Igniting the Creative Spark

Professionals dread mediocrity, but the good can be the enemy of great when greatness is all is we aim for. Today begins a 30-day experiment in creative writing that starts with a look at the blocks posed by perfection. 

Twelve years ago I completed a randomized controlled trial that was the first community-based trial to look at how you could use the Internet in community setting with youth. It was fraught with problems. Each setting was different, the computers were different in each setting, there were varied configurations of spaces, and the youth centres (where the study was run) were all different.

It was a mess.

It also gave me the knowledge and insight into what it really means to do community-based eHealth and the challenges that we ought to consider when doing realistic studies with youth and information technology. That pilot trial served as the precursor for a bigger, more complex study that was done in schools (PDF) (for many of the reasons cited above). Yet, what we learned by doing that trial was barely shared outside of a few presentations. It was never published.

The reason? It wasn’t perfect. Yes, the design was pretty solid, but there were too many inconsistencies in the settings and populations to present anything to the world and no one would publish it. That might have been true, but since that study was completed I’ve been asked consistently how to do community-level eHealth research. Review the literature and you’ll find few examples, probably for the reasons that I experienced. The research is almost never “great”, yet we fail to share the good. And in doing that, we limit our chance to become great.

We researchers and public health folk are not comfortable with failure (even if it might be better framed as something else) and spend an inordinate amount of time working to create bulletproof studies that pass peer review. The problem, is that peer review by its very nature is about looking at findings relative to what has been done before or the current standard, not what could be. It isn’t about innovation.

It is no surprise that we find there to be such a gap in the amount of innovation that actually takes place in settings where peer review reigns as the dominant mode of assessment like universities (although we see it in business too — see last link).

Pressure can help spark innovation. Too much pressure kills creativity, while too little eliminates the necessary focus to innovative.

What the right balance is depends on the context, which means being able to try things and fail. To many of my colleagues feel that they cannot afford to fail because of the pressure to “get it right” the first time due to an absence of resources like available grant funding. This is exacerbated by a peer review system that rewards conservative approaches to knowledge generation and, as I’ve noted before, experience doing the same thing rather than adventuresome work doing something different. Add to that, an educational layer that reinforces very modest approaches to practice and research and you have a recipe for non-innovative thinking.
Failing to fail or letting good and great be enemies of each other is part of the problem. One solution is to get things out there, experiment and get the feedback from a community on whether or not you’re hitting the right note.

Over the next 30-days, I’m going to be looking at these issues in great depth, in simple terms and everything in between as I take up a challenge from another innovator, Seth Godin, who has been inspired by the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson to write a blog-a-day and just get ideas out there. In academic terms this is crazy, but in a world that is changing fast and not always for the good, crazy is a kind of innovation that we might need more of.





*** Photo Sparks by Jonas Maaloe used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

Posted by Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.