Innovation in Social Work: Where Does it Come From?

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by Nancy J. Smyth

As social workers, we often confront complex situations. And we are all about developing solutions and strategies for change. In doing so we draw on our past experience, research, the experience of colleagues, and best practices. But sometimes we come up short and find we need new ideas–we find that we need to innovate.

What is innovation, anyway? Merriam Webster defines it as “a new idea, device, or method” or “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation in social work, wondering how we get and develop our new ideas. Maybe we need to do something new to deal with a practice or policy situation we’ve never encountered before, or with a radically-changing environment. Or perhaps we just think our work needs a new approach to keep it fresh, or to increase our capacity to engage our client systems. Regardless, innovation is a part of what we do in our work, at least occasionally. If it never shows up in our work, it’s probably not a good sign!

Where My Ideas Come From

My biggest source of innovation is reading and listening to what others are doing, especially others who are only “weakly” connected to me and my day-to-day work. I build on the principle of “weak ties,” that is the theory that our best sources of new strategic information come, not from our closest relationships, but from those people with whom we have only sporadic contact (see Innovation, Strategic Networks & Social Media: Or Why I’m Here for a discussion of this principle). In addition, I remember what I learned from a paper I wrote about innovation in my doctoral program: if you’re looking for new ideas, read outside your field.

What that means, in practice, is that I try to monitor content outside of social work through Twitter, that is, following thought leaders and organizations that are not social work related. I “clip” the ideas that strike me as interesting, read them, tag them as “ideas,” and store them in a program called Evernote.

This process allows me to both monitor trends and to see what others have been doing. When I have a chance, I might even write the ideas up on my blog, or in one of the internet-based social work communities that I’m in and see what others have to say about what I’ve come across. Discussing ideas with colleagues can be a really fun, creative process.

Sometimes reading outside my field means looking at another aspect of social work practice. For example, when I was working in addiction treatment settings I tried to stay abreast of the major developments in mental health, in addition to addictions.

I’ve also found new ideas by listening carefully to my clients — several of my forays into new technology (e.g., blogging, Second Life) were by inspired by hearing what my clients were doing. I was intrigued by what I heard (and didn’t quite understand what they were talking about), and so I decided I needed to explore the new technologies on my own.

The result of such exploration resulted in many new innovations in both my teaching and practice. For example, around 2004, I set up a protected blogging community for my EMDR class: all students had to complete a weekly blog entry about how they were applying the class content. Interestingly, that was the only year that 100% of the class (as opposed to the typical 70%) actually used EMDR with their clients by the end of the semester.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

So you’ve read what I do — I would love to hear how you get your new ideas. I have no doubt that there are many pathways to innovation. Please take a moment to share, in the comments, what works for you to generate new ideas, and perhaps, an example of a time that you did so.

Photo courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig (hikingartist.com) through Creative Commons license.

61 comments

  • I enjoy hearing how other helping professions “do business”. I learned a lot about effective group therapy from a recreation therapist. I learned a lot about scales and assessments from talented psychologists. I also had a really effective collaboration with a special ed teacher. Innovation comes from collaboration.

    • Thanks for adding to our discussion of innovation in social work — collaboration is a great source of innovation, and you have highlighted well the tangible benefits of interprofessional collaboration.

      • Your welcome, thanks for getting the gears going about this. Just had a successful meeting with my teenage client and his school counselor to think differently and redefine “the problem”.

  • Thanks for sharing how you come up with your ideas for innovation, Nancy. I think I tend to get inspired in the same way – by following and reading articles/posts of others in both mental health and different fields of interest primarily via twitter [or listening to others in lectures/webinars/conferences].

    On that note, you may enjoy Beth Kanter’s recent post: Nonprofit Innovation Toolkits: Methods To Invent, Adopt, and Adapt Ideas to Deliver Better Results at http://www.bethkanter.org/toolkits/ She shares [and describes] a number of wonderful toolkits aimed at stimulating innovation in nonprofit organizations.

  • I think you are on the right path in terms of staying aware of what others outside of the matrix of the SW world are doing and what developments are going on in other arenas. I think that there can also be benefit (and this may sound self-serving, given that I am coming to sw after a career in entertainment engineering and design) from the influx of non-traditional voices into sw who bring their experiences of other arenas into sw. As an example, I became aware of “lean” methodology through my relationship with manufacturers who were using it as a means of cost containment and to optimize work and quality. I think there is a lot to be learned by the idea of integrating that style of intentional work design and optimization into the sw arena, as I believe that it can improve client throughput, increase quality of life for social workers, and improve outcomes and efficacy. But this is very “foreign” to most people and often considered suspiciously. Being open to new things is also part of the challenge of allowing innovation in.

    • Great points, Gil. I agree completely about the useful skills that people can bring in from other industries. We have a local nonprofit that’s now working with other non-profits on applying lean processes (http://www.comconnectionsny.org/) to how the deliver services more effectively and efficiently. I’ve also hired a consultant from the corporate to work with some of my staff to do the same here in the school. It’s been invaluable.

      P.S. I didn’t know that you had a background in entertainment engineering!

      • Thanks for the link. Yes, I am very curious about Lean in our space (and have been wondering if there is a dissertation in there somewhere…) I will check out the link.

        Yep, somebody has to build theme park rides, and I did it for a good number of years. lol

  • Nancy – thank you for a thought-provoking post. I get most of my new ideas from you. Keep up the good work!

    On a more serious note, I agree with and do all of the things you mentioned. My brain is buzzing with ideas about what is innovation, and how does it happen. When I think about innovation I don’t think of it as synonymous with invention, or discovery, or paradigm shift – although it could be all of those things. I usually think of an innovation as a solution to a problem; innovations that address a big problem for lots of people can be a paradigm shift (e.g. printing press). I’m usually thinking of something that isn’t working well for me and my sphere of influence (client, student, child, etc). For example, I started the Social Work Podcast because I realized that MSW students did not have an easy way to access REALLY IMPORTANT scholarly information after graduating. The information they were supposed to be learning in their practice theory class would be more important when they were in the field working with clients, than it was for the test I was giving. My innovation was to record summaries of the lectures I gave and put them into the format of a podcast. The innovation was not making a recording of professional practice information – people have been doing that for decades. The innovation was not creating the technology that enabled people to subscribe to the podcast – that had been done years earlier. What I see as the innovation was recognizing a gap, realizing that a technology existed that could be used to bridge that gap, and then doing it. The podcasting innovation that you are responsible for that I’m always talking about is that you created the inSocialWork podcast (nee Living Proof) as a school-wide effort, not just the product of a single tech evangelist. That is an amazing feat of leadership.

  • Ellen Belluomini @ebelluomini

    What a great thread, Nancy! There should be seminars on this for social work students. I think for me innovation has two paths. The first path is goal oriented. Finding a resource for a client, developing curriculum, or working on a committee all lend themselves to goal oriented innovation. I start with a vague end result and work backward in problem solving. If I have a goal of writing a blog article then I am doing what you said, looking to other disciplines to integrate into social work practice. This cross pollination leads to ideas not found within the profession. I feel like my own data mining device. The groups I am in (like the social work in technology group) is a treasure trove of people invested in innovation. Support and feedback from other people can make or break a project.

    This process can be time consuming, but usually worth the energy. If I become stuck then I invest in another project to let the ideas of the first project grow. Evernote is a great program. I have many more project ideas than I have time to invest. We should start a database of ideas we don’t want to pursue but someone else could!

    The second path is creation for the sake of addressing how something could be better. This is my favorite type of activity. It usually starts as a small seed of an idea and blossoms into a working project. I see each of these ideas as gifts. They usually come at the times I am not thinking, I am dreaming. Doing absolutely nothing, being still, centering myself, listening within create a space for this insight. As I sit quietly a seed appears. I revere moments of creation, probably because I don’t often allow myself down times very often. These flashes of inspiration can address a problem I struggle with or grow an idea from my data curation activities on the Internet. I never know if they will manifest into anything, but I honor the process as if it will.

    • Ellen, thanks for your wonderful descriptions of these paths. What struck me about your second example (which I suspect comes into play with your first one, too), is how you create the space for new ideas. That’s so critical and I don’t think we talk about it enough. If we keep our selves too busy and overstimulated (e.g., on my smartphone in all my open times, like waiting in line at the grocery store) we lose the mind-wandering that is essential to creativity. And the meditative process that you describe (although you didn’t call it that) is a wonderful example of intentionally creating that space. Your comments also reminded me that there’s quite a bit of evidence about how daydreaming fosters creativity (e.g. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/10/09/mind-wandering-and-creativity/).

      • Ellen is, as always, thought-provoking. One of the challenges I have seen in my field placements, both in direct practice and administrative/macro practice, is that it seems like a lot of our sisters and brothers are so busy reacting to the challenges of the work environment that there is little time to contemplate, design, or enact changes. I have been discussing this with my supervisor in my current placement and methods of trying to “get out in front of the ball” to allow space for some of this analysis and planning, rather than always chasing the ball (i.e. reacting to the busyness of the environment.) It’s a delicate little balancing act, in my view, since meetings can be such an incredible unproductive time-suck, if one does not build in the intentionality and process to make it useful. Peace. g

  • I could add a big “Ditto” to the comments so far and call it good. Like you Nancy, a big part of my innovative thinking in social work stems from seeing what is going on outside of social work and trying to see if it fits in with our values and ethics. If it doesn’t fit, then how do I make it fit, or should I even try? This is part of what got me so interested in social media and new media literacies. Seeing what folks in the nonprofit world and the media studies world are doing seemed to parallel what I wanted to see happen with various systems I interacted with in social work. I have to say here that this path is not easy. I think it took some time for some individuals at VCU to see value with my inquiry into this topic when it came to my dissertation. Luckily I had enough individuals on my side cheering me on.

    I guess I would put collaboration or cross pollination at the top of my list. But it is important for me to come back to social work to stretch those ideas and really test them. This is where the folks at VCU who didn’t see the value in my dissertation came in handy 😀 I also think that getting the perspective of other human service professionals helps to see where certain innovations might be applied.

    A corollary here that I think is worth mentioning is that innovation is not always successful. Part of what makes innovation innovative is the process of making mistakes, learning, and trying again. As long as you have the vision for what can be, you can always try a couple different paths to make that vision a reality. This is also part of why I really really enjoy seeing tech minded social workers apply different perspectives and thinking to social work. See what you (Nancy) and many others are doing inspires me to think outside the box and more creatively. It’s fun!

    • Jimmy, I love that you’ve thrown into this conversation how making mistakes and dialoguing witth others (especially with skeptics) both help to advance innovation. Both are examples of things that we sometimes try to avoid, and yet, I agree that they really are important. And yes, collaborating with others is an amazing source of innovation for me, too. It’s also what I really enjoy about our social work and technology Google+ community (https://plus.google.com/communities/115588985317830085141),

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  • I would add that innovation is more than just coming up with the cool idea — which is often, as others have pointed out, a novel combination or application of existing ideas/methods. Innovation involves follow-through. The idea has to be developed, tested, refined, tried in different settings, etc. For example, lots of therapists come up with innovative interventions with their clients. Very few such interventions become “innovations in the field” because they were not developed beyond the single use.

    • Very interesting point, Ricky. It sounds like you’re saying that it’s not really an innovation if it doesn’t have an impact of some sort. Kind of like “If the tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” but for us it’s “if there’s an innovation that doesn’t move beyond the person who developed it, it doesn’t innovate.”

      • Yes and. Therapists can be innovative in their own offices and that’s good for their clients. But an Innovation, to me, is one that makes a sound that others (e.g., other practitioners) hear.

  • One more thing… Don’t forget the role of accident. For example, I developed Progressive Counting by teaching what I thought was the Counting Method, based on a misunderstanding of how it was supposed to be done.

  • Dear Nancy,
    The post is very timely. I have been working in the fields of on Social Innovation, Social Intrapreneurship and Social Entrepreneurship and their relevance to social work today. These three terms go together. The following articles speak to the topics.

    Nandan, M. & London, M. & Blum, T. (in Press). Community Practice Social Entrepreneurship: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Graduate Education. International Journal of Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

    Nandan, M. & Scott, P. (2013). Social entrepreneurship and social work: The need for a transdisciplinary education model. Administration in Social Work. 37(3), 257-271. Elink: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/YD8HfBV5ekEfM6mFT2Dd/full

    In my professional journey through business, health care and social work, I have reached a conclusion that “no one profession” really can do it all. As the complexity and dynamic nature of issues increases in a global world, how we train and prepare social work students needs to change. Real innovation is often happening at the intersection of disciplines and sectors.

    There are several definitions of the aforementioned terms, mostly in the nonprofit and business literature. For example, Thompson saw innovation as “…the generation, acceptance, and implementation of new ideas, processes, products or services” (1965, p. 2).
    Baregheh, Rowley and Sambrook (2009) defined innovation as “something new and improved” (p.1331). Innovations fall into three categories: pure social innovations, pure business innovations, and innovations that fall into the realm of both social and business (Pol & Ville, 2009). Generally, “[i]nnovation takes place along a continuum at and between the edges of chaos and stability” (Tapsell & Woods, 2010, p. 543). The term “social innovation” is viewed as a “new idea [that] has the potential to improve either the quality or quantity of life” at micro or macro levels (Pol & Ville, 2009, p. 881).

    One can devote a fair amount of time and energy to defining these concepts for our profession. However, arriving at a consensus is almost impossible. Therefore, in my opinion, introducing students to these concepts early on their academic career, then introducing these concepts to field instructors who may already be practicing these concepts–but have never thought to stop and re-label their work–is a task cut out for educators. During the several presentations I have made at local and national levels on these topics to social work audience, it is not surprising that social workers are already practicing as social innovators, social entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. Am currently writing two articles on these practices among social workers in a Midwestern city.

    For interested parties, I have a bibliography of almost 20 pages on the above concepts, should anyone be interested. Also, last year I taught an elective course on Social Innovation to graduate students. I cannot express how well it was received. There was so many “ah ha” moment that we have decided to add some of the readings into a practice course. Will be happy to share syllabus.

    Thank you for starting this poignant and truly inspiring blog Nancy.

    • Thanks for jumping into this discussion, Monica. I’m very excited by “social innovation” and all that our profession can brings to this concept. I find that many of our students are drawn to these ideas, so I’m especially excited to hear about what you’re writing on this topic. At UB, we’ve just had our first course offering related to this topic (a bit more narrow…our course, which was online, was on Social Entrepreneurship). We’ve had a visiting faculty member teaching it because we don’t currently have anyone on faculty who has had an interest in doing so. So thank you for sending me your resources–they will go to good use!.

    • What an exciting page!!!! I am a new entrant in the field of social work. I have a background in Law and Development studies. I have worked mostly in the HIV/AIDS policy world. I am about to embark on a PhD in social work journey at a university in Canada and I am really excited. I am interested in social work and social innovation and I just stumbled on this exciting page with great and useful information from contributors. Nancy Smyth and everybody thanks for the information. Monica Nandon thanks for your offer to send a bibliography of almost 20 pages to anyone who is interested. I would love to have a copy please. I am planning to write a thesis on social work and social innovation. I am only just beginning my journey. I am sure to contribute to this forum once I settle in social work. Thanks

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        Enjoy.

        Monica

      • Esther, your enthusiasm is contagious! I’m so glad that this post resonated with you. Best of luck to you in your doctoral studies on social work and social innovation. We need a great deal of research on this important topic.

  • Hi all – could not be a more timely conversation for me – exciting to hear from other souls so passionate about this topic. In recent years, I’m beginning to re-connect/re-commit with explicit work on the topic of creativity and innovation in social work (I did my dissertation on this topic in 2006 at the University of Denver). I have two projects in the wings specific to this: First, I’m (as we speak) finishing an article called “In Praise of Questions, Curiosity and Creativity in Social Work” which challenges that due to so much recent focus on “competency” in social work, I fear we’ve sacrificed some discipline-wide dialogue about the role of aspiration, creativity and possibility in our thinking and our work. Social work, in this sense, is, at its best – about social imagination and social impact (this is taken from what I’m working on…). We have an abject dearth of language exploring this across the social work literature – let’s fix this shall we? Secondly, I’ve been starting up a project to actually ask the question (across schools of social work), are we promoting innovation in our curriculum and our teaching (and if so, HOW are we doing it?) as a research endeavor – so stay tuned as I hope to have something to share with the world on that score someday. One other thing I might like to add to the larger conversation – is that a HUGE factor in “innovation” is the role of interdisciplinary activity – from the classic innovation literature (which is huge, extensive and fascinating). Within disciplines, innovation tends to get stuck within our own ideas, paradigms, limitations, “expertise.” But ACROSS disciplines, we introduce new possibilities, new combinations, etc. This is why interdisciplinary work is so very exciting.

    • Hello,
      Could not agree more. Innovation at the intersection of disciplines and sectors. That was the thesis of the following forthcoming paper.
      Nandan, M. & Scott, P. (in Press). An innovative interprofessional education model to engage community and nonclinical participants. Journal of Interprofessional Care.

    • Correction…my diss. work was in 1997!

    • Laura, I, agree completely about the important role of interdisciplinary activity in fostering innovation. And I’m excited to hear that creativity and innovation in social work is a special interest of yours. We don’t have dialogues about how to encourage such things anywhere nearly enough in our profession. One of the reasons I was so disappointed when CSWE eliminated the option for the alternative project for reaffirmation is that I thought this was a wonderful mechanism for encouraging innovation — it certainly is what transformed our school around our trauma-informed and human rights focus.

  • P.S. Previous post from Laura Nissen at Portland State University nissen@pdx.edu

  • Hi Nancy, I agree that being open to inspiration inside and outside of the matrix of social work can be a useful way to allow new ideas to flow in. Most of my social work ideas come from my professors, students and readings but also from key informants that I find reliable and inspiring.

    I don’t think there has ever been a better time for innovators. The internet has changed everything. It is now possible to collectively problem solve across professions reflecting the idea that no one is as smart as everyone. I can find a vast amount of knowledge and a community of people who share my interests and are dedicated to solving problems together. Their backgrounds and experiences are diverse. This phenomenon is supportive of innovation.

    I recently was approached to help fund autism applications for children by a coder whose daughter has autism. He launched a campaign on Kickstarter, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1755359990/crack-the-books-digital-books-evolved , so anyone can support his project it they think it is worthy of support. In the past he might not have had access to funding. I already used a spelling app he created successfully with two of my clients. Kickstarter offers funding alternatives for projects that can benefit social workers – who knew?

    I find inspiration following people on Twitter. I follow Sir Kenneth Robinson because I enjoy listening to him speak about education. TEDx lectures are a consistent source of great information. I enjoy Russell Brand for his comedy and for his social commentary. Musicians inspire me. My informants link me to others they think I should pay attention to.

    It seems “creative destruction” has increased recently. Capitalism depends on it for better or worse. Hopefully I have the sense to seize those great ideas that will benefit those I serve, and guard against those innovations that are implemented in ways that harm people.

    Dave Edgar
    MSW Student UB

    • Dave, those are wonderful examples. And I agree completely, that the Internet is accelerating this process. For those people who know how to use these tools, it can be a very creative time. For those who don’t (many social work colleagues, still), I worry about their ability to participate in shaping the future.

      Thanks for taking the time out to comment at what I know is a busy time in the semester.

  • I love this discussion!!

    As the Director of our Field Education program here at UB SSW, I often reflect on this question: Can you teach someone to be innovative? I’m curious about others’ thoughts on this.

    I’m a fan of Robert Kegan’s theory on adult / professional development. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Kegan

    Kegan talks about an advanced stage of development in which individuals: 1) have a greater sensitivity to their own subjectivity (can self-reflect); 2) have a greater capacity for multiple perspective-taking; 3) utilize an evidence-based decision making process and engage in self-evaluation; and, 4) are self-authorizing. They operate autonomously, relying on the authority of the self for knowing and action, and they are able to tolerate ambiguity.

    This is generally where innovation in a profession occurs, and new paradigms are created. Individuals who attain the highest order or stage are those who can uncover the larger purpose of a profession and assume a socially critical stance.

    Their questioning nature, and socially critical stance, however, may not always be supported by the mainstream of a profession. Does that ring true for colleagues here?

    Laura

    • What you write rings true for me. I’ve always thought that the ability to tolerate ambiguity is one of the key things I hoped that students would achieve by the end of their graduate work. I think this can be taught to some degree. At the same time, I think there are strong emotional components to being able to do this well (and to innovate) that I’m not sure can be taught completely. When I think about the five factor personality model in psychology (http://psychology.about.com/od/personalitydevelopment/a/bigfive.htm: extraversion, agreeableness, concientiousness, neuroticism, openness), it seems to me that that people low in openess and high in neuroticism will be much less likely to innovate. While I’m sure one could help people move a bit on these trait dimensions (through education and an environment that supports the change), I would guess that a major shift is unlikely.

  • I have been following the discussion for the last few days and I have several ideas.
    1. Thinking about the question: “Where does social innovation come from in Social Work?” one answer for me would be being exposed to different cultures. Having the opportunity to travel to 24 countries, learning about the history, politics, economy, and welfare of the state, gives me creative ideas which could work in a different culture. (with certain adaptations taking into consideration cultural differences.) This discussion reminded me of this article http://www.socialinnovation2011.eu/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/The-Analysis-of-Social-Innovations-as-Social-Practice.pdf The article describes the “innovation in social service as a dynamically evolving phenomenon stimulated both by the growing pressures from social challenges and by cultural and institutional changes involving the welfare state, the social, security and care categories.” According to Hochgerner, “innovations, addressing primarily social objectives, include: roles (of individuals, NGOs, corporate business, and public institutions); relations (in professional and private environments, networks, collectives); norms (on different levels, legal requirements) and values (custom, manners, mores, ethic/unethical behavior).”
    2. Regarding Laura Lewis’s question if you can teach someone to be innovative, the research is optimistic about it, there are a lot of resources on this topic. This is one example http://learn-serve.org/2014/can-you-really-teach-social-innovation/ which emphasizes the importance of identifying the innate entrepreneurial spirit of young people, and the importance of helping them develop the accompanying technical skills. I agree with Laura and think it is possible to guide and teach a wide group to be innovative. This year I have offered the on-line course “Social Entrepreneurship.” The aim of the course was to guide students to develop and propose their own “Big Idea for Social Change”. Each week there were reading assignments, case study discussions and individual reflection exercises which offered students the “ground” for innovation. In the first weeks students reflected upon if they engaged in community service as a child and if this became a habit, and what is the source of their passion and what social problem they would like to solve. As a result the ideas for the proposal were either form their personal experiences when some needs were unmet or their professional experiences when they have identified a gap and brainstormed to find a solution using discussion and peer review feedback.
    3. An article that I would like to share is http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03643100903432974#.U2QeR4FdUrU which concludes that “social entrepreneurship is an exciting new field in which the expertise of social workers is undoubtedly helpful and appropriate. Being businesslike should no longer connote a negative attribute of a social worker or a social service organization. Paradoxically, business acumen appears increasingly to be a necessary quality in a dynamic marketplace of increased competition and shifting demands for social work services.”

  • Thanks for those wonderful resources, Ana! I agree completely about how exposure to other cultures can help with innovation — it takes the concept of “reading outside your field” and amplifies it on every level. And that certainly speaks to the importance of our educational process including multicultural and international perspectives!

  • Richard Cloud

    Thanks Nancy, et al. for your thoughtful comments on innovation.

    I have in recent years developed internet/cell technologies to support treatment and case management that social work agencies invariably agree would be major improvements in improving client outcomes at the same cost per patient, but are largely and irrationally unwilling to pilot much less implement these innovations. Thus, a secondary, but equally important discussion is the practical discussion on the process of adoption of innovation, I see sometimes described as “technology transfer.” It seems that no matter how “good” an innovation may be at improving cost of care or increasing client outcomes, and even those that are heavily research supported, there is within social work agencies an irrational and prevalent reluctance to change. Alternatively, I am finding an eager audience within health care agencies to pilot my technologies. No doubt some of the barriers in social work agencies relate to limitations of funding, especially in more recent times, but there is reason to suspect closed organizational systems that serve to maintain the status quo (homeostasis) in the face of innovation.

    Having had a prior career in for-profit organizations (before social work) and then later practicing in community mental health (as a social worker), there seems to be a much greater reluctance to embrace innovation in not-for profits, where, in addition to a normal reluctance to change (homeostasis) prevalent to some extent in all orgs and individuals, there would seem to be other cultural barriers that create heavy barriers to technology transfer. If there is one good aspect of for-profit business, most would agree that direct payment for goods and services directly from the end user-user, creates a powerful force in opening org boundaries to consideration of innovation. This direct link between consumer and org survival creates a clear and present need to remain vigilant for ways to improve consumer satisfaction and reduce efficiencies. When funding is determined by a third party governmental agency. I suspect that the org. cultures tend to take on values imposed by the funding source, which are not necessarily the same as the consumer of services. Thus, agencies prioritize values secondary to consumer satisfaction and efficiencies, for example, maintaining best relations with the funding source. This can and does lead to a value for staying out of the news, eliminating errors, and other values that run contra to embracing innovation.

    I suspect there are many many great innovations that are simply not considered or implemented in our quasi governmental systems. I use the independent case of Motivational Interviewing within addiction treatment to illustrate this point. William Miller innovated Motivational Interviewing with solid research that was published in the 90s (Project Match) that demonstrated it worked equally well as two other research supported addiction treatment methods, but at 1/3 the number of sessions. Since then there have been multiple meta- analyses (3 that I can recall) and at least one article that interprets and integrates the meta-analyses suggesting that on average brief MI sessions will increase adherence to treatment plans and generally improve outcomes by 10% or more. Workshops on Motivational interviewing have been widely available since the 90s (I am a trainer) and, at this point been attended by most addiction treatment counselors. However, it fails (at least in KY) to be widely adopted as formalized standard of practice, even in a small way as a 1 hour brief intervention administered during assessment that has demonstrated increased adherence to and completion of treatment plans (both highly related to better addiction outcomes) in multiple randomly controlled trials. Further, those agencies that purport to practice MI rarely have any systematic method to insure fidelity, and many studies have demonstrated a lack of fidelity that ensues within a few months of training.

    Thanks for the venue.

  • Richard, thanks so much for adding this critical dimension to the innovation discussion. Clearly, it’s not enough to develop innovations, they need to be disseminated and implemented (and, I would add, sustained)–that’s definitely a challenge that we still haven’t figured out. I think that would be a good topic for another blog post, because, as you so eloquently observe, it’s a challenge with complex causes.

  • Such a great post, Nancy, and I like idea of utilizing the principle of “weak ties,” to develop more innovation. I also get ideas via social media connections, especially ones that have direct ties to social work, such as program evaluation and activism. I do a lot of reproductive health, rights, and justice work, and I get a lot of my innovation on keeping up with political trends happening in sexual and reproductive health. I also echo Dorlee’s suggestion of Beth Cantor’s nonprofit innovation toolkit. I noticed it a few weeks back, and it gave me some ideas on how to improve how I work strategically.

  • Thanks so much for weighing in, Nicole. It’s great to hear that these ideas resonate with you, too. I, too, love Beth’s work — we’re actually bringing her to speak in Buffalo September 22nd, and I’m pretty excited about that.

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  • I believe there are two types of innovation, The first is when an entirely new paradigm is introduced, such as with EMDR. The second is when knowledge from different sources is integrated and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, leading to creative adaptations and sometimes taking on a life of its own, such as with AEDP.
    I’ve been thinking about Laura Lewis’s question, “Can you teach someone to be innovative?” and Nancy Smyth’s response. Laura mentioned the importance of the following characteristics in fostering innovation: self-reflection, multiple perspective-taking, effective decision-making, autonomy, and tolerating ambiguity. Nancy commented on the importance of extraversion, agreeableness, concientiousness, neuroticism, and openness and said one could help people move a bit on these trait dimensions but she guesses that a major shift is unlikely.
    If we restrict ourselves to a cognitive change process, then I agree with Nancy that we are somewhat limited in our ability to change many of these traits. However, if we expand our teaching model to include transformational approaches that create trait change, then I believe it is possible to decrease neuroticism, broaden one’s perspective, increase autonomy, expand the capacity to tolerate ambiguity, raise reflective functioning, and enhance creativity. For some, learning and practicing mindfulness can achieve some of these trait changes. For others, it might be necessary to use therapy approaches that facilitate processing emotions to completion, developing secure attachment, reconsolidating traumatic memories, etc.

    • Thanks for adding some other wonderful perspectives to this rich discussion, Andrea.

      I do want to clarify that I didn’t mean to give the impression that I don’t think we can change traits at all. Given the research that traits are on a continuum (i.e.,that they aren’t dichotomous), I think it is possible to shift people in one direction or the other on a trait scale. But that’s not the same as moving people from one part of the continuum to another end entirely. In addition, I don’t think traits should be pathologized — people are different from one another and aren’t our differences part of what make us interesting? I think we need all types of people — innovators and late adopters — both are necessary for our world to have change, as well as some stability and continuity. I think there will be people who will never be comfortable with an innovation process despite going through teaching and therapy. And, that’s a good thing, we need those people too: they will challenge those of us pushing innovation. They will question and push back — and they should. I have relied on people like this in my teams — they help me think through an innovation (and sometimes throw it out).

    • I appreciate your clarifications, Nancy. I agree with you that it is a mistake to pathologize traits. That was not my intention. I was thinking of situations in which the individual wants to change in order to achieve certain goals..You also make a good point about the benefits of working with people on both ends of the spectrum – innovators and late adopters.

      I’m not sure what the literature says about which traits are more fixed and which are more changeable but I have observed some dramatic changes in some of the traits that have been mentioned with regards to innovation. I have watched people become much more reflective, open, agreeable and able to tolerate ambiguity from meditation practice and display substantially more flexibility, autonomy, and reflective functioning and significantly less neuroticism as a result of psychotherapy. The only trait mentioned that i haven’t seen a great deal of change in is extroversion. Introversion vs.extroversion is, in my opinion, more fixed than the other traits that were mentioned.

      • Andrea..I would love to see you write those cases up for publication — especially if they involve EMDR! And you could always include pre and post test of the personality trait measures. Adding in some measures like those, plus the anecdotal reports, would make for some great single case articles. I think I just channed Francine Shapiro for a moment there. 🙂

  • Dear Nancy,

    My deepest thanks for this amazing conversation! I have been pondering a lot about this subject, almost since the day I started graduate school. I questioned, many times, the field of social work, it’s direction, what are the gifts, and what is missing. My focus has always been on the behavioral health piece: treating the gestalt of the person: mind, body and soul, and how effective can I be as a practicing social worker. I made some interesting discoveries along the way. One of them, which is what led me to you, is how trauma-informed care has a lot of room to expand, develop, and grow as a critical underpinning of treatment. I also discovered that most patients were eager for a spiritual connection, but on the standard assessment/intake forms, it was one little question somewhere on the very last page. By the time the exhausted, anxious, doubtful client finished answering the multitude of questions – there was little time or energy for a meaningful answer.

    I was also immediately interested in an effective approach to formulating a recovery and treatment plan for the profound consequences of surviving trauma. I wanted to really understand, in-depth, what the role of spirituality is in trauma recovery. Since the answers were not presented to me, and discussions not taking place, I took the initiative to write my first book: “Trauma and Transformation: A Twelve Step Guide”. I demystified the misunderstood resource of spirituality, as it applies to healing from trauma. I provide my readers a guide to a personal spiritual approach that can lead a survivor in a new and powerful direction, perhaps not previously considered.

    Combining the details of the survivor’s inner reality with a step-by-step process of applying spiritual tools to each phase of recovery, I demonstrate how such a framework can be highly successful for survivors who seek to lessen their pain and confusion. I hypothesize that for a treatment process to be truly effective, a survivor needs to have special skills in order to overcome their challenges. This is accomplished when a survivor embraces this process. I show the reader how, step by step.

    Coming forward with a bold form of guidance, I include specific directions to trauma survivors who wish to make amends for being abusers themselves.

    Trauma and Transformation: A Twelve Step Guide is the indispensable guide to thoroughly understanding the basic principles of The Twelve Steps as a spiritual program used to treat alcoholics and other individuals with a range of self destructive and addictive tendencies. Offering a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of each of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous, this book offers insight, and guidance for anyone genuinely concerned about how to heal the physical, mental and spiritual wounding caused by traumatic experiences.

    As I begin to work on my second book, I have observed with a mix of compassion and intrigue, that the majority of client’s problems and needs, are not for the “correct” diagnosis, category, pill or slew of intake questions. I observe that each client walks into the office with an invisible duffle bag of burdens, most of them a result of claiming power over situations they are, in fact, powerless over. For example, being an heir to excessive guilt, family secrets, or anything else that they are suffering in the dark with. I seek innovation and inspiration from spiritual strength a client demonstrates when they walk through the front door, and exclaim: “here I am. I want help.” At least for a brief moment, they have let go for their duffle bag, and can experience a moment in the sun.

    I was told by many that you, Nancy, have spearheaded the “trauma-informed care” movement of today. What an honor to discover that in addition, you are compassionate, engaging, and very relatable. Thank you.

    Respectfully Yours,
    Rivka Edery, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.
    Author of: “Trauma and Transformation: A 12-Step Guide”

    • Rivka, thanks so much for sharing some of the innovations that you have developed. I would love to hear more about the process by which you “discovered” or came to them. Your post focuses a lot on the what, and now I want to hear more about the how.

      Also, I deeply appreciate your kind words about my role in spearheading the trauma-informed care movement, but I don’t feel like I can really take credit for that. I certainly have been a torch-bearer though.

      • Dear Nancy,

        In response to your inquiry, I have summed up my approach, as detailed in my book: “Trauma and Transformation: A 12-Step Guide”. I “discovered” them, as I observed what was lacking in the client-centered approach. Although there are over 400 clinical practices – many of them “evidence-based” – and close to 300 different diagnoses for clients, very little focuses on the client’s spiritual nature. Evidence-based approaches do not have “evidence” that a human being has a soul, that soul has needs, and one’s sense of meaning in life stems from this place. While we were given a plethora of options to diagnose and treat the mentally ill, we were given almost nothing on the most important part of the human being: their source of meaning and pathway to peace. I thought to myself: “What would it look like if a person’s spiritual needs were equally taken into account? What would be the quality of life for the suffering client? What if the powerful spiritual-based program of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were applied to treating trauma survivors? Would it work, and why?” My reasoning continued that surely survivors have similar issues, problems and needs, and if addicts can be helped significantly by this approach, why not trauma survivors? What followed was the birth of a new idea, that is truly unique, effective, and clears the pathway for a survivor to seek meaning in their life. I would love your input.

        GENERAL OVERVIEW OF THE 12-STEP MODEL

        The root process of the 12-Step model is a durable and peer-guided cognitive-behavioral method, based on the proven need for spiritual growth. The individual is improved by transpersonal and positive peer culture components, most notably accountability. As the survivor takes each step, at some point, they will face the harms that were perpetrated on to them, and how they were affected by it. Equally important, and later on in the process, they will itemize the harm that they have done to others, and how it affected them. This is how imbalance is dealt with, so there is true restoration.

        LET’S BEGIN!

        The first step is to build rapport with the client, beginning where the client is emotionally. Once they tell me what is troubling them, and their trauma history, I ask if there is any connection between their current troubles, and trauma memories that “got stuck in the memory machine”. I gently hold the survivor’s hand as they end their denial. Admitting that one was powerless (not weak), at the time, to stop, prevent, or interfere with the trauma, is the beginning of the end of one’s suffering. Denial takes up enormous psychic energy, as there is a non-stop war between the Ego’s desire to protect the person, and the fighting urge for one’s truth to surface. Lying underneath this psychic battleground of maintaining the illusion of power and control is the survivor’s hidden, potent rage and vulnerability. (Step One). Once acknowledging this, the survivor then moves towards a unique, personal solution (Step Two). This includes a process of believing that they are worthy of being safe, and receiving healing, love, and support. If they identify a personal spiritual source, we utilize it as their source for safety, love and strength. Trauma recovery especially calls for this. Once the survivor comes to believe that a personal spiritual solution is available for them, they decide that they will allow for their source of safety to guide their process. I call this the survivor’s Rock of Recovery (Step Three). At this point, one is ready to take a look at their personal roadblocks, and how they have impeded on their life. Every survivor has roadblocks, some due to the trauma, and some are innate. Such a through and honest evaluation of strengths and weaknesses requires a dedicated effort from the Survivor. (Step Four). When the survivor is ready, they move towards a new intimacy. They share their findings, holding back nothing. For some, this is a first experience of this kind. (Step Five)

        This new experience of intimacy gives them the fortitude to become ready, willing, and able to take necessary action for their recovery. The specific action required at this point, emerges after the first five steps are taken. (Step 6) Their preparation, thus far, allows them to ask for help. 
I believe that Humility is for Heroes! 
(Step 7). Once they are prepared to ask for help, and have done so, they being to prepare for peace. If they have done anything in their life that caused an imbalance, this is the point where they list them. Examples involve incidences with themselves, other people, institutions, or things. Specific names and incidences are listed, and the survivor takes an honest look at their own role, if they had any, in creating an imbalance. For example, an incest survivor (completely innocent at the time) goes through life seeking revenge at every opportunity. Relationships are unstable, with injuries that have not yet been repaired. This is the time for the survivor to itemize those injuries, and prepare to make amends. (Step 8). Once they have made their list, they now take specific action to make amends, create peace, and restore the balance. (Step 9). 


        Since everything and everyone is either moving towards growth or decline, the Survivor keeps a close eye on their strand of diamonds: their thoughts, and behaviors. They remain conscience of their treatment towards themselves, and others, and make amends right away, if necessary. This is extremely important for the survivor, as it prevents the emergence of old, faulty patterns, mistreatment, and imbalance. No longer will the survivor have to create pain needlessly for himself or herself, nor anyone else. 
(Step 10). Critical to nurturing their spiritual world, the Survivor sets aside time every day for prayer and meditation, in order to have conscious contact with their source of strength and safety (Step 11).

        And finally, the survivor is encouraged to do community /humanitarian service in whatever way that is meaningful for them. The hurts of the past cannot be undone, the scars cannot be erased, nor the tears that flow from one’s wounds be silenced. But a life rich with meaning and purpose is the force beneath their feet – creating strength and energy of which there is nothing else comparable. (Step 12)

      • Thanks, Rivka. Since the focus of this post (Where does innovation in SW come from) is on the How (not the WHAT, that is the innovation itself), I will focus my comments on that part of what you posted, although I certainly appreciate you taking the time to describe what you came up with in more detail.

        The first paragraph of your response is a great illustration of what I was hoping to hear, that is, the HOW of how you came to develop your innovation. What you’ve identified is that you saw a gap in what was currently needed and your drew on knowledge that you had from another content area (addictions) and applied it to trauma. Thanks for helping me see that so clearly!

  • Hi Nancy,

    I now understand what you were saying about people shifting in one direction or the other on a trait scale vs. moving to the other side of the continuum, I tried using the Big 5 Trait test to compare my own traits before and after 30 years of growth work and was surprised that the only trait to move to the other side of the continuum was neuroticism. I still shifted 1-3 points in other traits but remained on the same side of the continuum. Lesson learned!

    • Wow, what a great mini-experiment you did there, Andrea! That is what I was saying. But that said, I am interested in the kinds of changes that you have witnessed, and I’m curious now what other kind of measure might pick up on it. My guess is that you may see some trait stability, but perhaps there are changes in some approaches to specific situations? No need to answer that question, I’m mostly thinking out loud here. Thank you so much for expanding this discussion into some really interesting territory!!

  • Nancy,

    I am inspired by your blog entry, and all the comments. I had never before heard of the theory of “weak links,” and have been wanting to give Evernote another try (I think I was under-utilizing all the features in the past). I’ve also bookmarked Beth’s page on Nonprofit Innovation.

    In my own life, I have felt a strong link between innovation and passion. One of my favorite books is Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which he explores the psychological connection between psychological states that induce happiness and productivity. Another favorite is Drive by Daniel Pink, a book about internal motivation through the intrinsic value of engaging in behaviors. The connection for me is that the more positive we feel about creative endeavors, the more creative and innovative we become.

    I agree that social networking, and networking in general, is very important, but equally important is the ability to take time to reflect on our encounters, so that we can connect them in a meaningful way. Otherwise, networking is just contributing to the busyness that distracts us. Even Einstein said that he got his best ideas in the shower.

  • Paula, thanks for jumping in to this dialogue. What a wonderful point about the imporantce of reflection. I agree completely!! All the more reason to make sure that we take the time to “do nothing” except think, daydream or be present in the moment that exists.

  • What a great blog and response to read! I agree that innovation often happens through social networking and reflection on what you gained from that interaction. My best ideas have come from opportunities to train, learn, and work on projects with other organizations and peoples outside of my workplace through The National Council: http://www.thenationalcouncil.org/ . Hearing about so many great ideas, theories, and practices insights a passion that turns into ideas that can become action. I think another aspect to innovation is also the ability to make a plan. Planning must be a mindful task as executing an innovative idea is not so easy. Planning often involves a team of people working together towards a common vision. Planning models are great to consider as they lay a frame work to take innovation and effectively use action steps to succeed in executing the visionary idea. Often used in urban planning and agricultural planning, planning models note nine steps that encourage mindful, reflective, collaborative action. Here is a link to some of that information: http://www.arc.gov/program_areas/PracticalPlanningModels.asp . I use these steps at work when I am laying out new projects. Thank you to everyone for so many great ideas!

  • Danielle Pinkerton

    Thank you very much for this article! It is a great read. Although I cannot expand with new methods to create innovation in social work, I can add my professional experience to support the concept of social networking and looking outside of our fields for inspiration.

    To begin, I’d like to share that in my current profession, I am a Medicaid Service Coordinator who works with people with developmental disabilities.As an agency that operates under the New York State Office of People With Developmental Disabilities, (OPWDD) we often are told, though not in so many words, that innovation is the key to survival. This is attributed to the news that the federal government will no longer be providing as much funds through Medicaid that they have previously provided to this field.

    In my particular field, there has been a thirty year stagnation on what our programs and services have looked like and how they operated. The program my clients rely on today, may not be there in the next several years. Knowing that most agencies provide, and have always provided the same services, and knowing that they are being phased out, I often look to other fields for inspiration. I have found in my explorations into other fields, that services designed for individuals with mental illness or addictions, and even the chronic homeless, can be used to develop new ideas for providing services for individuals with disabilities.
    Workers in my field have made efforts utilize innovative technology to help individuals with verbal or language barriers, or other communication issues to encourage the ability to engage in self-advocacy.The main ‘road map’ we utilize as service coordinators are Individualized Service Plans. We have begun to take these plans, and with a person centered focus, have begun to view these clients, not as individuals who lack necessary skills to accomplish their goals, but as clients who lack the necessary resources to accomplish their goals. By viewing the social barriers that prevent them from participating in the community as the issue rather than the individual’s weaknesses, we can collaborate using their strengths, and the strengths of the community to develop innovative methods to serve our clients.
    Another major shift in perception, is that we are told that the clients we serve are expected to rely increasingly on community resources, that any poverty expert would point out don’t exist. However, through innovation, and collaboration between fields, some individuals have been able to build these supports and resources with support from the community members who interact with them regularly. Additionally, information such as what was provided in this blog will do to help me come up with more ways to assist my clients through the community based outlook. I believe that perhaps taking a jack-of-all-trades approach to my work, and asking A LOT of questions is how I create innovation in social work.

  • Pingback: It Was a Very Good Year: The Best of Social Media 2014 from UB School of Social Work | SocialWorkSynergy

  • Pingback: Grand Accomplishments in #SocialWork: #MacroSW Chat 2/4 at 9pm EST

  • Glad to see that this blog post is included as a resource for the #MacroSW Twitter Chat on Grand Accomplishments in Social Work held on Feb.4, 2016! here’s the link: http://macrosw.com/2016/02/03/grand-accomplishments-in-socialwork-macrosw-chat-24-at-9pm-est/

  • Pingback: Grand Accomplishments in #SocialWork: #MacroSW Chat 2/4 at 9pm EST | Karen Zgoda

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