Dialing in to Context

Dialing in to Context

It happened again. The Harvard Business Review newsletter sent me an article about creativity – not a bad thing, per se, since I requested it. But a quick look at their latest articles on creativity shows that there are a number of them, and they are recent, which indicates the importance of this topic. Yet, do you notice anything about the topics in the list that might be in contrast to your own experience of creativity and innovation in the workplace?  They all focus on leading organizations, team collaboration, or creative individuals. These are important things but there’s something missing… the context. 

By context, I mean the processes, rules of behavior, role definitions, workplace tools, team memberships, and individual subjects — among other things; the context includes all these elements and how they interact.

A great deal of research and information focuses on individual subjects such as employees or leaders. Some research deals with teams and their processes and rules of behavior (e.g. how teams collaborate, communicate, or brainstorm). Other research focuses on something entirely different – social networks and their characteristics like number of people in the network, strength of ties between people, frequency of contact. Still more research integrates social networks with individuals — are networks filled with “givers”, “takers”, or “matchers” (A. Grant) … are they “connectors”, “Mavens”, etc. (M. Gladwell). Yet these things are only part of the workplace context — and many people have experienced a larger variety of contextual effects of creativity and innovation than those described by social networking research.

One example is how workplace tools influence creativity. For instance, a software company makes a tool for internal use – let’s say, a toolkit of some kind. The development team creates the toolkit and other employees are expected to use it.  It is a work object – the output of one team for use as the input of another team. This tool is also known as a “boundary object”, an object that bridges two social communities. How helpful the tool is depends on how well the tool bridges the knowledge and work in the development team with the knowledge and work in the user (employee) team. When the tool bridges the gap well, it’s great  — it’s easy to use, to get answers to questions, to get functionality added, to get problems resolved, etc. When tools don’t bridge the gap well, they breakdown and they cause problems: they are confusing; time consuming; and don’t meet the needs and desires of the user team. The tool is designed and developed within one context with a particular knowledge set that does not translate into the knowledge set or activity needs in the user context. (I have seen this a lot with externally released software tools, as I am sure many of you have as well.)

Having broken tools means that time is taken away from creativity and innovation. Job satisfaction and performance can decrease, stress is increased. Time, attention, and energy are used on dealing with a “broken” unhelpful tool rather than developing novel solutions to ongoing problems.

The context is a rich set of background conditions that create an immersive ambience in which we collaborate, create and work. To ignore it means that we remain unaware of its effect on us thereby reducing our ability to overcome the conditions it imposes. 



Image “lover our new phone” by Nate Stelner from Flickr used under CC 2.0.

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