Month: June 2012

complexityevaluationsocial systemssystems science

The Forward Orientation Problem With Complexity

The human body is oriented towards forward motion and so too are our institutions, yet while this helps us move linearly and efficiently from place to place, it may obscure opportunities and challenges that come from other directions such as those posed by complexity. Thinking about and re-orienting our perceptions of who we are and where we are going might be the key to understanding and dealing with complexity now and in the future.

When heading out into the turbulent waters that face us we humans tend to look straight ahead and press forward. Our entire physical being and that of all mammals is aimed at facing forward. We look forward, walk forward and this often means thinking forward.

Doing this predisposes us to seeing problems ahead of us or behind us, but is less useful when what challenges us is positioned elsewhere. For this reason, fish and birds, with their eyes on the side of their head, are able to adapt to challenges from nearly any direction quickly. It also allows them to fly/swim in flocks/swarms/schools and operate with high degrees of coordination on a large scale.

These are skills that are useful for handling the social problems that are complex in nature and require mass action to address. But, we don’t have eyes on the side of our head and we tend to look forward or backward to orient ourselves and our activities.

One way this expresses itself in our perceptions of time. Thor Muller, writing in Psychology Today online, highlighted how our perceptions of time influence the way we handle appointments and punctuality with modern technology.  Citing the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall (although mistakenly referring to Manhattan Project contributor Edward Teller), Muller points to the differences in perceived time across cultures and the way that plays out in our treatment of time and technology used to “manage” it and the complexity of everyday life. Monochronistic and polychronistic time orientations matter to whether you see time as a linear, quantifiable phenomenon or a more non-linear, contextual one. One allows you to “bank” time while the other perception deals more with the present moment, less dependent on forward-backward thinking.

Western society and the technologies developed within it are oriented primarily towards dealing with a monochronistic form of time. This works well when patterns, problems and situations have a linear, ordered set of circumstances to them. The cause-and-effect world of normal science fits within this worldview.

Complexity is non-linear and not easily defined in cause-and-effect terms and conditions. Two-dimensional space doesn’t capture complexity the way it can for linear situations. It also means thinking solely in forward and back terms is problematic.

An example of where this comes to conflict is in program planning and evaluation. Traditional evaluation methods and metrics are set up for looking at programs that are planned to start and end with impacts developed and detected in between. This implies a certain level of consistency in the conditions in which that program operates. This control and measure aspect of evaluation is part of the hallmark features of scientific inquiry.

For programs operating in environments of great change and flux, this is a faulty proposition. We cannot hold constant the environment for starters. Secondly, feedback gained from learning about the program as it proceeds is critical to ensuring adaptation and promoting resilience in the face of changing conditions. In these cases, failure to act and adapt on the go may result in a program failing catastrophically.

This is where developmental evaluation comes in. Developmental evaluation works with these conditions to generate data in a manner that programs can make sense of and use to facilitate strategic adaptation rather than simply reacting to changes. As the name suggests, it promotes development rather than improvement.Developmental design is the incorporation of this feedback into an ongoing program development and design process.

Both developmental design and evaluation require ways of seeing the world beyond forward/backward. This seeing comes from understanding where one’s position is in the first place and that requires methods of centring that take us into the world of polychronistic time. One example of a strategy that suits this approach is mindfulness programming. Mindfulness-based programs have shown remarkable efficacy in healing and health interventions aimed at stress reduction across conditions. Mindfulness techniques ranging from meditation to contemplative inquiry (video) brings focus to the present moment away from an orientation towards linear trajectories of time, thought and attention.

Some forms of martial arts promote attentive awareness to the present moment by training practitioners in strategies that are focused on simple rules of engagement, rather than just learning techniques for defence.

These approaches combine inward reflection — reflective practice — with an openness to the data that comes in around them without imposing an order on it a priori. The orientation is to the data and the lessons that come from it rather than its directionality or imposing values on what the data might mean at the start. It means slowing down, contemplating things, and acting on reflection not reacting based on protocol. This is a fundamental shift for many of our activities, but may be the most necessary thing we can focus on if we are to have any hope of understanding, dealing with, and adapting to complexity.

All the methods and tools at our disposal will not help if we cannot change our mindset and orientation — even in the temporary — to this reality when looking at complexity in our work. One of complexity’s biggest challenges right now is that it is seductive in accounting for the massive, dynamic sets of conditions we face every day, yet it lacks methods beyond evaluation to do things with it. The irony of mindfulness and contemplative approaches is that they are less about acting differently and more about seeing things in new ways, yet it is that orientation that is the key to making real change from talking about change. It is the design doing that comes with design thinking and the systems change from systems thinking.

design thinking

The Hyberbole and Exaggerated Demise of Design Thinking

Designing better design thinking

Design thinking is hot and under fire. Just as its miracle properties are misleading, so too are the claims that it is dead or dying.

If design thinking didn’t have something going for it no one would talk about it.

In a well-laid out essay on design thinking (and its timely death) William Storage points to the concept’s origins and proceeds from there to point to how it no longer serves a purpose given the panoply of voices arguing its merits.

He writes:

Design Thinking has lost its focus – and perhaps its mind. The term has been redefined to the point of absurdity. And its overworked referent has drifted from an attitude and guiding principle to yet another hackneyed process in a long line of bankrupt business improvement initiatives, passionately embraced by amnesic devotees for a few months until the next one comes along. This might be the inevitable fate of brands that no one owns, spawned by innovators, put into the public domain, and consumed by consultancies who prey on business managers seeking that infusion of quick-transformation magic.

A related discussion on the LinkedIn group devoted to design thinking on this very topic prompted a lively debate. The impetus from that discussion came from the topic of a panel discussion at next week’s DMI conference in Portland entitled: Is Design Thinking Dead?

Bruce Nussbaum’s oft-cited assertion that design thinking is a failed experiment was one of the higher profile critiques. He asserts that the experiment of design thinking has failed, whereas I argue that we haven’t even begun our research in the first place to make that claim.

Returning to Storage’s essay, he concludes:

Design Thinking is hopelessly contaminated. There’s too much sleaze in the field. Let’s bury it and get back to basics like good design. Everyone already knows that solution-focus is as essential as problem-focus. Stop arguing the point. If good design doesn’t convince the world that design should be fully integrated into business and society, another over-caffeinated Design Thinking book isn’t likely to do so either.

To the first part of this argument, I agree wholeheartedly. Any concept that catches fire as broadly as design thinking that lacks a definitive intellectual home is bound to be tied to the hype cycle (discussed here and here in past posts). I would suggest to anyone interested in design thinking that they follow anyone’s claim about the idea with a question: what do you mean by that term?

Where I have problems with Storage’s argument is in its implication that good design is its own merit and that its benefits are obvious. To this point, I disagree wholeheartedly. The same foolishness is applied to healthcare around use of good evidence: high quality evidence that is “self-evident” is rarely so and even then inconsistently translates into practice with ease. Were that the case, the field of knowledge translation in health wouldn’t exist and evidence-based practice would be a pointless term.

If the benefits of good design were that obvious, every intelligent manager, strategist, executive and front-line staffer would be working towards it. They don’t.

There is little indication that design thinking in a form that would resemble common practice exists in any of the sectors I work in (and no, use of sticky notes and a white board does not equate to design thinking by itself). There simply is not enough reflective and documented practice in design thinking to provide the kind of wisdom to separate out the “sleaze in the field”, yet that isn’t reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We do not have good research to either venerate or denigrate design thinking based on anything other than the popular use of the term and rhetoric.

Einstein, as he often does, provides words to consider:

The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while. – Albert Einstein

The ideas that lay behind design thinking are powerful, yet the wisdom of the field has not yet flourished enough for us to abandon the idea on anything other than the immature notion that it is popular and therefore can’t possibly be serious. In an age where wicked problems are more commonplace, new ways of thinking, seeing and acting are being required of organizations seeking to survive and thrive and design thinking offers some prospects for how to navigate through this. Not all designers deal with wicked problems.

Which leads to my disagreement with Storage’s assertion that design thinking equals design. Designer’s regularly apply the kind of problem exploration and applied creativity that is central to design thinking, but they alone are not design thinkers. Were that the case, then the concept would have found little purchase outside of that discipline. His argument also implies that good design is evident, another point that I contest (and will save argument for another day). Good design is contextual and thus the standards that make it so must therefore be negotiable. It therefore cannot be claimed outright.

A “good” chair is dependent upon who is sitting in it, where it is placed, and the resources required to produce it and sustain it. By that argument, “good” design thinking may fall into the same lines. But unlike design, which has wisdom and experience broadly dispersed in society and different fields of practice, design thinking has no such equivalent. What is the evidence that it produces more useful or effective outcomes? What are its central theories? How is it linked to other fields of creative thought and action? Are there fields better suited to applying design thinking? What do effective practitioners look like? These questions remain either unexplored or poorly done so. The process of design thinking has received the treatment it deserves and it is that which has garnered the attention, admiration and scorn of the blogosphere and beyond — the space where the “over-caffeinated” books might sell.

Scholars such as Nigel Cross have done much to advance our understanding of what designerly ways of knowing might look like as practiced by leading designers. But few systematic examples exist outside of design contexts alone. This is changing and books like Wicked Problems by the group at AC4D provide one such example.

It is time to pull design thinking from the embers of hyperbole and placed under the microscope and macroscope of reflective practice and research. Once there, we might better comment on what this idea means for business, social innovation, human services and our overall wellbeing by pointing to something other than an exclamation mark to make our point.

design thinking

Design Thinking: Another Look at Its Well-Exaggerated Death

A brilliant recap of the work on design thinking. I don’t agree with the title, but admire the historical context brought to bear in illustrating what design thinking is, where it came from and how it has been used. It’s time to start looking at design thinking differently, not abandoning it.

complexitydesign thinkingemergenceevaluationinnovation

Evaluation and Design For Changing Conditions

Growth and Development

The days of creating programs, products and services and setting them loose on the world are coming to a close posing challenges to the models we use for designing and evaluation. Adding the term ‘developmental’ to both of these concepts with an accompanying shift in mindset can provide options moving forward in these times of great complexity.

We’re at the tail end of a revolution in product and service design that has generated some remarkable benefits for society (and its share of problems), creating the very objects that often define our work (e.g., computers). However, we are in an age of interconnectedness and ever-expanding complexity. Our disciplinary structures are modifying themselves, “wicked problems” are less rare

Developmental Thinking

At the root of the problem is the concept of developmental thought. A critical mistake made in comparative analysis — whether through data or rhetoric — is one that mistakenly views static things to moving things through the same lens. Take for example a tree and a table. Both are made of wood (maybe the same type of wood), yet their developmental trajectories are enormously different.

Wood > Tree

Wood > Table

Tables are relatively static. They may get scratched, painted, re-finished, or modified slightly, but their inherent form, structure and content is likely to remain constant over time. The tree is also made of wood, but will grow larger, may lose branches and gain others; it will interact with the environment providing homes for animals, hiding spaces or swings for small children; bear fruit (or pollen); change leaves; grow around things, yet also maintain some structural integrity that would allow a person to come back after 10 years and recognize that the tree looks similar.

It changes and it interacts with its environment. If it is a banyan tree or an oak, this interaction might take place very slowly, however if it is bamboo that same interaction might take place over a shorter time frame.

If you were to take the antique table shown above, take its measurements and record its qualities and  come back 20 years later, you will likely see an object that looks remarkably similar to the one you lefty. The time of initial observation was minimally relevant to the when the second observation was made. The manner by which the table was used will have some effect on these observations, but to a matter of degree the fundamental look and structure is likely to remain consistent.

However, if we were to do the same with the tree, things could look wildly different. If the tree was a sapling, coming back 20 years might find an object that is 2,3,4 times larger in size. If the tree was 120 years old, the differences might be minimal. It’s species, growing conditions and context matters a great deal.

Design for Development / Developmental Design

In social systems and particularly ones operating with great complexity, models of creating programs, policies and products that simply release into the world like a table are becoming anachronistic. Tables work for simple tasks and sometimes complicated ones, but not complex ones (at least, consistently). It is in those areas that we need to consider the tree as a more appropriate model. However, in human systems these “trees” are designed — we create the social world, the policies, the programs and the products, thus design thinking is relevant and appropriate for those seeking to influence our world.

Yet, we need to go even further. Designing tables means creating a product and setting it loose. Designing for trees means constantly adapting and changing along the way. It is what I call developmental design. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO and one of the leading proponents of design thinking, has started to consider the role of design and complexity as well. Writing in the current issue of Rotman Magazine, Brown argues that designers should consider adapting their practice towards complexity. He poses six challenges:

  1. We should give up on the idea of designing objects and think instead about designing behaviours;
  2. We need to think more about how information flows;
  3. We must recognize that faster evolution is based on faster iteration;
  4. We must embrace selective emergence;
  5. We need to focus on fitness;
  6. We must accept the fact that design is never done.
That last point is what I argue is the critical feature of developmental design. To draw on another analogy, it is about tending gardens rather than building tables.

Developmental Evaluation

Brown also mentions information flows and emergence. Complex adaptive systems are the way they are because of the diversity and interaction of information. They are dynamic and evolving and thrive on feedback. Feedback can be random or structured and it is the opportunity and challenge of evaluators to provide the means of collecting and organizing this feedback to channel it to support strategic learning about the benefits, challenges, and unexpected consequences of our designs. Developmental evaluation is a method by which we do this.
Developmental evaluators work with their program teams to advise, co-create, and sense-make around the data generated from program activities. Ideally, a developmental evaluator is engaged with program implementation teams throughout the process. This is a different form of evaluation that builds on Michael Quinn Patton’s Utilization Focused-Evaluation (PDF) methods and can incorporate much of the work of action research and participatory evaluation and research models as well depending on the circumstance.

Bringing Design and Evaluation Together

To design developmentally and with complexity in mind, we need feedback systems in place. This is where developmental design and evaluation come together. If you are working in social innovation, your attention to changing conditions, adaptation, building resilience and (most likely) the need to show impact is familiar to you. Developmental design + developmental evaluation, which I argue are two sides of the same coin, are ways to conceive of the creation, implementation, evaluation, adaptation and evolution of initiatives working in complex environments.
This is not without challenge. Designers are not trained much in evaluation. Few evaluators have experience in design. Both areas are familiarizing themselves with complexity, but the level and depth of the knowledge base is still shallow (but growing). Efforts like those put forth by Social Innovation Generation initiative and the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement in Canada are good examples of places to start. Books like Getting to Maybe,  M.Q. Patton’s Developmental Evaluation, and Tim Brown’s Change by Design are also primers for moving along.
However, these are start points and if we are serious about addressing the social, political, health and environmental challenges posed to us in this age of global complexity we need to launch from these start points into something more sophisticated that brings these areas further together. The cross training of designers and evaluators and innovators of all stripes is a next step. So, too, is building the scholarship and research base for this emergent field of inquiry and practice. Better theories, evidence and examples will make it easier for all of us to lift the many boats needed to traverse these seas.
It is my hope to contribute to some of that further movement and welcome your thoughts on ways to build developmental thinking in social innovation and social and health service work

Image (Header) Growth by Rougeux

Image (Tree) Arbre en fleur by zigazou76

Image (Table) Table à ouvrage art nouveau (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon) by dalbera

All used under licence.

health promotionresearchsocial media

Ines Mergel, a researcher who has worked extensively with social media and government provides a simple outline for what Pages can offer those engaged in social media work for public engagement.

Digital Innovations in the Public Sector

Facebook has introduced new roles for pages (see graphic). The manager of a page can assign the following roles:

  • Content Creator
  • Moderator
  • Advertiser
  • Insight Analyst

What is unclear to me is that the manager of the page does not have the same rights as the other roles and is not able to create content, edits the page, add apps, respond to and delete comments, send message, create ads, or view insights. It’s probably a typo or formatting issue of the table and does not reflect the actual functions those different roles can perform. Moreover, why shouldn’t manager know exactly what the impact of the site is? This is where top management needs to be informed: Help people understand that the organization’s social media efforts are making an impact and in case they don’t, initiate changes in the organizational social media tactics.

Especially for local government agencies defining 5-6 different roles…

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