The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

A lab with a difference

Tim Morley has been involved with the Innovation Lab for seven years, but just what impact do surroundings have on creativity?

Who am I? Well, that’s a tough one. For seven years, since I joined the Royal Mail Innovation Lab, I’ve been trying to describe what I do but it’s probably easier left to others. I can be a facilitator, teacher, coach or ideator — whatever the client wants at that moment in time.

Workshops are just as difficult to pigeonhole. Problems, desired outcomes, individuals, groups; there are just so many variables, and this — without fail — is what makes the job so challenging and exciting.

I am always mindful of Kirton’s* notion of Problem A and Problem B. The group has to come together to solve a problem — ‘Problem A’ — but much of its problem-solving energy and effort will be distracted by ‘Problem B’, the need to resolve the tensions and style differences within the team.

I have seen jaws drop and lightbulbs switch on for people when they suddenly become aware of their ‘style’ of problem solving and that of others and how those differences in styles can create either great tension or powerful diversity of thinking if managed well.

Venue for creativity

But let’s get back to venues. The Innovation Lab is a purpose-built facility designed specifically to help people think differently. At first sight the writable walls, toys, bright furniture and multimedia facilities can give an impression that environment is all about physical features.

Yet, while it is certainly a privilege to facilitate in a space like this where delegates are stimulated and curious, physical environment is only a small part of the ‘creative climate’ topic. Because the Innovation Lab is so visually different it can sometimes overshadow the equally (if not more) important psychological climate that often comes down to the facilitator to create and role model for the group.

All too often, I’ve seen the huge investment in physical environment wasted through the failure to equally invest in the human ‘spirit’ that helps people to feel safe and relaxed enough to open their minds and explore new and potentially threatening (to their status, ego and expertise) problems and ideas.

These days, a lot of my work is focused on creating that psychological climate in everyday surroundings. Rather than waiting to do creative thinking in a special facility, people should be doing it ‘right here, right now’, in the spaces and places that are naturally provided to them.

Unusual venue, different ideas

That’s why I enjoy facilitating workshops and events in unusual surroundings. Museums, nightclubs, cathedrals, roadsides, canal-sides, cafes and theatres can all offer stimulation and space, enabling people to think differently. Combine this with careful facilitation and leadership, and it is surprising just how creative and productive people can become.

Staying conscious of process and group dynamics can require a great deal of energy and stamina, so the fact that I’ve also — until recently — been burning the midnight oil would not, at first sight, seem the most sensible course of action. It has, however, been for a good cause.

Everyday creativity

A good few years after my first degree — which was in engineering, bringing me to Birmingham and my first job in the packaging industry — I have, at nights at least, gone back to school. I’ve been working for my Masters degree in Creativity and Creative Leadership. My major interest is in ‘everyday creativity’ — the often unnoticed problem solving of everyday people simply overcoming everyday challenges.

At first glance this may seem light years from the start of my working life when, as a hands-on creator, mechanical engineering seemed a natural choice. It enabled me, as technical director, to travel the world while simultaneously providing many opportunities to invent (I am the registered inventor of a number of world patents). Even then, though, I knew that I had more to give than simply well-handled nuts and bolts, which was why — after various twists and turns — I made the career leap to The Innovation Lab. Yet the focus on ‘everyday creativity’ enables me to use what I’ve learnt at The Lab and elsewhere in my MA. It is living proof of the fact that we are all creative and can all learn to develop this skill to be more deliberate in our applied creativity. This fascination with the everyday led me to the world of ethnography, and I elected as part of my degree to do an Open University post-graduate course in the subject. Being able to choose to observe a situation with beginner’s eyes and ask the question ‘why?’ is fundamental to creative problem solving.

Catch-up evenings

All this studying, not to mention catching up on client emails, can make for a certain number of fun-packed evenings, but when occasionally the dust settles I enjoy spending the time with my family or getting stuck into one of many ‘garage projects’ where I can get my hands dirty and do something creative for myself. I believe in practising what you preach and delight in new and interesting challenges.

As I write, the family have gone to bed and I’m finally getting round to putting the finishing touches to this article. I’ve known about it for weeks, and once again I’m doing the work quite literally at the eleventh hour — rather like one or two journalists of my acquaintance. I don’t mind, it’s how I am and how I flourish. I am happy with how it works and can go to bed exhausted and satisfied. A good day’s work done.

 

Tim Morley
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