There is a fine line between being genuinely creative, innovative and forward thinking and just being trendy.
The issue is not a trivial one because good ideas can get buried when they become trendy, not because they are no longer any good, but because the original meaning behind the term and its very integrity get warped by the influx of products that poorly adhere to the spirit, meaning and intent of the original concepts. This is no more evident than in the troika of concepts that fit at the centre of this blog: systems thinking, design thinking and knowledge translation. (eHealth seems to have lost some its lustre).
This issue was brought to light in a recent blog post by Tim Brown, CEO of the design and innovation firm IDEO. In the post, Brown responds to another post on the design blog Core77 by Kevin McCullagh that spoke to the need to re-think the concept of design thinking and whether it’s popularity has outstripped its usefulness. It is this popularity which is killing the true discipline of design by unleashing a wave of half-baked applications of design thinking on the world and passing it off as good practice.
There’s something odd going on when business and political leaders flatter design with potentially holding the key to such big and pressing problems, and the design community looks the other way.
McCullagh goes on to add that the term design thinking is growing out of favour with designers themselves:
Today, as business and governments start to take design thinking seriously, many designers and design experts are distancing themselves from the term.While I have often been dubbed a design thinker, and I’ve certainly dedicated my career to winning a more strategic role for design. But I was uncomfortable with the concept of design thinking from the outset. I was not the only member of the design community to have misgivings. The term was poorly defined, its proponents often implied that designers were merely unthinking doers, and it allowed smart talkers with little design talent to claim to represent the industry. Others worried about ‘overstretch’—the gap between design thinkers’ claims, and their knowledge, capabilities and ability to deliver on those promises.
This last point is worth noting and it speaks to the problem of ‘trendiness’. As the concept of design thinking has become commonplace, the rigor in which it was initially applied and the methods used to develop it seem to have been cast aside, or at least politely ignored, in favour of something more trendy so that everyone and anyone can be a design thinker. And whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate.
Tim Brown agrees, but only partially, adding:
I support much of what (McCullagh) has to say. Design thinking has to show impact if it is to be taken seriously. Designing is as much about doing as it is about thinking. Designers have much to learn from others who are more rigorous and analytical in their methodologies.
What I struggle with is the assertion that the economic downturn has taken the wind out of the sails of design thinking. My observation is just the opposite. I see organizations, corporate or otherwise, asking broader, more strategic, more interesting questions of designers than ever before. Whether as designers we are equipped to answer these questions may be another matter.
And here in lies the rub. Design thinking as a method of thinking has taken off, while design thinking methodologies (or rather, their study and evaluation) has languished. Yet, for design thinking to be effective in producing real change (as opposed to just new ways of thinking) its methods need to be either improved, or implemented better and evaluated. In short: design thinking must also include action.
I would surmise that it is up to designers, but also academic researchers to take on this challenge and create opportunities to develop design thinking as a disciplinary focus within applied research faculties. Places like the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business and the Ontario College of Art and Design’s Strategic Innovation Lab are places to start, but so should schools of public health, social work and education. Only when the methods improve and the research behind it will design thinking escape the “trendy” label and endure as a field of sustained innovation.
Knowledge translation has evolved from a term in relative obscurity to something that has become commonplace in much of the discussion on health care and public health. At its heart, knowledge translation is:
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has referred to knowledge translation as “a dynamic and iterative process that includes synthesis, dissemination, exchange and ethically sound application of knowledge to improve the health of Canadians, provide more effective health services and products and strengthen the health care system. The very fact that this term has gained visibility in health research represents a major shift in our priorities. In the past, considerable amounts of money have been spent on clinical research while relatively little attention has been paid to ensuring that the findings of research were captured by its potential beneficiaries. The biomedical and applied research enterprise represents an annual investment of $55 billion US worldwide (Haines, A and Hayes, B., 1998)!”
The reasons for this interest go beyond just money towards population health impact.
It has been estimated that it takes more than 17 years to translate evidence generated from discovery into health care practice (Balas & Boren, 2000) and of that evidence base, only 14 per cent of it is believed to enter day-to-day clinical practice (Westfall, Mold & Fagan, 2007). Some believe that this is an under-estimation and call for considerably more research in the area of dissemination and implementation if evidence-informed practice is to ever be achieved (Trochim, 2010).
This past week the NIH and its Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research held its third conference on the Science of Dissemination and Implementation with a focus on methods and measurement. The conference was a success from my point of view in that it provided a forum for discussion and dialogue on various models, methodologies and challenges, however one issue that wasn’t covered much was related to issues of reliability vs. validity. Our traditional models of research emphasize the former (the degree to which the same activity produces consistent results) at the expense of the latter (whether the findings translate into real differences or changes in the world) and this fundamental tension sits at the cornerstone of knowledge translation. This is best demonstrated in the appalling rates of uptake of most clinical practice guidelines into everyday health care activities [see here for one of many examples]. Russ Glasgow and others have argued that we need to do much more in shaping research that has external validity.
The elephant in the large room was this issue and the more that we continue to ignore it, the more we risk doing what management theorist Russell Ackoff described as “doing the wrong things righter.” That is, we continue to develop evidence in a manner that we hope, if it is just good enough, uses the best methods possible, and boldly proclaims the “truth” people will listen. Yet, the message from this conference was that we don’t even know what people are listening to in the first place, let alone what they do with what they listen to. Are the messages not getting through? Are they getting through, but being mis-understood (or not understood at all)? Or are they being ignored altogether? Or, as I have seen, are they being listened to, but then discarded when they are found to be impractical for their context.
An example of this is web-based tools for collaboration or e-communities of practice. The idea of using tools like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all sound great in theory, but if your local public health unit won’t allow you to use any of these tools on the job, what good does it do? If you don’t have the bandwidth available in your local community to watch videos online without it chopping up and taking a long time to down how reasonable is it to expect that YouTube will have anything to offer?
These contextual questions are rarely looked at. It was encouraging to hear people like Allan Best and colleagues speak of systems models and the need for more qualitative (i.e., contextually-focused) research , which was well-received, but that was about it. A much wider dialogue about understanding the context in which knowledge is used and translated or not would do much to determine whether we’re making progress or just doing the same wrong things only better.
If you’re in the Toronto area and interested in discussing this topic further, a Lunch-and-Learn event is being held on March 25th from 12-1pm at the Health Sciences Building at the University of Toronto as part of the CoNEKTR series hosted at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
The benefits of standing still and looking around at the systems around us never cease to reveal themselves.
Mindfulness is something that is most often associated with individuals. Mindfulness is a pillar of Buddhist practice and is increasingly being used in clinical settings to help people deal with stress and pain.
Mindfulness sometimes get unfairly linked to individuals, groups and movements that, for lack of a better term, could be described as ‘flaky’. Its association with many spiritual movements can also be problematic for those who are looking for something more aligned with science and less about religion or spirituality. Yet, the spiritual and scientific benefits of mindfulness need not be incompatible. Google, while innovative and often unusual in the way it runs its business, is certainly not flaky. As a company, it understands the power of mindfulness and has hosted a few talks on its application to everyday life and its neuroscientific foundations and benefits. For companies like Google, promoting mindfulness yields health benefits to its individual staff members, but also to its bottom line because being mindful as a company allows them to see trends and the emergence of new patterns in how people use the Internet and search for information. Indeed, one could say that Google with its search engine and productivity tools could be the ultimate mindfulness company, aiding us to become aware of the world around us (on the Internet anyway).
We are often profoundly ignorant of the systems that we are a part of and while the idea of having us all sit and mediate might sound appealing (particularly those of us who could use a moment of peace!) it is not a reasonable proposition. One of the things that meditation does is enable the mediator to become aware of themselves and their surroundings often through a type of mental visualization. Visualization allows the observer to see the relationships between entities in a system, their proximity, and the extended relationships beyond themselves. In systems research and evaluation, this might be done through the application of social network analysis or a system dynamics model. Through these kinds of tools that allow us to enhance visualization potential of systems, this is almost akin to creating a mindful systems thinking tool.
My colleague Tim Huerta and I have been developing methods and strategies to incorporate social network analysis into organizational decision making and published a paper in 2006 on how this could be done to support the development of communities of practice in tobacco control. I’m also working on creating a system dynamics model of the relationships within the gambling system in Ontario with David Korn and Jennifer Reynolds.
By creating visuals of what the system looks like consciousness raising takes place and the invisible connections become visible. And by making things visible the impact, reach, scope and potential opportunities for collaboration and action are made aware. And with awareness comes insight into the connections between actions and consequences (past, current and potential) and that allows us to strategize ways to minimize or amplify such effects as necessary.