Change is one of the few universal constants as things — people, planet, galaxy — are always in some state of movement, even if it’s imperceptible. Change is also widely discussed and desired, but often never realized in part because we’ve treated something nuanced as over-simplified; it’s time to change.
For something so omnipresent in our universe, change is remarkably mysterious.
Despite the enormous amount of attention paid to the concept of change, innovation, creation, creativity, and such we have relatively little knowledge of change itself. A look at the academic literature on change would suggest that most of human change is premeditated, planned and rational. Much of this body of literature is focused on health behaviours and individual-level change and draws on a narrow band of ‘issues’ and an over-reliance on linear thinking. At the organization level, evidence on the initiation, success, and management of change is scattered, contradictory and generally bereft of clear, specific recommendations on how to deal with change. Social and systems change are even more elusive, with much written on concepts like complexity and system dynamics without much evidence to guide how those concepts are to be practically applied.
Arguments can be made that some of the traditional research designs don’t work for understanding complex change and the need to match the appropriate research and intervention design to the type of system in order to be effective. These are fair, useful points. However, anyone engaged in change work at the level where the work is being done, managed and led might also argue that the fit between change interest, even intention, and delivery is far lower than many would care to admit.
The issue is that without the language to describe what it is we are doing, seeing and seeking to influence (change) it’s easy to do nothing — and that’s not an option when everything around us is changing.
Taking the plunge
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts
Dogs, unlike humans, never take swim lessons. Yet, a dog can jump into a lake for the first time and start swimming by instinct. Humans don’t fare as well and it is perhaps a good reason why we tend to pause when a massive change (like hopping in a pool or a lake) presents itself and rely both on contemplation and action — praxis — to do many things for the first time. Still, spend any time up near a cottage or pool in the summer and you’ll see people swimming in droves.
The threat of water, change of fear of the unknown doesn’t prevent humans from swimming or riding a bike or playing a sport or starting a new relationship despite the real threats (emotional, physical, and otherwise) that come with all of them.
Funny that we have such a hard time drawing praxis, patience, and sensemaking into our everyday work in a manner that supports positive change, rather than just reactive change. The more we can learn about what really supports intentional change and create the conditions that support that, the more likely we’ll be swimming and not just stuck on the shore.
Whatever it takes
“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”—General EricShinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army
“It’s just not a good time right now”
“We’re really busy”
“I’m just waiting on (one thing)”
“We need more information”
These are some of the excuses that individuals and organizations give for not taking action that supports positive change, whatever that might be. Consultants have a litany of stories about clients who hired them to support change, develop plans, even set out things like SMART goals, only to see little concrete action take place; horses are led to water, but nothing is consumed.
One of the problems with change is that it is lumped into one large category and treated as if it is all the same thing: to make or become different (verb) or the act or instance of making or becoming different (noun). It’s not. Just as so many things like waves, moods, or decision-making strategies are different, so too is change. Perhaps it is because we continue to view change as a monolithic ‘thing’ without the nuance that we afford other similarly important topics that we have such trouble with it. It’s why surfers have a language for waves and the conditions around the wave: they want to be better at riding them, living with them and knowing when to fear and embrace them.
What is similar to the various forms that change might take is the threat of not taking it seriously. As the above quote articulates, the threat of not changing is real even if won’t be realized right away. Irrelevance might be because you are no longer doing what’s needed, offering value, or you’re simply not effective. Unfortunately, by the time most realize they are becoming irrelevant they already are.
Whatever it takes requires knowing whatever it takes and that involves a better sense of what the ‘it’ (change) is.
Surfing waves of change
To most of us, waves on the beach are classified as largely ‘big’ or ‘small’ or something simple like that. To a surfer, the conversation about a wave is far more delicate, nuanced and far less simplistic. A surfer looks at things like wind speed, water temperature, the location of the ‘break’ and the length of the break, the vertical and horizontal position of the wave and the things like the length of time it takes to form. Surfers might have different names for these waves or even no words at all, just feelings, but they can discern differences and make adjustments based on these distinctions.
When change is discussed in our strategic planning or organizational change initiatives, it’s often described in terms of what it does, rather than what it is. Change is described as ‘catastrophic‘ or ‘disruptive‘ or simply hard, but rarely much more and that is a problem for something so pervasive, important, and influential on our collective lives. It is time to articulate a taxonomy of change as a place to give change agents, planners, and everyone a better vocabulary for articulating what it is they are doing, what they are experiencing and what they perceive.
By creating language better suited to the actual problem we are one step further toward being better at addressing change-related problems, adapting, and preventing them than simply avoiding them as we do now.
Time to take the plunge, get into the surf and swim around.
Image credit: June 17, 2017 by Mike Sutherland used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks for sharing Mike!
Goal-directed language guides much of our social policy, investment and quests for innovation without much thought of what that means in practice. Looking at the way ideas start and where they carry us might offer us reasons to pause when fashioning goals and whether we need them at all.
In a previous article, I discussed the problems with goals for many of the problems being dealt with by organizations and networks alike. (Thanks to the many readers who offered comments and kudos and also alerted me that subscribers received the wrong version minus part of the second paragraph!). At aim was the use of SMART goal-setting and how it made many presumptions that are rarely held as true.
This is a follow-up to that to discuss how a focus on the energy directed toward a goal and how it can be integrated more tightly with how we organize our actions at the outset might offer a better option than addressing the goals themselves.
Change: a matter of energy (and matter)
goal |ɡōl| noun: the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result • the destination of a journey
A goal is a call to direct effort (energy) toward an object (real or imagined). Without energy and action, the goal is merely a wish. Thus, if we are to understand goals in the world we need to have some concept of what happens between the formation of the goal (the idea, the problem to solve, the source of desire), the intention to pursue such a goal, and what happens on the journey toward that goal. That journey may involve a specific plan or it may mean simply following something (a hunch, a ‘sign’ — which could be purposeful, data-driven or happenstance, or some external force) along a pathway.
SMART goals and most of the goal-setting literature takes the assumption that a plan is a critical success factor in accomplishing a goal.
If you follow SMART, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely) this plan needs to have these qualities attached to them. This approach makes sense when your outcome is clear and the pathway to achieving the goal is also reasonably clear such as smoking cessation, drug or alcohol use reduction, weight loss and exercise. It’s the reason why so much of the behaviour change literature includes goals: because most of it involves studies of these kinds of problems. These are problems with a clear, measurable outcome (even if that has some variation to it). You smoke cigarettes or you don’t. You weigh X kilograms at this time point and Y kilograms at that point.
These outcomes (goals) are the areas where the energy is directed and there is ample evidence to support means to get to the goal, the energy (actions) used to reach the goal, and the moment the goal is achieved. (Of course, there are things like relapse, temporary setbacks, non-linear changes, but researchers don’t particularly like to deal with this as it complicates things, something clinicians know too well).
Science, particularly social science, has a well-noted publication bias toward studies that show something significant happened — i.e., seeing change. Scientists know this and thus consciously and unconsciously pick problems, models, methods and analytical frameworks that better allow them to show that something happened (or clearly didn’t), with confidence. Thus, we have entire fields of knowledge like behaviour change that are heavily biased by models, methods and approaches designed for the kind of problems that make for good, publishable research. That’s nice for certain problems, but it doesn’t help us address the many ones that don’t fit into this way of seeing the world.
Another problem is much less on the energy, but on the matter. We look at specific, tangible outcomes (weight, presence of cigarettes, etc..) and little on the energy directed outward. Further, these perspectives assume a largely linear journey. What if we don’t know where we’re going? Or we don’t know what, specifically, it will take to get to our destination (see my previous article for some questions on this).
Beyond carrots & sticks
The other area where there is evidence to support goals is from management and study of its/ executives or ‘leaders’ (ie. those who are labelled leaders and might be because of title or role, but whether they actually inspire real, productive followership is another matter). These leaders call out a directive and their employees respond. If employees don’t respond, they might be fired or re-assigned — two outcomes that are not particularly attractive to most workers. On the surface it seems like a remarkably effective way of getting people motivated to do something or reach a goal and for some problems it works well. However, those type of problem sets are small and specific.
Yet, as much of the research on organizational behaviour has shown (PDF), the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to motivation is highly limited and ineffective in producing long-term change and certainly organizational commitment. Fostering self-determination, or creating beauty in work settings — something not done by force, but by co-development — are ways to nurture employee happiness, commitment and engagement overall.
A 2009 study, appropriately titled ‘Goals Gone Wild’ (PDF), looked at the systemic side-effects of goal-setting in organizations and found: “specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.” The authors go on to say in the paper — right in the abstract itself!: “Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”
Remember the last time you were in a meeting when a senior leader (or anyone) ensured that there was sufficient time, care and attention paid to considering the harmful side-effects of goals before unleashing them? Me neither.
How about the ‘careful dosing’ or ‘close supervision’ of activities once goal-directed behaviour was put forth? That doesn’t happen much, because process-focused evaluation and the related ongoing sense-making is something that requires changes in the way we organize ourselves and our work. And as a recent HBR article points out: organizations like to use the excuse that organizational change is hard as a reason not to make the changes necessary.
Praxis: dropping dualisms
The absolute dualism of goal + action is as false as the idea of theory + practice, thought + activity. There are areas like those mentioned above where that conception might be useful, yet these are selective and restrictive and can keep us focused on a narrow band of problems and activity. Climate change, healthy workplaces, building cultures of innovation, and creating livable cities and towns are not problem sets that have a single answer, a straightforward path, specific goals or boundless arrays of evidence guiding how to address them with high confidence. They do require a lot of energy, pivoting, adapting, sense-making and collaboration. They are also design problems: they are about making the world we want and reacting the world we have at the same time.
If we’re to better serve our organizations and their greater purpose, leaders, managers, and evaluators would be wise to focus on the energy that is being used, by whom, when, how and to what effect at more close intervals to understand the dynamics of change, not just the outcomes of it. This approach is one oriented toward praxis, an orientation that sees knowledge, wisdom, learning, strategy and action as combined processes that ought not be separated. We learn from what we do and that informs what we do next and what we learn further. It’s also about focusing on the process of design — that creation of the world we live in.
If we position ourselves as praxis-oriented individuals or organizations, evaluation is part of regular attending to the systems we design to support goals or outcomes through data and sensemaking. Strategy is linked to this evaluation and the outcomes that emerge from it all is what comes from our energy. Design is how we put it all together. This means dropping our dualisms and focusing more on integrating ourselves, our aspirations and our activities together toward achieving something that might be far greater than any goal we can devise.
Image credit: Author
If you’re working toward some sort of collective goals — as an organization, network or even as an individual — you’ve most likely been asked to use SMART goal setting to frame your task. While SMART is a popular tool for management consultants and scholars, does it make sense when you’re looking to make inroads on complex, unique or highly volatile problems or is the answer in the systems we create to advance goals in the first place?
Goal setting is nearly everywhere.
Globally we had the UN-backed Millennium Development Goals and now have the Sustainable Development Goals and a look at the missions and visions of most corporations, non-profits, government departments and universities and you will see language that is framed in terms of goals, either explicitly or implicitly.
A goal for this purposes is:
goal |ɡōl| noun: the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result • the destination of a journey
Goal setting is the process of determining what it is that you seek to achieve and usually combined with mapping some form of strategy to achieve the goal. Goals can be challenging on their own when a single person is determining what it is that they want, need or feel compelled to do, even more so when aggregated to the level of the organization or a network.
How do you keep people focused on the same thing?
A look at the literature finds a visible presence of one approach: setting SMART goals. SMART goals reflect an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely in some examples). The origin of SMART has been traced back to an article in the 1981 issue of the AMA’s journal Management Review by George Doran (PDF). In that piece, Doran comments how unpleasant it is to set objectives and that this is one of the reasons organizations resist it. Yet, in an age where accountability is held in high regard the role of the goal is not only strategic, but operationally critical to attracting and maintaining resources.
SMART goals are part of a larger process called performance management, which is a means by enhancing collective focus and alignment of individuals within an organization . Dartmouth College has a clearly articulated explanation of how goals are framed within the context of performance management:
” Performance goals enable employees to plan and organize their work in accordance with achieving predetermined results or outcomes. By setting and completing effective performance goals, employees are better able to:
- Develop job knowledge and skills that help them thrive in their work, take on additional responsibilities, or pursue their career aspirations;
- Support or advance the organization’s vision, mission, values, principles, strategies, and goals;
- Collaborate with their colleagues with greater transparency and mutual understanding;
- Plan and implement successful projects and initiatives; and
- Remain resilient when roadblocks arise and learn from these setbacks.”
Heading somewhere, destination unknown
Evaluation professionals and managers alike love SMART goals and performance measurement. What’s not to like about something that specifically outlines what is to be done in detail, the date its required by, and in a manner that is achievable? It’s like checking off all the boxes in your management performance chart all at once! Alas, the problems with this approach are many.
Specific is pretty safe, so we won’t touch that. It’s good to know what you’re trying to achieve.
But what about measurable? This is what evaluators love, but what does it mean in practice? Metrics and measures reflect a certain type of evaluative approach and require the kind of questions, data collection tools and data to work effectively. If the problem being addressed isn’t something that lends itself to quantification using measures or data that can easily define a part of an issue, then measurement becomes inconclusive at best, useless at worst.
What if you don’t know what is achievable? This might be because you’ve never tried something before or maybe the problem set has never existed before now.
How do you know what realistic is? This is tricky because, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
This issue of reasonableness is an important one because innovation, adaptation and discovery are not able reason, but aspiration and hope. Were it for reasonableness, we might have never achieved much of what we’ve set out to accomplish in terms of being innovative, adaptive or creative.
Reasonableness is also the most dangerous for those seeking to make real change and do true innovation. Innovation is not often reasonable, nor are the asks ‘reasonable.’ Most social transformations were not because of reasonable. Women’s rights to vote or The rights of African Americans to be recognized and treated as human beings in the United States are but two examples from the 20th century that are able lack of ‘reasonableness’.
Lastly, what if you have no idea what the timeline for success is? If you’ve not tackled this before, are working on a dynamic problem, or have uncertain or unstable resources it might be impossible to say how long something will take to solve.
Rethinking goals and their evaluation
One of the better discussions on goals, goal setting and the hard truths associated with what it means to pursue a goal is from James Clear, who draws on some of the research on strategy and decision making to build his list of recommendations. Clear’s summary pulls together a variety of findings that show how individuals construct goals and seek to achieve them and the results suggest that the problem is less about the strategy used to reach a goal, but more on the goals themselves.
What is most relevant for organizations is the concept of ‘rudders and oars‘, which is about creating systems and processes for action and less on the goal itself. In complex systems, our ability to exercise control is highly variable and constrained and goals provide an illusory sense that we have control. So either we fail to achieve our goals or we set goals that we can achieve, which may not be the most important thing we aim for. We essentially rig our system to achieve something that might be achievable, but utterly not important.
Drawing on this work, we are left to re-think goals and commit to the following:
- Commit to a process, not a goal
- Release the need for immediate results
- Build feedback loops
- Build better systems, not better goals
To realize this requires an adaptive approach to strategy and evaluation where the two go hand-in-hand and are used systemically. It means pushing aside and rejecting more traditional performance measurement models for individuals and organizations and developing more fine-tuned, custom evaluative approaches that link data to decisions and decisions to actions in an ongoing manner.
It means thinking in systems, about systems and designing for ways to do both on an ongoing, not episodic manner.
The irony is, by minimizing or rejecting the use of goals, you might better achieve a goal of a more impactful, innovative, responsive and creative organization with a real mission for positive change.
Image credit: Author
The world is transformed by creators — the artists, the innovators, the leaders — and their creations are what propel change and stand in the way of it. Change can be hard and its made all the more so when we fail to decouple the creator from the created, inviting resistance rather than enticing better creations.
If you want to find the hotspot for action or inaction in a human system, look at what is made in that system. Human beings defend, promote and attend to what they made more than anything. Just watch.
Children will rush to show you what they made: a sandcastle, a picture, a sculpture, a…whatever it is they are handing you. Adults don’t grow out of that: we are just big kids. Adults are just more subtle in how we promote and share what we do, but we still place an enormous amount of psychological energy on our creations. Sometimes its our kids, our spouses (which is a relationship we created), our ideas, our way of life, our programs, policies or businesses. Even something like a consumer purchase is, in some ways, a reflection of us in that we are making an identity or statement with it.
Social media can feel like one big echo-chamber sometimes, but it’s that way because we often are so busy sharing our opinions that we’re not listening — focusing on what we made, not what others made. Social media can be so harsh because when we attack ideas — our 140 character creations sometimes — we feel as if we are being attacked. This is one of the reasons we are having such traumatized, distorted discourse in the public domain.
Creations vs creators
The problem with any type of change is that we often end up challenging both the creator and the creation at the same time. It’s saying that the creation needs to change and that can hurt the creator, even if done unintentionally.
The interest in failure in recent years is something I’ve been critical of, but a positive feature of it is that people are now talking more openly about what it means to not succeed and that is healthy. There are lots of flaws in the failure talk out there, mostly notably because it fails (no pun — even a bad one, intended… but let’s go with it) to decouple the creator from the creation. In many respects, creators and their creations are intimately tied together as one is the raw material and vehicle for the other.
But when we need to apologize for, make amends because, or defend our creations constantly we are using a lot of energy. In organizational environments there is an inordinate amount of time strategizing, evaluating and re-visiting innovation initiatives, but the simple truth is that — as we will see below — it doesn’t make a lick of difference because we are confusing the creators with the creations and the systems in which they are creating.
Sometimes we need to view the creator and creation separately and that is all a matter of trust – and reality.
A matter of trust, a matter of reality
If you are part of a team that has been tasked with addressing an issue and given a mandate to find and possibly create a solution, why should it matter what you produce? That seems like an odd question or statement.
At first it seems obvious: for accountability, right?
But consider this a little further.
If a team has been given a charge, it presumably is the best group that is available given the time and resources available. Maybe there are others more suited or talented to the job, perhaps there is a world expert out there who could help, but because of time, money, logistics or some combination of reasons in a given situation that isn’t possible. We are now dealing with what is, not what we wish to be. This is sometimes called the real world.
If that team does not have the skills or talent to do it, why is it tasked with the problem? If those talents and skills are unknown and there is no time, energy or commitment — or means — to assess that in practice then you are in a truly innovative space: let’s see what happens.
In this case, accountability is simply a means of exploring how something is made, what is learned along the way, and assessing what kind of products are produced from that, knowing that there is no real way to determine it’s comparative merit, significance or worth — the hallmark tenets of evaluation. It’s experimental and there is no way to fail, except to fail to attend and learn from it.
This is a matter of trust. It’s about trusting that you’re going to do something useful with what you have and that’s all. The right / wrong debate makes no sense because, if you’re dealing with reality as we discussed above there are no other options aside from not doing something. So why does failure have to come into it?
This is about trusting creators to create. It has nothing to do with what they create because, if you’ve selected a group to do something that only they are able to do, for reasons mentioned above, it has nothing to do with their creation.
Failing at innovation
The real failure we speak of might be failing to grasp reality, failing to support creative engagement in the workplace, and failing to truly innovate. These are products of what happens when we task individuals, groups, units or some other entity within our organizations, match them with systems that have no known means forward and provide them with no preparation, tools, or intelligence about the problem to support doing what they are tasked with. The not knowing part of the problem is not uncommon, particularly in innovative spaces. It’s nothing to sneer at, rather something that is a true learning opportunity. But we need to call it as it is, not what we want it or pretend it to be.
My colleague Hallie Preskill from FSG is big on learning and is not averse to rolling her eyes when people speak of it, because it’s often used so flippantly and without thought. True learning means paying attention, giving time and focus to what material — experience, data, reflections, goals and contexts — is available, and in . Learning has a cost and it has many myths attached to it. It’s difficulty is why many simply don’t do it. In truth, many are not as serious about really learning, but talking about learning. This is what Hallie sees a lot.
The material for learning is what these innovators, these creators, are producing so if we are valuing creation and innovation we need to pay attention to this and entice creators to continue to generate more quality ‘content’ for us to learn from and worry less about what these creators produce when we task them with innovation missions that have no chance to ‘succeed’ just as they have no chance to ‘fail’
A poor question leads us to poor answers.
Consider what we ask of our innovators and innovation and you’ll see that, if we want more and better creators and if we want more and better creations we need to see them in a new light and create the culture that sees them both for what they are, not what we want them to be.
Image credit: Author
A read through a typical management or personal improvement feed will reveal near infinite recommendations for steps you can take to improve your organization or self. Three words tend to be absent from this content stream and they are what take seemingly simple recommendations and navigate them through complexity: time, care, and attention.
Embedded within the torrent of content on productivity, innovation and self-development is a sense of urgency reflected in ‘top ten lists’, ‘how tos’ and ‘hacks’ that promise ways to make your life and the world better, faster; hallmark features of what has become our modern, harried age. These lists and posts are filled with well-intentioned strategies that are sure to get ‘liked’, ‘shared’ and ‘faved’, but for which there might be scant evidence for their effect.
Have you seen the research on highly productive people and organizations and their approaches, tools and strategies that speak to your specific circumstances? Probably not. The reason? There’s a paucity of research out there that points to specifics, while there is much on more generalized strategies. The problem is that you and I operate in the world specific to us, not generalized to the world. It’s why population health data is useful to understanding how a particular condition or issue manifests across a society, but is relatively poor at predicting individual outcomes.
Whether general or specific, three key qualities appear to be missing from much of the discussion and they might be the reason so little of what is said translates well into what is done: time, care, attention.
When words and concepts like lean startup, rapid cycle prototyping, and quick pivoting dominate discussion of productivity and innovation it is easy to find our focus in speed. Yet, there are so many reasons to consider time and space as much as speed. Making the space to see things in a bigger picture allows us to act on what is important, not just what is urgent. This requires space — literal and figurative — within our everyday practice to do. Time allows us to lower that emotional drive to focus on more things at once, potentially seeing new patterns and different connections than had we rushed headlong into what appeared to be the most obvious issue at first look.
If we are seeking change to last, why would we not design something that takes time to prepare, deliver and sustain? Our desire and impetus to gain speed comes at the cost of longevity in many cases. This isn’t to suggest that a rapid-fire initiative can’t produce long-term results. The space race between the United States and Russia in the 1950’s and 60’s proves the long-term viability of short-term bursts of creative energy, but this might be an exception rather than the rule. Consider the timelessness of many classical architectural designs and how they were build with an idea that they would last, because they were designed without the sense that time was passing quickly. They were built to last.
Care is consideration applied to doing something well. It is tied to a number of other c-words like competence. Those who are applying their skills to an issue require, acquire and develop a level of competence in doing something. Tackling complex social and organizational problems requires a level of competence that comes with time and attention, hence the research that suggests mastery may take as much as 10,000 hours of sustained, careful, deliberative practice to achieve. In an age of speed, this isn’t something that’s easily dealt with. Fast-tracked learning isn’t as possible as we think.
Care might also substitute for another c-word: craft. Craft is about building competence, practicing it, and attending to the materials and products generated through it. It’s not about mass production, but careful production.
Care is the application of focus and another c-word: compassion. Compassion is a response to suffering, which might be your own, that of your organization or community, or something for the world. Compassion is that motivational force aimed at helping alleviate those things that produce suffering and includes empathy, concern, kindness, tolerance, and sensitivity and is the very thing that translates our intentions and desires for change into actions that are likely to be received. We react positively to those who show compassion towards us and has been shown to be a powerful driver for positive change in flourishing organizations (PDF).
And isn’t flourishing what we’re all about? Why would we want anything less?
The third and related factor to the others is attention. Much has been written here and elsewhere about the role of mindfulness as a means of enhancing focus and focus on the right things: it’s a cornerstone of a socially innovative organization. Mindfulness has benefits of clearing away ‘noise’ and allowing more clear attention toward the data (e.g., experience, emotion, research data) we’re presented with that is the raw material for decision making. It’s an essential element of developmental evaluation and sensemaking.
Taken together, time, care and attention are the elements that not only allow us to see and experience more of our systems, but they allow us to better attend to what is important, not just what is urgent. They are a means to ensuring we do the right things, not the wrong things, righter.
In a world where there is more of almost everything determining what is most important, most relevant and most impactful has never been more important and while there is a push for speed, for ‘more’, there’s — paradoxically — never been a greater need to slow down, reduce and focus.
Thank you, reader, for your time, care and attention. You’ve given some of the most valuable things you have.
Image credit: Author
Posted on May 11, 2017
An attempt to innovate – do something new to produce value — is always fraught with risk and a high likelihood that things won’t go as planned, which can leave people jaded toward future efforts. Whether that metaphor of jade is one of a rock (static) or a plant (growth) makes all the difference.
Innovation is hot. Innovation is necessary. Innovation is your competitive advantage. Innovate or die.
You’ve probably heard one or all of these phrases or one of the myriad variants of them out there. Innovation is a hot word. To innovate is to transform new thinking into new value, but it is used euphemistically to represent all kinds of ‘hot’ things without appropriate framing. It’s not just doing something different, it’s about producing something new that improves on the situation at hand, even if the solution might actually be an old idea re-introduced.
A recent article for the online version of Harvard Business Review suggests that many companies are just giving up, ceding the ‘innovation’ space to large firms with a reputation for innovation. Why? One of the reasons cited is that the developing social and technological change has created a situation where “many firms seem to be unable to keep up with the pace at which this development is unfolding.”
The painful experience of failure
Another reason might be the problem of failure. Failure has become another cool word in the language of business and social innovation (even, government) to the point of being fetishized as something noble. The issue with failure is not just accepting that it can happen, but learning from it and acting on that learning. It also means understanding what failure is and whether an outcome is even best described in terms like “success” and “failure” . Too often in innovation, particularly social innovation, we actually don’t know what success looks like so how is it that we can use the term failure so readily?
Failure is a word with enormous negative cultural baggage. Despite all the positive rhetoric of failure, corporations, social enterprises and governments are judged on their ability to deliver what is expected of them. Expectations are really the key here. If you’re a corporation that promises to deliver a certain rate of return on investment over a specific time period, you’re going to be held to task for that. We can speak of failure positively all we’d like, but try explaining the ‘learning’ outcomes to a group of angry shareholders?
Politicians don’t get judged on their ability to manage complexity, they are judged by making and keeping promises — even if those promises are based on (overly) simplistic ways of viewing complex problems. As we entangle ourselves with more complex problems, the promise of a simple solution will be harder to come by. Yet, it’s that hope for the solution that is what ultimately gets us. As I once read in a newsletter advertising an online dating service in a very cheeky manner:
It’s not the rejection that kills you, it’s the hope.
It’s actually quite true. If you don’t expect to succeed, “failure” isn’t really that bad.
Lowered expectations, risk avoidance & path dependencies
When you’re jaded, you tend to lower your expectations. The analogy of online dating above is also an apt descriptor for ways in which lowered expectations changes the very game of innovation in real ways in people’s lives. As divorce rates approach 50%, it is becoming common that many people are starting over sometime in their 30’s and 40’s and trying, once again, to find love. What’s interesting in terms of dating is that, particularly if you’ve been dating a little, you face two big issues: 1) you’re a bit cautious about what you do or say because you know that things might not last and you want to conserve your energy and 2) you’ve become accustomed to the way you do things on your own.
The result might be less adventurousness, more conservative thinking about the choice of partner, a greater willingness to settle for what is, rather than what could be (risk avoidance). An established pattern of living might also predispose you to looking for partners who are a lot like you, which maintains a level of consistency (path dependence). An argument can be made that this is more about knowing yourself and your preferences than being set in your ways, but there is a fine line between that and resistance to change.
This is exactly what we see in organizations around innovation.
They have tried innovation before, it’s failed to deliver what they expected (because they probably set their expectations poorly, not realizing that the outcomes of innovation could be something other than they had designed for), and now don’t want to try. Or rather, they don’t want to try enough. This is why we see so many organizations trumpet themselves as innovative, when what they are really doing is the most basic, simplistic forms of innovation. Rather than a moonshot, they are looking to simply move the yardsticks just a little.
Plant vs stone
Jade is both a plant and a stone. A jade plant is a solid, semi-broad leafed plant that is well suited to dry climates and a variety of light situations, making it a great houseplant. It’s adaptive, easily transplantable and hearty. Jade, as a stone, is relatively soft and while it is also adaptable, once carved into a shape, it’s no longer going to change.
The jade / jaded metaphor is designed to consider the ways in which we approach developing our innovation potential. A jade plant is still firm, but flexible. It grows and changes over time, but isn’t as free flowing as others. The jade plant offers a useful metaphor for ensuring that lessons learned from past actions inform future strategy, but not to the point where the fear of risk calcifies the organization into a static state, unable to change.
A plant exists largely because it has a steady stream of nutrients, water, sunlight and a reasonable stability of growing conditions, yet conditions that can change and will change over time. This consistency as well as requisite variety (in systems terms) is what keeps a plant alive and thriving. The same is true for an organization. Ongoing, steady innovation, consistency over time and the occasional change in conditions to keep things on their toes (and used to adaptation) are all a part of what makes an organization or individual innovative. Build in a regular practice, become a mindful organization (or practitioner) and consider changes in the way you speak about innovation to yourself and others.
Bruce Lee would advocate that his students become like water. Innovators? They should become more like plants for that water.
Image Credit: Jade Plant by Andrew Rivett used under Creative Commons License. Thanks for sharing Andrew!
Posted on April 25, 2017
The concept of healing plays an integral part of healthy human development in many cultures, yet is largely unknown or misunderstood in its practice. If we seek to develop, evolve, innovate and grown as individuals, organizations and societies wisely we would do well to better grasp what healing is and how its done, by design.
To develop, is to heal.
That’s a bold assertion, but one that is integral to understanding how we develop ourselves, our organizations and our communities and societies successfully.
Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us on our journey. It can create character and strength, while it can also can weigh us down if we take too much of something or unhelpful things. Healing is one of the ways we deal with things to ensure that what we pack on a journey is the most useful for where we want to go and who or what we want to become. Because every journey is different, what is useful or not is relative, which is why a ‘one-sized fits all’ approach won’t work.
For those in developmental psychology, developmental evaluation or any innovation-related field you’ll recognize this as the norm. But the means in which development takes place is often viewed as rational, logical and linear, despite talk to the contrary. Design thinking is a perfect example of this: it’s an approach that is, in practice highly unpredictable and non-linear, but is often taught as a straightforward method.
Healing across cultures
The traditional Western term for healing is defined around terms like making whole again, restorative, or therapeutic: terms that focus on a return to the status quo. There are other perspectives that view healing as a developmental concept focused on transformation that has greater utility for those interested in change-making. This perspective on healing comes largely from aboriginal contexts worldwide. This approach has been well-documented as part of the !Kung and Ju!hoansi peoples of central Africa, Fijian aboriginal tribes, and many of the First Nations in North America by Dr. Richard Katz. Katz has been interested in the ways in which the practice of healing supports community development and social transformation as well as serving as a vital part of the psycho-social and spiritual life of these cultures.
Within each of these cultures are a series of practices, tools, methods and approaches to healing that are employed by individuals as well as the collective society to not only address injuries and wounds, but use the experience as a means to growth and connection to the world.
The most obvious Western parallel is not psychological, but physiological. Consider muscle growth and development. For muscles to build, they must be stretched and worked in a manner that causes minor trauma to them. Without the traumas, no growth can occur. Healthy muscle development is partly conscious, but also involves the interaction with other muscles and can be a process that is designed (i.e., developing a weight training routine or fitness regimen) or not. One will yield a particular set of intentional results, while the other does not.
An old new design for healing
What Katz’s work does is show us how things are done elsewhere, but also points to how this process is similar across cultures and can be applied elsewhere. This is not about cultural appropriation, but rather an acknowledgement of some common ways in which people relate to the experience of healing that can be designed for different contexts, using local knowledge and wisdom from that cultural situation.
What might that look like? Katz’s work points to a few common characteristics that could form the basis for a healing context. If one were to design such a context, what might that include?
- Mind, body, spirit. No matter what the source of ill-health, dis-ease, or mental unwellness, the mind, body and spirit are all assigned a role, even if those roles might be uneven in their contribution to the problem and solution. Further, these three elements are not disconnected from the environment in which they exist. Personal problems are always, to some extent, social problems and vice versa. This acknowledges the systemic effects of the environments we create and the interconnection between mind-body-spirit and our world around us. This thinking is the forerunner to what we often consider as the psycho- and social determinants of health and the biopsychosocial model of health that is now widely applied within health sciences.
- Participation and engagement. The most central distinction between the indigenous approaches to healing that Katz has explored and Western ones is the role of the community in the healing process. Unlike Western allopathic approaches, the healing process is not viewed as the responsibility of the patient and healthcare provider alone, but the family, community and beyond. This perspective acknowledges that, if one is to believe that the environment is a contributor to illness and recovery, there must be engagement from that domain in the healing process. Across the examples that Katz explores we see the involvement of the community in the prevention, treatment, post-incident care and development and as one solid continuum of practice. Healing is social and therefore the benefits are accrued to everyone.
- Ceremony & ritual. This engagement through the healing process is guided through the use of ceremony and ritual. This is part of every healing practice, even allopathic medicine, but the role of these is made explicit. In this case, healing is a conscious act that is shared with everyone involved. In Western societies, we too often fail to acknowledge ‘developmental moments’ properly, because we’ve not built in the spaces to do this. I’ve written about this in other places looking at the role of mindfulness in developmental evaluation and how there needs to be spaces for that to be built into regular practice — through ceremony and ritual, if you will — for it to work, otherwise things pass by.
- Mindfulness / data gathering. The act of paying attention is a prime source of data in healing practice. This goes beyond the simplistic view of diagnosis, which is not an appropriate means of viewing a problem if it takes place in a complex environment anyway — see the Cynefin Framework for reasons why. These cultures are using sophisticated means of assessing situations that are highly social, involve much sensemaking and, in keeping with appropriate practice for complex conditions, using multiple means and methods for capturing data about the source and context of a problem.
- Wisdom. While healing is done in the present, the cause and consequence have some roots back to the past. All of the cultures that Katz spent time with drew on wisdom from the elders, understanding of the past, and how what happened before sets the stage for what is happening now to some extent. This is where baggage can come in, personal history (including genetics) and ‘institutional memory’ in the case of organizations or communities. While we may think something is long finished and wrapped up, that might not be the case and if we’re not aware of our history we might be doomed not necessarily to repeat it, but to create a future we don’t want.
- Artifacts. The tools of ceremony and healing involve artifacts. While we might think of things like the couch, the medical bed, or the white coat as artifacts, so too does any healing situation have theirs are means to connect to the process and support healing. Many people, regardless of their background, draw on indigenous artifacts like burning sacred woods such as palo santo, or sage brush or sweetgrass, or perhaps incense of different types. More Westernized models such as candles or prayers might be involved. Used out of context without skill, these artifacts may not have the full perceived influence, but they allow those healing to recognize the act of healing as it takes place, creating a sacred space among the ordinary, transforming a space like a home or office into one that is suited for healing, demarcating the intentionality of healing. Whatever the artifact, even a mascot (e.g., toy) these things can create a space of sacredness where one didn’t exist before if used consistently and respectfully.
- Ongoing practice. Healing is not something that just happens and goes away. While the ritual and intensity of the healing act might change, there is a culture of healing that is created, just as we would seek to create a culture of learning, evaluation or innovation in an organization.
- Positivity. Richard Katz’s 1997 book looking at the Kalahari Ju!honansi peoples was entitled Healing Makes our Hearts Happy. The book details how the act of healing is a positive force in the community, despite the many challenges and pain that is experienced at times. The process of coming together, sharing and working on the process of creating a world for their people, not just reacting to things as they happen, allows for something that Rumi called ‘unfolding your own myth’. It provides agency and focus and keeps the community attuned to what is and what it wants to be on a regular basis. The process of coming back from dis-ease or dis-ability and creating a stronger next step is something that is always done from a place of positivity. In tactical terms, this is acknowledging what we know from psychology that it is more effective to ask for what you want, rather than what you don’t want.
- Energy. The final piece is energy. This can take the form of some spiritual force, but also reflects an intensity and active engagement with healing. It’s not a passive thing, but something active that requires work and focus. The cultures Katz spent time with put this as a priority, not as a ‘nice to have’. How often have we decided to ‘just put things behind us’ not facing the real implications of something traumatic? I knew someone who lived with terrible emotional and social abuse who, upon leaving a harmful environment, decided to seek some therapy to work through the issues. This brought insight and clarity and that convinced her that only a few sessions would be needed and left therapy (the healing space), claiming she was all worked through that stuff and could manage on her own. Sadly, before long, that dark shadow from her past came back only not at a time of her choosing and only re-imposed the traumas of the past in a way that she wasn’t prepared to deal with. The process of healing requires a lot of energy and focus, but the benefits are enormous if they are sustained. Sustaining the energy is perhaps the hardest part.
- The role of the healer. Involved in all of the approaches explored was a healer (or two). These are usually wise, well-skilled, and compassionate individuals with expertise and experience in guiding the healing process. Like Western approaches, these healers bring tremendous assets to the healing encounter, but unlike them they are more conductors of the symphony — integral and important, but only one part of a larger whole. We are seeing more nurses, doctor, psychotherapists recognizing this, but more is needed. The healing approach is truly done from a systems perspective in many of these indigenous cultures, where the healer plays a critical, connected role, yet is impotent without the system’s engagement around her or him. This is also true for the self-as-healer. While we can do a lot, we can’t do it all on our own, no matter much we try.
Healing our perspectives on healing
This approach to healing is something that we can all engage in. What we need to do is find the means — personal, social, organizational — to fit into the context we live in. That’s not a simple task and the easy, simple – and wrong — approach is to simply copy the Indigenous cultures’ practices, tools and traditions. What is necessary is to create a healing culture that is appropriate to the context it’s used.
In a pluralistic, diverse, largely urbanized, secular, Westernized world, this is a challenge that isn’t easily addressed. It means getting to know yourself and the environment we work in. The ‘model’ of healing above may share common features with those of many indigenous cultures and, as Katz has noted in his forthcoming book, these are often connected deeply to healing practices that were overrun and buried by modern allopathic approaches to medicine — denying that these practices are part of all of our history to some extent.
It’s worth also adding some subtext to what has been mentioned above with a personal note. I’ve met Richard Katz on many occasions. He was the mentor to a brilliant psychologist who mentored me and taught me many approaches to healing that I’ve had the privilege to work with and through in my work. Dick would always say: “speak about what you know” meaning that your stories are yours, not others and vice versa. Be humble.
Richard has lived and worked among healers his entire professional life and told the stories through his books at invitation of the communities he’s worked in. He fully acknowledges the cultural problems that this introduces, the timing and clash of worldviews they embody, the role of colonialism and the Westernization / sanitization / dramatization that often comes from Western scholars reporting on indigenous affairs and has been cautious about claiming anything about these communities worlds as his own. It’s a delicate situation and one that, when we engage in healing work, is one that needs discussion. It’s important to respect and honour the sources of our wisdom and knowledge and the means in which we come to know what we know.
Get in touch with what you know and may it help with your — and our — healing work, by design.
References of note:
Katz, R. (2017, forthcoming). Indigenous healing psychology: Honoring the wisdom of the first peoples. Healing Arts Press.
Katz, R., Biesele, M. & St. Denis, V. (1997). Healing makes our hearts happy. Inner Traditions.
Katz, R. (1989). The straight path: Ancestral wisdom and healing traditions in Fiji. Park Street Press.
Katz, R. (1984). Boiling energy: Community healing among the Kalahari Kung. Harvard University Press.
Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us and, like the real thing, it’s all in what we pack, how we pack it and how aware we are of what we’re packing it for. And like the real thing, individuals and organizations can’t go on much of a journey without carrying some of it with us.
Social and emotional baggage is a concept that has been drawn from psychology to metaphorically represent the things — memories, expectations, experiences — that we bring from our past into our present context, usually in a negative, debilitating or otherwise limiting way. It’s something that is attributed to individuals, but may also fit organizations, too. But baggage is a part of any trip and looking at it as part of the journey might provide us better ways to use it, rather than ignore it.
Metaphors are useful ways to take what we cannot see or touch, but nonetheless are experienced as real and makes the concept more tangible. The metaphor of baggage is useful because we can look at it in many different ways.
Baggage is what we bring with us on our journey and, like real baggage, it matters what we bring, how much of it, and how amenable it is to being moved.
What’s in your carry-on?
Let’s consider what we might bring with us this journey of ours and consider what roles these items play in our lives and organizations. What’s going in our bag?
Clothing: Different outfits allow us to transform our appearance, to stand out or blend in, or express ourselves in creative ways (along with keeping us comfortable while avoiding the whole “naked in public” thing that’s a bit problematic in most cultures). Spare clothes provide us with the ability to envision ourselves in different forms. They represent our ability to adapt and to dream new futures. There’s a difference between having the latitude to transform and having so much stuff that either it’s not all that different or is so different, we lose our sense of who we are. When we’ve packed too much of anything, we get lost in choice and focus. If we don’t pack the right stuff, we lose our ability to adapt to changing conditions.
Toiletries: A basic toiletry set allows us to care for ourselves, maybe even make ourselves up a little. These are the things that repair the damage from day-to-day wear and tear on the body, heal, and protect ourselves from the wear to come and prevent future damage (hello, sunscreen!). We might also wish to make ourselves up a little sometimes, too (hello, lipstick or cologne!). If we pack too much of these things we can get vaingloriously trapped in what others might think of us and present a face that’s less authentic than our true selves. We might also be so focused on repair and prevention that we fail to recognize what’s in front of us in the present moment (the only moment when we can do anything to change the game).
Gifts: These are things we bring to others based on our experience and are shared best through acts of service, kindness, generosity and love. They may be souvenirs, stories, photos and keepsakes – things given and transported with care for others and might include sharing our knowledge (tacit and explicit) and experience with others through storytelling. Our fellow travellers benefit from our gifts, and so do we as they often bring joy to the giver through the giving. However, if we pack our bags with too many we may wind up looking more after others than ourselves. Our focus is on giving to others at the expense of caring for ourselves. Our bags only have so much room and gifts take up some of that room.
Memories & Experience: This is our past. This is the part that accumulates over time as we get older and experience the world. It builds on and continually adds to our carriage, meaning we need to consider how we pack it, what we choose to hold on to from this vast collection, and what we might want to discard. This is where wisdom resides. It’s also a seat of some of our biggest problems. If real healing — that integration of experience with understanding, reflection and growth through our social life — doesn’t take place, we might find ourselves with things in our bag that we’d thought we’d discarded, but didn’t. It’s like finding the scorpion that might have hid in your luggage from your tropical vacation as you go home. If we’re not careful and mindful about what we pack, we might let in things we thought we’d left behind.
Cargo: This last element is cartage from one space to another. This is the stuff we bring from one place to another that may or may not have any purpose. It’s ‘stuff’. It’s trivia, the news, pop culture, or the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. It seems like this would be the easiest thing to disregard, but it’s not. It can take up a lot of room. Consider where you put your attention and what you consume in a day — your social media feeds, gossip at the office or the dog park, advertisements, broadcast media — and what you hang on to. This is the stuff that can make us lose sight of what we think is important, so it’s critical that we are mindful about what cartage we add to our baggage.
As my colleague Alex Jadad says:
Nothing really matters apart from what matters to us. Therefore, we must be very careful about what we choose to matter to us.
Packing what matters most
Our baggage represents a system. We create the boundaries by the shape and size of the bag (or bags) we choose to bring with us and all of what goes in the bag interacts (it all has to work together to fit). What happens when we pack piecemeal, we throw all of the stuff above into a bag and try and organize it. Sometimes we seek to bring more bags or getting a bigger suitcase; maybe that will work. But things don’t fit, it doesn’t go together. Or we find ourselves laden with luggage, slow to move, strained in the back and joints from carting it around…but at least we have our stuff, right? (if we can find it).
The problem with that ‘add more’ strategy is that, the more we have, the slower we are, the more encumbered, and the more confused. We add to complexity, rather than create simplicity. We need to design better.
The best packers are those who create extra space for things they’ll pick up along the way, put in things that go together (e.g., outfits that mix and match), and they determine their essentials ahead of time. They spend the time considering what is most important, most used, most necessary and organize around those things: they employ strategy (and they adapt their strategy along their journey). They know what they need, what they like, and what makes them comfortable, safe and happy on their journey. Why? They’ve paid attention and collected data to support that decision (e.g. through ongoing evaluation, reflective practice, mindfulness, personal therapy).
This is all about being mindful about our work and life. For organizations, there are things you can do to create mindfulness in the way you work to help understand the choices you make and their consequences. For individuals, it’s about doing self-development work and engaging in reflective practice — in work and life.
If we don’t know what’s in our bags, we might be surprised what comes out. The subconscious works that way: it will pop things out at times of its choosing when we are often not expecting it or desiring it. Subconscious processes work at the individual and collective levels — it’s not just a personal thing.
We are contributors to the story of our lives, but not the sole authors (despite what many seem to think). What has happened to us because of others matters as much as what we create for ourselves. It’s not about labeling those experiences as ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ things, rather dealing with the consequences that those experiences bring to our life in the here and now and asking if they are helpful or unhelpful to living the life we want.
Were you under appreciated by your colleagues or family? Bullied? Neglected? Think it’s all in the past? Replicate that situation in the present and see how you feel — it might not be all in the past. Abuse and neglect are common experiences at home and work and how we integrate that into our lives — or whether we do at all — can be a key factor in determining how we relate to the experiences in the present.
What about that project at work that got everyone excited and failed to deliver the value that everyone expected or felt promised? Is that going to temper the willingness to try again, to innovate or risk something new again? Organizations and teams might be tempted to ‘lower the bar’ to avoid disappointment, despite suggestions that an organizations’ settling for ‘mediocrity’ drives quality people away from work.
What about that romantic relationship that was perfect, but ended because it was too perfect? How is too perfect even possible, you ask? If you’re not accustomed to being loved and cared for you might find it very uncomfortable to get exactly what you want (and need) and find (invent?) reasons why the relationship won’t work and end it (or sabotage it so you don’t have to end it). The issue isn’t that you don’t aspire for this ‘perfect love’, it’s that you’re not used to it; maybe the only way you were loved before was through neglect, abuse, or simple disinterest and partner disengagement. When that changes, so does our narrative about what real love is all about and if we don’t ‘flip the script’ we’ll write the new story into the old one and that just won’t work. (And if you’ve not experienced this in romance, how about a job? A friendship? An opportunity at work? — self sabotage is very real and underexamined).
None of this is crazy-making: it’s just how some people deal with the intense sadness of not knowing how to be loved or to achieve real success.
Like anything in life: change challenges us and these experiences (fears, hopes, unrequited dreams, and victories) go into our luggage and often not by choice — or awareness. But knowing this can happen will help us understand our baggage and how our past and hopes for the future affect the present.
The temptation is to make some sort of judgement about baggage and assume its a problem. We bring what we need with us and that means that we each will have and will need baggage differently. What we wish is for it to serve us, not debilitate us or keep us from growing. Being mindful, reflective and careful about what we have already packed is another critical step.
The next is realizing that, like real baggage, we can re-pack. We can discard things, re-organize, re-prioritize what goes inside. It’s never too late, but it does require work. The best thing of all is that, when we reorganize our baggage we create more of what we want — what matters to us — and less of what we don’t want or others want for us. Our baggage is our asset if we allow it to be.
Reflective practice, healing (to be covered in a future post in more depth), compassion (because we all have things we wish weren’t packed for us in our bags – be good to ourselves), systems thinking (and design thinking — creatively considering how we pack, not just what we pack) and healthy social engagement are all ways to improve our relationship with baggage.
And that’s something to hang our hats on.
Happy, healthy travels.
Image credits: Author
Is what you do, where you work, or how you organize, beautiful? Among the many words used to describe our work lives the most neglected and maybe necessary might be described that one word: it’s time to take it seriously.
For those working in design one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand that good design isn’t just about making things pretty, but making them better, more useful, more responsive, sustainable, and impactful. Good design is too often seen as a ‘nice to have’ than a ‘must have’ and is thus invested in accordingly.
‘Beautiful’ as a concept has it even worse. In my entire working career I’ve never heard the word uttered even once on a matter of professional importance by others. That’s a shame and it speaks loudly to our present situation where innovation is hard to come by, organizations struggle to attract and retain good people, and the battle for attention — of the market and our workforce — is maybe the biggest one of them all.
But beauty is worth a look, particularly because it is, well, beautiful.
A beautiful term
What is beautiful? Consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition.
beautiful |ˈbyo͞odəfəl| adjective
pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically: beautiful poetry | a beautiful young woman | the mountains were calm and beautiful.
• of a very high standard; excellent: the house had been left in beautiful order | she spoke in beautiful English.
Note two key features of this definition: pleasing the senses or mind and high standards. The first part might sound a bit hedonistic (PDF), but when you consider what motivates us at the most base level of existence: it’s pleasure and pain. We are attracted to people, experiences, objects and environments that generate pleasure. In an environment described above when attracting talent, eyeballs — attention — is so hard to come by, why would we not amplify beauty?
The second term is high standards. It’s not enough to attract attention, we need to hold it and to inspire action, loyalty and persistence if we wish to succeed on most counts. Quality is a competitive advantage in many environments, particularly in human services where the complexity associated with poor quality decisions, processes and management are potentially catastrophic. (Enron, anyone?).
An associated term to this is aesthetics, which is defined as:
aesthetic |esˈTHedik| (also esthetic) adjective
concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty: the pictures give great aesthetic pleasure.
• giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty; of pleasing appearance.
Aesthetics is the more active appreciation of beauty — the application of it in the world. Organizational aesthetics is an emergent area of scholarship and practice that seeks to understand the role of beauty in the organization and its implications. Steven Taylor describes organizational aesthetics through storytelling, outlining the way he came to know something through connecting his work with his senses. His story points to different ways in which organizational aesthetics is experienced and understood, but ultimately how its sensed. It’s that attention to the senses that really sets this field apart, but also how practical it is.
Organizational aesthetics are about practical realities of organizational life, brought to bear through our five senses, not just the mind. Strange that so much of what is produced in the literature and scholarship is so cognitive and devoid of discussion of any other sensory experiences. Yet, we are sensuous beings and most healthy when we are in touch (literally!) with our senses in our lives. Consider the cortical homunculus and you’ll know that we feel through a lot more than we often use in our work lives.
Organizational aesthetics is about using methods that tap into these senses and the qualities of physical, social, psychological spaces where they can be used more fully to contribute to more impactful, healthier and happier environments for humans to work and thrive. This approach is rooted in design and the hypothesis that, as human created (thus designed) constructs, the modern organization can design in beauty as much as it can design beauty away. Like design itself, organizational aesthetics is practical, above all.
Citing earlier work from Roozenberg & Eekles (1995) on the topic of design causality, Steven De Groot, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, points to the way in which design is a responsive means to helping an organization adapt.
By fulfilling functions a design satisfies needs, and gives people the possibility to realize one or more values. Transferring these fundamentals, the design of the organization needs to change as a consequence of changing roles and needs of the employees in this case.
Roozenberg and Eekles assert that form follows value and thus, as De Groot sought to explore, explicit value of beauty can produce beautiful organizations. The reasoning for this research comes from earlier studies that show that when organizations value and nurture beauty within them, employees are happier, their commitment increases and the organizational function is improved.
Dispelling beautiful myths
Despite the reams of research that has emerged from a variety of disciplines showing the connections between beauty and positive outcomes and experiences in organizations, there will be many who are still troubled by the idea of integrating the word ‘beautiful’ into the serious world of work. It may be tempted to rely on a few myths to deny its utility so let’s dispel those right away.
- Promotion of beauty is not denial of the ugly. Ugly is everywhere: in the news, on social media (spent time on Facebook lately?), and embedded in many of our global, social challenges. Embracing the beautiful is not about denying ugly, but drawing our focus to areas where we can create change. As I discussed in a previous post, good design is increasingly about reducing information overload and focusing on areas we can influence by creating positive attractors, not negative ones. It’s based on attention and human nature. We stop and remark on fresh cut flowers. We comment on a colleagues’ attractive new outfit or clothing item (“I love your new socks!”). We see something that is well designed and we admire it, covet it or just enjoy it. Beauty captures something of the most rarest of commodities in the modern age: attention. We won’t change the world by yelling louder, we’ll change it by speaking beautifully, better.
- There’s no single definition of beauty. Beauty is truly subjective. What I might find particularly beautiful is different than what someone else will, yet there is much evidence that there is also a shared sense of the beautiful. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on taste and taste-making (PDF) points to the social means in which we — fair or not — share perspectives to elevate ideas, concepts and artifacts. We are social and thus share social rules, tastes and ideas and that this might be done across cultures, within ‘tribes’ or tied to specific settings or groups, but there is always something shared.
- There are shared principles of beauty. What makes for a shared cultural experience is something that we refer to as simple rules in complexity studies. These are rules that may be explicit, unconscious or tacit that guide collective actions and shared experiences. It, combined with history (and something we call path dependence – a driver of stability and stasis in a system), is what allows us to have some collective appreciation of the beautiful. It’s why natural elements (e.g., plants) or use of certain colours can create a positive atmosphere and psychological experience within a setting even if those plants or colours are universally loved.
- There is plenty of evidence to support the case for making changes based on beauty. This ‘absence of evidence’ myth will take a while to dispel as people will see (or not see) what they want to. All I would suggest is that you take a long hard look at some of the research — in particular Steven de Groot’s doctoral work — and put that up against any other theory or program of research and explain how it’s less than — particularly given how young of a field it is. There is an entire academic journal devoted to this topic (and, like in any journal, not all the evidence is top-notch, but there’s good work in there and throughout the literature). Consider how management theory, a well-established area of scholarship, is already becoming ‘a compendium of dead ideas‘ given the paucity of solid research behind it and yet something like organizational aesthetics hasn’t taken hold? The battle is long, but adoption of some new, beautiful thinking is one that will pay off. I’ve not even started getting into the arguments for environmental and organizational psychology or design.
Change in a complex system is about creating, finding and amplifying positive attractors and dampening and eliminating negative ones (and in complex systems positive isn’t always good and negative bad, it’s about what the goals are in the system — what you wish to achieve within that system. In society, these are almost always socially negotiated, somewhat contested).
Attracting attention, ideas, and energy is one of our biggest social challenges at the moment and a huge barrier to change.
Everyone’s looking for a way to capture attention and hold it when there is a beautiful solution right under their noses.
“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike” – John Muir, 1869
Image Credit: Author
In a world awash in content and the resulting complexity that comes when it all intersects the viable options for how to manage it remain few. The Dutch De Stijl art and design movement might offer some lessons on dealing with complexity that we can apply beyond products to creating beautiful, functional, and effective services, settings and policy options.
Are you informed about the world? Chances are the answer to that question is both no and yes. There’s no question that you’re informed, the question might be more on what you’re informed about, to what extent, whether that’s of your interest (and relevance and need) and whether it’s an accurate (and useful) depiction of the world around you. That’s a much more complicated set of questions with a troubling set of answers. But one group (the Dutch) may have found some solutions… but we’ll get to that in a moment.
First let’s look at what we’re up against: data streams of distraction.
Data streams of distraction
Consider the many information sources we’re presented with daily.
Consider mine in no particular order, starting with digital : Email (multiple accounts), two course management portals, Instagram, Twitter (two accounts), LinkedIn, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Whats App, comments on my website or Facebook company page, about 2 dozen apps (on my iPhone and iPad), myriad websites I visit, text messages and, oh yes, occasionally the phone will ring. Next, there’s physical magazines, books, radio or music streams and television, too. Looking out my window I see cranes and buildings and billboards from my downtown loft apartment (and hear birds singing, above it all).
I also encounter real-life human beings, too and they have things to share and more information for me. Funny, that.
This is based on what I choose to look at (even if some choices are rather constrained, such as knowing there is only one way to reach someone and that means engaging with a particular media form I intensely dislike — I’m talking about you, Facebook). Travelling through my day, others will approach and engage, I’ll encounter new things that present themselves and will be handed, shown, flashed or spoken to plenty of other information. The volume of information keeps growing with every encounter.
Then there’s the information stored in memory, the remnants of all of those other days, experiences, and a lifetime of events and information.
This will all happen in real-time, refer to present situations, the past, many possible futures, contain truths, lies, myths and be incomplete in parts all over. It is, in short, a perfect representation of complexity. And it’s causing us a lot of problems.
The term ‘information(al) overload’ has been coined to describe the exposure to too much information or data. Information overload and the design problems that information abundance provides has contributed to . Engineers, the builders of much of our critical infrastructure (including, ironically, information technology), know this firsthand and are growing in their concern over how they see that influencing their work. In 2012 the IEEE published a book (PDF) that looked deeply at the role of information overload where the authors note that information overload is not just when people seek new information, but when it information searches for them. The authors argue that:
Information overload “places knowledge workers and managers worldwide in a chronic state of mental overload. It exacts a massive toll on employee productivity and causes significant personal harm, while organizations ultimately pay the price with extensive financial loss”
Annual Reviews, an academic publisher of multidisciplinary research, was motivated to write a piece on information overload in their industry (PDF), noting the present problem is partly one of removing intermediaries:
“…the removal of the intermediary (typically the librarian, but sometimes the publisher) from the information seeking chain…means we are all librarians now, and have to behave like them—constantly reviewing and validating data.”
That takes a lot of work. Both of these works are from 2011-2012 and since then the continued expansion of broadband and mobile technologies, facilitated by cameras and cheaper access to technology, has only added to the amount of information available. The content generation capacity of the public has increased, the consequences are no different, and the solutions fewer.
Perversely, one of the strategies we use to battle overload is to throw more content at the problem as Tom Fishburne shows in this cartoon. We create greater complexity by adding more complexity. This is the tension. We want to add more information to clarify, rather than strip it away, and end up doing the opposite.
Yet, there may be hope and it is rooted in pragmatism and a desire for beauty: the Dutch design movement, De Stijl.
Designing away complexity: going Dutch
To the untrained eye (which, until a few weeks ago, was mine until I met Corrie van Walraven) the image above would suggest a modern styled home built in the last 20 or 30 years. Rietveld Schröder House, pictured, was actually built in 1924 and reflects a Dutch design ethos that’s continued through to today of keeping things clean, organized, efficient, flexible, and beautiful.
By many standards the Netherlands has shown itself to be an expert in complexity. Holland is among the most densely populated countries in the world, manages to grow food, survive and thrive in a physical environment that shouldn’t even exist (it is, after all , situated mostly under water). They’ve become masters of adaptation, because they’ve had to be. Dutch design reflects much of this and De Stijl is a perfect example.
Though Dutch design has had many facets and movements De Stijl remains popular partly because of it’s ability to create simplicity amid complexity while creating beauty. Beauty in a designed artifact means it has an evident function, but also elicits a positive aesthetic experience. As Steven de Groot’s research has shown, beauty does not only have intrinsically attractive qualities, but its presence in organizations can lead to higher productivity, employee retention and satisfaction, and overall institutional effectiveness.
Beauty provides an experience of positivity, generally free from confusion, and often clarity. It is lack of clarity and the presence of confusion that is what complexity often brings. Anything that can increase the first and reduce the second while remaining adaptive to the realities of complexity (e.g., information seeking you out) and the data stream is something worth paying attention to; that’s where De Stijl and examples like the Rietveld Schröder House provide guidance.
The house, pictured above, was designed to create a fluid, adaptive space that could configure to a variety of situations and evolve over time. It deals with the amount of content — people, furniture — adaptively, within the boundaries of its walls, in ways that preserve form and function, yet do not get bound too tightly to any particular model. Another distinction is that it is designed to provide the least distinction between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Thus, the design feels somewhat less visible through its simplicity.
Coherence within boundaries
What the De Stijl movement does well is integrate complex ideas together, beautifully, and subscribing to a design philosophy that mirrors Dieter Rams’ belief that we should design as little as possible. De Stijl is about creating coherence – beneficial coherence in complexity terms — within boundaries. It’s work doesn’t seek to integrate the outside and inside (indeed, the criticism of the Rietveld Schröder House is that it doesn’t integrate well within the neighbourhood), but it does exceptionally well within the boundaries of its walls.
What we can take from this is the emphasis on internal coherence within our informational and organizational spaces, because those are the areas we can place boundaries. Systems thinking is all about boundary setting otherwise the focus becomes incoherent. This means being deliberate about where we set up our personal boundaries, professional boundaries and learning boundaries, but in keeping with De Stijl, keeping those flexible and adaptive and always moving, yet in a system that strives for coherence. One of the reasons information overload happens is because we have too much to create coherence with and because we’ve lost what our intention was with the information in the first place.
So a takeaway is this: be intentional about what you’re looking for and what you use. Be mindful of the things that give you coherence in your work and life and create a learning space where you can adapt. Strategy and purpose can help determine this — connect to this. Use the principles of Dutch design through De Stijl to design the conditions that support meaning making.
And if you want a great example in the personal realm, check out another creative thinker with Dutch lineage, Leisse Wilcox, on how self-love through better personal, environmental and social design (my word, not hers) can make you a happier person. That might be the best design you can create of them all.
Acknowledgements: A big thank you to Corrie van Walraven for sharing with me a piece on the De Stijl movement that inspired this post. Corrie’s a great representative of how wonderful the Dutch are and her generosity of spirit and great job as a host is greatly appreciated.
Image Credits: Author and Rietveld Schröder House by frm_tokyo used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.