Turning Thinking Talk to Action Walk (and a Trip to the Moon)

It’s much easier to talk innovation and creativity and far harder to turn that into something transformative that has social impact. Until we start acting on our conversation and creating the systems that support it, talk will become cheaper and the costs of converting that talk into something useful may grow beyond our means.

As the number and scope of information channels available to me grows, so too does my awareness of the conversations taking place on matters of personal interest. Where I once had to scour through material to find a place where I could learn about topics that interested me, I can now point to dozens of constantly updated spaces and tools where I can learn about social innovation, design, knowledge translation, systems thinking, evaluation and beyond. But this points to a problem as I’ll discuss later.

Two of my favourite tools are both optimized for the iPad and iPhone: Zite and Feeddler Pro. Zite creates a personalized magazine for you that is updated throughout the day drawing from various sources on the web from blogs to mainstream news through to academic articles. It’s a marvellous service and it ‘learns’ as you provide feedback on the selection it gives you, introducing you to new content from new sources all the time. Feeddler is a little less sophisticated as it is a RSS reader, but it provides a steady stream of content from the sites that I already know and trust. Mainstream sites like Fast Company (and its design and innovation derivatives such as Co.Design) and social media leader Mashable combine with some of my favourite blogs from folks like Seth Godin and KT blogs at Mobilize This! and KTExchange.

Indeed, it was a post on Mobilize This! from David Phipps that happened to crystalize something that was percolating in my head about taking action related to what I was reading. The focus was on the thinking about knowledge translation vs. its application.

In that post, Phipps comments:

It must be nice to be able to think about something and never have to do it.

But then that’s the role of researchers in many fields. Researchers think about things and study things without actually doing the things they study. Then there’s the role of practitioners.  We do things without having incentives or rewards (ie the time) to sit back and think about and reflect upon what we do.

Referring to an earlier post on knowledge hypocrites, Phipps adds:

We need more mobilization of knowledge about knowledge mobilization. Researchers need to move beyond thinking about frameworks to working with practitioners who are putting those frameworks into practice. Practitioners likewise need to embed researchers in their practice.

I had found this post sandwiched between a number of other blogs or articles on innovation and creativity with similar calls to action and sometimes some tips or ‘lessons learned’. People (myself included) eat this up. Knowledge translation is a ‘sexy’ term in health sciences right now, particularly as people look to getting more bang for their research dollars. Innovation is seen as a big part of how to do it and what it is that should come from KT.

And creativity is the way to bring them both together. It makes for great reading and starts to give you the impression that you’re actually getting things done.

Get creative! Be innovative! Translate what we know into what we do! It’s just that easy…right?

As complicated as weaving these ideas together can be, they are not rocket science (even if the Apollo 13 rescue provides us of one of the best examples of them coming together, particularly when Hollywood sets it up). Yet, practically bringing action to the talk in health and human services may be a far greater challenge to address than putting humans on the moon. Indeed, it took a bold statement by President Kennedy and massive organizational commitment, research, creativity, innovation, and knowledge translation to go from rockets that could barely reach orbit to having multiple successful missions to our lunar neighbour. (For a remarkable recap of that journey I highly recommend seeing the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon).

Humans didn’t get to the moon because of one person or a small team, but organizational commitment and delivery. NASA didn’t just talk about going to the moon, write about innovation, or read creativity books — they (to draw on David Phipp’s blog) just did it.

Talking and writing about innovation is easy, doing it is hard. As Thomas Edison said:

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work

At the same time, the work needs to be done beyond a few. And the more we see something talked about, the easier it is to assume that others are doing it and that it is common practice. In the space race there was only one small community that could possibly get the job done (in the U.S. at least). If it wasn’t NASA, it wasn’t going to happen. A problem in health and human services is that most of society is implicated in the enterprise in some regard. Research comes from different disciplines (basic science to medicine to social work to education and beyond), it is practiced in health care institutions, daycares, schools, workplaces or individually at home, and it is highly contextual and oftentimes global in scope.

It’s not “Houston, we have a problem”, but the world.

This could be an advantage, but it isn’t for some reason. More knowledge, more talk about doing knowledge translation and innovation and creative work and more exposure to them all seems to be having an unclear effect. Having met many people from programs training people in design thinking and attended many an event that focused on knowledge translation I can say that there is only a modest correlation between those that study and those that do.

After nearly 20 years of scholarship and debate on knowledge translation and with tools like Twitter and YouTube and blogs we still have to ask questions (quite rightly and likely with much frustration) like this* :

We are still asking ourselves this question and will be for years to come if we don’t start walking instead of talking.

And change isn’t about convincing individuals alone to blog or Tweet, but to create that culture of innovation where we can share ideas, discuss concepts aloud and ideate together, prototype (and fail!), and experiment. It means acting on research as part of doing research and building partnerships rather than writing about them. It’s also about creating the systems that support change, not just inspiring a few individuals to do something different.

Writing about innovation is not the same as doing it. Thinking models — design thinking, systems thinking, knowledge-to-action thinking — are supposed to inspire action, not just thought.

We got the moon and back three times in the span of ten years from the call to action from President Kennedy. An entire country rallied around a very simple and challenging task of putting humans on the moon.

Could the time be now for us to do the same with social innovation and health?

* Thanks to Rob Fraser for consenting to having this tweet included in the post

** Speaking of walking the talk, it is good to be back after a few weeks’ unplanned sabbatical from CENSEmaking. More talk, and lots of walking to come. Thanks to all my readers for your continued interest.

The photo caption is Walk the Talk by Dangerous Truth used Creative Commons License from Deviant Art. Thanks Dangerous Truth!

8 Comments on “Turning Thinking Talk to Action Walk (and a Trip to the Moon)

  1. Incentives and Rewards. So often those are the blocks between thinking about something and doing it. I know Rob Fraser (we shared a panel together and he is spending some of his time at York). I know lots of other people who are trying to figure out the doing of stuff and even reflective practitioners who are doing and thinking and blogging (and publishing when possible). Maybe we need a tweet up to have a drink and discuss

    • I am of two minds about your recommendations. At first, the answer is a clear, resounding YES to the idea of creating the incentive structure to support this kind of work and KT in general. At the same time, researchers and research administrators need to believe that social media, active communication with users and practitioners, engaged scholarship, and non-formalized and non-hierarchical dialogue with non-researchers is valued. And I think we’re still a very long way from that. Until Tweeting becomes evidence-based (and that means a few good systematic reviews) then I suspect we’ll continue to have to fight for engaging the world beyond ourselves. And by the time that comes, the public will have long stopped supporting the kind of insular institutions that encourage this behaviour in the first place. I suggest we JUST DO IT and figure out how to make it a reward while we do it.

      A Tweetie/drink up sounds wonderful. There is much to mine through with this topic.

  2. Isn’t this a wicked problem? It crosses so many industries and so many issues.

    • It is certainly a complex one and has some degree of ‘problem wickedness’, but I don’t think it’s the best example a wicked problem. The wickedness comes from individuals having to make a choice to be successful in their work to do the work in the first place and the need to satisfy the norms of the social system by doing the things that are expected and few of the things that are not that counter one another in their grand purpose. Thus, those who seek to study knowledge into practice are challenged by doing it because they are part of reward and recognition systems that don’t support that activity. However, if a director of an institution or a board just decided unilaterally to reward individuals for doing KT work, then it could make a difference to that individual and not upset the rest of the system (even if such practice was out of the norm). A wicked problem is one where making that change would have considerable, intractable influence on the rest of the system. Thanks for the question!

  3. Another great and thought-provoking blog post Cameron! Your challenge to turn “thinking talk into action walk” also emphasized by David Phipps @researchimpact and MobilizeThis! within the professional scope of academic researchers is an important reminder that needs to be heard.

    Creating an incentive structure may work as a professional motivator – but what about the value of knowledge sharing on a more personal level to “just do it”? What about the value of personal integrity, regardless of the norms of social systems that obstruct and often interfere with valuable knowledge mobilization and creation of personal connections for social benefit? Don’t get me wrong – rewards and recognition are important factors, but personal integrity is what underlies making more valuable knowledge contributions for life in general to do go beyond the thinking talk into action walk.

    All of us have the ability to put knowledge into practice in our daily lives both professionally and – more importantly – personally.

    • Absolutely. I agree that the personal integrity issue is critical and *should* be a great reason to do this. What concerns me is that the academic system is asking more of individuals to offer things for reasons of integrity and good will without supporting them. And by not supporting them I mean either not recognizing it in any way as valuable or filling people’s jobs with other things that “count”.

      Think of the stuff we do out of integrity: peer reviews, book or journal editing (maybe unpaid), community meetings, student advising and related committees (often unpaid depending on the situation), committee work, blogging, conference abstract reviews, conference organizing, press interviews… and it goes on. And for many of us, increasingly in public health and health sciences, we are asked to do this while finding ways to bring in income for our salaries and that of our staff and students (as well as overhead funds).

      My concern is that we individuals are held to a high standard of integrity in KT work while the organizations and systems we work in are not. If I don’t do a good job of communicating my research out to the world, my research institution is never called to account for the role it played in limiting that, nor is the system that fails to provide opportunities for resources. We can only truly account for and influence our own individual behaviour with any certainty, but I think its too easy to just point to the individual and forget the system. All of us require some attention to the bigger systems we are a part of (organizations, disciplines, practice fields etc.)

      Thanks for your feedback and thoughts. No matter what the system does, we can always do better as individuals and you reminded us all of that.

  4. Thanks for your reply Cameron. Although my further comment may sound rather trite and pithy…as Gandhi said, “Be the change you want the world to be.”
    It does start with individual integrity to change the larger system – even when the system is flawed. Yes, easier said than done, but self-recognition of your own personal integrity is far more valuable than recognition from the system. But that doesn’t mean we just let the system walk all over us or that we can’t challenge the system (as someone like Gandhi certainly did to eventually changed the larger system).

    I don’t mean to preach, but I do believe the higher standard of integrity is always the personal one that eventually does get recognized if we stick to it.over the long run to affect change. It may start with one person taking a stand, but others do follow. Even through something as action-oriented as the dialogue we are engaging in. The larger system – especially through social media – does notice.

    Unfortunately, large systems change doesn’t happen overnight – and – personal integrity does not mean ignoring attempts to change the bigger systems. They both go hand in hand. Thanks again.

  5. Pingback: Innovation, Design Thinking and the Folly of Fads « Censemaking

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