The holiday season now takes a shift away from the goodies and rich foods that start with Hanukah and (almost) end with Christmas. There’s one last big day left*: New Years Eve/ Day.
* In Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK we have Boxing Day today, the day when all the unsold merchandise for Christmas goes on sale and people do silly things like camp out overnight on Christmas Night so they can get a deal the next morning. It’s just like Black Friday in the US.
People often wake from the sugar-induced near-comtose generated by all the treats on Boxing Day to realize that their new holiday pants fit tighter than expected, that the number of wine bottles in the recycling are hard to count, and that the return to everyday life that comes after the holidays might not be as jolly given the absence of any holidays to look forward to. Add to that the myriad “year in review” lists and recaps on television, print and the Internet and its quite natural to want to make a New Year’s Resolution.
The answer to that is: don’t do it. They don’t work and the whole thing is one big fallacy.
But evidence never stopped people from doing things before — even physicians and scientists — so if you must make them, here are some recommendations from a person that teaches a graduate level health behaviour change course on how to be a little smarter about goal setting:
1. Be specific. Declaring that you’re going to be healthier in 2011 isn’t providing much to go on. Does that mean that you’re going to eat better? And if so, what does that mean? A big mistake is that people keep their goals too general and thus, never really know if they’ve acheived them. One rubric to use is the S.M.A.R.T system for goals. S.M.A.R.T. refers to goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Framed. The closer you can adhere to these, the more likely you are to achieve them.
2. Keep quiet. There is a school of thought that suggests that advertising your goals to the world (make them public) is a strong way to motivate change. The thinking here is based on theories of social norming and pressure that suggest that the fear of letting others down will motivate you to succeed. That might have some currency, but it paradoxically fails for reasons that have little to do with others and much to do with our brain. Research from NYU psychologist Peter M. Gollwitzer and his colleagues (PDF) found:
When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors is compromised. This effect occurs both when the intentions are experimenter supplied and when they are self-generated, and is observed in both immediate performance and performance measured over a period of 1 week. It does not emerge when people are not committed to the superordinate identity goal.(p.616)
Some other resources on this are available here. This isn’t to say that you can’t share aspirations with people, but when you declare you’re going to do something out loud ( following S.M.A.R.T) and get feedback from others, your brain starts to imagine that you’ve already accomplished the goal and is already diminishing your motivational fire.
3. Do it for yourself. Another reason these publicly stated goals might cause problems is that often we announce goals that we want to believe in (or believe others approve of), rather than those we want for ourselves. A large body of evidence suggests that we’re much more likely to do things that fit with our self-concept and values than those that challenge or complicate it. Self-determination theory is the foundation for this concept. Author Daniel Pink wrote an accessible piece on this in his recent book Drive. This can be applied broadly or more specifically. For example, with regards to weight loss, there are a lot of options to assist that from changing the food you eat and the way you eat (not dieting, which is a far larger fallacy than New Years Resolutions and persists even more) to exercise. Perhaps running on a treadmill is something that bores you to tears, so try a group dance class instead. If you’re not a fan of salads, try doing more with beans, oatmeal, nuts, fruit or smoothies. There are lots of ways to get the same place, but choose the things that you really like first.
4. Be social and connect. Even if you’re not announcing your goals to the world on YouTube or doing all the things you want to do first, it is still important to be social. Research on social networks and health show remarkable links (pun intended) between our social networks and our health behaviours. Smoking, obesity and mental health are all enhanced by having strong social networks (however you connect — this isn’t just about Facebook or Twitter). Building strong connections with people can offer so much benefit in terms of keeping you healthy, informed and “human”.
5. Help yourself by helping others. If you want to reach your goals, try helping others reach theirs. Working with your friends and family to support them in reaching their goals can actually strengthen your own resolve. Communities of practice are groups of individuals that are motivated to support each other in solving particular problems that often fall outside of traditional lines of work, discipline or problem domain. These collectives are often self-organized and volunteer-oriented and because of that, they capitalize on many of the aforementioned points. Find a community of people tackling the same problems and offer your assistance and wisdom. In doing so, you might find that you start to work through your own challenges and issues. Research on complex systems shows that small, incremental changes over a long time will produce much more stable change than radical upheavals at once.
New Year’s resolutions are problems because they often set us up for failure. Perhaps the one resolution that you will want to follow this year is to skip the resolution altogether and commit to doing something small often and enjoying yourself and those around you while you do it.
SEED magazine recently posted on the concept of early warning signs in complex systems that I found quite provocative and important.
Science is a creative human enterprise. Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views, and nothing
produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately.
There are so many key points in this one phrase that are worth discussing at length.
Science is a creative enterprise . For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think that science needs to embrace its creative side more than ever and embrace design. This isn’t a universal, but if we (scientists) approached problems from the multidimensional manner in which designers typically approach them, we might create new innovations and discoveries that are different than the ones we’ve made before. Why is this important (beyond the obvious to those whose business it is to discover)? Complexity. The problems we are dealing with now more than ever are likely to be complex ones, which require different ways of approaching them and (some) different science and practice.
And as Albert Einstein famously said (or at least many people have attributed this to him — I can’t verify it, but it works nonetheless):
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. In public health where I work, the dominant models remain those rooted in reductionist science. We are asked to ‘prove’ the links between certain activity and the outcomes they produce. This works relatively well in areas like sanitation, toxicology, (some) pharmaceutical or vaccination interventions, and injury prevention. It is for these reasons that the top achievements in public health, including massive increases in life expectancy and reductions in premature death took place in the 20th century. But that was then. The challenges we face now are into the realm of complexity, unless we fail to support fundamentals in public health and then we’ll have both simple and complex challenges on our hands. The point here is that our models will only take us so far without some acknowledgement of the complexity of the problems they seek to explain. The context of our creations is complexity.
Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views. The key term here is “entrenched views” . My colleagues Alex Jadad, Murray Enkin, Shalom Glouberman and others once had a group called the Clinamen collaborative that wrote a great piece on the problem of complexity when dealing with entrenched health care practices. Their recommendations are essentially:
1) there are no recipes for universal success,
2) pay attention to local conditions,
3) intervene small and often and then scale,
4) aim for stability first, then change.
In science, we’re failing a lot and rather than see this as a potential positive, I see more conservative approaches to science based on risk aversion. Providing support for smaller, rapid response scientific studies that are encouraged to fail will do more than these big, non-adventurous team projects that provide high-level window dressing for grant funders and avoid making anyone look bad.
…and nothing produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately. Humility is a word that is too often absent from my profession. I’m not talking about the kind of humility that comes from acknowledging the limitations of a scientific study or the recommendations of a report. I am speaking of true humility, where one “seeks to first understand, then to be understood”. Indeed, I would argue that we are lousy at both more often than we’re successful. Our understanding comes from a scientific perspective that holds us up as the experts. Once you’ve labelled someone or yourself an “expert” conversations immediately shift. Watch a classroom where the instructor insists on pure lecturing, being called “Dr.” and where “right” and “wrong” are regular parts of the conversation. Then watch a classroom where students learn from each other, are encouraged to share their experience and challenge the material, where the professor doesn’t push her or his titles and credentials, and where there is interaction between everyone. You’ll see a very different sense of humility from students and teachers alike.
When I encounter others on genuine, authentic and intimate level of learning I never cease to be left in awe. That comes from humility and is something I was fortunate to have modeled to me. I was once told by a retiring professor who was leaving on the day I was convocating from my undergraduate degree:
“When I was in my undergraduate, I new everything. Now that I am a retired professor, I realize I know nothing. Every year of learning serves to teach me that I know less and less.”
The SEED article goes on to point to the current problems in science in dealing with complexity and the imperative towards collaboration and cross-disciplinary engagement:
Examples of catastrophic and systemic changes have been gathering in a variety of fields, typically in specialized contexts with little cross-connection. Only recently have we begun to look for generic patterns in the web of linked causes and effects that puts disparate events into a common framework—a framework that operates on a sufficiently high level to include geologic climate shifts, epileptic seizures, market and fishery crashes, and rapid shifts from healthy ecosystems to biological deserts.
The main themes of this framework are twofold: First, they are all complex systems of interconnected and interdependent parts. Second, they are nonlinear, non-equilibrium systems that can undergo rapid and drastic state changes.
Complex systems require the kind of deep attention that science brings, the spirit of engagement and problem solving that designers offer, and a space to bring them together. With their focus on reductionist science and the lack of embrace of design, universities haven’t been the home to this kind of thinking. But things can change because, after all, this is a complex dynamic system we’re talking about.
What good is design and why should non-designers care? These are questions that designers ask a lot. As one who has developed his practice of design within public health (the behavioural sciences focus), I come from a world where the term “design” is viewed with disdain at worst or indifference or curiousity at best. The concept doesn’t resonate with that audience…yet.
As a designer of systems to promote the health and wellbeing of individuals through helping them solve complex problems individually and groups I find myself attracted to others who try to do the same, even if it is often from a perspective and focus other than health. That gets me into the world of graphic and industrial designers, interaction designers, and now those who use the term social designers or humanitarian designers.
Not surprisingly perhaps, this interaction brings with it much learning for me as it enables me to receive the gifts that diversity brings. The language, the culture and the context of design in design programs, studios and conversations is thrilling for me. As business has joined the conversation, that diversity has increased and programs like OCADU’s Masters in Strategic Foresight seem to capture this type of interaction between what might be called traditional and non-traditional design space.
From this vantage point I see a lot and being an ‘outsider’ provides a wider-angled lens on such phenomenon (while those inside have more telephoto lenses to enable them to see deeper, to extend the metaphor). There are a few things I see through this lens:
1. Designers care a lot about what others think they do and spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with definitions and terms used to describe their craft. On one hand, this is useful and encouraging to see such interest in communicating with the world the value of design, but what could be viewed as attention to education could also be seen as a sense of drifting priorities and a lack of focus or confidence within the field. This intense interest in using rhetoric to show the world designs value, exemplified in the videos, myriad books on design processes, thinking, types, and models is all useful to novices and getting the word out, but at some point the data need to speak.
2. Designers use the concept of “interdisciplinary” very differently than I do. I thought public health had a case of the interdisciplinary-itis, but clearly its endemic across different disciplines and fields and that the way it is used is very different. I already knew this from my own research that has looked at how interdisciplinary researchers collaborate on science problems, but it never ceases to amaze me how the terms get used in other fields and contexts. In design, interdisciplinary often means mixing graphics design folk with industrial designers and visual artists. Taken one step further and you get the IDEO model that expands this to include different fields like anthropology and engineering. This is much closer to what I think of when I consider interdisciplinary, but that is much more rare than I originally thought I’d find in the design world.
3. Designers have a strange relationship with psychology. The use of the word “empathy” is far more common in design than in public health. That excites me for design, but saddens me that it is so rare in public health, but I digress… Yet, while designers are great at getting to know their audience, the methods they use are rather small. Much of it relies on ethnographic study and (from what I can tell) fuzzy qualitative data collection. The methodology is not problematic, but the execution might be. In academia, particularly academic psychology (where I was trained), we are encouraged to explore two things in great depth when appraising others’ research: 1) the rigor of the application of method and analysis, and 2) the use of theory. In both cases I have found design research lacking. What is the theory of change or design used? How was the data analyzed? Why was [this] method used over [that] one? I rarely get good answers to this — at least the kind that my academic colleagues would appreciate.
Designers need behavioural scientists to help them step up their game as much as the world needs designers to help behavioural scientists step up theirs.
Many of the reasons I love design is that it goes to places where academia fails to look and where the public often lives. Many of the design methods and processes like sketching user experiences, empathic research and engaged interaction with clients are things that public health and other fields need to do. Many academics are so far removed from the real world that we’ve left little reason for the public to WANT to engage us. But the downside is that we’ve taken many of the theories, methods and tools that we’ve honed over thousands of trials and studies and produce some good data and synthesis with us. Designers need us to help them step up their game as much as we need designers to help behavioural scientists step up theirs.
As the holidays approach I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time looking at a field that has become my passion: design. Design is relevant to my work in part because it frequently deals with the complex, requires excellent communication, and as Herbert Simon would suggest, is all about those interest in changing existing situations into preferred ones.
Yet for all the creativity, innovation and practicality that design has I find it lacking in a certain scientific rigour that it requires to gain the widespread acceptance it deserves.
This is not to say that designers do not employ rigorous methods or that there is no science informing design. For example, architecture, a field where design is embedded and entwined, employs high levels of both rigour and science in its practice. The issue isn’t that these two concepts aren’t applied, they just aren’t applied to each other. I was heartened this week to see Dexigner profile a new pamphlet on the science of design. Although true in spirit, it wasn’t what I expected to see as it largely profiled ways to assess the quality of design projects from the perspective of design.
What if we could assess the impact of design on a larger scale, a social and human scale?
Interaction designers speak of this need to connect to the human in design work. The emergent field of social design exemplified by groups like Design 21 who aim to produce better products for social good. All of this is important, but it’s important largely because we say it is so. Rhetorical arguments are fine, but at some point design needs to confront the problem of evidence.
Does “good” design lead to better products than “bad” design?
What components of design thinking are best suited to addressing certain kinds of problems? Or are there simply problems that design thinking is just better at addressing than other ways of approaching them?
What methods of learning produce effective design thinkers? And what is effective design thinking anyway? Does it exist?
What is the comparative advantage of a design-forward approach to addressing complex problems than one where design is less articulated or not at all?
These are just some of the many questions that there seems to be little evidence in support of. A scientific approach to design might be one of the first ways of addressing this. In doing so, a scientifically-grounded design field is far more likely to garner support of decision makers who are the ones who will approve and fund the kind of projects that can have wide-scale impact. Design is making serious in-roads to fields such as business, education, and health, but it represents a niche market when it has the potential to be much larger.
Roger Martin has argued that the reliance on scientific approaches to problem solving runs counter to much of design thinking. This assumes that science is applied in a very detached, prescriptive manner, which is common, but not the only way. Micheal Gibbons and colleagues have described two forms of science, which they call Mode I and Mode II science. The first Mode is the one that most people think of when they hear the term “scientist”. It is of the (usually) lone researcher working in a lab on problems that are driven by curiosity with the aim of generating discoveries. For this reason, it is often referred to as discovery-oriented research.
Mode 2 research is designed to be problem-centred and aimed at answering questions posed by practical issues and has a strong emphasis on knowledge translation. This is an area more accustomed to the designer.
Design presents the opportunity to transcend both of these Modes into something akin to Mode 3 research, which I surmise is a blend of the abductive reasoning inherent in Roger Martin’s view of design thinking and the discovery-oriented approach that goes beyond just the problem to create value beyond the contracted issue. A design-oriented approach to the science of design would involve leveraging the creative processes of designers with some of the tools and methods accustomed to researchers in Mode 1 and 2 science. Can we not do detailed ethnographic studies looking at the process of design itself? Is there any reason why we cannot, with limits acknowledged and in appropriate contexts, attempt to do randomized controlled trials looking at certain design thinking activities and situations?
If design is to make a leap beyond niche market situations, a new field must dawn within design + science and that is the science of design and the design of science.
Among the most frustrating aspects of being a systems thinker/actor/researcher is the “one thing” question: What is the one thing that we can do to solve this problem?
The answer is almost always: there isn’t one thing you can do, the problem requires a complex response*
*That isn’t always the case, but in my line of work, it pretty much is true that the problem and its solution fall within the realm of complexity.
When you work in complex systems, the problems are nearly always multifaceted, convoluted and multi-dimensional in their scope and impact. Yet the “one thing” request comes up all the time.
Dave Snowden, from Cognitive Edge, in his work with the Cynefin Framework nicely points to the difference between best, good, and emergent practice. In public health and medicine, the term “best practice” has been so dominant that it is hard for people to lose the terminology, even if they acknowledge that it sometimes doesn’t fit (the concept of “better” practice is often snuck in as a way to placate those who subscribe a model of thinking that challenges “best” practice thinking). While this is very useful, the problem that even useful frameworks like Cynefin produce is a tendency for people to put whatever they are doing into boxes.
Looking at Cynefin, you can see the world compartmentalized into four nifty quadrants, making the world simple — or at least complicated, but certainly not complex. Dave Snowden himself has been critical of this tendency in his writings on Cognitive Edge’s blog, yet time and again I see this type of thinking come alive. I currently am teaching a course for graduate students on systems science perspectives in public health and this is one of the pitfalls that I hope the learners in my class can avoid.
It’s not easy. We humans love to compartmentalize things. Charles Darwin, one of the founders of modern science, famously began his career putting things in literal and metaphorical boxes. Classification is something we do from our earliest years and do all the way through school. Indeed, a brilliant and somewhat depressing look at how engrained this thinking is can be seen in Sir Ken Robinson’s animated TED Talk on the history and possible future of education.
Systems thinking requires spectrum thinking. People must be able to see things on a gradient, rather than in absolute compartments. Students can’t be faulted too much for having a hard time with this when they are graded based on letters where a B+ is a 79 and an A- is one percentage point higher, yet the mere presence of a B (anything) on a transcript can mean the difference between an award, admission, or a job and not.
This is in no way a criticism of Cynefin or other frameworks used to explain or assist in the understanding of complexity, but rather a statement of the problems inherent in our quest to teach others about complexity that is intellectually honest, reasonably accurate, yet also effective in helping people understand the gravity and scope of complexity in practice. I don’t have an answer for this, but do find using a spectrum useful.
And on a side note, the multi-coloured palette of the spectrum also allows for an introduction of the concept of diversity and human relations at the same time as it illustrates a way of thinking about complex systems.