Rattling Assumptions and Sparking Creativity: Interview with Renowned Human Services Consultant

Rattling Assumptions and Sparking Creativity: Interview with Renowned Human Services Consultant

Activism March 23, 2012 / By Ben Weinlick
Rattling Assumptions and Sparking Creativity: Interview with Renowned Human Services Consultant

Dr. Michael Kendrick shares what creativity in human services might look like and how to lead others towards relevant creative outcomes.

Ben Weinlick of Think Jar Collective:  Thanks Michael for taking the time from your busy schedule to chat today.  One of the things that Think Jar is trying to do is learn from diverse perspectives how to spark relevant creativity and possible innovations. We know that if we stick to our own domains and do not intersect ideas, we will limit the possibilities for fresh thinking.  Some years ago when I heard you speak about innovation culture as it relates to human services, I was really struck by your assertion that we shouldn't aim for innovation just for innovation's sake, but ensure our creativity is directed in relevant ways.

Michael Kendrick: Yes, something that is eventually beneficial for people.

TJC: Yeah, and actually it was that lecture you gave that led me to want to do research in the area of how to foster innovation in human services. I wasn't just interested in a specific innovation that might benefit our field, but interested in what kind of practices lead towards getting people unstuck from status quo assumptions that so often keep quality in our services down. In the end I want the creativity that is fostered in organizations I work with to be relevant and tangibly benefit the lives of people we support. So, I have you to thank for sparking that interest.

TJC: Could you give us a little insight into your background, your interests, areas of expertise?

MK: Well, for the last twenty years, I've been an international consultant in disability services and mental health.  I've worked in a variety of countries, some that are wealthy, some that are poorer.  I do a fair bit of public speaking on things that relate to leadership and the quality of life of people with disabilities and other at risk groups. I also evaluate efforts that are underway to improve the lives of people.  Generally I'm mostly interested in the leading edge of the field.  I'm interested in working with people that are trying to move the agenda of “getting better lives for people”.

TJC: Can you say a bit more about what you see as the leading edge of the field?

MK: Well, the leading edge is really around values and their role in people’s lives.  Most people are aware, that thirty to fifty years ago, you didn't often see people with disabilities; they were essentially kept away from society in segregated places.  What occurred, as a result, was that people with disabilities couldn't really have a real life like others in the community. Some years back that began to change because people began to say, 'you need to treat people with disabilities like any other; they should have a chance to have a good life just like anybody else', even though they weren't always sure how to support that.  Essentially it started to strike people that it was fairer to pursue the equal treatment of people with disabilities.  That values decision, derived from the normalization principle, triggered an up-swelling of opportunities for people with disabilities to get a normal life like other people. As we got better at supporting people to do that  then you began to see people with disabilities in all aspects of community life - even people with more significant disabilities. If you were to ask, what was the key trigger in all that, it really was the values shift; the shift in perspective about who people are and what they deserve.  Then trying to live up to that value spurred all sorts of learning around how in the world are we ever going to do this?  The nice thing is we did figure out how to do all kinds of things we were not doing the in '50's and '60's that now we routinely do.

TJC: What would you say then that great cutting edge work looks like today in human services?

MK:  It could be judged by its outcomes: If people with disabilities are enjoying lives pretty much like other citizens, in terms of work, education, home life, participation in the community and so on, then you would have to say that is a huge improvement in quality of life. You judge it by the outcomes in the lives of people.

TJC: Why do you think it's hard for organizations to achieve those kinds of outcomes where people with disabilities are valued and connected in community - having ordinary lives like anyone else?

MK: Part of it may be lack of vision.  If there isn't a vision to do that, then there won't be the ways to do it.  So, a lot of these things begin with people imagining what is possible. If people are unaware of what's possible, or unconvinced of what's possible, then they aren't likely to stick their neck out and try to do something. There is a process both of expanding vision and then people becoming convicted of the vision.  Once people are convicted of something, then the issues become more technical, like how do I do it? what methods work best? The vision itself isn't in question at that point, it's really about the pros and cons of different approaches. That might presuppose that the vision is settled, but in fact in reality, vision can continue to evolve. You can, in a sense, keep raising the bar in terms of how to benefit people’s lives.

TJC: So, in thinking about vision, what's possible and imagining better, it reminds me a bit of creative thinking processes in terms of starting from a place of being open to potential and possibilities rather than sticking with the status quo of what we're used to.  Any thoughts or experience around how to help people imagine more possibilities and get out of 'stuck' places?

MK: Well, we all are operating on assumptions about what's real and what isn't real, what's possible, what isn't possible. So, one of the key matters is to find techniques or ideas that really challenge our assumptions. We can't think differently if don't change our underlying assumptions about reality. If no one challenges us we probably will stay with our assumptions as long as they are comfortable to us. But, we can be shockingly wrong in our assumptions. I think what can be a real catalyst is exposure to things that make us question our previous sense of reality.

For example, in the 1970's in Canada, women still had to have their husband's approval to get a loan at banks. Now that seems very strange, as it's only 2012: barely forty years later and that seems shockingly out of date and embarrassing. But it seemed perfectly sensible in the 1970's to a lot of people.  The thing about assumptions is that they look sensible to the people that hold them, even though they are eventually proven to be not sensible in an objective sense. So, another related factor around assumptions, is that if you aren't aware of alternative realities then you will stay in the reality you are most comfortable and familiar with. A lot of this change of assumptions comes through consciousness-raising. In particular, examples that produce understandings contrary to what we would expect.

TJC: I think you just clarified and better defined the 'jar' part of what Think Jar Collective is attempting to do; I mean we want to produce content that is contrary to what people would expect in order to shake loose some stiff assumptions. Do you think that a challenge to an assumption needs to be kind of shocking and possibly offensive?  How do you say to people, “okay here are the facts evidencing why your assumption is wrong” and still sustain trust after stomping on someone’s precious assumption or belief? 

MK: I'm reminded of Peter Finley Dunne’s famous quote regarding the role of newspapers, "We must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".

TJC: (Laughing) Yep! I'm down with that!

MK: Always loved that quote.  I think people need to be made uncomfortable in terms of their assumptions. It isn't that you do that maliciously, but you do need to question assumptions that don't add up. You can do this in different ways, you can do it by the sheer persuasive logic of your case; in other words you challenge a line of reasoning until an argument begins to dissolve. Another is by examples, that examples can defeat the logic, because they are so contrary to what their theory would predict and are "living proof". Stories can be emblematic and bring the point home better because they cut through the clutter in our minds and show or capture the essence of something.

TJC:  Nicely put.  Do you see a role for creativity in disability and human services? If so, what does that mean and look like to you? Is it any help?

MK: It would come up regularly actually. Creativity comes into play when you decide to do something different. Whenever you break away from a standard or routine way of doing things, then it opens up the opportunity to think and then to act in a different way based on what conclusions your thinking has brought you to.  You don't see much creativity if you stay between the lines. So, there needs to be an a priori motivation to venture into new territory that paves the way for creativity. And the motivation is that we can possibly get better results another way. Even though you may not know the other way, once you have the motivation that you're unhappy with the status quo and not getting far enough with it, then that sets the stage for people to say, 'well, if not the status quo, then what'?  That is hugely important from a creativity point of view because you now have a reason to be creative.  If you have no reason to be creative, people are not going to bother being creative.  People say that "necessity is the mother of invention", but it's not the guarantor of invention. To prove that, all you have to do is see all the people that have many necessities and don't do anything meaningful with them.

In most cases, creativity may not mean you need to anything innovative. Just because something is new to you, doesn't mean it is innovative i.e. subjective novelty is not innovation.  It may mean you need to be more creative in embracing innovations that have already pioneered. A lot of creativity has to do with what is seen in innovation adoption curves.  An innovation adoption is that you see the merit of a different way of doing things and adopt it. Sometimes this can be in a creative way as one adapts it to one's situation.  There are some very creative adopters. For instance, you and I don't have to run around and invent the iPhone, but we can creatively use it in ways that hadn't been used before. We don't have to be the innovator, but more the innovative user.

TJC: Good point.  That is what we have been trying to do at SKILLS Society with our think tanks.  I looked at design thinking from the design world and how serious play in meetings can elicit fresh thinking etc... we brought those process innovations into our service design team planning meetings in order to try and produce higher quality outcomes for people we support.  We didn't invent the processes but adapted them to a human services context.  We're not finished, we're still constantly improving the processes and figuring out what works and doesn't work, but from feedback and some initial research we are finding it does help us think more creatively.

Do you think that better quality services can emerge when there is a scarcity of resources, poor funding etc..? Do you think that can lend itself to creativity leading towards better services?  Or does more surplus, and more financial support foster more creative and relevant human services?

MK: I don't think creativity is driven by either a shortage or surplus of resources. It's driven by the kinds of leaders that are present. Not everybody is going to respond adaptively to a shortage of resources. Some may just be defeated and discouraged by it. Because what often happens is people try to somehow keep the old system going when it is likely no longer viable. Whereas the really creative people are going to be a lot less hung up on their grief for the system that is gone or going. They are much more concerned with moving on from the current pattern, and are willing to go back to the drawing board. Those kinds of people are the people who have the internal resourcefulness, strength and flexibility to not be dependent on where those lines of shortage and surplus are but rather how they can be managed in new ways. People that are not as creative can only work in circumstances that are familiar and favorable to them.  You tend to do better with people that are prepared to work with whatever you throw at them. When people wishfully say, “if there was just more money and this, that or the other thing”,  it may signal a failure to accept the new reality. It's probably true that limitations exist, but at some point you're going to have to manage somehow with what you've got.  And that means you've got to think your way through problems.  If you don't invest in something that is creative, then you will have to live something that is already quite discouraging knowing it will not get better.

TJC:  Do you think people are born with innate creativity or do you think you can teach and foster it in people and in organizations?  Can you really teach people to be more flexible and be open to taking risks to produce better quality results?

MK: Yes I do. I think first of all, you have to pick employees, collaborators or colleagues that are more inclined that way in the first place. You're never going to  get much change from the deeply reluctant. (Ben laughing) You need people that have worked through the motivation question of wanting to do something that is different and better.  You can preselect for people like that. Organizations stack the deck by getting a certain kind of employee that is productively creative. If you have people in leadership roles that are an example of the qualities you are trying to recruit, then attracting the right people is easier. Someone that is creative will be appealing to, or drawn to, somebody else who's creative. They'll want to work with somebody like that.  Whereas, if everybody is status quo and no one wants to be creative, then that will drive away creative, innovative-minded people. The people and the atmosphere they create is decisive. So, we're back to the leaders that almost are emblematic of a willingness to think and be different. Then, where there is a tacit mandate for risky creativity, the multiple potentially creative talents of people can be mobilized.




Further reading

Kendrick's many articles around the leading edge of  quality services

Ben Weinlick's article on fostering creative thinking in disability service design

Project Citizenship at SKILLS Society



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