Be more Monet: lessons in creativity for care commissioners

Innovations that put users at their core should be our norm, but achieving this isn’t easy. It’s time to start thinking like a 19th-century Impressionist artist, says Clare Morris.

Building digital care services around people often demands the most innovative thinking, but it’s hard to break new ground when pressure to deliver nails our imagination to well-trodden pathways. What we need is a little inspiration to spark creativity…

Leave your comfort zone

In the early 1860s Monet and a bunch of his contemporaries seized on the radical idea that to truly understand their subject (the play of light and the colour in nature) they’d have to venture forth from the comfort of their cosy studios.

Hoiking easels and oil paints out into the sunlight and immersing themselves in their subject, they took their first steps to inventing an entirely new visual language befitting the age.

When we’re redesigning care services (and think we’re discussing innovation) we often spend a lot of time talking to ourselves, staying in our safe spaces at council offices.

Actually getting out and talking to service users, families, carers, care workers and staff is fundamental to sparking innovation, and escaping the echo chamber that so often thwarts it.

The insight and intelligence you’ll gain from engaging with people at the coal face, even if those conversations may be uncomfy, will instruct an inclusive design process at every stage.

“I review every complaint we get,” said Claire Shuter of care provider ECL at our recent LGA masterclass on human-centred design and innovation.

“They tell me where the pain points are, what people don’t like and what’s not working for them. That can really inform change and innovation, and for me it’s been incredibly valuable.”

Leave your comfort zone

Monet’s commitment to truth meant breaking with the constrictive conventions of the time and inventing new ways of working. To do this he put his faith in a process that many artists and designers would recognise: gathering information rigorously; exploring ideas freely; critiquing solutions honestly; and executing ideas boldly. He focussed on the journey and let the outcome emerge organically.

So, do you see much of that in your department? As care professionals at our masterclass noted, public sector organisations aren’t known for their enthusiasm toward risk or failure.

However the journey to innovative and human-centred digital services is never a linear progression from problem to solution. Instead it’s a chaotic ramble that inevitably involves blind alleys, the retracing of steps, and returns to the drawing board.

“If you’re in a genuine innovation space quite often you’re stepping into uncharted territory where you can’t control everything,” says Dan Farag, director of People Powered Results at Nesta.

“That can be quite uncomfortable for those in positions of authority, so creating a safe space for learning becomes crucial. If you can start small it becomes safe to fail, and allows you to acknowledge that failure equals learning. That’s part of the process.”

Nesta’s tools and frameworks – developed in collaboration with councils to help break limiting habits and find creative ways of working – can be found at rethink.co.uk.

Expect multiple iterations

Monet famously returned to the same landscapes month after month, refining and evolving his approach. He’s perhaps best known for depictions of his water lily garden, a scene he painted around 250 times over 30 years.

OK, so this time frame is a little unrealistic in social care, but prototyping your solution again and again allows you to become less precious and timid in your design.

“A typical analytical approach to solving problems is you analyse the problem, develop a hypothesis and get confidence about the solution,” says Dan.

“A design-led approach is much more iterative, much more messy. You’re constantly testing ideas which might change the nature of how you understand the problem and develop different ideas. Some will work, some won’t. This constant back and forth between problem and solution, tweaking to make sure functionality meets the users’ needs, is inherent in a design approach.”

One advantage of an iterative approach is speed.

“A pointer I’ve taken from my years in digital innovation is to be agile and quick,” says Claire Shuter. “We built a digital application in six weeks – the most productive six weeks of my life!”

Just do it

So…many of us understand the need to think and act differently when it comes to designing services, but getting started is hard. 

The advice from the experts? Just start.

“Innovation and design is messy,” concludes Dan. “You have to get your hands dirty and just get stuck in.”

Monet, with his field paintbox and bundles of blank canvasses, would most definitely approve.

About Clare Morris

Clare Morris is a former NHS leader and co-founder of Rethink Partners, working with health and care organisations to visualise and implement change for good.

clare@rethinkpartners.co.uk

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