In complex systems there is a lot to pay attention to. Mindfulness and contemplative inquiry built into the organization can be a way to deal with complexity and help detect the weak signals that will make it thrive and be resilient in the face of challenges.
Most human-centred social ventures spend much of their time in the domain of complexity. What makes these complex is not the human part, but the social. As we interact with our myriad beliefs, attitudes, bases of knowledge, and perceptions we lay the foundation for complexity and the emergent properties than come from it. It’s why we are interesting as a species and why social organizing is such a challenge, particularly when we encourage free-flowing ideas and self-determination. Because of this complexity, we get exposed to a lot of information that gets poorly filtered or synthesized or missed altogether. Yet, it is in this flotsam and jetsam of information that keys to future problems and potential ‘solutions’ to present issues might lie. This is the power of weak signals. But how to we pay attention to these? And what does it matter?
The Strength of Weak Signals
A human social organization, which could mean a firm, a network, or a community — any collection of people that is organized by itself or other means — most likely generates complexity, sometimes often and sometimes occasionally. If we consider the Cynefin Framework, the domain of complexity is where emergent, novel practice is the dominant means of acting. In order to practice effectively within this space, one probes the environment, engages in sensemaking based on that information, and then responds appropriately. Viewed from another perspective, this could easily be used to describe mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is both a psychological state and activity and a psychospiritual practice. I am using this in the psychological sense, even if one could apply the psychospiritual lens at the same time if they wished. Bishop and colleagues (2004) proposed a two-component definition of mindfulness:
The ﬁrst component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance (p.232)
Weak signals are activities that when observed across conditions reveal patterns that provide beneficial (useful) coherence that has meaningful potential impact on events of significance, yet yield little useful information when observed in discrete events. In other words, these are little things that get spotted in different settings, contexts and times that when linked together produce a pattern that could have meaningful consequences in different futures. By themselves, such signals are relatively benign, but together they reveal something potentially larger.
One reason weak signals get missed is the premature labelling of information as ‘good’ and the constrained definition of what is ‘useful’ based on the current context. Mindfulness practice allows you to transcend the values and judgements imposed on data or information presented in front of you to see it more objectively.
Mindfulness involves quieting the mind and focusing on the present moment, not the past or the possible implications for the future, just the here and now. It is not ahistorical, however. Our past experience, knowledge and wisdom all come to bear on the mindful experience, yet they do not guide that experience.
Experience provides a frame of reference to consider new information, not judge it or apply value to it. It is what allows you to see patterns and derive meaning and sense from what is out there.
Building Mindful Organizations
A review of the research and scholarship on mindfulness finds a nearly exclusive focus on the individual. While there is much literature on the means of using mindfulness and contemplative inquiry as means of being active in the world, this is done largely through mechanisms of individuals coming together as groups, rather than the organizations they form as the focus of analysis.
There is an exception. Social psychologists Weick and Sutcliffe (2007, summarized here and here – PDF) wrote about resiliency in the face of uncertainty using a mindfulness lens to understand how organizations make better sense of what they do and experience in their operations. In their manuscript, Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness (PDF), they lay down a theory for the mindful organization and how it increases the reliability of sensemaking processes when applied to complex informational environments.
They describe the conditions that precipitate mindfulness in organizations this way (p.38):
A state of mindfulness appears to be created by at least ﬁve processes that we have induced from accounts of effective practice in HROs (High Reliability Organizations) and from accident investigations:
1. Preoccupation with failure
2. Reluctance to simplify interpretations
3. Sensitivity to operations
4. Commitment to resilience
5. Underspeciﬁcation of structures
It is notable that the aim here is not to reduce complexity (or impose simplicity), nor is it to focus on ‘positivity’, rather it is focused on events that help contribute to moving in particular direction. In that regard, this is not neutral, but it is not active either. It enables organizations to see patterns, focus on structures and information that encourages resilience to change, and contemplates what that information means (sensemaking) in context. Doing so provides useful information for decision making and taking action, but doesn’t frame information in those terms a priori.
Seeing Beyond Events
At issue is the development of consciousness of what is going on within your organization moment-to-moment, rather than punctuated by events. Events are the emergent properties of underlying patterns of activity. When we spend time attending to events without understanding the conditions that led to those events, we are doing the equivalent of changing the dressing on a wound in the absence of preventing or understanding its cause.
A mindful organization, like the image of the Buddha above, can emphasize the eye, but not at the expense of the rest of the picture. It is attuned to both simultaneously, noting events (e.g., like the square highlighted eye above), but that it is only through the underlying pattern beneath it that the highlighted context makes sense (the rest of the pictured squares). Yet, the only way the organization can learn that the yellow square is different or to ascertain its meaningful significance is through a sense of the whole, not just the part and that is social.
The Curious Organization
Mindfulness and its wider-focused counterpart Contemplative Inquiry both have a root in attending to the present moment, but also in curiosity about the things that is brought to the mind’s attention. It’s not just about seeing, but inquiring. What makes it distinct is that it does not impose judgement on what is perceived not seeking to change it while in that state of mindful awareness. This judgement and imposition of value on to what is going on is where organizations can get trapped.
In complex systems, the meaning of information may change rapidly and is likely uncertainty. The wisdom of experience, shared among others contemplating the same information without judgement, allows for a sensemaking process to unfold that does not impose limitations, yet also keeps a focus on what is going on moment-to-moment. Gathering this data, moment-to-moment, is what developmental evaluation with its emphasis on real-time data collection seeks to do and can serve as a valuable tool for organizing data to allow for a mindful contemplative inquiry into it that will illuminate weak signals.
Creating an organizational culture where open sharing, questioning, experimentation, and attention to the adjacent possibles that come from the data and experiences from operations is the foundation for a mindful organization. This means slowing down, valuing non-doing instead of the constant push to action, cultivating contemplative inquiry and reflection, while also being clear about the directions that matter. Thus, strategy in this case is not divorced from mindfulness, rather it gently frames a directionality of effort. In doing so, it creates possibilities for innovation, attention to quality, and a mechanism for building resiliency within organizations and those working with them and within them.
In creating these mindful systems we move closer to making sense of complexity and better prepare ourselves for social innovation.
Does it scale? That question is central to the discussion of social innovation, yet the answer to it might lead us to questions about why it is so important to us in the first place and answers that could surprise us.
“Does it scale?” or “how to we take [idea, product, service] to scale?” are commonly heard questions in social innovation circles; so much so that they are left unquestioned. The thinking behind these questions is that if something works well at one level (or scale) then taking it another scale larger and achieving a wider reach must be better. Who wouldn’t want to see the benefits of something that serves the needs of one population, community or user extended outward and upward?
This is a laudable utilitarian goal, but it is a deceptively problematic one when we look a little closer at what scaling something actually means in practice.
Jamer Hunt, the Director of the MFA program in Transdisciplinary Design at the New School in New York, speaking at last year’s DMI Fall Conference (which is available to view for DMI members), looked at the issue of design scaling through the lens of complexity and pointed to some of the problems with ‘scaling design’ in varied contexts. One of the examples he suggested is that of an ant compared with a human being taking a shower. For humans, the shower’s droplets of water are fine bodies of liquid that perform a particular task of facilitating cleaning, but for an ant those same droplets are enormous orbs of potential death. Water doesn’t scale the same for a human and an ant even though it is the same substance at both levels and the shower is identical in its structure.
In physics this is called scalar variance. What works ideally for humans is terrible for ants even though we are speaking of the same substance, same planet, same context. Water (most notably, a shower of it) doesn’t scale well in this case.
Yet, there is this insatiable desire among those working in social innovation to “scale things up” and “bring our innovations to scale” (even if we have little concept of how that would look or — as I will discuss — what that really means). The adherence to scaling as an ideology in social innovation (and applied social science in general) is bordering on “four legs good, two legs better” territory.
The Cult of Efficiency
International affairs scholar Janice Gross Stein attributes some of this fascination with scaling to a cult of efficiency, a political ideology that assumes that we can always rationalize human services optimally. What she found is that efficiency is used falsely as a stand-in for accountability, particularly in fields like education. Far from being against striving for optimal use of scarce resources, Stein nonetheless concludes that efficiency in human systems doesn’t always scale (my phrase, not hers) and that bigger and faster is often not better. Anyone who has taken a lecture with hundreds of others knows the difference of scale in learning between that and a seminar of five to ten people.
Taking Jamer Hunt’s argument: Bigger is just bigger…and whether its better or not is dependent on whether you’re an ant, a human and need to come into contact with water.
Designing for Systems and Scale: The Powers of 10
Designers and systems thinkers probably know the movie “The Powers of 10” by legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames. It’s a fascinating short film that looks at the universe moving out from a human being into the cosmos and inward towards what would now be quarks and everything in between. It is perhaps the best example of scaling ever produced. Beyond its educational and entertainment value, the Powers of 10 provide an illustrative example of where striving for scaling social innovations could be foolish and where it could have potential.
When traveling through the universe it is easy to see scales that are self-similar, thus they share properties that make them optimally relatable. These forms are often fractal in nature (thus, they share the same properties at different scales like that of a snowflake). Imperfectly, certain scales in the Powers of 10 are close to self-similarity where one scale looks and shows behaviour similar to those adjacent to it. These are spaces where it may be possible to transport an innovation from one to the other to good effect. Others scales look radically different from one another, suggesting a mis-fit in the scalar variance.
This is an idea, not an empirical point as we have little research on scalar variance in social innovation. Scaling innovation makes greater sense when the social systems have similar structures and ‘shapes’ and less when they do not. It is why in organizational science, certain models of management and decision making transport well from setting to setting and others do not. It’s why we’ve seen quality improvement processes like Six Sigma achieve great success in certain industries and firms and spectacularly fail in others.
Rather than adhere to an ideology that imposes scaling as a goal, social innovators need to generate the kinds of intelligence about the systems they are operating in (or seeking to operate or expand into) before making plans for scaling a promising intervention or product. As funders and policymakers this means setting performance targets that are appropriate or, perhaps better yet, working developmentally with innovators to co-create the outcomes of interest and the measures and metrics used to determine scalability and appropriateness early in the design and implementation cycle.
Without best evidence (which is almost always lacking in social innovation by its very nature), setting performance targets related to scale a priori is foolish. For innovators themselves, equally foolish is not gathering the kind of information about the systems they are operating in to know if they are the human or the ant and whether a shower is on the way.
Empathy is a central feature of good human-centred design, yet is often practiced narrowly. Visualization with systems thinking and mindfulness are three additional features that can transform empathy from a simple tool to a vehicle for transformation by connecting us less to absolute problems and more to relative ones.
In today’s Globe and Mail newspaper online, the oft controversial columnist Margaret Wente offered an op-ed piece called I have ‘white people’s problems,’ and you probably do too. The column refers to an article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter looking at how women today still struggle to be successful at work, family and personal life simultaneously. Both Wente and Slaughter take pains to point out that they lead privilidged lives, yet that privilige does not shield them from experiencing social problems in a way that is both unique to their situation and widely shared by women across the social spectrum.
A read of the comments for both articles shows how much of a hot-button issue this is for people (Wente’s article had more than 700 comments within hours of being uploaded) and includes much discussion of the racist/non-racist/classist over and undertones to the content and topic. It might be tempting to rush in and judge these two articles for dwelling on the pains of a privileged few in light of problems of poverty, food insecurity, safety, sexual and gender-based violence, and absence of healthcare experienced by the greater number of people on this earth.
Yet, if we look at the issues as they are with less judgement we can see the reaction to these articles less as a battle of ideas, but an unconscious attack on empathy. There is this perverse pleasure for some in pointing out the arrogance, ignorance, or neglectfulness in others, but such criticism (sometimes falsely veiled as critique or critical thinking) often fails to deeply connect to empathy beyond the pale. How then do we promote empathy in such conditions?
Perspective Taking: It’s (Relative) Promise and Perils
As Micheal Marmot and others have shown consistently with evidence is that relative inequities, inequalities and health disparities are as significant or more so than absolute ones. Whatever challenges you face they are exacerbated by how you see yourself in relative position to those who deem closest to you. Saying: “it could be worse” works when you see your peers as worse off than you or your equal, but it doesn’t work as well when you’re surrounded by people you perceive to be in better shape. Thus, we have an issue that is both absolute and relative based on real and perceptive differences working simultaneously. In the case of Wente and Slaughter’s articles, most of us (the 95-99% not represented in these perspectives) see them to be in better shape and that has consequences for us and them.
Peter Coleman and faculty at the International Project on Conflict and Complexity have looked at how relative position and empathy fit together in the context of peace-building and mediation and have found that there are spaces where taking into account the lives of others can increase conflict, not dampen it. Of the many examples cited in their work (including Coleman’s recent book) is a decade-long initiative to build bridges between anti-abortion and pro-life advocates in the Boston area and how efforts to build empathy between these two foes often served to antagonize and create bigger gaps in position rather than closing them. These problems, often seen as intractable, represent about 5% of all the ones we face, but their effect is enormous.
Recent studies in social psychology have confirmed that bridge building requires more than just seeing the other side, it requires being heard (PDF – Bruneau & Saxe (2012), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). A study by Kraus and colleagues (PDF) found that social distance can have an impact on the way that people empathize and the conclusions that they draw when trying to place themselves in the position of others.
Your Grief is Not the Same as My Grief
The above heading comes from a statement uttered in a group counselling context and has forever stuck in my head. It recognizes that we all experience things in a unique way, yet it was uttered in a spirit that suggests we can still come to share that experience in a manner that can build solidarity and connection.
This points to the ultimate design challenge: creating greater connection through empathy without widening social distance.
One might think this would be easier given that empathy is one of the principle tools of design, yet my experience suggests that designers might be more apt to identify this as important and have strategies to get to it, there is still much to be done. But as we all design for ourselves and some of us for others, imagining another’s perspective requires understanding both that another perspective exists and where in relation that perspective sits to your own. It is here that we need more than an empathic lens or a design lens, but a systems lens as well.
Visualization: Placing Empathy
Systems thinking provides cognitive tools for understanding entire domains and the relationships within it. Systems mapping takes these ideas and makes them visual by providing an architecture for that understanding. Visualization provides the means to connect these two worlds by providing a design sensibility with a systems perspective. The figure below illustrates this position.
Mapping the positions held or visualizing them allows an idea to be represented in a manner that invites dialogue and open comparison. Rather than keeping one’s perspective locked within their own mind, a visual representation allows both the individual and those who they seek (or we seek) to build empathy with the tools to better frame the position each holds relative to one another. Doing so goes beyond imagining what it would be like to walk in anothers’ shoes and actually sees it and allows us to test assumptions.
From here, a contemplative approach to inquiry based on mindfulness can allow people to sit — literally or figuratively — with this data and envision the positions in new ways. Contemplating the meaning of what a particular perspective holds can enable a perspective taking that goes beyond seeing this head on and perhaps sees it from above, below, behind or inside and gets us away from our forward orientation bias.
By redefining the space in which the problem exists by literally creating that space on the page or screen we can better see beyond our current position to imagine how things previously deemed impossible might exist. Returning to the original example, this means seeing that one can hold much privilege and social advantage and experience the world in a manner that feels as violated, limiting and stressful as someone of lesser absolute means. It can also facilitate the reverse perspective. In doing so, this type of visualizing + empathy + contemplative inquiry has the means to take away much of the judgement and see things as they are without reducing or amplifying problems beyond their current context.
In doing so, perhaps we can better see us all as interconnected members of a system with pains and hurts and joys and skills rather than devote more energy that is necessary to judging others and less on making lives better for everyone.
The human body is oriented towards forward motion and so too are our institutions, yet while this helps us move linearly and efficiently from place to place, it may obscure opportunities and challenges that come from other directions such as those posed by complexity. Thinking about and re-orienting our perceptions of who we are and where we are going might be the key to understanding and dealing with complexity now and in the future.
When heading out into the turbulent waters that face us we humans tend to look straight ahead and press forward. Our entire physical being and that of all mammals is aimed at facing forward. We look forward, walk forward and this often means thinking forward.
Doing this predisposes us to seeing problems ahead of us or behind us, but is less useful when what challenges us is positioned elsewhere. For this reason, fish and birds, with their eyes on the side of their head, are able to adapt to challenges from nearly any direction quickly. It also allows them to fly/swim in flocks/swarms/schools and operate with high degrees of coordination on a large scale.
These are skills that are useful for handling the social problems that are complex in nature and require mass action to address. But, we don’t have eyes on the side of our head and we tend to look forward or backward to orient ourselves and our activities.
One way this expresses itself in our perceptions of time. Thor Muller, writing in Psychology Today online, highlighted how our perceptions of time influence the way we handle appointments and punctuality with modern technology. Citing the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall (although mistakenly referring to Manhattan Project contributor Edward Teller), Muller points to the differences in perceived time across cultures and the way that plays out in our treatment of time and technology used to “manage” it and the complexity of everyday life. Monochronistic and polychronistic time orientations matter to whether you see time as a linear, quantifiable phenomenon or a more non-linear, contextual one. One allows you to “bank” time while the other perception deals more with the present moment, less dependent on forward-backward thinking.
Western society and the technologies developed within it are oriented primarily towards dealing with a monochronistic form of time. This works well when patterns, problems and situations have a linear, ordered set of circumstances to them. The cause-and-effect world of normal science fits within this worldview.
Complexity is non-linear and not easily defined in cause-and-effect terms and conditions. Two-dimensional space doesn’t capture complexity the way it can for linear situations. It also means thinking solely in forward and back terms is problematic.
An example of where this comes to conflict is in program planning and evaluation. Traditional evaluation methods and metrics are set up for looking at programs that are planned to start and end with impacts developed and detected in between. This implies a certain level of consistency in the conditions in which that program operates. This control and measure aspect of evaluation is part of the hallmark features of scientific inquiry.
For programs operating in environments of great change and flux, this is a faulty proposition. We cannot hold constant the environment for starters. Secondly, feedback gained from learning about the program as it proceeds is critical to ensuring adaptation and promoting resilience in the face of changing conditions. In these cases, failure to act and adapt on the go may result in a program failing catastrophically.
This is where developmental evaluation comes in. Developmental evaluation works with these conditions to generate data in a manner that programs can make sense of and use to facilitate strategic adaptation rather than simply reacting to changes. As the name suggests, it promotes development rather than improvement.Developmental design is the incorporation of this feedback into an ongoing program development and design process.
Both developmental design and evaluation require ways of seeing the world beyond forward/backward. This seeing comes from understanding where one’s position is in the first place and that requires methods of centring that take us into the world of polychronistic time. One example of a strategy that suits this approach is mindfulness programming. Mindfulness-based programs have shown remarkable efficacy in healing and health interventions aimed at stress reduction across conditions. Mindfulness techniques ranging from meditation to contemplative inquiry (video) brings focus to the present moment away from an orientation towards linear trajectories of time, thought and attention.
Some forms of martial arts promote attentive awareness to the present moment by training practitioners in strategies that are focused on simple rules of engagement, rather than just learning techniques for defence.
These approaches combine inward reflection — reflective practice — with an openness to the data that comes in around them without imposing an order on it a priori. The orientation is to the data and the lessons that come from it rather than its directionality or imposing values on what the data might mean at the start. It means slowing down, contemplating things, and acting on reflection not reacting based on protocol. This is a fundamental shift for many of our activities, but may be the most necessary thing we can focus on if we are to have any hope of understanding, dealing with, and adapting to complexity.
All the methods and tools at our disposal will not help if we cannot change our mindset and orientation — even in the temporary — to this reality when looking at complexity in our work. One of complexity’s biggest challenges right now is that it is seductive in accounting for the massive, dynamic sets of conditions we face every day, yet it lacks methods beyond evaluation to do things with it. The irony of mindfulness and contemplative approaches is that they are less about acting differently and more about seeing things in new ways, yet it is that orientation that is the key to making real change from talking about change. It is the design doing that comes with design thinking and the systems change from systems thinking.
Business leaders: when I use the word "culture", do you screw up your face and say "Love and peace, man"? I'm no aging hippie; in any case, I was born 10 years too late to be part of that movement. Business culture is no wiffly-waffly discretionary add-on. It's central to effectiveness and business improvement. I do admit a fondness for better communication, greater self-awareness, lots more empathy and way less fear in the workplace (man), but this comes out of a firmly held view that there is huge scope for workplaces to be more humanised, which will have a huge impact on effectiveness.
Over the last two weeks social science researchers across Canada began receiving the decisions from last autumn’s competition for a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funding award. SSHRC is the principal funder of social science research in Canada, although notably is not in the business of funding heath-related research, which is supposed to be funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). [Full disclosure: I currently hold grants from both of these organizations]. The problem is that CIHR was born from a policy and programming body and the former Medical Research Council and has a rather awkward relationship with social science research given its medical focus. It has funded some social science programs, but not in a manner that has enabled social scientists to comfortably explore the range of issues that they might have under traditional SSHRC funding programs, particularly when social issues are not always obviously health issues (e.g., poverty, education) and can easily be dismissed as not being relevant in spite of the evidence that they are. Yet, SSHRC has decided to forgo any funding of health-related projects due in part to the absence of funding to support it when there are presumably options through CIHR or the disease-specific health charities like the Canadian Cancer Society, the Lung Association and others.
Yet, these options are not suitable. In a manifesto entitled “The end of medical anthropology in Canada” a group of leading social scientists painted the picture of the situation in grim terms in University Affairs. Although medical anthropology is the focus of the piece, the authors might as well be speaking for social sciences in general:
Health is inherently social and cultural. SSHRC has always understood this; CIHR, we fear, does not. We face the possible extermination of one of the most vibrant, high-demand and policy-relevant health disciplines, the only scholarly field that places culture at the centre of the analysis of health and that characteristically does so in both national and international contexts. In a multicultural, settler society with a substantial aboriginal population, and in a world where health is at the core of developmental, political and social issues in so many countries, where Canada otherwise wishes to have an impact, does this make any sense?
This brings me back to the beginning of this post and the announcement of the results of the last competition. Looking at the funding numbers released by SSHRC, a discouraging picture emerges. In 2011-12, 37 per cent of all applications in the open competition were deemed fundable, yet only 22.5 per cent were funded. These numbers are similar t0 2010-11, when 36 per cent were deemed fundable and 22 per cent were funded. What is not mentioned in these numbers was the level at which these grants were funded in the first place. I am a 2010-11 recipient of funding from SSHRC — meaning my grant proposal was within the top 22 per cent of all applications for that year — and the amount I received was approximately half of what I requested. That means that I had to take half of my budget and throw it away. So yes, I was successful providing I did either half of the research or found money elsewhere. I did the latter and my pocketbook is none the better for it.
Consider the implications of this change in funding. With one in five projects funded and many of those that are funded at levels well below what was requested the motivation for researchers is one of the first casualties. Researchers know that funding is tight and that it is highly competitive, but few alternative sources for research grants that lay outside of specific disease-focused areas, social scientists young and old are faced with little option. This creates another set of affected parties: students and trainees. Research funding not only supports the scientists themselves in many cases (see my previous posts on this), but those seeking to become scientists themselves or those who seek to get better acquainted with research. In health sciences and policy, this means just about everyone enrolled in such programs.
Now consider all of this in light of a trend towards increasing graduate education numbers. At the academic institution I am affiliated with (like many of its peers), the enrolment numbers are set to nearly double across many of the professional programs associated with health practice and policy in the coming years. Increased demand for training opportunities from the public has created a means for universities to cash in. Of course, what these students will do when they get there is unclear (let alone when they graduate), but it cannot be much in the way of research — at least as it pertains to social science and health. The funding is simply not there to support the kind of broad-based inquiry into the social factors that influence health, illness and well-being anymore. We have, as I call it, reached ‘the Turn’.
The Turn is that point where the system changes irrevocably towards a new direction. It is like a ‘tipping point‘. Dwindling numbers of social scientists working from funding from an institutional budget (e.g., tenure-stream faculty positions) + a doubling of the student cohort * half of the research dollars makes for rather toxic math. The Turn will fundamentally shape the way social science inquiry is done and the kind of questions that get asked. As question foci change, the quality of the research shifts, and the depth of inquiry is reduced, so too will the real impact that social science has on our health.
The gap between what we know, what we do, and what we can do to prevent illness, treat sickness, and promote well-being will grow.
Anecdotally speaking, this trend is not unique to the social sciences, but it is amplified in this domain. Social sciences in Canada and abroad are consistently funded at lower levels than that of basic research (see here for a starting point). But what is interesting is that many of the problems that we face within health require social science knowledge and research to address and social science — from knowledge translation, social network studies, technology adoption, innovation, management, to policy implementation and beyond .
Prevention of disease and chronic illness is often a social phenomenon (e.g., hand washing). Even the act of taking the best of basic science and translating it into practice or policy options (or other scientific research) is a social act that draws on social science research to execute. Social determinants of health are social in nature and require social science to understand their impact. Designing the policy and programmatic interventions that support creating a healthier society also falls to social science research and practice.
What will our health landscape look like without the ability to take what we know and translate it into action? Worse yet, what if we simply are unable to even know what to do because the research and evidence isn’t there in the first place to translate into anything? Without another turn towards something more positive in our research support, we are about to find out.
* Photo Turn the Page by Miaboas used under Creative Commons License from Deviant Art.
Great leaders are often ascribed traits that include ample common sense. But what passes for common sense is often a grab bag of miscellaneous, inconsistent ideas that are context dependent and less useful in the complex environments where leadership is called for most.
common sense |ˌkɑmən ˈsɛns|
good sense and sound judgment in practical matters: use your common sense | [ as modifier ] : a common-sense approach.
Today Research in Motion announced that its founder Mike Lazaridis and his co-CEO Jim Balsillie would be relinquishing their roles with the company. In their place, a ‘pragmatic, operational-type guy ‘was installed. Presumably, Thorsten Heins has the common sense to lead RIM after the founders lost theirs. Yet, the pragmatic, common sense that RIM is looking for might not be what they need given the complexity of the environment they are leading in.
Common sense is a false lure in complex systems. In his recent book, Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer, social network researcher and Yahoo! Research scientist Duncan Watts eloquently critiques the concept of common sense, illustrating dozens of times over how “common sense” doesn’t fare so well in decisions that go beyond the routine and into the complex. Indeed. the very definition of the term implies that the problems that common sense works towards addressing are relatively simple and pragmatic.
Certainly, navigating daily social conventions might lend itself well to what we might call common sense. Watts refers to sociologist Harry Collins’ term ‘collective tacit knowledge‘ that is encoded in social norms, customs and practices of a particular world to describe common sense. However, what becomes common is a byproduct of many small decisions, dynamic and flexible changes to perspective, an accumulation of knowledge gained from small experiments over time, and the application of all of this knowledge to particular, context-dependent, situations. This constellation of factors and its interdependent, contextual overlap is why artificial intelligence systems have such a difficult time mimicking human thought and action. It is this attention to context that is most worth noting for it is this context that keeps common sense from being anything but common:
Common sense…is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time.
Watts goes on to argue:
Commonsense reasoning, therefore, does not suffer from a single overriding limitation but rather from a combination of limitations, all of which reinforce and even disguise one another. The net result is that common sense is wonderful at making sense of the world, but not necessarily at understanding it.
Thus, we often concoct a narrative about the way something happens that sounds plausible, rational and be completely wrong. Throughout the book, Watts shows how often mistakes are made based on this common sense approach to solving problems.
When it comes to RIM, some have pointed to the late Steve Jobs’ assertion that they would have difficulty catching up to firms like Apple given that the consumer market is not their strength, the enterprise market is. Yet, Steve Jobs didn’t let the fact that Apple was a computer company stop him from making music players (the iPod), mobile phones (the iPhone) or becoming book, music and movie vendors (iTunes). A read of Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson reveals a man who was able to lead and be successful through what appeared to be common sense, yet was decidedly uncommon among media and technology leaders. That is why Apple is where it is and why so many other technology companies lag behind them or simply disappeared.
The reason is that common sense in leadership looks as simple in hindsight only, not in foresight or even in the present moment. This is one of the big points that Watts makes. He uses the example of Sony’s MiniDisc system that, when introduced, had all of the hallmark features of the innovations that Apple introduced (novel, high quality, portable, smaller, visible advantages over the alternatives), yet it was a spectacular failure. Canadian management consultant Michael Raynor has called this the strategy paradox. When qualities such as vision, bold leadership, and focused execution — all the commonsensical aspects of great leaders — are applied to organizations it can lead to great success (Steve Jobs and Apple) or resounding failures (RIM?).
Strategic flexibility, making small adjustments consistently, and imaging scenarios for the future in an ongoing manner are some of the potential ways to limit the damage from common sense (or use its advantages more fully). This requires feedback mechanisms and close monitoring of program activities, developmental evaluation, and a willingness to tweak programs and design on the go (what I call: developmental design) . It’s not a surprise that this incremental approach to development is consistent with the way change is best produced in a complex adaptive system.
By recognizing that common sense is less than common and is certainly not consistent, program designers, developers, evaluators and other professionals will be better positioned to provide true leadership that addresses challenges and complexity rather than adds to the complexity and creates more problems.
The need to train professionals, educate citizens and advance knowledge of our world has never been less, yet the academic environment where this takes place is changing at a pace where its easy to question what one is to do to contribute to its mission. In this continuing series on life in academia, I offer some advice for those seeking to join its ranks as I step away from this life after two decades spent immersed in it.
As a professor at a world-class research university in a dynamic and challenging field of study I have the privilege of meeting some of the brightest young minds around. The many roles that a professor can take — as educator, learner, scientist, advocate or activist – are highly attractive to many of these ‘bright minds’ so it is no surprise that I get asked a lot about how they can join the academy.
Not surprisingly, many of them aspire to become full-time professors. In this latest instalment of the Alien Shores series looking at the changing world of academia I provide some advice for those interested in getting into the profession that I am about to transition away from.
Shortly after I started my undergraduate studies I discovered psychology and found a “home” for the ideas I had about organizing with people and making a splash in the world. Soon after learning about the field and the opportunities I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a professor. Throughout my career I studied to be a professor, seeking to apprentice under my advisor, not just take direction. He was the Chair of my department and very generous with his time and knowledge, sharing much (within all appropriate and ethical bounds) about life in the academy. He gave me an unvarnished, true account of the ups and downs of academic life and prepared me as best he could for the challenges ahead. I studied and learned and watched everything and even then it only did me so much good. The field is changing so quickly and professorial life is transforming far faster than anyone thought.
So as I leave the profession in a full-time capacity, what can offer someone who, like me, wants to get into this line of work? To the scholar who seeks a life in academia I offer this:
1. The world outside of the university is a minefield: proceed with extreme caution and pack all the right equipment. I’ve been told by more than one leader in my field “you shouldn’t attempt community-based research until you have tenure“. They were right. But I am very glad I didn’t listen and tried it out, but then my risk tolerance is a bit skewed.In terms of logistics, CBR consumes vast amount of time, is poorly appreciated, nearly impossible to resource appropriately, has time schedules that wreak havoc on your life, and offers nowhere near the academic value commensurate with the energy involved. It is also fun, creative and connects you to the world in ways that traditional research can rarely do. When you are starting out it is very difficult to weigh the pros and cons of doing this kind of work so my advice is, if you’re going to do CBR, get a team — a good one — and find collaborators with experience who can help you along. It is very hard to go it alone.
How about knowledge translation? If you want to get your knowledge into anything other than a report, academic journal or conference presentation, you are on your own unless KT is the explicit focus of your research. Why? It is hard, has little value inside the academy and you will not be given the supports to do it anywhere close to the way it deserves. At the same time, it too is fun. Among the highest honours I’ve been given is when people — the public, practitioners, or policy makers (even other academics) — tell me that they used something that I developed to solve a problem and it added value to their work. I care far less if people find my work clever, exquisitely crafted, or even “cutting edge” if it doesn’t lead to use at the end of the day.
Like CBR, find like minds and work together. Network and build on to the communities of people who are interested in your work and pay no heed to the naysayers. I’ve been told that the Internet had no future for helping people change behaviour and now regularly get challenged on my use of social media as a legitimate tool for KT. If you are reading this, then you already know that this medium works. Is it better than other tools? That depends and that’s why we do the work — to find out.
2. Don’t believe everything you read, see or hear from leaders in your institution or field. It’s too easy (and natural) to look at the head of an organization and take what they say as representing the direction they are heading. I would take the words of a senior director with a funding agency, university president, Dean or politician to heart and expect to see the changes that they spoke of. They aren’t lying, but the mechanism they use is flawed. In academia, nearly everything is directed through peer review, meaning that leadership might define the problems, but researchers determine the manner in which they are solved.
I recall sitting on a grant review panel where one of the criteria for a strong grant was a clear knowledge translation plan and seeing proposal after proposal being lauded as excellent with KT plans that included nothing more than a commitment to write the findings in a peer review journal or present at a conference. I spoke up and challenged these as weak examples of KT and the panel review coordinator agreed, but my peers saw that as appropriate and therefore the projects were favourably rated. Why would academics see it this way? See #1.
3. Your peers are your allies and your enemy. Innovation is nearly impossible by peer review. Despite challenges and commentaries on the weakness of the system, it persists and thrives in academia. Peer review has been challenged as sexist (PDF), dangerous, and almost antithetical to innovation. By its very nature, peer review is designed to judge research based on the best current evidence and the status quo, not by what could be. Indeed, to judge a proposal by imaginaries created from possible futures, rather than evidence is tantamount to academic misconduct in the peer review system.
If peer review was a drug it would never be allowed onto the market - Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal Of the American Medical Association (cited in Smith (2010))
A descriptive analysis of submissions to peer reviewed academic journals found little reason to believe that the editorial peer review process improves the quality of research presented in the literature. They conclude:
At present, little empirical evidence is available to support the use of editorial peer review as a mechanism to ensure quality of biomedical research. (Jefferson et al. (2007))
Much more research is needed on this, but the work done to date isn’t positive for those seeking to do things differently. At the same time, in actually doing research, peers can be extremely useful and even necessary to getting things done and done well (see point #1). Finding some intellectual or practice peers is a critical step towards warding off loneliness in a profession that can be extremely isolating if you let it. Many academics are saddled with being the only person that studies “X” in their department, providing few allies. Find your tribe, wherever they are in and out of academia or your department or institution. Joining professional societies and getting active in them is a great way to ‘hang with your peeps’ that have common interests and build your network.
Your peers are your allies, but they are also your enemies. And as the comic Pogo quoted:
I have met the enemy and he is us
4. It doesn’t get better (unless you make it so). The anti-bullying movement directed towards the gay and lesbian community is framed around the idea that it gets better. Maybe for them, but the same rules are far from true within academia. Too often have I see people drawn by the idea that things get better once you get a long-term contract, or a tenure-track position, or tenure, or a promotion, or a grant or a publication… and all of that is one big lie. I have watched people work just as hard if not more so with success and achieve little in the way of happiness or change in status. In my last two years as a F/T professor I had over $2M in grants and published more than a dozen peer-reviewed papers, book chapters and monographs, while supervising a team of more than 23 full-time people. I got a teaching award*, a raise, and invitations to speak at keynote events. I was as successful as I ever was going to get and I was getting more miserable by the day.
Once the initial glean of the publication or successful grant application wears off, it is back to normal. This is traditional behavioural economics research and stands up in practice.
Why is this the case? Partly, because the degrees of difference between the work is so hard to perceive and the scales that people use to judge work is highly skewed, everything gets treated the same or we use conventional scales to measure unconventional products. In some places, a $500K contract is viewed less positively than a $100K peer-reviewed grant (see previous points for reasons), which is disheartening to see or experience. Also, because it is so difficult to judge the impact of a paper, they are all viewed in the same light so your Magnum opus might be treated the same as a paper you cared very little about. No one cares like you do and that is sometimes difficult to accept.
(* The teaching award was an exception, that did more to buoy my spirits than anything I’ve experienced in my career, largely because it was completely from the heart by a group of students and faculty who went out of their way to say “thanks”. That was one of those cases where simply being nominated meant the world to me. That I won was just icing).
5. Make small changes often, rather than rock the boat at once. When I became a professor, I knew from day #1 what kind of things I wanted to see different. That we have students — particularly graduate students — sitting in desks in rows listening to someone talk at them for hours is an afront to learning. Armed with educational theory, two certificates in post-secondary teaching, experience teaching in secondary school, and years of experience as a student, I was going to change the classroom. Having done lots of research, studied knowledge translation, and worked in the community, I was ready to transform the way research could be done. In both cases, I jumped in full-tilt within the means I had available.
And then the system bit back.
It wasn’t so much that anyone or thing resisted, but rather massive change at once is stressful and it was hard to handle all the unexpected consequences of making major changes simultaneously. I study complexity and teach behaviour change so I should know better. If I was to start again, I’d still do it all — but just in smaller chunks over time. But then, I knew I didn’t have much time so that might be part of the problem.
6. Figure out who you want to love you, because it can’t be everyone. Jack of All Trades is a very lonely person inside the university walls, and is loved outside of them. Academia rewards (and punishes) the expert. When you are the right fit, your specialization is golden. “Great, we were looking for someone who studies this exact ______” is wonderful to hear when you are at the institution — maybe one of a handful in the world — that is looking to hire someone with that specific set of skills and interests. There is a lot of ego-stroking in academia when you first get called “an expert” and that is a big part of the problem. We want to be loved and respected, we’ve worked pretty damn hard to be good at something, and we want the recognition. Being an ‘expert’ gives some of this to us.
But if you want to have impact outside in the world, your expertise is going to be limited. That’s OK, but one has to remember that it is indeed rare when someone presents with a highly specialized topic that is widely accessible outside of academia. Broad-based skills are useful in the world beyond the academy and are easier for n0n-academics to comprehend. Thus, people either need to be skilled communicators outright or do the kind of work that is relevant to the community from the outset, using the language of that community. The public — or other professionals or policy makers — will love you, but not necessarily the academy. It’s reasons why fields like community development, program evaluation, social design, and health promotion have a hard go of it in academia: they comprehensive fields that tend towards breadth, not depth. Yet, these skills are needed desperately to solve a certain class of problems. Both specialization and broad-based scholarly skills are useful, its just they are not appreciated equally in all settings.
7. You can learn a lot from the military. For many of us in academia, the thought of modeling ourselves after the military in any way is a bit unpalatable. Yet, if you can get past the armed conflict part of their work, military folk have a lot of lessons to teach us faculty. Here are some of them:
- You cannot successfully fight on any more than two fronts at the same time. Thus, if you want to develop diversified program of research, it needs to have two major themes and no more. I had three major programs of research and it was too hard to manage. By program of research, I mean a series of linked projects operating under one general theme — the kind of thing that you will be asked to articulate when you apply for a career award or certain grants. I was too ambitious and excited and it was costly in terms of my mental health and wellbeing.
- “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” (see points #3 and #8 to identify the enemy — hint: its you and me). You can’t plan your career with an expectation that it will unfold as you outline. Plans are just vague roadmaps to keep you pointed in a direction, not a vision of the exact future ahead. One has to approach the work as developmental in nature.
- Protect your supply lines. From Ghengis Khan to Napoleon to Hitler, the lessons of protect your supply lines comes through in the history books (along with “don’t be a mass-murdering megalomaniac psychopath”). You need to plan for a long haul and make sure that you have the supplies — people, equipment, social support, and emotional fortitude — to operate in cycles that often go in years, not months. For example, taking on a student as an advisor means that you need to have the future supplies for the work itself (1-5 years or more of direct contact depending on the degree) and the years afterward when they apply to graduate school, jobs, grants and beyond.
Academia is designed for the tenured professor who is dedicating a life to the institution and the profession, but the reality is that there is little support for these roles. Thus, you are asked to supply a set of projects and studies that may require you respond to questions, publish papers, or support trainees and staff in various ways well beyond the funding cycle or your contract.
8. Determine how much your soul is worth and price it accordingly. Academia is not a job-space, it is a calling. If you’re thinking of clocking in 9-5 and leaving what you do at the office at the end of the day you are in the wrong business. Indeed, you probably won’t do good work because ideas come at all hours and they need attention when they ask for it. The freedom that comes from this job is a blessing and curse and how it plays out is really up to you. I personally have no problem diving in full-tilt in a period of flow to my work, but it needs to be done consciously and with permission. Otherwise, your friendships, love life, relationships with family and yourself will suffer, sometimes greatly. I know this firsthand.
While I dropped a lot of things from my sometimes unreasonable standards I did decide where my line was and stuck to it. There was one project that I steadfastly refused to rush, skimp on, reduce or limit and I held fast to that. There were a handful of people who I also would ensure they had my fullest attention whenever I met with them no matter what. These were staff or students whom I would give priority to over anything else and I hoped would never feel that I rushed them or ignored them. That was the price of my soul. When career demands started to haggle with me on this price most vociferously, I knew it was time to go. You need to know when your time to go is or be prepared to hold your price.
9. Treat your gas tank like you would handle winter driving conditions (always leave something in the tank). Going all out is something of myth — “give it 110%”, “winners never quit”, “give it your all”. It never stops. When I started, there were a few “quiet times of year” in the academic calendar. Usually early November, January and February, May and July. Now, that doesn’t exist. New Year’s Eve between 11pm and 1am is about it for quiet in the life of an academic. You can keep on going all the time if you allow work to drive your life and demand you use the full tank of gas. The emails rarely stop, the funding opportunities are never-ending, and there are always manuscripts to write, read and review. No matter what kind of joy you derive from your work, always leave something in reserve. Just like winter driving in Canada — you need a little gas left in the tank both for safety, but to ensure that your fuel lines don’t freeze (see supply lines issue above).
I, too often, gave it my all and suffered for it. By “all” I don’t mean hold back creative energy, passion, enthusiasm, or yourself, but rather make sure that you can replenish what you have in whatever way possible. Take a day (or a few) off, read for fun, or exercise (see next point). It need not be a lot, but do something to leave something in the tank and know when you’re getting low. You’ll always be asked to give more; resist.
10. Get out…a lot. Exercise. No really, do it. See movies, listen to music, watch plays, get physical with people in any way appropriate and possible. Use your body, mind and soul to extend outside of your work. See the world that you’re trying to influence even if that influence is a long way from the lab bench you work at or theoretical proposition you are putting forth. My biggest failings were letting work take over too often and neglecting the parts of myself that were important. Your important others — partners, children, friends, pets — will let you know in obvious or subtle ways that you’re neglecting them, but that message can only be heard if you are attentive. As for yourself? That’s even harder as the internal voice can be easily squelched or rationalized out. And if you lose yourself, you’re not much to anyone else.
What makes academic work so insidious from a self-care standpoint is that there are rewards for working hard – more grants, more publications, more recognition — but as you’ll not from #4, the yellow brick road only leads to Oz.
If you’ve read this far, you are either determined to learn about academia or in need of much more to read in your life. So if you are looking for something a little more inspirational, I would recommend the following:
PhD Comics. Yorge Cham’s delightful take on academia is so funny because it is so close to reality.
Dance Your PhD: There are a lot of efforts out there to make even the most arcane subject matter entertaining. Scour the web and delight in some of the most ridiculous things you’ll see tied to your dissertation topic and its a few minutes — or hours — well wasted.
An academic life is not for everyone, but it can be a wonderful space if you’re prepared. Do your research (on the job itself), be true to yourself and those close to you, and get supports. If you do and bring a smile to your day, you’ll probably do OK in this life.
Twenty-two years ago a 25-year old male walked into the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and killed 14 women in a hate crime that injured scores, devastated families and friends of the victims, wounded a school, city and country, and change my life forever. Today, men and women across Canada (and beyond) pause to take stock of the relations between the sexes, the role of violence in our society, and to honour women as they remember the events of that day.
I don’t remember where I was when I heard the news in its fullest. It came out in spurts as these things tend to do when there are so many unknowns happening and much activity. I did know that the enormity of what happened at the Ecole Polytechnique that December 6th took a long time to sink in. Reports on the news that there had been a shooting on a college campus were scary enough, but as details emerged that it was women who were specifically targetted and as the depth of the carnage unfolded, I felt a profound sense of loss and kinship as many of the victims could have been my peers. This was not just a mourning for the victims themselves, but a loss of innocence (and ignorance) that I never regained. That day changed my life in ways that I wouldn’t come to understand until many years later.
The Montreal Massacre as it was called led me, for the first time in my life, to feel a sense of shame for what I was (a man), not just who I was or what I had done. I didn’t commit the crime, nor did I do anything to stoke the fires of hatred in Marc Lepine, but I started to question what role my society had in the killing and me by extension as male member of that society. That feeling of shame was profound, slow-building and completely opened myself up to a world that I had been too ignorant of. It raised many questions in me about sex, gender roles and my own place within both of those topics.
I was (and am) lucky. I had the fortune to be born into a family of strong women who cared for me and set great examples of what and who humans could be. From my Mom to my cousins, aunts and my grandmothers, I had a remarkable number of female role models to look up to. But I was also born into a society where sexist imagery, jokes, and patriarchal power dynamics were (and are) dominant. Without the openness to discuss these things, challenge them, and with few male role models who did, it was easy to absorb messages — from mainstream media (movies, TV, magazines), the fashion world, professional sports, and pornography that portrayed women as subservient, sex objects (instead of sexual beings), and weaker-thans — and to hold those positions as unchallenged or taken in uncritically. It was hard to reconcile what I saw in my family with what I saw everywhere else, but somehow these poles just sat in my conscious and unconscious self.
December 6, 1989 changed that and brought those two perspectives into collision.
My world opened up that day and the role that sexism and violence plays in everyday life became apparent and obvious in ways it hadn’t before. Ever since then, the role that violence, sexism, inequality and the insidious ways that these forces are manifest has been at the front of my consciousness. I haven’t always known what to do with these issues, but I have tried to make a difference and continue to be true with myself and others in addressing them whenever I have an opportunity to. This has brought me to many moments with other men that have been uncomfortable; sometimes I’ve done the right thing and spoke out and other times I haven’t. I’m not proud of the latter moments, but I at least know what I didn’t do wasn’t helpful.
Being aware is the first step. But awareness is only a first step and as a researcher, designer, and citizen I demand more.
I have since come to understand those feelings I had that December day and channel them into something productive, but it wasn’t easy. For example, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile activities that are expressions of a certain type of masculinity with those that lead to sexist oppression or intimidation. Sports is a great example of highlighting the best and worst of masculine behaviour. It is too easy to jump towards oppressing men just as men have (sometimes unwittingly or unknowingly) oppressed women. Attacking men isn’t the answer.
While I think I am aware of how my social position can negatively influence my interactions with others, I certainly do not have the answers for what to do. What I do know is that I need to be vigilant as the system that props up psychological and physical violence against women is powerful indeed. The White Ribbon Campaign (illustrated above) is laudable, but it is a short-burst effort to raise awareness. It isn’t 365 days long and in our minds it should be.
So what should the vigilant, conscientious man do? The following list comes from the Say No to Violence campaign which operates parallel to the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada. It suggests a series of small, but very important steps that men can tangibly take to address this issue in practical terms, but hints at a larger systems answer:
1. Think about the kind of man you want to be: kind, responsible, one that shares equally in family life and respects women and girls.
2. Be respectful towards women, girls, and other guys. Sexism and homophobia hurts us all.
3. Ask first. Whether it’s holding hands, kissing, or more, it’s important to communicate and seek consent.
4. Never use coercion, threats, or violence in your relationships with others.
7. Be a good role model and share with the boys and young men around you the importance of respecting women and girls. Visitwww.itstartswithyou.ca to find out how.
8. Learn about the impact of violence against women in your community. Volunteer with a local shelter or a women’s organization.
9. Challenge and speak out against hurtful language, sexist jokes, and bullying, in your school, community, workplace, or place of worship.
11. Accept your role as a man in helping to end violence against women. It affects everyone.
12. Start a White Ribbon Club or Campaign in your school or community. Visit our website to find out how.
13. Order our awareness materials and help educate others in your school, community, or workplace about men’s violence against women and girls.
14. Watch our collection of powerful digital stories to learn about the important connection between masculinity and gender equality.
15. As a community leader, policy maker, funder, or NGO staff member, read our issue brief to learn about the important role that men and boys can play in ending gender-based violence.
These suggestions all can help. Perhaps not surprisingly to readers of this blog, I would argue that there is a big role for systems and design thinking here. It’s one thing to be the change you wish to see in the world, but like Mohandas Ghandi who said this first, you need to change the system and design a strategy for doing it with others for that change to take root with others and spread. Campaigns like White Ribbon are one start. Another is to create the kind of sex and gender-positive organizations (including schools) that provide the scaffolding for allowing people to be themselves to the fullest without fear of violence, discrimination or abuse.
Yet another is to support women (and men) in being able to talk about these issues openly without judgement; design interaction spaces for dialogue just as some are trying with the occupy movement. As a man thinking back on the events of December 6th, 1989 I can remember feeling so alone in my ability to have conversations about the subject matter that didn’t resort into a guilt-trip (for being a man), seeing the event as the act of a lone, crazy individual (being dismissive), or just invoking a sense of despair at the complexity of it all (giving up). There was and is something that can be done. It’s just that it won’t change overnight and is an issue so entrenched into our society that it will be hard to untangle, but it can be done. This is a more wicked problem that it needs to be, but it nonetheless is one. In addressing its root causes and its superficial and deep consequences, we need to think bigger, smarter and act in ways that fit with a complex system.
So where to? From a systems perspective there are things we can do:
- Follow the list above — as many or as few items as possible — and do it as often as possible. Small, coordinated steps instill change in ways that don’t disrupt the system to create a backlash, nor does it let it the status quo rule;
- Share your experiences (maximize feedback, evaluate), learn from others and integrate this learning into your life and adapt your strategies based on this feedback. Keep changing, evolving and learning;
- Get diverse: bring in those that might have new perspectives and might not be the most obvious champions for women’s safety and gender equity and equality (improve learning). Some of the greatest insights and opportunities may come from going beyond the realm we’re familiar with;
- Find specific issues and topics that a wide range of people can see themselves in (create an attractor and probe) and make it something that people can self-organize around. Rather than ‘set the agenda’, throw out ideas and nurture the ones that people gravitate to and leverage that momentum into something that can emerge;
- Try being oblique (in your strategy). Consider indirect routes to tackling the issue as sometimes thorny, complex issues are best tackled indirectly through other channels (e.g., sports)
- Be persistent. Systems change doesn’t happen quickly except in times of great crisis and chaos and not always to our advantage. Steady and continuous will win the day.
- Spend time finding out what the problem is. Is it violence? Is it something that leads to violence? Is it a structure that leads to something that leads to violence? Asking why a LOT can help. Designers spend a lot of time problem finding.
- Frame the issue in the context of the people involved. Get empathic. Men, consider what life might be like living in fear of violence, being denied opportunities because of your sex, or what it would be like to have your value judged solely by how you look or what you could do for the opposite sex. Take sides — both sides — and see imagine what it is like to be a women who is stalked, abused, neglected or ignored. Alternatively, consider what it might be like for a man to get so caught up that he physically assaults someone he genuinely loves, or imagine what it would feel like not to have love at all and to hate those that do. Contemplate what it might be like to be a child to see the two people she or he loves most nearly kill one another in a rage that often feels like you caused it or growing up with the idea that another sex is inferior because that’s all you’ve been told. None of these are particularly pleasant, but only when we can see the whole issue — including that of victims and perpetrators and see them with empathy, compassion and understanding can we design solutions that might alleviate the problem;
- Develop solutions with those most affected – and this might mean involving men more than women sometimes (which is the exact opposite of what we do now). The solutions might not reside in the most obvious place and maybe it means stepping out of the conventional spaces into something a little more uncomfortable, yet closer to the problem;
- Prototype. Try things out and evaluate what happens when you do something. Small, safe-fail experiments allow you to learn as you go rather than aim to change the entire system at once, offering a lot of options for innovation.
Today, as we remember the lives lost and damaged from the events of December 6th and the global challenge that this represents, consider taking up the challenge and perhaps together we can systems think and design our way to a healthier, more equitable world for men and women alike.
Imagine how we can create a system that makes the unthinkable truly so. As designers, envision what we could do if we engaged people in the design challenge to reimagine our sex and gender roles in a healthier image.
Yesterday, I wrote about how women are becoming the leaders in our complex world. The issue of violence against women is an area where men can step up and show some leadership too. Indeed, it is a space for all of us to take charge and lead. Let’s step it up.
And for men? Wear your ribbon proud today and carry that thought with you the remaining 364 days of the year.
“The Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” – Aretha Franklin & The Eurythmics
The old cliches of where a woman’s place ought to be have changed to mean: anywhere she wants to be. Women are poised to drive change in the age of complexity leading us all to consider why this might be the case and what we can learn from it.
There was a time when women repeated the line in graphic artist J. Howard Miller‘s famous piece: We Can Do It! Now, as Aretha and Annie sing, they are doing it for themselves…and in spades. The ‘it’ is leading and innovating in times of great complexity and change and not necessarily by role, but by action. When the challenges of ‘wicked problems‘ become great and pervasive, it is women not men who are stepping up to lead and that might have a lot to do with design. How?
Design and design thinking is fundamentally about strategies used to create, shape and influence. There are many definitions of the concept, but generally speaking it is about finding / clarifying problems at their root, framing them within a larger context, and addressing them using empathic methods. Quite often this involves intense engagement with the issue and those whom the issue most affects and these are areas where women are doing well.
Drawing on the growing literature base on design thinking and a series of ongoing interviews I have done as part of the Design Thinking Foundations project, there are three areas that sit at the core of this way of approaching problems. As it turns out, women are pretty good at all of them:
- Empathy. Getting to learn more about the person / people who are designing for / with by stepping into their shoes is a powerful vehicle for gaining insight into the nature of the problem at hand, its frames, and possible ways forward. Research looking at males and females consistently shows women expressing higher levels of emotional empathy than men (e.g, ). More recent work has begun to explore the ways in which women relate empathically to others, whereas men are more prone to what can be called Machevellian tendencies;
- Literacy. By this I refer to a constellation of skills that sit at the intersection of craft and knowledge to address a particular problem. A designer’s literacy most often includes creativity and the ability to analyze problems. These skills can fall within artistic realms, but also scientific and mathematical realms. Here in Canada, a recent report on the state of education finds that boys are lagging in literacy scores and, for the first time, science scores. They are tied with girls in math. The report (PDF-summary) adds greater weight to the shifting nature of boys and girls.
- Engagement. Designers — whether they are introverts or extroverts — need to be able to engage in diverse social situations in order to create useful products and services. Early work on online social networks is suggestive of this, building on a body of work looking at the strength of associations between gender, emotion and socialization (see 2010 chapter of the same name)
It used to be that women would express these three areas in social roles that were of lower status than men and generally following male leads (e.g., homemaker, assistant). However, the balance is starting to shift and women are no longer waiting for men to give things up, they are taking things for themselves. Indeed, women are becoming the new leaders and are designing themselves lives that will keep them in this position for the foreseeable future if indeed design is the new competitive advantage as has been suggested by Roger Martin at the Rotman School of Business in Toronto.
Lest we think this is isolated to Canada or the United States, the rise of women and girls is being seen globally. Earlier this year, the Economist explored how Asian women are marrying less and marrying later. One of the reasons is that they are no longer tied to men in the same way and are less willing to fill a role that sees them often as less than in their marriages. Indeed, Asian women are eschewing the practice altogether in rates never before seen and may be on the cusp of instilling deep and profound social change.
A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry. In some places, rates of non-marriage are especially striking: in Bangkok, 20% of 40-44-year old women are not married; in Tokyo, 21%; among university graduates of that age in Singapore, 27%.(Economist, August 20, 2011)
One of the reasons is that women are more often placed in roles of great social complexity in the family/social sphere, yet without the power to make key decisions. This might mean child raising (often held as the ideal example of complexity), negotiating and planning social engagements, and doing much of the emotional maintenance in relationships. While these are not universal and suggestive of stereotype, there are libraries full of research that have found these roles tend to be persistent and consistent across most Western countries. Until now. These are also the kinds of skills that are needed in complex systems and to create means to navigate through them.
Women are no longer satisfied (nor should they be) with the roles assigned to them by men, but are shaping and crafting new ones for themselves and reclaiming and challenging outdated, sexist ones. A terrific example of this is the SlutWalk movement that started in Toronto in reaction to public statements by a police officer aimed at helping prevent rape that placed blame on victims, suggesting that women “stop dressing like sluts”. Here, women just took action and men followed.
As societies, we will (and do) need leaders and innovators who know how to manage complexity well and design solutions and women may be the first place to look because they are doing it already.