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”.
Innovators transform the world around them in big and small ways and while a successful effort can be lauded by pundits, politicians and the public there is a long road to making change happen. That road is also a lonely one and doing things different means more than just innovating and experiencing what it means to be resilient firsthand.
Clayton Christensen’s seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma has been one of the leading sources of thinking-inspriation in business and social innovation. The book reflects the challenges with those seeking to introduce new ideas, products or services into established markets (or ecosystems) in the aim of addressing both people’s present and future needs.
These innovators — change-makers — risk disrupting the very markets they seek to influence bringing uncertainty for everyone. What innovators bet on is that the changes they introduce will have wide-ranging, positive benefits even if they don’t fully know what those are before setting out. Not surprisingly, these efforts are not always welcome at first and the road toward understanding and acceptance is a long one.
Innovation means doing something new and while we like to talk about new, many don’t actually like doing ‘new’ because that means questioning and changing things. Indeed, change — profound change — in thinking is often vigorously opposed as Albert Einstein pointed out in a quote that is paraphrased as:
Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds
This opposition is a challenge for anyone, but the long slog towards innovation is not only hard on the spirit, it is often a lonely path.
The lonely lives of leaders
To innovate means to lead through ideas and products. We live in a society that admires and elevates the innovators. No better or perhaps inspiring example is the 1997 advertisement from Apple as part of the Think Different campaign in the 1990′s.
What is missing from the platitudes, plaudits and celebrations is the quiet, often lonely, life away from the attention that successful innovations bring (nevermind those that are not deemed successful). To innovate is to lead and to lead is often to be lonely by definition because there are few leading and more following. This leadership by thought or action is often what makes leaders appear creative, innovative and — as Seth Godin affectionately calls being weird. A study discussed in the Harvard Business Review and dissected in Forbes pointed to high rates of loneliness among those at the CEO level, which is among those who “made it”. Consider those who haven’t yet “made it”, who haven’t had their idea “succeed” or take off and it might feel even more lonely.
At a recent workshop I conducted a participant expressed publicly a sense of gratitude for simply having the opportunity to connect with others who were simply open to seeing the world in the same way that they were. In hosting a learning workshop for social innovators a positive byproduct was that attendees who might have been isolated in their activities and thinking in one context could come together in another.
Innovation, because it is new, means that innovators have few peers available to directly commiserate with and may need to find ways to connect on idea, method, philosophy or role, but rarely something direct. That requires extra work in the search and more effort to connect in the finding, which takes time and energy — two things innovators are often short of.
But that doesn’t diminish the value and importance of time and energy and directing it towards efforts to reduce isolation.
Creating deep community
Paul Born, Director of the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, recently published a book on creating deep community connections as a necessary means of fostering transformative change. Born offers four pillars to a deepening community are: 1) sharing stories, 2) taking the time to enjoy one another, 3) taking care of one another, and 4) working together towards a bigger social goal.
While there is little to argue with here, these pillars rest on the ability to locate, co-locate and create the space to share, enjoy, care and collaborate in the first place. For many innovators this is the hardest part. Where do we find the others like ourselves and how do begin to frame this journey?
There is a reason that innovators have flocked to tools like the Business Model Canvas and the Lean Startup method to help people define, refine and develop their products and mission. It’s easy to point to firms like Apple as examples of clear-focused innovators now, but 20 or 30 years ago it wasn’t so clear. Apple’s overall mission and vision are easy to see lived out in hindsight, not at the beginning. A read of Steve Jobs’ biography illustrates how often his way of approaching the world clashed with nearly everyone and everything and how difficult life was for him.
But Steve Jobs happened to be challenging the world in a place that would come to be known as Silicon Valley. For the last thirty years the San Francisco bay area has been a spark for creative thinking and innovation, one of many hotbeds of business and cultural transformation that Richard Florida documented as home of the Creative Class(es). But not all innovation takes place in these centres and even within such centres it might be hard to connect when an idea is ill-formed or new. We lose out when innovation is only done in certain places by certain people.
(Social) innovators are part of a diffuse and sometimes lost tribe.
If you look at the language that we frame innovation we reveal many of the problems with not only our ideas, but what we do with them. As mentioned in previous posts, we privilege terms like creativity, but often ignore craft. We aspire to be learners, but often don’t like real learning. We tout the role of failure in design and innovation, yet our overloaded cultural baggage attached to the term prevents us from really failing (or asking such tepid questions we don’t really stretch ourselves).
Having access to social media and electronic communities offer a lot and something we didn’t have before, but its very difficult to forge strong, connective bonds mediated through a technological interface. Technology is good at initiating superficial connections or maintaining deeper connections, but not so good at creating deep connections. Those deeper connections as Paul Born points out are the things that sustain us and allow us to do our best work.
The dilemma is how to allocate time and resources in cultivating uniqueness, depth and connecting to similar innovators when that pool is small or integrating more with those in the convention system. Of course innovators need to relate to both groups at some level because an innovation doesn’t grow if we only connect to ‘true believers’, but at different stages it matters how we’re allocating our time, energy and enthusiasm particularly along that journey up Mt. Isolation.
There is no ready answer for this problem. Indeed, the lonely path to being different, weird or constructively challenge the harmful or less effective parts of the status quo may be one of the most wicked ones innovators face.
For those interested in social innovation there are a few examples for those who want to find peers and connect:
- The Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement (mentioned earlier) has different communities of practice focused on various aspects of community building and social innovation. They host events and have created a vibrant community of learners and action-oriented professionals across Canada and the United States;
- LinkedIn has a number of topical groups that have evolved on a variety of social and innovation topics that include local, global and topical foci;
- The Social Innovation Generation Group convenes formal and informal events connecting those working in the social innovation space in the Greater Toronto Area and across Canada;
- Meetups are self-organized gatherings on virtually every topic under the sun in communities across the globe. Check out and see if there is something near you;
- In Toronto and New York City, the Centre for Social Innovation is a part co-working space, social action community, and venture incubation support group that connects and enlivens the work that social innovators do. They have many events (many are free and low cost) organized by their members that seek to bring people together and offer skill development. If you’re in Ottawa, check out The Hub. In Calgary? Check out EpicYYC ; In Vancouver, visit the great folk at the HiVE. Throughout the United States Impact Hub spaces offer innovators options to work and connect and in Cambridge, MA there is the amazing Cambridge Innovation Centre for innovation more broadly. MaRS in Toronto offers another option.
- Lastly, CENSE Research + Design hosts a series of webinars and free and paid workshops to create capacity for social innovation. For more information visit: www.cense.ca/learning .
Born, P. (2014). Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (p. 216). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd. ed., p. 218). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Wheatley, M. (2007). Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (p. 300). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Wheatley, M. (2010). Perseverance (p. 168). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Creativity is a word shrouded in myth that has been held up as this elusive, seductive object that will reveal the true secrets of innovation if ever reached. Creativity is something we all have, but not all of us are craftspeople and knowing where these two are separate and meet is the difference between myth and the muscles needed to turn creativity into innovations.
A tour of blogs, journals, and magazines that cover innovation from Inc, Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, Entrepreneur and all the way to Brain Pickings will find one topic more visible than most: creativity.
Creativity is one of those terms that everyone knows, many use, has multiple meanings and is highly dependent on person and context. It’s also something that many of us feel we lack. This is not surprising given the way we set our schools and workplaces up as Sir Ken Robinson has discussed throughout his career.
Robinson has delivered perhaps one of the best and certainly most viewed talks on this at TED a few years ago illustrating the ways creativity gets ‘schooled’ out of us early on:
A look at the evidence base — which is enormous, unstructured, and varied in quality and scope — finds that creativity is hardly the mythical thing it gets made out to be and, following Sir Ken’s points raised in his TED talk, something we all have in us that may simply be hidden. More than anyone, Dr Keith Sawyer knows this having put together perhaps the strongest collection of evidence for the application of creativity in his books Explaining Creativity and, more recently, Zig Zag. (Both books are highly recommended).
Sawyer dispels such myths of the creative genius or the “flash of insight” as a linear process, rather pointing to creativity as often the cultivation of practices and habits that people go through to generate insights and products. This ‘zig zag’ represents metaphorically taking switchbacks to climb a mountain rather than going straight uphill. As you engage in creative thinking and action you build a deeper knowledge base, hone and acquire skills, and simply become more creative. “Creative people” are those that engage in these practices, build the habits of mind of creativity, and persist through each zig and zag along the way.
Design and design thinking is often associated with creativity because it is, in part, about creatively finding, framing and addressing problems through a structured process of inquiry, prototyping and revision. David and Tom Kelley in their recent book Creative Confidence point to design thinking as a layered foundation that is what much creativity is built upon. The disciplined, guided process that design thinking (well applied) offers is a vehicle for building creative confidence in those who might not feel very creative in what they do.
The process of design thinking — illustrated in the CENSE model of innovation development below — fits with Sawyer’s assertion of how creativity unfolds.
The role of craft
What Robinson, Sawyer, the Kelley brothers and others have done is dispelled the myths that creativity is some otherworldly trait and shown that its something for all of us. What can get lost in the blind adoption of this way of thinking is attention to craft.
Craft is the technical skill of applying creativity to a problem or task and that is something that is quite varied. The debate over whether or not the term designer belongs to everyone who applies creativity to solving problems or those with formal design training largely is one of craft.
Craft is the thing that brings wisdom from experience and technical skill in transforming creative ideas into quality products, not just interesting ones.
In our efforts to free people from the shackles of their education and a social world that told them they weren’t creative we’ve put aside discussion of craft in the hopes that we simply get people moving and creating. That is so very important to unlocking creative confidence and ensuring that our efforts to develop social innovations are truly social and engage the widest possible numbers of participants. However, it will be craft that ensures these solutions don’t turn into what George Carlin referred to as (great) ideas that suck.
Building design practice in the everyday
The habits of creativity are just that, habits. And if design is the way of applying creativity to problems then building a design practice is key. This means bringing elements of design into the way you operate your enterprise. Spend a lot of time finding the right problems is a start (as discussed in a previous post). Discover, inquire and be curious. Visualize, prototype, create small ‘safe-fail’ experiments, and ensure that there is a learning mechanism through the evaluation to allow your enterprise to adapt.
This is all easier said than done. It can be easy to be satisfied with being creative, but to be excellent involves craft and that requires something beyond creativity alone. It may involve training (formal or otherwise), it most certainly involves mindful attention to the work (which is what underlies the ‘10,000 hour rule’ of practice that make someone an expert), but it also requires skill. Many will find their creative talents in art, management, leadership, or service, but not all will be remarkable in exercising that skill.
To put it another way; it’s like a muscle. Everyone can work their muscles and develop them with training, nutrition, rest, and attention, but some will respond to this differently for a variety of reasons due to how all of those activities come together. This is what helps contribute to reasons why someone might be better adept at long-distance running, while others are good at bulking up and still others are far more flexible on the yoga mat.
We are all creative. We are all designers, too. But not all of us are stellar designers for all things and its important to build our collective design literacy, which includes knowing when and how to cultivate, hire and retail craftspeople and not just assume we can design think our way through everything. This last point is what will ensure that design thinking doesn’t fade away as a fad after it “didn’t produce results” because people have confused creativity with craft, myth with muscle.
Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishers.
Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation (2nd Edition.). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Sawyer, R. K. (2013). Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Beautiful answers require beautiful (and better) questions and Warren Berger’s new book looks at this very phenomenon of inquiry and asks: What does it mean to ask better questions and what does that mean for the answers we seek and receive?
Warren Berger recently published A More Beautiful Question, a book looking at something we take for granted and yet is the foundational building block for all great designs and innovations: the question.
Perhaps more specifically, Berger is looking at hundreds of questions as he delves into the process of questioning, the kind of questions that lead to provocative and insightful answers, and the habits of good questioning that make for sustained innovation over time. Berger is well suited to this inquiry having penned the book Glimmer, which profiled designer Bruce Mau and explored the concept of design thinking in great detail.
Asking good questions is perhaps the (often unstated, missed and neglected) foundation of what design thinking is all about and seeing that design is the foundation of innovation it therefore means that questioning is at that foundation, too. This is important stuff.
Finding the right problem by asking better questions
A look at any bookstore, blog roll, or journal dealing with the topic of innovation and you’ll inevitably find the word “creativity” used a lot. Creativity — the act and process of creating things — is highly correlated with the questions that spur the creation in the first place. Education professor J.W. Getzels did some of the earliest research on creativity and questioning (which is interestly absent from Berger’s book) and found that those who took more time to find the best problem to solve – and thus, asked better and deeper questions of their world and subject matter — came up with more creative ideas than those who dove quickly into solving the problem as they initially saw it.
The simple take-away is:
At the root of an answer is a question – J.W. Getzels
The better the question, the better the answer.
In complexity terms, the questions asked often create the path dependencies that entrench practices that come after it. So by asking better or ‘more beautiful’ questions and giving that attention we are not only doing ourselves a service, but are acting more ethical as well. This ethical foundation is what underlies mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat Zinn has written extensively on the importance of grounding oneself to ask better questions of the world, something that I’ve done through CENSE Research + Design in developing a mindful organization model.
In his 2004 presidential address to the Canadian Psychological Association Pat O’Neill looked at how sub-fields like community psychology changed the nature of how many “problems” in psychology were framed at the outset. Issues like poverty, drug addiction and unemployment were often (and still are in many domains) framed as personal, moral failings or just bad choices. By asking different questions of these problems, community psychologists were able to see how social policies, neighbourhood structures, social networks, and historical social exclusion — all systems issues — factor in to frame and constrain individual’s choices and risk behaviours. Suddenly, what had been framed as a personal problem, became a shared one that we all had at least some stake in.
It is this thinking that has led to greater awareness of how social change is inextricably linked to systems change and why we need to understand systems at the individual, organizational, community and societal level if we wish to address many of our social problems. Asking systems questions is asking different, sometimes more beautiful questions that get at the root of problems and inspire social innovation.
Finding the beautiful question
In his book, Berger finds that those best equipped to solve or at least address these big wicked questions in business, philanthropy and social innovation are those that ask ‘beautiful questions’ and do it often. Berger cites studies that have shown a clear relationship between success in leadership and a propensity to ask good questions. Asking good questions however takes time and the willingness to take time to question, think and question some more is another stand-out feature of these successful leaders.
It is why good questioning is also a leadership issue. Effective leaders often take the time needed to fully process the most important decisions to form what Gary Hamel and C.K. Pralahad refer to as strategic intent. Psychologist Daniel Goleman recently summarized the research linking mindfulness to focus and leadership, showing how leaders are able to better focus on what they do by being mindful. This mindful attention clears away much of the cognitive clutter to enable better question finding and asking.
Berger shows that finding the question requires some persistence. Good questioners are able to live with not having an answer or even the right question for a while. They have great patience. That ability to stand back and think, see, reflect and think some more while prototyping questions is what separates those who ask the better questions from those who don’t.
Creative collisions also helps. By mixing up ideas and connections with others, good questioners give themselves the raw material to work with. However, many of the best questioners that Berger spoke to also advocated for the need for some solitude and time to process these ideas and questions on their own. This mix of collaboration, collision, and independence is a key factor in developing the beautiful idea.
Designing better question-making
What jumped out at me in this book was how little support most organizations offer themselves for asking better, beautiful questions. Berger noted that the need for ‘serial mastery’ and constant learning is a staple of the new work environment, which should lend itself to question asking. However, if organizations are unwilling or unable to provide time for reflection, training, knowledge integration and ongoing discovery through better questions how likely is it that the workforce is going to respond to this need for new skills?
Are organizations willing to invest in a culture of inquiry? Are organizations able to make the leap from knowing things to asking things? How many public sector, non-profit, social and health service organizations (let alone industry groups) would be willing to follow companies like Google who create space — literally and figuratively — for questioning? These are some of the questions I asked myself as I read Berger’s book.
These are design questions. Berger notes how Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were both Montessori school graduates. The Montessori system of education is based on question asking and Google is run as an organization largely framed around questions (and queries as noted by the very notion of “googling” something). Google has been designed to support better questions in its literal architecture of its software, its hardware, its office space, and the ‘20 per cent time‘ they offer employees to explore questions they have and projects that are of personal importance to them.
True to the idea of questions being worthy of paying attention to, Warren Berger’s book is filled with them including some answers. I liked the book and believe that he has tapped into something very big. Whether or not organizations and leaders will be inspired to ask better questions from this or simply try to find better answers in the processes they have is perhaps the big question next.
On a related note, March 14th has been dubbed Question Day by Berger and his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, a non-profit organization that provides support for teachers and students to ask better questions in school as a foundation for a lifetime of learning.
Berger, W. (2009). Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada.
Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Chand, I., & Runco, M. A. (1993). Problem finding skills as components in the creative process. Personality and Individual Differences, 14(1), 155–162.
Getzels, J. W. (1979). Problem Finding: a Theoretical Note. Cognitive Science, 3(2), 167–172. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0302_4
Getzels, J. W. (1980). Problem Finding and Human Thought. The Educational Forum, 44(2), 243–244.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.
O’Neill, P. (2005). The ethics of problem definition. Canadian Psychology, 46(13-22).
Photo credit: Why? by Whitespeed via DeviantArt
The term evaluation has at its root the term value and to evaluate innovation means to assess the value that it brings in its product or process of development. It’s remarkable how much discourse there is on the topic of innovation that is devoid of discussion of evaluation, which begs the question: Do we value innovation in the first place?
The question posed above is not a cheeky one. The question about whether or not we value innovation gets at the heart of our insatiable quest for all things innovative.
A look at Google N-gram data for book citations provides a historical picture of how common a particular word shows up in books published since 1880. Running the terms innovation, social innovation and evaluation through the N-gram software finds some curious trends. A look at graphs below finds that the term innovation spiked after the Second World War. A closer look reveals a second major spike in the mid-1990s onward, which is likely due to the rise of the Internet.
In both cases, technology played a big role in shaping the interest in innovation and its discussion. The rise of the cold war in the 1950′s and the Internet both presented new problems to find and the need for such problems to be addressed.
Below that is social innovation, a newer concept (although not as new as many think), which showed a peak in citations in the 1960′s and 70s, which corresponds with the U.S. civil rights movements, expansion of social service fields like social work and community mental health, anti-nuclear organizing, and the environmental movement. This rise for two decades is followed by a sharp decline until the early 2000′s when things began to increase again.
Evaluation however, saw the most sustained increase over the 20th century of the three terms, yet has been in decline ever since 1982. Most notable is the even sharper decline when both innovation and social innovation spiked.
Keeping in mind that this is not causal or even linked data, it is still worth asking: What’s going on?
The value of evaluation
Let’s look at what the heart of evaluation is all about: value. The Oxford English Dictionary defines value as:
1 the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something: your support is of great value.
• the material or monetary worth of something: prints seldom rise in value | equipment is included up to a total value of $500.
• the worth of something compared to the price paid or asked for it: at $12.50 the book is a good value.
2 (values) a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life: they internalize their parents’ rules and values.
verb (values, valuing, valued) [ with obj. ]
1 estimate the monetary worth of (something): his estate was valued at $45,000.
2 consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial; have a high opinion of: she had come to value her privacy and independence.
Innovation is a buzzword. It is hard to find many organizations who do not see themselves as innovative or use the term to describe themselves in some part of their mission, vision or strategic planning documents. A search on bookseller Amazon.com finds more than 63,000 titles organized under “innovation”.
So it seems we like to talk about innovation a great deal, we just don’t like to talk about what it actually does for us (at least in the same measure). Perhaps, if we did this we might have to confront what designer Charles Eames said:
Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.
At the same time I would like to draw inspiration from another of Eames’ quotes:
Most people aren’t trained to want to face the process of re-understanding a subject they already know. One must obtain not just literacy, but deep involvement and re-understanding.
Innovation is easier to say than to do and, as Eames suggested, is a last resort when the conventional doesn’t work. For those working in social innovation the “conventional” might not even exist as it deals with the new, the unexpected, the emergent and the complex. It is perhaps not surprising that the book Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed is co-authored by an evaluator: Michael Quinn Patton.
While Patton has been prolific in advancing the concept of developmental evaluation, the term hasn’t caught on in widespread practice. A look through the social innovation literature finds little mention of developmental evaluation or even evaluation at all, lending support for the extrapolation made above. In my recent post on Zaid Hassan’s book on social laboratories one of my critique points was that there was much discussion about how these social labs “work” with relatively little mention of the evidence to support and clarify the statement.
One hypothesis is that evaluation can be seen a ‘buzzkill’ to the buzzword. It’s much easier, and certainly more fun, to claim you’re changing the world than to do the interrogation of one’s activities to find that the change isn’t as big or profound as one expected. Documentation of change isn’t perceived as fun as making change, although I would argue that one is fuel for the other.
Another hypothesis is that there is much mis-understanding about what evaluation is with (anecdotally) many social innovators thinking that its all about numbers and math and that it misses the essence of the human connections that support what social innovation is all about.
A third hypothesis is that there isn’t the evaluative thinking embedded in our discourse on change, innovation, and social movements that is aligned with the nature of systems and thus, people are stuck with models of evaluation that simply don’t fit the context of what they’re doing and therefore add little of the value that evaluation is meant to reveal.
If we value something, we need to articulate what that means if we want others to follow and value the same thing. That means going beyond lofty, motherhood statements that feel good — community building, relationships, social impact, “making a difference” — and articulating what they really mean. In doing so, we are better position to do more of what works well, change what doesn’t, and create the culture of inquiry and curiosity that links our aspirations to our outcomes.
It means valuing what we say we value.
(As a small plug: want to learn more about this? The Evaluation for Social Innovation workshop takes this idea further and gives you ways to value, evaluate and communicate value. March 20, 2014 in Toronto).
Zaid Hassan’s new book The Social Labs Revolution provides a look at the messy world of social change making. While far from being a how-to guide, the book provides a rare glimpse at the thinking behind the lab concept and some stories that illustrate how challenging, complex, and contradictory social change can be in its making.
Zaid Hassan‘s newly released book looks at a concept that has become increasingly popular in the world of social innovation and design: the social laboratory. These labs are sometimes referred to as a design lab, solutions lab, or social innovation lab, but the general point is that they represent a combination of think tank, research unit, social action planning group, convener, community mobilizer and system change architect rolled into one entity.
These labs are focused on social issues at the systems level (at different scales) and tackle large and small issues that are generally complex in nature. Some have real, physical homes and others are located wherever their audience is or some combination.
At the crux of this concept of a social laboratory is a desire to integrate the spirit of discovery one expects to find in a traditional scientific laboratory complete with an emphasis on experimentation with a social mission, social engagement and a focus on complex problems.
The social labs revolution
The book is an interesting read and is well-written, but contrary to what some readers might desire, it is not going to provide a how-to guide in enough detail to start one up. However, it will inspire some foundational thinking in what labs are about, the theories and models that guide the work that Hassan and his partners at Generon and later Reos Partners founded the labs on and that is a significant contribution alone.
Labs are trendy and thus are vulnerable to hype and lazy thinking and one thing readers will soon learn is that Zaid Hassan is far from lazy. If anything, he’s exhausted from all the work he’s done.
The greatest strength of the book is in its very real account of the challenges that the work of labs involves. Hassan is forthcoming about the contradictions, tensions, hypocrisies, and strengths that get embedded in social labs as they try to realize fuzzy goals in ever-changing environments. It’s tiring work. That Hassan has been so forthright in his honesty about the experience of running social labs is truly commendable at a time when there is an enormous amount of hype around labs. It is a story of frustration, hope, possibility and uncertainty rolled into one.
Solutions and their laboratories
Another of the great strengths of the book is the discussion of the complexities that social labs face in their genesis and execution and Hassan does an excellent job of highlighting the evolution in thinking that has taken place between the original labs and what he calls the Next Generation Social Labs.
Alas, there is little in the book that will aid the reader in setting up a next generation lab or even recognizing one if they came across it. Chapter 8 outlines 7 How-to’s that feel like something an editor insisted on adding to the book and sadly does a disservice to the nuanced recollection of experience of labs that comes before it.
The 7 How-to’s are:
- Clarify intention
- Broadcast an invitation
- Work your networks
- Recruit willing people
- Set direction
- Design in stacks
- Find cadence
These points are rather vague and, with some exception, could be applied to almost any social venture. There is also little clarity on what they mean in practice. For example, the ‘design in stacks’ recommendation is supported with a single page of text, hardly enough to build a lab on or consider the design qualities such a lab needs to be successful. Not that the book necessarily claims to be a textbook for setting up a social lab, but its easy to see that the marketing team behind the book is OK with encouraging some hyperbole that suggests one might be able to use the book as the vehicle to change the system (see the back page for quotes and endorsements that illustrate this point).
What is missing from the book is the kind of qualities one might expect to find in a venture called a laboratory. There is little attention to data, to curiosity, to methods of inquiry and to knowledge translation. There are some numbers offered that account for some of the work that was done in the lab examples, but there is little in the way of causal or attributional linkages made that would satisfy an evaluator. To be fair to the author, this is missing from most other accounts of social labs I’ve seen. Much discussion of their impact and how they continue to “work” is made without attention to the very science-inspired concepts that are at the bedrock of a laboratory and that is a shame. It’s not to say that good work wasn’t done, it’s just hard to know exactly what it was and how that was determined to be connected to the program.
Now one might argue that the lab is metaphorical and thus it’s not worth getting too nit-picky about the details and how social labs resemble scientific labs. But this is not just a language issue, because if we are not careful we may make the same mistakes of association with causation that bedevil accounts of many other strategies for social change. In complex systems, causation is not linear and is rarely (if ever) predictable or controllable. Yet, there are ways to rigorously account for what was done, where things went, and what kind of patterns of activity are connected to others. It’s not all numbers, but its also more than stories.
A scientific approach to the social lab?
Social labs may not be able to prove cause-and-effect in a clean, neat manner, but they can document what they did from the lens of a system. They can show how their roles led to joined-up activities that manifest throughout a system in many ways. But most importantly, social labs can play a role in stimulating learning for the systems they engage. Learning is very often non-linear, associative, punctuated, and dynamic just as the complex systems in which social labs work and it would have been wonderful to have seen how the 7 recommendations were generated, supported and realized in the examples provided. We can be more scientific about our labs even if that means using the science of systems and complexity.
It also would have been useful to have seen how the lessons could be realized within the context of the design of the lab, which should flow through each of the seven steps. Perhaps that is for the next book.
The Social Labs Revolution is an important contribution to the literature and our collective understanding of what social labs look like from within, not just without. I recommend it for anyone who thinks this is something worth considering for it will caution you against any belief that labs are simple tools for solving simple problems, simply. Quite the opposite.
Cover Image: iStockphoto, used under licence.
A new book about Toronto’s (in)famous mayor reveals a great deal more than just a story of man known more for what he smokes and says than his governance, to what kind of world we want to live in. Robyn Doolittle’s ‘Crazy Town’ goes well beyond documenting one man’s troubling behaviour and its place in the city he governs to a broader understanding of politics, science and journalism in a day when all three are under threat.
Toronto has been my adopted home for most of last 15 years. It’s dynamic, clean, safe and North America’s 4th largest city. Toronto is a place of tremendous ethno-cultural diversity (near 1/2 of the population is foreign-born), spectacular food, a thriving arts and culture scene, great universities, home to sports fans with a near pathological faith in their hockey team, and — even with all of that — it’s sometimes a bit dull (and that’s OK).
That last bit about being dull changed dramatically after 2010 and that has to do with one man: Rob Ford, our mayor. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
The narrative arc
Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle was literally at the front line of journalists covering Toronto’s Chief Magistrate and recently published a book on that experience and the story behind the story called Crazy Town. It’s a terrific book that documents the almost surreal events and people behind Rob Ford’s rise to power and current reign as one of the world’s most well-known mayors. It’s a rare work that manages to marry true crime, history, political intrigue, suspense, biography, and a journalism textbook together. I devoured it.
Yet, as a resident and politics fan I was amazed by what I read. I already knew most of the general details of what came out in the book (although chapter 12 is a complete shocker) because I lived through this news. Yet, it was only seeing all of this painted in one long narrative piece that it took a new life and in doing so brought me to a deeper understanding of many issues I’d thought I knew. The reason is largely the narrative arc that only a book (or long-form journalism) can offer.
On the surface, one could argue that what Doolittle did was piece together hundreds of stories she and others had written and compile them with a few additional quips to produce a compendium of Rob Ford’s life in the public’s eye. That in itself is a lot of work, but it doesn’t tell those who were paying attention to the story anything new. Yet, with each story that came out the backstory shows how what was reported — and picked up by others, reacted to, or ignored — was as important as what was learned about the subject and his environment. We read about how — not unlike with police work — the public is exposed to the “facts” but not how the authors chose to disclose (or not) those details and why.
When one considers what these ‘facts’ and the stories behind them entail, it is hard not to see some parallels between the world of political reporting at city hall and the world of science, social innovation, health promotion and policy that I live (and have lived) in. Crazy Town has many lessons for those not interested in Toronto, Rob Ford, politics, journalism or science, yet it is through all of those topics that such lessons are learned. The latter three stand out.
Rob Ford has defied nearly any explanation of how he has managed to maintain some form of support above 30% (as in, 3/10 polled would vote for him if the election was today). The best I’ve read is from former Canadian hockey legend, educator and parliamentarian Ken Dryden who wrote in the Globe and Mail newspaper about how Rob Ford has found a way to be visible and get the simple things done when other politicians get mired in complexity. He channels people’s frustrations and he makes his constituents feel listened to.
Doolittle’s treatment of Ford – despite the despicable treatment he’s given her, the Toronto Star and journalists overall — is fair and, in many cases, almost flattering when it comes to politics. Ford and his team have, despite appearances on the personal side of things, been very consistent and kept things simple. While Einstein might have challenged that Ford’s simple is too much so, there are lessons for all of us in this.
For those who deal in complexity, which is most human systems, it is easy to get mired in the details and interactions. Ford was steadfast in his over-arching narrative of “the gravy train” and that resonated with people. There is no reason why any other politician couldn’t have picked something similar to drive as their narrative and done much more good than Ford has, but they didn’t.
Ford made himself visible to those who mattered most: his constituents. And they have rewarded him with support.
How often do health care officials, educators, or policy leaders spend time with their key ‘constituents’ in settings that are natural to that audience? Politicos might challenge Ford’s proclivity for door-knocking and BBQ’s in an age of big data analytics, but that resonates with people. Why don’t more leaders get away from staid events in hotel ballrooms, well-crafted PR events, or their own offices to meet with their audiences where they live, work and play?
Good designers know that the design is only good if it gets used in the environment it was intended for and the only way to know that is to go into those environments. Ford knows this.
To be fair, science is my term not Doolittles, but the term ‘evidence’ is one that links my term and her experience as a reporter. By science, I am talking capital ‘S’ science — the enterprise of scientific work as well as the activity.
What follows from the narrative arc that Ford delivered was the ability to frame the evidence held against him. He is masterful at reframing the arguments and keeping people focused on the messages that fit his ongoing construction of a narrative. For a while, he was able to keep people talking about whether or not he smoked crack or drank alcohol excessively — two very serious issues — in a speculative way and away from the evidence he associated with drug dealers, violent criminals, and lied repeatedly to the press. He still does this.
In 2012 and 2013 the city spent time debating the minutiae of the law around whether or not he was in violation of conflict of interest. Lost in much of this debate was the larger pattern of Rob Ford consistently getting into trouble over all kinds of issues, big and small and how that wasn’t appropriate for any leader, political or not. Recently, Ford was in the news for being drunk in public and speaking in some faux Jamaican patois to customers at a local restaurant.
The issue as discussed in the media was the alcohol and the patois, not the fact that this is a man who, when under the public’s eye, has the judgement to: 1) get drunk in a public place 2) with the person who is accused of extortion related to the infamous crack video, 3) and then get up in front of everyone at the front of the restaurant to make a big, public proclamation.
Two weeks later, at a funeral for his friend’s mother in Vancouver, Ford decides to go to a crowded bar on a weekend night where nearly every young person there has a mobile phone and many proceed to take pictures of him or with him .
This is exactly how scientists and policy makers often behave. The intense focus on the small details leaves out the questions of relevancy and the bigger picture of what the point of the science is. Too often we get sidetracked with specifics and lose sight of a much larger set of issues.
For example, we’ll spend forever arguing the hypothetical possibility that someone might hack into an eHealth record as an argument for not allowing for easy portability and accessibility to that information (despite the fact that it can save lives, engage people, and that banks have been doing it with our life savings and credit for 20 years). (* Note that the details in science can matter a great deal, but just like walking and chewing gum, we can fret details in science and think of the big picture at the same time)
So far, people are willing to pay attention to Ford’s bigger message. Perhaps we need to consider what the bigger message is in our other enterprises and then worry about the details.
I love ‘behind the scenes’ looks and this book provides lot to consider when thinking about how journalism is done, particularly that of the investigative kind. Doolittle has been steadfast that Crazy Town might have her name on the cover, but the investigative work that contributed to it was part of a huge team of journalists from the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and other outlets. Indeed, it takes a team and the kind of institutional support that the Star has put behind Doolittle.
Alas, this may be an exception. Many journalistic outlets are imploding due to poor management, change of readership habits, shifting business models, and also the public’s unwillingness to pay for things they value online. This last point is the one that we often let skate by in our discussions about media and one that Jaron Lanier has exposed as a major flaw in the modern Internet age.
Just this past week, web pioneer Mark Andreessen speculated on the future of media and — as many who have a stake in a faster, less in depth form of media often do — completely overlooked the role of the media as the a key role in communicating and uncovering key stories for society. To him, the model is dying. Maybe the business model is problematic, but unlike Andreessen I see a big need for journalism for society and as a model for science and health.
In health and science reporting, we are at great risk of losing voices like Andre Picard, Julia Belluz, Carly Weeks and Helen Branswell who have all brought to light many key issues that public health, healthcare and policy seem to forget, hide, complicate, or deny from emergent infectious disease patterns to drug regulation policy and practice.
Would we know about Rob Ford’s fitness for mayoralty if we didn’t have the Star? Would we be talking about the perversion of science and pharmaceuticals were it not for people like Ben Goldacre in the UK? What kind of knowledge would the world have about the NSA if Edward Snowden was a lone blogger and didn’t have The Guardian or New York Times to advance his disclosure? Crazy Town makes you realize what a debt we are owed to modern investigative journalism, journalists and those that support them (and are willing to pay for their products).
A bigger story
Crazy Town ends with the acknowledgement that there is much more of this story yet to be written. This is an election year and Rob Ford is one of the few who have already filed their papers to run for office again.
Crazy Town could have been told in 10,000 tweets, videos and Instagram pics. But it would have missed the point. The book is an argument for why in-depth journalism is needed and why — journalism, science, and politics — all often require a longer narrative arc to understand the bigger picture. Bigger stories don’t fit into a social media world, even if that very social media is part of the story itself.
The book is a great read whether you’re in Toronto, Ontario; Calgary, Alberta; Madison, Wisconsin; or Phnom Phen, Cambodia. It’s a story as much about a man and a city as it is about ourselves and the world we live in. Read that way, you’ll find that not only is there more to tell of Rob Ford, there is a much bigger story to tell all around us.
If You Build it is documentary about a social innovation project aimed at cultivating design skills with youth to tackle education and social issues in a economically challenged community in North Carolina. The well-intentioned, well-developed story is not unfamiliar to those interested in social innovation, but while inspiring to some these stories mask bigger questions about the viability, opportunity and underlying systems issues that factor into the true impact of these initiatives. (Note: Spoiler alert > this essay will discuss the film and plotlines, yet hopefully won’t dissuade you from seeing a good film).
Last week I had the opportunity to see Patrick Creadon‘s terrific new documentary “If You Build It” at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto as part of the monthly Doc Soup screening series. It was a great night of film, discussion and popcorn that inspired more than just commentary about the film, but the larger story of social innovation that the film contributes to.
If You Build It is the story of the Project H studio that was developed in in Bertie County (click here for a film outline) and run for two years by Emily Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller. To learn more about the start of the story and the philosophy behind Project H, Emily’s TED talk is worth the watch:
It’s largely a good-news kind of story of how design can make a difference to the lives of young people and potentially do good for a community at the same time. While it made for a great doc and some inspiring moments, the film prompted thoughts about what goes on beyond the narrative posed by the characters, the community and those seeking to innovate through design and education.
Going beyond the story
Stories are often so enjoyable because they can be told in multiple ways with emphasis placed on different aspects of the plot, the characters and the outcomes. For this reason, they are both engaging and limiting as tools for making decisions and assessing impact of social interventions. It’s why ‘success stories’ are problematic when left on their own.
One of the notable points that was raised in the film is that the cost of the program was $150,000 (US), which was down from the original budget of $230,000 because Emily and Matthew (and later on, a close friend who helped out in the final few months) all didn’t take a salary. This was funded off of grants. Three trained designers and builders worked to teach students, build a farmers market, and administer the program for no cost at all.
The film mentions that the main characters — Matthew and Emily — live off credit, savings and grants (presumably additional ones?) to live off of. While this level of commitment to the idea of the Bertie County project is admirable, it’s also not a model that many can follow. Without knowing anything about their family support, savings or debt levels, the idea of coming out of school and working for free for two years is out of reach of most young, qualified designers of any discipline. It also — as we see in the film — not helpful to the larger cause as it allows Bertie County yo abdicates responsibility for the project and lessens their sense of ownership over the outcomes.
One segment of If You Build It looks back on Matthew’s earlier efforts to apply what he learned at school to provide a home for a family in Detroit, free of charge in 2007. Matthew built it himself and gave it to a family with the sole condition that they pay the utilities and electricity bills, which amounted to less than this family was paying in just rent at the time. That part of the story ends when Matthew returns to the home a few years later to find the entire inside gutted and deserted long after having to evict that original family 9 months after they took possession when they failed to pay even a single bill as agreed.
From Bertie County to Detroit and back
The Detroit housing experience is a sad story and there is a lot of context we don’t get in the film, but two lessons taught from that experience are repeated in the story in Bertie County. In both cases, we see something offered that wasn’t necessarily asked for, with no up-front commitment of investment and the influence that the larger system has on the outcomes.
In Detroit, a family was offered a house, yet they were transplanted into a neighbourhood that is (like many in Detroit) sparsely populated, depressed, and without much infrastructure to enable a family to make the house a home easily. Detroit is still largely a city devoted to the automobile and there are wide swaths of the city where there is one usable home on every three or four lots. It’s hard to conceive of that as a neighbourhood. Images like the one taken below are still common in many parts of the city even though it is going through a notable re-energizing shift.
In the case of Bertie County, the same pattern repeats in a different form. The school district gets an entire program for free even to the point of refusing to pay for salaries for the staff (Emily and Matthew) over two years, after the initial year ended with the building of a brand-new farmers market pavillion that was fully funded by Project H and its grants.
The hypothesis ventured by Patrick Creadon when he spoke to the Doc Soup audience in Toronto was that there was some resentment at the project (having been initiated by a change-pushing school superintendent who was let go at the film’s start and was the one who brought Emily and Matthew to the community) and by some entrenched beliefs about education and the way things were done in that community.
Systems + Change = Systems Change (?)
There is a remarkably romantic view of how change happens in social systems. Bertie County received a great deal without providing much in the way of support. While the Studio H project had some community cheerleaders like the mayor and a few citizens, it appeared from the film that the community – and school board — was largely disengaged from the activities at Studio H. This invokes memories of Hart’s Ladder of Participation, (PDF) which is applied to youth, but works for communities, too. When there is a failure to truly collaborate, the ownership of the problem and solution are not shared.
At no time in the film do you get a sense of a shared ownership of the problem and solution between Studio H, the school board, and the community. While the ideas were rooted in design research, the community wasn’t invested — literally — in solving their problems (through design, at least). It represents a falsehood of design research that says you can understand a community’s needs and address it successfully through simple observation, interviews and data gathering.
Real, deep research is hard. It requires understanding not just the manifestations of the system, but the system itself.
Very often that kind of analysis is missing from these kinds of stories, which make for great film and books, but not for long-term success.
In a complex system, meaning and knowledge is gained through interactions, thus we need stories and data that reflect what kind of interactions take place and under what conditions. Looking at the systems iceberg model above, the tendency is to focus on the events (the Studio H’s), but often we need to look at the structures beneath.
To be sure, there is a lot to learn from Studio H now and from the story presented in If You Build It. The lesson is in the prototyping: Emily and Matthew provide a prototype that shows us it can be done and what kind of things we can learn from it. The mistake is trying to replicate Studio H as it is represented in the film, rather than seeing it as a prototype.
In the post-event Q & A with the audience, a well-intentioned gentleman working with school-building in Afghanistan asked Patrick Creadon how or whether he could get Emily and Matthew to come there and help (with pay) and Creadon rightly answered that there are Emilys and Matthews all over the place and that they are worth connecting to.
Creadon is half right. There are talented, enthusiastic people out there who can learn from the experience of the Studio H team, but probably far fewer who have the means to assume the risk that Emily and Matthew did. Those are the small details that separate out a good story from a sustainable, systemic intervention that really innovates in a way that changes the system. But its a start.
If You Build It is in theatres across North America.
Concepts like design thinking and developmental evaluation are best used when they help ask big questions before seeking answers. How we frame the problem is much more important than the solution we generate, but that way of thinking means going into an area that is much talked about and rarely delivered on: strategy.
Many companies and human service organizations are getting desperate for solutions to the vexing problems they face. However, it may be that the organizations are as stuck finding solutions because they are tackling the wrong problem.
Problem framing is among the most critical, yet often overlooked, steps in design and innovation and often leads to more solutions that fail than those that succeed. Asking better questions is a start and developing a strategy from that is where to go next.
The big idea is your problem, making it real is the strategy to solving it.
What is the big idea?
Herbert Simon wrote about problem forming, framing and solving as the central tenets of design. Albert Einstein, another Nobel laureate, was famously (mis?)quoted as saying this about the discovery process:
If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.
Like so many of these ‘famous’ quotes, its origins are murky and the (hypothesized) original is much less poetic, but the spirit of the phrase is that problem finding and forming is enormously important for innovation. Case studies from design missions, innovation labs, and my own personal experience suggest that this ratio of 55 and 5 in resourcing is probably not far off from the truth.
Problem forming is also tied to a greater sense of mission, which is where a lot of organizations get it wrong. A clear, appropriately scoped mission provides the boundaries for creativity to flourish and innovation efforts to focus. Steve Jobs charged Apple with the mission of developing tools to enable people to create. That may have started with computers, but it soon grew to software with features that were design-forward and attractive, and then mobile devices and the ecosystems that powered them. When viewed from the mission of enabling creativity, the move to being a music and bookseller isn’t a leap from Apple’s roots as a maker of desktop computers.
Where are you going?
Strategy is about saying what you don’t do as much as it is about saying what you do. It also means saying what you do clearly and meaning it. Both of these have enormous implications for what a program focuses on and what feedback systems they develop to help them innovate and guide their strategy moving forward.
A good, simple resource on strategy is Howell J. Maltham Jr‘s recent book I Have a Strategy, No You Don’t. In the book the author illustrates the many ways in which we claim strategy when really it’s a wish. Malthan asserts that a strategy has:
- A purpose
- A plan
- A sequence of actions or tactics
- A distinct, measurable goal
However, most importantly according to Maltham is that this all needs a narrative – the story of what you do and how you do it. Too often we see the absence of narrative or a lack of connection to any of the four components above. Apple has famously developed a strong narrative for how it operates and realizes it mission.
Maltham’s four-point description of strategy works when you are dealing with simple and maybe slightly complicated systems; those with some measure of predictability and control. It doesn’t work well for complexity, which is where many human services are either immersed or shifting to. For that, we need some form of adaptive strategy that provides guidance, but also works with, rather than against complexity. Yet, it still requires a narrative.
Strategy for complex times
Like the above cartoon from Tom Fishburne, the tactics should not precede the strategy. It’s interesting to see how often the term tactic and strategy get confused and conflated. It’s easy to see why. Tactics are tangible. They — like 90% of meetings, answering email and phone messages — offer the illusion of productivity and impact. Getting hundreds or thousands of likes, followers, and re-tweets is a proxy for impact for a lot of people.
But if you’re looking to make real change, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re doing stuff, but rather whether you’re moving stuff.
It’s why adaptive strategy is difficult, because it means moving your ideas, your thinking, your relationships and your operations to constantly re-calibrate your focus. Just like looking at birds through binoculars or watching a football game from the stands, you need to constantly adjust your focus to maintain engagement. The same thing happens with strategy.
At the same time, difficult shouldn’t be the reason not to do something.
This is the new thinking that is needed to innovate and that is why many organizations seek to do the wrong thing righter by doubling down on trendiness to appear innovative without thinking deeply about what the big idea is and how it is supposed to become real. Whether static or adaptive, the narrative will tie that together. So what is your organization’s story and do you know how to tell it?
Innovation is about channeling new ideas into useful products and services, which is really about design. Thus, if developmental evaluation is about innovation, then it is also fundamental that those engaging in such work — on both evaluator and program ends — understand design. In this final post in this first series of Developmental Evaluation and.., we look at how design and design thinking fits with developmental evaluation and what the implications are for programs seeking to innovate.
Design is a field of practice that encompasses professional domains, design thinking, and critical design approaches altogether. It is a big field, a creative one, but also a space where there is much richness in thinking, methods and tools that can aid program evaluators and program operators.
In their excellent article on designing for emergence (PDF), OCAD University’s Greg Van Alstyne and Bob Logan introduce a definition they set out to be the shortest, most concise one they could envision:
Design is creation for reproduction
It may also be the best (among many — see Making CENSE blog for others) because it speaks to what design does, is intended to do and where it came from all at the same time. A quick historical look at design finds that the term didn’t really exist until the industrial revolution. It was not until we could produce things and replicate them on a wide scale that design actually mattered. Prior to that what we had was simply referred to as craft. One did not supplant the other, however as societies transformed through migration, technology development and adoption, shifted political and economic systems that increased collective actions and participation, we saw things — products, services, and ideas — primed for replication and distribution and thus, designed.
The products, services and ideas that succeeded tended to be better designed for such replication in that they struck a chord with an audience who wanted to further share and distribute that said object. (This is not to say that all things replicated are of high quality or ethical value, just that they find the right purchase with an audience and were better designed for provoking that).
In a complex system, emergence is the force that provokes the kind of replication that we see in Van Alstyne and Logan’s definition of design. With emergence, new patterns emerge from activity that coalesces around attractors and this is what produces novelty and new information for innovation.
A developmental evaluator is someone who creates mechanisms to capture data and channel it to program staff / clients who can then make sense of it and thus either choose to take actions that stabilize that new pattern of activity in whatever manner possible, amplify it or — if it is not helpful — make adjustments to dampen it.
But how do we do this if we are not designing?
Developmental evaluation as design
A quote from Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon is apt when considering why the term design is appropriate for developmental evaluation:
“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”.
Developmental evaluation is about modification, adaptation and evolution in innovation (poetically speaking) using data as a provocation and guide for programs. One of the key features that makes developmental evaluation (DE) different from other forms of evaluation is the heavy emphasis on use of evaluation findings. No use, no DE.
But further, what separates DE from ulitization-focused evaluation (PDF) is that the use of evaluation data is intended to foster development of the program, not just use. I’ve written about this in explaining what development looks like in other posts. No development, no DE.
Returning to Herb Simon’s quote we see that the goal of DE is to provoke some discussion of development and thus, change, so it could be argued that, at least at some level, DE it is about design. That is a tepid assertion. A more bold one is that design is actually integral to development and thus, developmental design is what we ought to be striving for through our DE work. Developmental design is not only about evaluative thinking, but design thinking as well. It brings together the spirit of experimentation working within complexity, the feedback systems of evaluation, with a design sensibility around how to sensemake, pay attention to, and transform that information into a new product evolution (innovation).
This sounds great, but if you don’t think about design then you’re not thinking about innovating and that means you’re really developing your program.
Ways of thinking about design and innovation
There are numerous examples of design processes and steps. A full coverage of all of this is beyond the scope of a single post and will be expounded on in future posts here and on the Making CENSE blog for tools. However, one approach to design (thinking) is highlighted below and is part of the constellation of approaches that we use at CENSE Research + Design:
Much of this process has been examined in the previous posts in this series, however it is worth looking at this again.
Herbert Simon wrote about design as a problem forming (finding), framing and solving activity (PDF). Other authors like IDEO’s Tim Brown and the Kelley brothers, have written about design further (for more references check out CENSEMaking’s library section), but essentially the three domains proposed by Simon hold up as ways to think about design at a very basic level.
What design does is make the process of stabilizing, amplifying or dampening the emergence of new information in an intentional manner. Without a sense of purpose — a mindful attention to process as well — and a sensemaking process put in place by DE it is difficult to know what is advantageous or not. Within the realm of complexity we run the risk of amplifying and dampening the wrong things…or ignoring them altogether. This has immense consequences as even staying still in a complex system is moving: change happens whether we want it or not.
The above diagram places evaluation near the end of the corkscrew process, however that is a bit misleading. It implies that DE-related activities come at the end. What is being argued here is that if the place isn’t set for this to happen at the beginning by asking the big questions at the beginning — the problem finding, forming and framing — then the efforts to ‘solve’ them are unlikely to succeed.
Without the means to understand how new information feeds into design of the program, we end up serving data to programs that know little about what to do with it and one of the dangers in complexity is having too much information that we cannot make sense of. In complex scenarios we want to find simplicity where we can, not add more complexity.
To do this and to foster change is to be a designer. We need to consider the program/product/service user, the purpose, the vision, the resources and the processes that are in place within the systems we are working to create and re-create the very thing we are evaluating while we are evaluating it. In that entire chain we see the reason why developmental evaluators might also want to put on their black turtlenecks and become designers as well.
Design and Innovation Process model by CENSE Research + Design
Lower image used under license from iStockphoto.