Bullying, the market for education and the damaged quest for learning

Dark classroom, light minds

Dark classroom, light minds

A recent study found looked into the experience of cyberbullying by university professors at the hands of their students. This disturbing phenomenon points to much larger issues beyond mental health promotion and calls into question many of the assumptions we have about the systems we’ve designed to foster education and what it means to be a learner at university. 

The university is one of our oldest cultural institutions and its instructors are considered to have among societies most respected jobs, even if not always well compensated. In the past, students often approached their professors with a mixed sense of wonder, respect, curiosity and fear and that, in healthy situations, was reciprocated by faculty to create a space where people could explore ideas, learn, and challenge themselves and others to grow. That relationship has started to change as evidenced by the rise of cyberbullying in the classroom.

A recent article in Macleans Magazine looked at the changing state of the post-secondary classroom and the role of cyberbullying. Only this was not about student victims, but students as the perpetrators against their professors. The effects of cyberbullying are crippling and professors are bearing the burden of having hundreds of eyes watching them, writing about them and writing ‘consumer reviews’ about them in anonymous and sometimes unflattering, inflammatory and questionable terms on sites like RateMyProfessor.com .

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside found that as students age the incidence of face-to-face bullying decreases and cyberbullying increases, which might partly explain why we’re seeing this in university settings when face-to-face bullying goes subterranean. Yet, the notion that professors that are getting bullied by their students belies some other issues that require further investigation, namely those related to the nature of education and the role of students-as-consumers.

Consuming knowledge, producing expectations

If you pay for something, should you not expected to get something rather specific for that experience or product? Aside from some rare experiences of profane/profound personal challenge/punishment like Tough Mudder and its peers or dental work, there are few things we willingly pay for that we don’t derive pleasure from or achieve a very specific (anticipated) outcome.

Education is problematic because we might not know what we’ll get from it going in, what kind of experiences or ideas will emerge, and how our relationship to those experiences will change us. That is its great gift.

Many of us have had profound life changes because of something we experienced through our education and writing as one who has completed four different degree programs and a post-doc I can confidently say that I didn’t receive a lot of what I expected in any of those programs and I am a better person for it. Indeed, if I go to a specific learning event (aside from those focused on a specific technique or technology) I am disappointed if I actually come away with exactly what I expected.

That is part of the point. We don’t know what we don’t know.

But when you start viewing education as a thing that resembles any other market-driven product or services, you begin to focus on learning as a consumable good and your students as customers. In following this line of thought, it makes some sense to focus the delivery of this product on the desires of the consumer.

Increasingly, teachers (of various stripes) are being asked to consider a range of student-related variables in their education. Things like learning styles and preferences are now being woven into classroom instruction and students have come to learn to expect and are increasingly demanding to be taught in ways that match their unique learning preferences and styles. While there is reason to imagine that this approach is useful in stimulating engagement of students in the lessons, there is increasing evidence much of it does little to enhance actual learning. Many of the life lessons we’ve gained that shape what we do and who we are were not delivered in the manner of our choosing, conformed with our preferences and were not desired, expected or enjoyed in the moment. We risk confusing enjoyment with learning; they can be aligned but one isn’t necessary for the other to take place.

However, when we are viewing education from a consumer model, the specific outcomes become part of the contract. If I come to get a degree in X because I believe that the job market demands the skills and knowledge that X brings and I am paying tens of thousands of dollars and spending four or more years acquiring X then I feel entitled to expect all the benefits that X brings. Further, I expect that my journey to acquiring X will be enjoyable, because why would I spend more money than I’ve ever seen on something I don’t enjoy.

Particularly when that is money I don’t have.

A debt to pay

In Canada and the United States, student debt rates have dramatically increased. The Canadian Federation of Students note that Canadian’s attending post-secondary education now owe more than $15B to the Canadian federal government (PDF) as part of their student loan program, a number that doesn’t include debt accumulated from borrowing from banks, family, credit cards and other means. In Canada’s largest province, Ontario, the rate of graduate employment has decreased since 2001 and the overall youth unemployment rate continues to be the highest, despite the province having one of the most educated youth population in the country (and arguably, the world). And while Ontario universities continue to promote the fact that education is a better pathway to success, it is a hard pill for many students to swallow when many can’t apply what they trained for and paid for after they graduate.

Satirist John Oliver has an informative, humorous and distressing take on student debt and the state of consumer-oriented education for those who want to learn more.

None of these reasons are excuses for cyberbullying, but it does give a more complicated picture of those that might feel they are entitled to bully others and their reasoning behind it.

What we are seeing is a systems change in the way education is being produced, consumed and experienced. Even the mere fact that we can now reasonably use the language of consumerism to speak to something like education should give us pause and concern. I’ve been involved in post-secondary education for nearly 20 years and there has always been students who simply wanted the ‘piece of paper’ (degree) as a stepping stone to a job and little more than that from their time at school. They were willing to do the work — often the minimum possible — to graduate, but they knew they had to put the effort in to be successful. There was never an expectation that one was entitled to anything from going to school, although that might be changing.

Market identities and education systems

Belgian psychotherapist Paul Verhaeghe has explored the role of identity in market-based economies in his new book What About Me? In the book, Verhaeghe illustrates how we construct our identities as people drawing on the research that reflects (and often contradicts or obscures) the two major perspectives on personality and identity: the person-as-blank-slate and the person as a reflection of the environment. The former perspective assumes we come into the world as we are while the latter assumes the world makes us who we are and both have enormous amount of moral, cultural and evidentiary baggage attached to them.

What Verhaeghe does is point to the ways in which both have elements of truth to them, but that they are mediated by the manner in which we construct the very questions about who we are and what our purpose is. These questions are (for many cultural, historical, economic and political reasons that he elaborates on) frequently market-based. Thus, who we are is defined by what we do, what we own, what we produce, and how we use such things once out into the world and that the value that come with such ways of defining ourselves is considered self-evident. He makes a disturbing and convincing case when one stops to reflect on the way we think about how we think (metacognition + mindfulness) .

When viewed from the perspective of a market, knowledge and its products soon become the goal and not the journey. Indeed, I’ve even written about this in support of an argument for better research-to-action and knowledge translation. Much of the knowledge-to-action discourse is about viewing knowledge as a product even if the more progressive models also view this as part of a process and even more as part of a system. But it is the last part — the system — that we often give the shortest shrift to in our discussions. What Verhaeghe and others are doing is encouraging us to spend more time thinking about this and the potential outcomes that emerge from this line of thinking.

Unless we are willing to talk more about the systems we create to learn, explore and relate we will continue to support Verhaeghe’s thesis and uphold the conditions for the kind of education-as-a-product thinking that I suspect is contributing to students’ changing behaviour with their professors and creating a climate at universities that is toxic instead of inspiring.

Photo credit: Classroom by Esparta Palma used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Check out Esparta’s remarkable work here.

Thinking systemically about systems thinking

Carnaby Street

The Whole and the Parts

Systems thinking is a class of theories, models and methods for understanding human and non-human interactions as seen as wholes instead of parts. This focus on interconnections and relationships is precisely what makes it challenging for many when it comes to systemically considering what systems thinking is all about and the implications of this are many. This post provides an introduction to certain ideas in systems thinking and points to what makes it different than other non-systems thinking approaches to understanding something. 

Perhaps the most popular aphorism about systems thinking is the statement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, something borrowed from Gestalt Psychology. That statement is intended to reflect system thinking’s principal focus on the system itself rather than on the actors and actions within it.

It’s a subtle difference, but a meaningful one. For example, psychology might look at why individuals make choices and act and what implications come from those actions. Systems thinking seeks to look at the combined interaction of these interactions as a unified whole.

Boundaries

Fundamental to this way of seeing things is the concept of boundaries. Boundaries are essentially where the differences that make a difference lie. In a closed system, everything that makes a difference is clearly contained and observed within a relatively solid set of boundary conditions. Mechanical systems often function this way, making them simple or complicated in that they have the potential to be understood clearly in terms of causal connections and relations. These systems are more amenable to things like “best practices” where we can reasonably expect similar outcomes from consistent actions.

This kind of systems thinking is not as useful when applied to human systems, because they are mostly characterized as open systems. Open systems are those where the boundaries require some form of negotiation and may actually be in flux.

A general shorthand rule for setting boundaries in this kind of environment is this:

If you find yourself lost over and again in trying to understand where the influences and relationships within the system are, then you’ve probably bound your system too loosely. If you are finding too many influences laying outside of your boundaries, you’ve probably bound it too tightly.

Perspective: Where you sit

Systems are all about where you sit in relation to them. For instance, let’s take the example of family and some of the boundary questions one might ask in understanding this social entity as a system.

  • Firstly, who is family? You could define family as blood relationships. But is that immediate blood relations? For example, If parents and children count, then how do we consider grandparents who are the parents of the parents? Do they count as family when you bound the system? Do great grandparents? Should we use genes and, if so, what level of genetic similarity do we share? Are we all family?
  • Can family be defined socially? For example, if people become family by marriage and that marriage breaks down, does it influence the family system as you define it? What if that marriage ends via someone passing away? What if they are not married at all, but common law?
  • What about the roles that people play? Does an “Uncle” or “Aunt” who are close, intimate friends of the family, but not of blood ties still get included in the family? How about a trusted lifelong neighbour who has been a part of someone’s life the entire time, but was never genealogically connected to anyone?
  • Can our neighbourhood be part of the family?

One can make a case for any of these conditions. In defining a system there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to do it, just perspectives that are more or less useful and more or less attentive to specific details.

Purposeful systems

The answers to the questions about boundaries also depend on what the purpose of the system is in the first place. Purpose is the means by which we determine the differences and how they make a difference. You can imagine that one could potentially answer “yes” to almost every one of the questions asked above depending on where someone sits in the system and what kind of purpose they see in that system.

Part of thinking systemically about systems is defining the purpose of the system and ascertaining a perspective. That means being strategic about what you wish your systems thinking to support. It is here that much of the use of systems thinking I’ve witnessed breaks down. Organizations seeking to employ systems thinking often jump in without doing the pre-work needed to ground their perspective into some sense of purpose and perspective. This requires a mindful, honest accounting of the perspectives being brought into the discussion and connecting those to the strategic intent of your enterprise.

Being mindful of what one values, what one seeks to accomplish, and what kind of activities your organization engages in (or wants to engage in), and where the reach of your organization extends is a key starting position to thinking more systemically about systems.

The Myth of Fast-tracking Learning

The time keeper / El guardián del tiempo

The time keeper

In a quest for getting more, faster we pursue strategies that aim to compress and challenge the physics of time. Education is one of these areas where the quest to learn more, faster and ‘better’ may actually be taking us away from knowledge and speeding us to folly. 

What would you say or do if your physician or attending nurse in the hospital told you that they attended a medical school that distilled all the key sources of knowledge into packages that allowed them to complete their training in half the time?

Would you be comfortable being treated by them?

What if you were seated on your next flight  and learned that the pilot of your aircraft was taught by a flight school that claimed it could train pilots without the thousands of flight hours by focusing on the essence of what it meant to fly and do that really well in a short period of time?

Would you still want to fly with them?

What if someone said that they had a formula for taking Ericcson’s near mythical 10,000 hour rule* on building expertise and could halve it to produce the exact same results?

Would you believe them? And would you follow them?

Packaged learning and the myths of efficiency

While we might say no to these, we say yes to a lot of other things that are perhaps just as hard to believe. One of these is the myth of online education. Major online learning platforms (MOOC’s) like EdX, Coursera, and Udacity along with global education pioneers Khan Academy are delivering educational content to millions along with universities and thousands of smaller or independent education providers with the promise of offering distance education, some with degrees attached to them.

There is a place for this type of learning, but as often happens, the enthusiasm for speed, efficiency and profit blind and blur. Correspondence classes and the earliest online or distance learning programs were designed to meet the educational needs of those who were geographically isolated from others where face-to-face learning was impractical. What had a practical idea to solving a specific set of problem existing in a particular set of constraint conditions it is suddenly morphing into a standard for everyone and that isn’t a good idea.

Look around and you will see more ‘packaging’ educational experiences so that they can be scaled and delivered efficiently to different audiences. This might be fine if the content is simple and can be matched with the educator, the learning space (physical or online), and the cognitive and emotional demands placed on the learner in the process of learning the material. Yet, frequently this isn’t the case. Now, we see efforts to create programs to teach complex, important topics in a weekend, a week or a short retreat with the idea that we can just get to the essence of what’s needed and the rest will take care of itself.

Doing the work, putting in the time

No better example of this is hyper-learning myth is found that with Timothy Ferris, author of the 4-hour workweek and other rapid-fire learning books. Ferris takes his readers through his journeys to be hyper-efficient and learn things in a compressed time along the way.

One example is how he became a champion in a martial arts tournament in a sport he knew nothing about before engaging in mere weeks of training before the event. This achievement was done through some clever exploitation of tournament rules and engaging in a near obscene dehydration plan that enabled him to lose weight prior to weigh ins to allow him to fight below his normally expected weight class. This doesn’t change the outcome, but it adds a very big asterisk to its notation in the record books. Ferris’ work is filled with these sleight of hand kind of efficiencies that might work for a one-off, who’s longer term is questionable**.

Ferris has made a career out of intense, hyper-condensed learning and, even if he does what he claims, his approach to learning is his job and life. For most people, learning is one of a great many things they have on the go. Further, the problems they are trying to solve might not be ones that have a clear answer or a way to circumvent using a close read of the rules, rather they may be the kind of protracted, complex, thorny and wicked problems that we see in healthcare, social policy, environmental action, and organizational development. These are spaces where sleights of hand aren’t well received.

Other sleights of hand

In professional circles it is the longer-term that matters. System change, social innovation, healthcare transformation and community or organizational development are all areas where learning needs to start and continue throughout a long process. It often involves consideration of complex scenarios, an understanding of theory, reflective practice and experimentation that simply take time to not only engage with, but to contemplate.

It is like the parable about the farmer who wakes up one morning to find all of his crops dead because his unknowing son spent the night pulling up every stalk of grain with the belief that he could make them grow faster.

We have not been able to circumvent time, no matter what we wish.

The sleight of hand is in making busywork and information disguised as active learning and knowledge. There are certainly ways we can improve teaching, learning, knowledge translation and exchange and knowledge integration in its effectiveness, reach and impact, but we won’t be finding the ‘killer app’ that gives us the ability to download knowledge to our heads like the Matrix. These are developmental problems and thus ought to be treated using developmental thinking.

But we still try. Apps are being developed that allow us to learn anything, anywhere, in real time, from our phone or change our behaviour with a couple simple clicks, except there is virtually no evidence that we actually learn, actually change or do anything other than buy more and worry more.

True learning innovation will come from being wide-eyed about what we mean by learning, what we seek to achieve through it and creating the developmental thinking around what it means to bring them together rather than subscribing to legends or quick-fixes that simply don’t work.

 

* Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberative practice (PDF), which shows that attentive, intentional learning over time is a key determinant in high performing individuals. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers highlights this work in detail and has led to the popularization of what has been colloquially referred to as ‘The 10,000 hour rule’, which reflects the approximate number of hours of deliberative practice required to gain expert-level skill and knowledge in a field.

**Many of Ferris’ claims from learning languages in a few weeks to mastering other subjects are unverified.

Image Credit: The Time Keeper /El guardián del tiempo by Jesus Solano via Flickr used under Creative Commons License. Thanks Jesus for sharing your wonderful art with the world through Creative Commons.

 

 

 

The urban legends of learning (and other inconvenient truths)

Learning simulacrum, simulation or something else?

Learning simulacrum, simulation or something else?

Learning styles, technology-driven teaching, and self-direction are all concepts that anyone interested in education should be familiar with, yet the foundations for their adoption into the classroom, lab or boardroom are more suspect than you might think. Today we look at the three urban legends of learning and what that might mean for education, innovation and beyond. 

What kind of learner are you? Are you a visual learner perhaps, where you need information presented in a particular visual style to make sense of it? Maybe you need to problem-solve to learn because that’s the way you’ve been told is best for your education.

Perhaps you are a self-directed learner who is one that, when given the right encouragement and tools, will find your way through the muck to the answers and that others just need to get out of the way. With tools like the web and social media, you have the world’s knowledge at your disposal and have little need to be ‘taught’ that stuff, because its online.

And if you’re a digital native (PDF), this is all second nature to you because you’re able to use multiple technologies simultaneously to solve multiple problems together with ease if given the ability to do so. After all, you’ve had these tools your entire life.

A recent article by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen van Merriënboer published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Psychologist challenges these ‘truths’ and many more, calling them urban legends:

An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true.

The authors are quick to point out that there are differences in the way people approach material and prefer to learn, but they also illustrate that there is relatively little evidence to support much of the thinking that surrounds these practices, confusing learning preferences for learning outcomes. I’ve commented on this before, noting that too often learning is conflated with interest and enjoyment when they are different things and if we were really serious about it we might change the way we do a great deal many things in life.

In the paper, the authors debunk — or at least question — the evidence that supports the ‘legends’ of digital natives as a type of learner, the presence of specific learning styles and the need to customize learning to suit such styles of learning, and that of the lone self-educator. In each case, the authors present much evidence to challenge these ideas so as not to take them as truths, but hypotheses that have little support for them in practice.

Science and its inconvenient truths about learning

Science has a funny way of revealing truths that we may find uncomfortable or at least challenge our current orthodoxy.

This reminds me of a terrific quote from the movie Men in Black that illustrates the fragility of ideas in the presence and absence of evidence after one of the characters (played by Will Smith) uncovers that aliens were living on earth (in the film) and is consoled by his partner (played by Tommy Lee Jones) about what is known and unknown in the world:

Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

One of the problems with learning is that there is a lot to learn and not all of it is the same in content, format and situational utility. Knowledge is not a ‘thing’ in the way that potatoes, shoes, patio furniture, orange juice, and pencils are things where you can have more or less of it and measure the increase, decrease and change in it over time. But we often treat it that way. Further, knowledge is also highly contextualized and combines elements that are stable, emergent, and transformative in new, complex arrangements simultaneously over time. It is a complex adaptive system.

Learning (in practice) resists simple truths.

It’s why we can be taught something over and again and not get it, while other things get picked up quickly within the same person even if the two ‘things’ seem alike. The conditions in which a person might learn are cultural (e.g., exposure to teaching styles at school, classroom designs, educational systems, availability and exposure to technology, life experiences, emphasis on reflective living/practice within society, time to reflect etc..) and psycho-social/biological (e.g., attention, intelligence, social proximity, literacy, cognitive capacity for information processing, ability to engage with others) so to reduce this complex phenomena to a series of statements about technology, preference and perception is highly problematic.

Science doesn’t have all the answers — far from it — but at least it can test out what is consistent and observable over time and build on that. In doing so, it exposes the responsibility we have as educators and learners.

With great power comes great responsibility…?

Underpinning the urban legends discussed by Kirschner and van Merriënboer and not discussed is the tendency for these legends to create a hands-off learning systems where workplaces, schools, and social systems are freed from the responsibility of shaping learning experiences and opportunities. It effectively reduces institutional knowledge, wisdom and experience to mere variables in a panoply of info-bites treated as all the same.

It also assumes that design doesn’t matter, which undermines the ability to create spaces and places that optimize learning options for people from diverse circumstances.

This mindset frees organizations from having to give time to learning, provide direction (i.e., do their own homework and set the conditions for effective learning and knowledge integration at the outset). It also frees us up from having to choose, to commit to certain ideas and theories, which means some form of discernment, priority setting, and strategy. That requires work up front and leadership and hard, critical, and time-consuming conversations about what is important, what we value in our work, and what we want to see.

When we assume everyone will just find their way we abdicate that responsibility.

Divesting resources and increasing distraction

In my home country of Canada, governments have been doing this with social investment for years where the federal government divests interest to the provinces who divest it to cities and towns who divest it to the public (and private) sector, which means our taxes never go up even if the demands on services do and we find that individual citizens are responsible for more of the process of generating collective benefit without the advantage of any scaled system to support resource allocation and deployment throughout society (which is why we have governments in the first place). It also means our services and supports — mostly — get smaller, lesser in quality, more spread thinly, and lose their impact because there isn’t the scaled allocation of resources to support them.

Learning is the same way. We divest our interests in it and before you know it, we learn less and do less with it because we haven’t the cultural capital, traditions or infrastructure to handle it. Universities turn campus life to an online experience. Secondary schools stop or reduce teaching physical education that involves actual physical activity.  Scholarly research is reduced to a Google search. Books are given up as learning vehicles because they take too long to read. It goes on.

It’s not that there are no advantages to some of these ideas in some bites, but that we are transforming the entire enterprise with next to no sense of the systems they are operating in, the mission they are to accomplish, a theory of change that is backed up by evidence, or the will to generate the evidence needed to advise and the resources to engage in the sensemaking needed to evaluate that evidence.

Science, systems and learning

It is time to start some serious conversations about systems, science and learning. It would help if we started getting serious about what we mean when we speak of learning, what theories we use to underpin that language and what evidence we have (or need) to understand what those theories mean in practice and for policy. This starts by asking better questions – and lots of them — about learning and its role in our lives and work.

Design thinking and systems thinking are two thinking tools that can help us find and frame these issues. Mindfulness and its ethics associated with non-judgement, open-mindedness, compassion and curiosity are also key tools. The less we judge, the more open we are to asking good questions about what we are seeing that can lead us to getting better answers rather than getting trapped by urban legends.

Doing this within a systems thinking frame also allows us to see how what we learn and where and how we learn is interconnected to better spot areas of leverage and problems in our assumptions.

This might allow us to make many of our urban legends obsolete instead of allowing them to grow like the alligators that live in the sewers of New York City. 

 

 

Developmental Evaluation: Questions and Qualities

Same thing, different colour or different thing?

Same thing, different colour or different thing?

Developmental evaluation, a form of real-time evaluation focused on innovation and complexity, is gaining interest and attention with funders, program developers, and social innovators. Yet, it’s popularity is revealing fundamental misunderstandings and misuse of the term that, if left unquestioned, may threaten the advancement of this important approach as a tool to support innovation and resilience. 

If you are operating in the social service, health promotion or innovation space it is quite possible that you’ve been hearing about developmental evaluation, an emerging approach to evaluation that is suited for programs operating in highly complex, dynamic conditions.

Developmental evaluation (DE) is an exciting advancement in evaluative and program design thinking because it links those two activities together and creates an ongoing conversation about innovation in real time to facilitate strategic learning about what programs do and how they can evolve wisely. Because it is rooted in both traditional program evaluation theory and methods as well as complexity science it takes a realist approach to evaluation making it fit with the thorny, complex, real-world situations that many programs find themselves inhabiting.

I ought to be excited at seeing DE brought up so often, yet I am often not. Why?

Building a better brand for developmental evaluation?

Alas, with rare exception, when I hear someone speak about the developmental evaluation they are involved in I fail to hear any of the indicator terms one would expect from such an evaluation. These include terms like:

  • Program adaptation
  • Complexity concepts like emergence, attractors, self-organization, boundaries,
  • Strategic learning
  • Surprise!
  • Co-development and design
  • Dialogue
  • System dynamics
  • Flexibility

DE is following the well-worn path laid by terms like systems thinking, which is getting less useful every day as it starts being referred as any mode of thought that focuses on the bigger context of a program (the system (?) — whatever that is, it’s never elaborated on) even if there is no structure, discipline, method or focus to that thinking that one would expect from true systems thinking. In other words, its thinking about a system without the effort of real systems thinking. Still, people see themselves as systems thinkers as a result.

I hear the term DE being used more frequently in this cavalier manner that I suspect reflects aspiration rather than reality.

This aspiration is likely about wanting to be seen (by themselves and others) as innovative, as adaptive, and participative and as being a true learning organization. DE has the potential to support all of this, but to accomplish these things requires an enormous amount of commitment. It is not for the faint of heart, the rigid and inflexible, the traditionalists, or those who have little tolerance for risk.

Doing DE requires that you set up a system for collecting, sharing, sensemaking, and designing-with data. It means being willing to — and competent enough to know how to — adapt your evaluation design and your programs themselves in measured, appropriate ways.

DE is about discipline, not precision. Too often, I see quests to get a beautiful, elegant design to fit the ‘social messes‘ that represent the programs under evaluation only to do what Russell Ackoff calls “the wrong things, righter” because they apply a standard, rigid method to a slippery, complex problem.

Maybe we need to build a better brand for DE.

Much ado about something

Why does this fuss about the way people use the term DE matter? Is this not some academic rant based on a sense of ‘preciousness’ of a term? Who cares what we call it?

This matters because the programs that use and can benefit from DE matter. If its just gathering some loose data, slapping it together and saying its an evaluation and knowing that nothing will ever be done with it, then maybe its OK (actually, that’s not OK either — but let’s pretend here for the sake of the point). When real program decisions are made, jobs are kept or lost, communities are strengthened or weakened, and the energy and creative talents of those involved is put to the test because of evaluation and its products, the details matter a great deal.

If DE promises a means to critically, mindfully and thoroughly support learning and innovation than it needs to keep that promise. But that promise can only be kept if what we call DE is not something else.

That ‘something else’ is often a form of utilization-focused evaluation, or maybe participatory evaluation or it might simply be a traditional evaluation model dressed up with words like ‘complexity’ and ‘innovation’ that have no real meaning. (When was the last time you heard someone openly question what someone meant by those terms?)

We take such terms as given and for granted and make enormous assumptions about what they mean that are not always supported). There is nothing wrong with any of these methods if they are appropriate, but too often I see mis-matches between the problem and the evaluative thinking and practice tools used to address them. DE is new, sexy and a sure sign of innovation to some, which is why it is often picked.

Yet, it’s like saying “I need a 3-D printer” when you’re looking to fix a pipe on your sink instead of a wrench, because that’s the latest tool innovation and wrenches are “last year’s” tool. It makes no sense. Yet, it’s done all the time.

Qualities and qualifications

There is something alluring about the mysterious. Innovation, design and systems thinking all have elements of mystery to them, which allows for obfuscation, confusion and well-intentioned errors in judgement depending on who and what is being discussed in relation to those terms.

I’ve started seeing recent university graduates claiming to be developmental evaluators who have almost no concept of complexity, service design, and have completed just a single course in program evaluation. I’m seeing traditional organizations recruit and hire for developmental evaluation without making any adjustments to their expectations, modes of operating, or timelines from the status quo and still expecting results that could only come from DE. It’s as I’ve written before and that Winston Churchill once said:

I am always ready to learn, but I don’t always like being taught

Many programs are not even primed to learn, let alone being taught.

So what should someone look for in DE and those who practice it? What are some questions those seeking DE support ask of themselves?

Of evaluators

  • What familiarity and experience do you have with complexity theory and science? What is your understanding of these domains?
  • What experience do you have with service design and design thinking?
  • What kind of evaluation methods and approaches have you used in the past? Are you comfortable with mixed-methods?
  • What is your understanding of the concepts of knowledge integration and sensemaking? And how have you supported others in using these concepts in your career?
  • What is your education, experience and professional qualifications in evaluation?
  • Do you have skills in group facilitation?
  • How open and willing are you to support learning, adapt, and change your own practice and evaluation designs to suit emerging patterns from the DE?

Of programs

  • Are you (we) prepared to alter our normal course of operations in support of the learning process that might emerge from a DE?
  • How comfortable are we with uncertainty? Unpredictability? Risk?
  • Are our timelines and boundaries we place on the DE flexible and negotiable?
  • What kind of experience do we have truly learning and are we prepared to create a culture around the evaluation that is open to learning? (This means tolerance of ambiguity, failure, surprise, and new perspectives?)
  • Do we have practices in place that allow us to be mindful and aware of what is going on regularly (as opposed to every 6-months to a year)?
  • How willing are we to work with the developmental evaluator to learn, adapt and design our programs?
  • Are our funders/partners/sponsors/stakeholders willing to come with us on our journey?

Of both evaluators and program stakeholders

  • Are we willing to be open about our fears, concerns, ideas and aspirations with ourselves and each other?
  • Are we willing to work through data that is potentially ambiguous, contradictory, confusing, time-sensitive, context-sensitive and incomplete in capturing the entire system?
  • Are we willing/able to bring others into the journey as we go?

DE is not a magic bullet, but it can be a very powerful ally to programs who are operating in domains of high complexity and require innovation to adapt, thrive and build resilience. It is an important job and a very formidable challenge with great potential benefits to those willing to dive into it competently. It is for these reasons that it is worth doing and doing well.

In order for us to get there this means taking DE seriously and the demands it puts on us, the requirements for all involved, and the need to be clear in our language lest we let the not-good-enough be the enemy of the great.

 

Photo credit: Highline Chairs by the author

The Finger Pointing to the Moon

SuperLuna

SuperLuna

In social innovation we are at risk of confusing our stories of success for real, genuine impact. Without theories, implementation science or evaluation we risk aspiring to travel to the moon, yet leaving our rockets stuck on the launchpad.  

There is a Buddhist expression that goes like this:

Be careful not to confuse the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. *

It’s a wonderful phrase that is playful and yet rich in many meanings. Among the most poignant of these meanings is related to the confusion between representation and reality, something we are starting to see exemplified in the world of social innovation and its related fields like design and systems thinking.

On July 13, 2014 the earth experienced a “supermoon” (captured in the above photograph), named because of its close passage to earth. While it may have seemed also close enough to touch, it was still a distance unfathomable to nearly everyone except a handful on this planet. There was a lot of fingers pointed to the moon that night.

While the moon has held fascination for humans for millennia, it’s also worth drawing our attention to the pointing fingers, too.

Pointing fingers

How often do you hear “we are doing amazing stuff“when hearing about leaders describe their social innovations in the community, universities, government, business or partnerships between them? Thankfully, it’s probably a lot more than ever because the world needs good, quality innovative thinking and action. Indeed, judging from the rhetoric at conferences and events and published literature in the academic literature and popular press it seems we are becoming more innovative all the time.

We are changing the world.

…Except, that is a largely useless statement on its own, even if well meaning.

Without documentation of what this “amazing stuff” looks like, a theory or logic explaining how those activities are connected to an outcome and an observed link between it all (i.e., evaluation) there really is no evidence that the world is changed – or at least changed in a manner that is better than had we done something else or nothing at all. That is the tricky part about working with complex systems, particularly large ones. How the world is changed is subtitle of the the book by Brenda Zimmerman, Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton on complexity and evaluation in social change, Getting to Maybe. It is because change requires theory, strategic implementation and evaluation that these three leaders in such topics came together to discuss what can be called social innovation. They introduce theory, strategy and evaluation ideas in the book and — while the book has remained a popular text — I rarely see them referred to in serious conversations about social innovation.

Unfortunately, concrete discussion of these three areas — theory, strategic implementation, and evaluation — is largely absent from the dialogue on social innovation. No more was this evident than in the social innovation week events held across Canada in May and June of this year as part of a series of gatherings between practitioners, researchers and policy makers from all kinds of different sectors and disciplines. The events brought together some of the leading thinkers, funders, institutes and social labs from around the world and was as close to the “social innovation olympics” as one could get. The stories told were inspirational, the diversity in the programming was wide, and the ideas shared were creative and interesting.

And yet, many of those I spoke to (including myself) were left with the question: What do I do with any of this? Without something specific to anchor to that question remained unanswered.

Lots of love, not enough (research) power

As often happens, these gatherings serve more as a rallying cry for those working in a sector — something that is quite important on its own as a critical support mechanism — but less about challenging ourselves. As Geoff Mulgan from Nesta noted in the closing keynote to the Social Frontiers event in Vancouver (and riffing off Adam Kahane’s notion of power and love as a vehicle for social transformation), the week featured a lot of love and not so much expression of power (as in critique).

Reflecting on the social innovation events I’ve attended, the books and articles I’ve read, and the conversations I’ve had in the first six months of 2014 it seems evident that the love is being felt by many, but that it is woefully under-powered (pun intended). The social innovation week events just clustered a lot of this conversation in one week, but it’s a sign of a larger trend that emphasizes storytelling independent of the kind of details that one might find at an academic event. Stories can inspire (love), but they rarely guide (power). Adam Kahane is right: we need both to be successful.

The good news is that we are doing love very well and that’s a great start. However, we need to start thinking about the power part of that equation.

There is a dearth of quality research in the field of social innovation and relatively little in the way of concrete theory or documented practice to guide anyone new to this area of work. Yes, there are many stories, but these offer little beyond inspiration to follow. It’s time to add some guidance and a space for critique to the larger narrative in which these stories are told.

Repeating patterns

What often comes from the Q & A sessions following a presentation of a social innovation initiative are the same answers as ‘lessons learned':

  • Partnerships and trust are key
  • This is very hard work and its all very complex
  • Relationships are important
  • Get buy-in from stakeholders and bring people together to discuss the issues
  • It always takes longer than you think to do things
  • It’s hard to get and maintain resources

I can’t think of a single presentation over the past six months where these weren’t presented as  ‘take-home messages’.

Yet, none of these answers explain what was done in tangible terms, how well it was done, what alternatives exist (if any), what was the rationale for the program and any research/evidence/theory that underpins that logic, and what unintended consequences have emerged from these initiatives and what evaluated outcomes they had besides numbers of participants/events/dollars moved.

We cannot move forward beyond love if we don’t find some way to power-up our work.

Theories of change: The fingers and the moons

Perhaps the best place to start to remedy this problem of detail is developing a theory of change for social innovation**.

Indeed, the emergence of discourse on theory of change in worlds of social enterprise, innovation and services in recent years has been refreshing. A theory of change is pretty much what it sounds like: a set of interconnected propositions that link ideas to outcomes and the processes that exist between them all. A theory of change answers the question: Why should this idea/program/policy produce (specific) changes?

The strengths of the theory of change movement (as one might call it) is that it is inspiring social innovators to think critically about the logic in their programs at a human scale. More flexible than a program logic model and more detailed than a simple hypothesis, a theory of change can guide strategy and evaluation simultaneously and works well with other social innovation-friendly concepts like developmental evaluation and design.

The weaknesses in the movement is that many theories of change fail to consider what has already been developed. There is an enormous amount of conceptual and empirical work done on behaviour change theories at the individual, organization, community and systems level that can inform a theory of change. Disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political theory, geography and planning, business and organizational behaviour, evolutionary biology and others all have well-researched and developed theories to explain changes in activity. Too often, I see theories developed without knowledge or consideration of such established theories. This is not to say that one must rely on past work (particularly in the innovation space where examples might be few in number), but if a theory is solid and has evidence behind it then it is worth considering. Not all theories are created equal.

It is time for social innovation to start raising the bar for itself and the world it seeks to change. It is time to start advancing theories, strategic implementation and evaluation practice and research so that the social innovation events of the future foster real power for change and not just inspiration and love.

 

* one of the more cited translated versions of this phrase has been attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh who suggests the Buddha remarked: “just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

** This actually means many theories of change. A theory of change is program-specific and might be identical to another program and built upon the same foundations as others, but just as a program logic model is unique to each program, so too is a theory of change.

Photo credit: SuperLuna with different filters by Paolo Francolini used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

Seeing the lights in research with our heads in the clouds

Lights in the clouds

Lights in the clouds

Some fields stagnate because they fail to take the bold steps into the unknown by taking chances and proposing new ideas because the research isn’t there to guide it while social innovation has a different twist on the problem: it has plenty of ideas, but little research to support those ideas. Unless the ideas and research match up it is unlikely that either area will develop.

 

Social innovation is a space that doesn’t lack for dreamers and big ideas. That is a refreshing change of pace from the world of public policy and public health that are well-populated by those who feel chained down to what’s been done as the entry to doing something new (which is oxymoronic when you think about it).

Fields like public health and medicine are well-served by looking to the evidence for guidance on many issues, but an over-reliance on using past-practice and known facts as the means to guide present action seriously limits the capacity to innovate in spaces where evidence doesn’t exist and may not be forthcoming.

The example of eHealth, social media and healthcare

A good example of this is in the area of eHealth. While social media has been part of the online communication landscape for nearly a decade (or longer, depending on your definition of the term), there has been sparse use of these tools and approaches within the health domain by professionals until recently. Even today, the presence of professional voices on health matters is small within the larger discourse on health and wellbeing online.

One big reason for this — and there are many — is that health systems are not prepared for the complexity that social media introduces.  Julia Belluz’s series on social media and healthcare at Macleans provides among the best examples of the gaps that social media exposes and widens within the overlapping domains of health, medicine, media and the public good. Yet, such problems with social media do not change the fact that it is here, used by billions worldwide, and increasingly becoming a vehicle for discussing health matters from heart disease to weight management to smoking cessation.

Social innovation and research

Social innovation has the opposite problem. Vision, ideas, excitement and energy for new ideas abound within this world, yet the evidence generation to support it, improve upon it and foster further design innovations is notably absent (or invisible). Evaluation is not a word that is used much within this sphere nor is the term research applied — at least with the rigour we see in the health field.

In late May I participated in a one-day event in Vancouver on social innovation research in Vancouver organized by the folks at Simon Fraser University’s Public Square program and Nesta as part of the Social Innovation Week Canada events.Part of the rationale for the event can be explained by Nesta on its website promoting an earlier Social Frontiers event in the UK:

Despite thriving practitioner networks and a real commitment from policymakers and foundations to support social innovation, empirical and theoretical knowledge of social innovation remains uneven.

Not only is this research base uneven, it’s largely invisible. I choose to use the word invisible because it’s unclear how much research there is as it simply isn’t made visible. Part of the problem, clearly evident at the Vancouver event, is that social innovation appears to be still at a place where it’s busy showing people it exists. This is certainly an important first step, but as this was an event devoted to social innovation research it struck me that most attendees ought to have already been convinced of that.

Missing was language around t-scores, inter-relater reliability, theoretical saturation, cost-benefit analysis, systematic reviews and confidence intervals – the kind of terms you’d expect to hear at a research conference. Instead, words like “impact” and “scale” were thrown out with little data to back them up.

Bring us down to earth to better appreciate the stars

It seems that social innovation is a field that is still in the clouds with possibility and hasn’t turned the lights on bright enough to bring it back down to earth. That’s the unfortunate part of research: it can be a real buzz-kill. Research and evaluation can confirm what it means for something to ‘work’ and forces us to be clear on terms like ‘scale’ and ‘impact’ and this very often will mean that many of the high-profile, well-intentioned initiatives will prove to be less impactful than we hope for.

Yet, this attention to detail and increase in the quality and scope of research will also raise the overall profile of the field and the quality and scope of the social innovations themselves. That is real impact.

By bringing us down to earth with better quality and more sophisticated research presented and discussed in public and with each other we offer the best opportunity for social innovation to truly innovate and, in doing so, reach beyond the clouds and into the stars.

Photo credit: Lightbulb Clouds by MyCatkins used under Creative Commons License. Thanks Mike for sharing!

Do We Need a Social Innovation Taxonomy?

 

Which species of social innovation represent your work?

Which species of social innovation represents you?

As social innovation grows in popularity the inevitable questions about what we mean when we use the term crop up. How we define, categorize and utilize the language of social innovation may require a taxonomy to enable us to better identify and understand its different species in the wild. 

One of the early things we learn as children is to distinguish things from one another. We start to learn that ‘cat’ is different than ‘dog’ and, soon after, that ‘white cat’ is different than ‘black and white cat’.

Classification systems become useful once the level of our understanding exceeds simple descriptors and requires more nuanced, detailed information to fully explain or interpret signals from it.

taxonomy |takˈsänəmē|

noun chiefly Biology

the branch of science concerned with classification, esp. of organisms; systematics.

• the classification of something, esp. organisms: the taxonomy of these fossils.

• a scheme of classification: a taxonomy of smells.

Over the past six weeks it has become increasingly evident to me that a taxonomy of social innovation might be required if we are to advance our thinking about what it is, what it does, and what it can become. Saying the term “social innovation” is becoming increasingly problematic without some qualifier or additional information, otherwise we are left asking: “What do you mean when you say that term?”.

Having attended numerous events, developed client projects, and taken some time to reflect it seems the time is right to start considering what a taxonomy of social innovation might look like. To start, I consider the two main ‘domains’ of social innovation as I see them: Big and Not-big social innovation.

Big social innovation

One of the most notable classifications of social innovation that I’ve seen is what I call Big and Not-Big social innovation. Big social innovation is the kind that is most likely to find itself discussed in places like the Stanford Social Innovation Review, find itself with design partners like IDEO or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the World Bank. This species of social innovation is intensely focused on scale, global impact, and large-scale partnerships between institutions often operating transnationally. This is a domain of big business, big philanthropy, big data, academics, policy wonks, media, design competitions and governments.

Suits, ballrooms, celebrity spokespeople, ‘rockstar’ scientists, TED talks and frequent flier miles play a big role in Big social innovation and success is measured in dollars saved/raised, thousands if not millions of units of something done, and global reach. Africa, India and the developing world are a popular point of focus for big social innovation. Terms like ‘best practice’, ‘innovating at scale’, ‘impact assessment’, ‘targets’ and ‘global reach’ are often heard in this community.

Big social innovation is usually top-down with grassroots connected through intermediary organizations.

Not-big social innovation

Not-big social innovation is a more wiley, diffuse, less-visible, but no less important part of this field of practice. It’s typically bottom-up and represented by many small and mid-size organizations of different stripes, relies on coalitions, and is often scrambling to maintain itself as so many of its participants are struggling to fund and support the operations. As such, its a much more fluid, dynamic environment. This is akin to the ‘pre-VC start-up’ world we see in the tech sector. It’s more often characterized by a highly volunteer-ized workforce, small-but-intense program delivery, with prominent roles for local leaders.

Not-big social innovation uses terms like ‘engagement’, ‘community’, ‘context-sensitive’, ‘co-design’ and ‘sustainability’ a lot, and when ‘outcomes’ are spoken of, they often are referred to on a program-by-program basis rather than in large, aggregated numbers. Qualitative research is popular and a deep understanding of ‘complexity’ (even when that term isn’t used) is felt, largely because those involved in Not-big social innovation often have to play multiple roles at once and don’t have the luxury of specializing on one thing.

Evaluation in Not-big social innovation might be done in-house with staff trained in evaluation methods or via a single-practitioner consultant who is likely to play multiple roles (e.g., evaluator, facilitator, designer, sense-maker, and educator), rather than through a large firm that may be more likely to deliver something focused more tightly on a large, single task.

Not-big does not equal small. Backbone organizations like the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement represent an enormous community of small and medium-sized groups who are having a big impact through coordinated effort.

Taxonomy thinking

Does one of the two forms of social innovation strongly resonate with you? Do you think one is better than the other? If so, you’re not alone.

I’ve had the privilege of traveling within and between both worlds and often see, hear and experience the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices within and between these communities. And they are communities with norms, values, beliefs and expectations as well as language, idols and aspirations just like any other.

However, the rush to judge either as good or bad fits a model that says that there ought to be one type of social innovation for all and implicitly presumes that there is a standard for practice that we should follow. This creates barriers to learning and communication along with dischord that is not useful. (Debate, argument, and disagreement are healthy, but only when it facilitates understanding and communication even if it doesn’t lead to agreement).

If we shift our thinking towards creating a taxonomy of social innovation we might better serve all in the long run. For example, the frog above is the Bufo viridis, a European toad. The image below is of the Hyla cinerea, a type of tree frog. Would we be so quick to say one is better than the other? Does that make any sense at all?

Biologists use taxonomies to identify animals, understand them, compare them, and share that knowledge with the world. By doing this same kind of thing with social innovation we might better produce the same kind of understanding and with it the love that comes from contemplative inquiry. In doing so, we create opportunities to invite people in, discover and share without the need for self-righteousness, prejudice and exclusion that undermines so many other social movements and could easily derail social innovation (taking all the benefits with it without giving us a chance to remedy its problems).

Big and Not-big changes to our understanding

There is a benefit to getting exposure, money and scale to certain social innovations in certain places at certain times (Big social innovation — BSI) just as we need intense local connections to grassroots, the diversity of participation, the lessons learned through struggles and wide participation for many other issues, places and contexts (Not-big social innovation, NBSI).

Social innovation is very young, yet mature enough that we might now need to consider it as something more than a single, solitary animal.

Is this frog that much better than the other?

Is this frog that much better than the other?

Photo credits: Bufo viridis by Matt Reinbold and Green? Tree frog by Matt Reinbold

both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

Thanks Matt for sharing your fabulous work with the world. Check his photostream out.

Beyond the Big and New: Innovating on Quality

The newest, biggest, shiny thing

The newest, biggest, shiny thing

Innovation is a term commonly associated with ‘new’ and sparkly products and things, but that quest for the bigger and more shiny in what we do often obscures the true innovative potential within systems. Rethinking what we mean by innovation and considering the role that quality plays might help us determine whether bigger and glossy is just that, instead of necessarily better. 

Einstein’s oft paraphrased line about new thinking and problems goes something like this:

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”

In complex conditions, this quest for novel thinking is not just ideal, it’s necessary. However genuine this quest for the new idea and new thing draws heavily upon widely shared human fears of the unknown it is also framed within a context of Western values. Not all cultures revere the new over what came before it, but in the Western world the ‘new’ has become celebrated and none more so than through the word innovation.

Innovation: What’s in a word?

Innovation web

Innovation web

A look at some of the terms associated with innovation (above) finds an emphasis on discovery and design, which can imply a positive sense of wonder and control to those with Westernized sentiments. Indeed, a survey of the landscape of actors, services and products seeking to make positive change in the world finds innovation everywhere and an almost obsessive quest for ideas. What is less attended to is providing a space for these ideas to take flight and answer meaningful, not trivial, questions in an impactful way.

Going Digital Strategy by Tom Fishburne

Going Digital Strategy by Tom Fishburne

I recently attended an event with Zaid Hassan speaking on Social Labs and his new book on the subject. While there was much interest in the way a social lab engages citizens in generating new ideas I was pleased to hear Hassan emphasize that the energy of a successful lab must be directed at the implementation of ideas into practice over just generating new ideas.

Another key point of discussion was the overall challenge of going deep into something and the costs of doing that. This last point got me thinking about the way we frame innovation and what is privileged in that discussion

Innovating beyond the new

Sometimes innovation takes place not only in building new products and services, but in thinking new thoughts, and seeing new possibilities.

Thinking new thoughts requires asking new or better questions of what is happening. As for seeing new possibilities, that might mean looking at things long forgotten and past practices to inform new practice, not just coming up with something novel. Ideas are sexy and fun and generate excitement, yet it is the realization of these ideas that matter more than anything.

The ‘new’ idea might actually be an old one, rethought and re-purposed. The reality for politicians and funders is often confined to equating ‘new’ things with action and work. Yet, re-purposing knowledge and products, re-thinking, or simply developing ideas in an evolutionary manner are harder to see and less sexier to sell to donors and voters.

When new means better, not necessarily bigger

Much of the social innovation sector is consumed or obsessed with scale. The Stanford Social Innovation Review, the key journal for the burgeoning field, is filled with articles, events and blog posts that emphasize the need for scaling social innovations. Scaling, in nearly all of these contexts, means taking an idea to more places to serve more people. The idea of taking a constructive idea that, when realized, benefits as many as possible is hard to argue against, however such a goal is predicated highly upon a number of assumptions about the intervention, population of focus, context, resource allocations and political and social acceptability of what is proposed that are often not aligned.

What is bothersome is that there is nowhere near the concern for quality in these discussions. In public health we often speak of intervention fidelity, intensity, duration, reach, fit and outcome, particularly with those initiatives that have a social component. In this context, there is a real threat in some circumstances of low quality information lest someone make a poorly informed or misleading choice.  We don’t seem to see that same care and attention to other areas of social innovation. Sometimes that is because there is no absolute level of quality to judge or the benefits to greater quality are imperceptibly low.

But I suspect that this is a case of not asking the question about quality in the first place. Apple under Steve Jobs was famous for creating “insanely great” products and using a specific language to back that up. We don’t talk like that in social innovation and I wonder what would happen if we did.

Would we pay more attention to showing impact than just talking about it?

Would we design more with people than for them?

Would we be bolder in our experiments?

Would we be less quick to use knee-jerk dictums around scale and speak of depth of experience and real change?

Would we put resources into evaluation, sensemaking and knowledge translation so we could adequately share our learning with others?

Would we be less hyperbolic and sexy?

Might we be more relevant to more people, more often and (ironically, perhaps) scale social innovation beyond measure?

 

 

Marketoonist Cartoon used under license.

 

 

 

Acting on Failure or Failure to Act?

3100602594_ce7a92e966_o

Who would have thought that failure would be held up as something to be desired just a few years ago? Yet, it is one thing to extol the virtues of failure in words, it is quite another to create systems that support failure in action and if the latter doesn’t follow the former, failure will truly live up to its name among the innovation trends of the 21st century. 

Ten years ago if someone would have said that failure would be a hot term in 2014 I would have thought that person wasn’t in their right mind, but here we are seeing failure held up as an almost noble act with conferences, books and praise being heaped on those who fail. Failure is now the innovator’s not-so-secret tool for success. As I’ve written before, failure is being treated in a fetishistic manner as this new way to unlock creativity and innovation when what it might be is simply a means reducing people’s anxieties.

Saying it’s OK to fail and actually creating an environment where failure is accepted as a reasonable — maybe even expected — outcome is something altogether different. Take strategic planning. Ever see a strategic plan that includes failure in it? Have you ever seen an organization claim that it will do less of things, fail more often, and learn more through “not-achieving” rather than succeeding?? Probably not.

How often has a performance review for an individual or organization included learning (which is often related to failure) as a meaningful outcome? By this I refer to the kind of learning that comes from experience, from reflective practice, from the journey back and forth through confusion and clarity and from the experimentation of trying and both failing and succeeding. It’s been very rare that I’ve seen that in either corporate or non-profit spaces, at least in any codified form.

But as Peter Drucker once argued: what gets measured, get’s managed.

If we don’t measure failure, we don’t manage for it and nor do our teams include failure as part of their core sets of expectations, activities and outcomes and our plans or aspirations.

Failure, mindfulness and judgement

In 2010 post in Harvard Business Review, Larry Prusak commented on the phenomenon of measurement and noted that judgement — something that comes from experience that includes failure — is commonly missing from our assessments of performance of individuals and organizations alike. Judgement is made based on good information and knowledge, but also experience in using it in practice, reminding me of a quote a wise elder told me:

Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.

One of the persistent Gladwellian myths* out there is that of the 10,000 hours rule that suggests if we put that amount of time into something we’re likely to achieve a high level of expertise. This is true only if most of those 10,000 hours were mindful, deliberate ones devoted to the task at hand and involve learning from the successes, failures, processes and outcomes associated with those tasks. That last part about mindful, reflective attention or deliberate practice as the original research calls it (as so many Gladwellian myths suffer from) is left off of most discussions on the subject.

To learn from experience one has to pay attention to what one is doing, what one is thinking while doing it, and assessing the impact (evaluation) of that action once whatever is done is done. For organizations, this requires alignment between what people do and what they intend to do, requiring that mindful evaluation and monitoring be linked to strategy.

If we follow this lead where it takes us is placing failure near the centre of our strategy. How comfortable are you with doing that in your organization?

A failure of failure

Failure is among the most emotionally loaded words in the English language. While I often joke that the term evaluation is the longest four-letter word in the dictionary, failure is not far off. The problem with failure, as noted in an earlier post, is that we’ve been taught that failure is to be avoided and the opposite of success, which is viewed in positive terms.

Yet, there is another reason to question the utility of failure and that is also related to the term success. In the innovation space, what does success mean? This is not a trivial question because if one asks bold questions to seek novel solutions it is very likely that we don’t know what success actually looks like except in its most general sense.

A reading of case studies from Amazon to Apple and Acumen to Ashoka finds that their success looks different than the originators intended. Sometimes this success is far better and more powerful and sometimes its just different, but in all cases the path was littered with lessons and few failures. They succeeded because they learned, not because they failed.

Why? Because those involved in creating these ‘failures’ were paying attention, used the experience as feedback and integrated that into the next stage of development. With each stage comes more lessons and new challenges and thus, failure is only so if there is no learning and reflection. This is not something that can be wished for; it must be built into the organization.

So what to do?

  • Build in the learning capacity for your organization by making learning a priority and creating the time, space and organizational support for getting feedback to support learning. Devoting a small chunk of time to every major meeting to reflecting back what you’re learning is a great way to start.
  • Get the right feedback. Developmental evaluation is an approach that can aid organizations working in the innovation space to be mindful.
  • Ask lots of questions of yourself, your stakeholders, what you do and the systems you’re in.
  • Learn how to design for your particular program context based on feedback coming from the question asking and answering. Design is about experimenting without the expectation of immediate success.
  • Develop safe-fail experiments that allow you to try novel approaches in a context that is of relatively low risk to the entire organization.

There are many ways to do this and systems that can support you in truly building the learning capacity of your organization to be better at innovating while changing the relationship you have with ‘failure’.

For more information about how to do this, CENSE Research + Design offers consultation and training to get organizations up to speed on designing for social innovation.

 

* Refers to ideas popularized by journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell that are based on the scientific research of professionals and distilled into accessible forms for mass market reading that become popular and well-known through further social discussion in forms that over-simplify and even distort the original scientific findings. It’s a social version of the “telephone game“. The 10,000 hour ‘rule’ was taken from original research by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues on deliberate practice and is often discussed in the context of professional (often medical) training, where the original research was focused. This distortion is not something Gladwell intends, rather becomes an artifact of having ideas told over and again between people who may have never seen the original work or even Gladwell’s, but take ideas that become rooted in popular culture. A look at citations on failure and innovation finds that the term deliberate practice is rarely, if ever, used in the discussion of the “10,000 rule”.

 

Photo Credit: Project365Fail by Mark Ordonez used under Creative Commons license via Flickr. Thanks for sharing, Mark!

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,355 other followers

%d bloggers like this: