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creativity at work: supporting support networks

December 31, 2010

The Queen, Lucien Freud's state portrait of Elizabeth, has caused a lot of controversy... but in the end, Freud has re-invented figurative art for the latter part of the century by focusing not on the details but on the aliveness of the subject - Peter Block suggests a similar approach to facilitation and to one's work, asking always, "am I adding to the liveliness of the world in this moment?" An interesting experiment to take to work 🙂

In recent research on the creation and support of networks for people with disabilities I’ve been struck by something that always strikes me – one of those same old same old stories – the importance of the role of connector/facilitator/manager – whatever the person who takes on the mission of bringing a group together is called.   While it’s easy to say that everything we accomplish is through great staff, it’s not useful unless we figure out how to support them, or even how not to do damage to them.   This aspect of support networks is in itself worth quite a bit of attention.   Michael Kendrick, in his book of essays, Letting in the Light: Reflections on Leadership, Ethics, and Human Services, writes, “When the right kind of relationship exists between the community and people with disabilities, it means that they are in roles in which they are valued, respected and supported [through] . . . the facilitation of people with disabilities becoming more fully a part of their communities.  . . . The very simplicity of the efforts [of those who support such connections] often masks their true value, and for this reason it is important to recognize their significance.”   Simple and complex, the work of connecting requires real creativity and responsive leadership in a number of ways that are artful and perhaps unusual.   How to support those who are doing such work is the key – and it doesn’t happen through evaluations that focus on everything but this aspect of their work, or feedback that focuses on what doesn’t get done.   Teresa Amabile, in the Harvard Business Review, has written a short and clear essay about her sense of what threatens creativity in the workplace that might be used to start up a conversation the next time you have a chance.  She cites an appreciation for those who think differently, who step outside the mandate; the creation of a creative environment that makes room for reflection and, last, passionate engagement, as factors that foster creativity.   Sony is one of the companies looking at reducing burnout and exhaustion, and increasing creativity, through their “energy project” – just as with our other resources, the energy project facilitators think that one’s energy is finite – so they help people establish “off” rituals.   They might turn off their email, but also go for a walk, or “stop working” to sit down and focus on what their priorities are.   The secret to it all has been the creation of “safe” places and times and the results have been hugely positive, “Eighty-eight percent of participants say it has made them more focused and productive. More than 90% say it has helped them bring more energy to work every day. Eighty-four percent say they feel better able to manage their jobs’ demands and are more engaged at work. Sony’s leaders believe that these changes have helped boost the company’s performance. Despite the recession, Sony Pictures had its most profitable year ever in 2008 and one of its highest revenue years in 2009.”   A short article about this is “The Productivity Paradox” – it looks like people are working less, but they’re working more, and better.

While in our supports for folks with disabilities it can be hard to schedule even breaks, must less some time to process and re-evaluate priorities or just think about what we’re doing, this busy-ness is part of how we find ourselves leaning into less individualised thinking…   the enemies, as Peter Block says, are always going to be expediency and efficiency.

It doesn’t take long to look at how different initiatives support personal support networks to realize there are pretty much countless ways to do it – gathering a group of people who all support networks in a room gets interesting as except for the intention and the certainty that this is important work, they’re often not sure about how exactly they do the work.    I don’t think this means we need to focus on clearer recipes for success in this area, although just as in cooking someone familiar with the ingredients will probably be more successful early on, but on a recognition that this intention doesn’t easily lend itself to systemisation.    For organizations and groups to foster this kind of deep, personal creativity, it’s important for it to be a value from the top down.    I liked this article, “31 Innovation Questions (and Answers) To Kick Off the New Year” because Scott Anthony isn’t just telling people how to be more creative, he’s demonstrating how on a daily basis he strengthens that aspect of himself.

One of the things that becomes apparent as one looks into how networks form and are fostered, is that the connectors are often not the designated leaders, and they are never attached to leadership – always looking to give it away.   It’s one of the new forms of leadership that are manifesting in various ways around the world.    The people who connect the folks we care about to others are not waiting to be asked to do the job, they’re jumping in, in big and small ways.   The Freud portrait of the Queen comes for a little blog posting that I liked, by an artisan who makes crafts, who writes about how the work of Lucien Freud grounds her to keep going in her own direction – even though she’s selling her crafts for a bit of cash and his paintings are worth millions.   I like the way she sees herself as part of a continuum of innovation and creativity.

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