested, “Decorate the room in unique, artistic, thought-provoking ways”‘ and “Put up funny quotes, funny pictures.”
Knickknacks and props: The participants had several ideas for objects to enhance the environment: A participant said “Space that shows playfulness has diverse and large quantities of knickknacks and odd objects people find and bring to the space”; “Having a little box of figurines to mess around with to enrich the story; Storytelling becomes playful and humorous with props, but also learning ensues from the interaction”; “Having natural props as part of the room like figurines, Nerf guns, drawing tools, war room–like map for role playing”; and “Have odd fidget objects lying around.”
One key message from all participants was, not to ever force people to play with objects in the room because it would be too contrived and do the opposite of what’s intended.
The participants recommendations on creative environments fit with some research on the subject. For instance, McCoy and Evans (2002) concluded that “environments high in perceived creativity potential most frequently were visually interesting and tended to be highly complex, both spatially and ornamentally” (p. 418). One of the participants also reflected that a creative culture doesn’t happen over night, she said,
“It takes some time for people in an organization to see value in this style of creativity and reflective practice. Sometimes that comfort level is reflected in the kind of images you have around your office, or how you dress, or how you goof around with people. It takes time to create culture like that. It takes a critical mass of people to make that shift in an org—to watch people that are out of the box and then tap into that side of themselves.” (Weinlick, 2010)
These are just a few learnings that emerged from my research and I hope will spark some ideas for your practice and some further research into creativity in human services.
Some leaders in innovation like Tom Peters, say we are moving out of the information age and into the age of “creation intensification”. What this means is that in order for any practice to stay relevant it has to enhance creative thinking to be able to deal with complex changes that are upon us. It makes me hopeful that many organizations in human services are quite open and often thirsting for more knowledge around how to help their employees become more creative in their practice. If we can do a little more of that, we will have a good chance at figuring out how to ensure services are relevant and lead to increased quality of life for the persons served. In the end human services need to remember creativity is part of the way to get better at providing quality service. As a participant in my research pointed out, “I’ve always felt strongly that creativity in disability services needs to be linked to talking about people we support. If playfulness and creativity does not relate to helping the persons supported, then what is the point?”
For stories around how these creative think tanks are positively impacting services, contact firstname.lastname@example.org and regularly check for updates from Project Citizenship: People with disabilities and their stories of engaged citizenship.
Ben Weinlick, MA www.thinkjarcollective.com
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