Category: art & design

art & designcomplexitysocial systemssystems thinking

A Beautiful Idea

MakeSomethingBeautiful_Snapseed

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 estheticadjective

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.

Practical beauty

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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Seeking simplicity among complexity? Go Dutch!

DutchCycle_Snapseed

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.

Information overload

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

5781402553_2f30fe623c_b

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.

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Creativity and Craft, Myth and Muscle

Applying Creative Muscle

Applying Creative Muscle

Creativity is a word shrouded in myth that has been held up as this elusive, seductive object that will reveal the true secrets of innovation if ever reached. Creativity is something we all have, but not all of us are craftspeople and knowing where these two are separate and meet is the difference between myth and the muscles needed to turn creativity into innovations.  

A tour of blogs, journals, and magazines that cover innovation from Inc, Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, Entrepreneur and all the way to Brain Pickings will find one topic more visible than most: creativity.

Creativity is one of those terms that everyone knows, many use, has multiple meanings and is highly dependent on person and context. It’s also something that many of us feel we lack. This is not surprising given the way we set our schools and workplaces up as Sir Ken Robinson has discussed throughout his career.

Robinson has delivered perhaps one of the best and certainly most viewed talks on this at TED a few years ago illustrating the ways creativity gets ‘schooled’ out of us early on:

Accessing creativity

A look at the evidence base — which is enormous, unstructured, and varied in quality and scope — finds that creativity is hardly the mythical thing it gets made out to be and, following Sir Ken’s points raised in his TED talk, something we all have in us that may simply be hidden. More than anyone, Dr Keith Sawyer knows this having put together perhaps the strongest collection of evidence for the application of creativity in his books Explaining Creativity and, more recently, Zig Zag. (Both books are highly recommended).

Sawyer dispels such myths of the creative genius or the “flash of insight” as a linear process, rather pointing to creativity as often the cultivation of practices and habits that people go through to generate insights and products. This ‘zig zag’ represents metaphorically taking switchbacks to climb a mountain rather than going straight uphill. As you engage in creative thinking and action you build a deeper knowledge base, hone and acquire skills, and simply become more creative. “Creative people” are those that engage in these practices, build the habits of mind of creativity, and persist through each zig and zag along the way.

Design and design thinking is often associated with creativity because it is, in part, about creatively finding, framing and addressing problems through a structured process of inquiry, prototyping and revision. David and Tom Kelley in their recent book Creative Confidence point to design thinking as a layered foundation that is what much creativity is built upon. The disciplined, guided process that design thinking (well applied) offers is a vehicle for building creative confidence in those who might not feel very creative in what they do.

The process of design thinking — illustrated in the CENSE model of innovation development below — fits with Sawyer’s assertion of how creativity unfolds.

The design and innovation cycle

The CENSE design and innovation corkscrew model

The role of craft

What Robinson, Sawyer, the Kelley brothers and others have done is dispelled the myths that creativity is some otherworldly trait and shown that its something for all of us. What can get lost in the blind adoption of this way of thinking is attention to craft.

Craft is the technical skill of applying creativity to a problem or task and that is something that is quite varied. The debate over whether or not the term designer belongs to everyone who applies creativity to solving problems or those with formal design training largely is one of craft.

Craft is the thing that brings wisdom from experience and technical skill in transforming creative ideas into quality products, not just interesting ones.

In our efforts to free people from the shackles of their education and a social world that told them they weren’t creative we’ve put aside discussion of craft in the hopes that we simply get people moving and creating. That is so very important to unlocking creative confidence and ensuring that our efforts to develop social innovations are truly social and engage the widest possible numbers of participants. However, it will be craft that ensures these solutions don’t turn into what George Carlin referred to as (great) ideas that suck. 

Building design practice in the everyday

The habits of creativity are just that, habits. And if design is the way of applying creativity to problems then building a design practice is key. This means bringing elements of design into the way you operate your enterprise. Spend a lot of time finding the right problems is a start (as discussed in a previous post). Discover, inquire and be curious. Visualize, prototype, create small ‘safe-fail’ experiments, and ensure that there is a learning mechanism through the evaluation to allow your enterprise to adapt.

This is all easier said than done. It can be easy to be satisfied with being creative, but to be excellent involves craft and that requires something beyond creativity alone. It may involve training (formal or otherwise), it most certainly involves mindful attention to the work (which is what underlies the ‘10,000 hour rule’ of practice that make someone an expert), but it also requires skill. Many will find their creative talents in art, management, leadership, or service, but not all will be remarkable in exercising that skill.

To put it another way; it’s like a muscle. Everyone can work their muscles and develop them with training, nutrition, rest, and attention, but some will respond to this differently for a variety of reasons due to how all of those activities come together. This is what helps contribute to reasons why someone might be better adept at long-distance running, while others are good at bulking up and still others are far more flexible on the yoga mat.

We are all creative. We are all designers, too. But not all of us are stellar designers for all things and its important to build our collective design literacy, which includes knowing when and how to cultivate, hire and retail craftspeople and not just assume we can design think our way through everything. This last point is what will ensure that design thinking doesn’t fade away as a fad after it “didn’t produce results” because people have confused creativity with craft, myth with muscle.

References: 

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishers.

Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation (2nd Edition.). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Sawyer, R. K. (2013). Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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“If You Build It..”: A Reflection on A Social Innovation Story

If You Build it is documentary about a social innovation project aimed at cultivating design skills with youth to tackle education and social issues in a economically challenged community in North Carolina. The well-intentioned, well-developed story is not unfamiliar to those interested in social innovation, but while inspiring to some these stories mask bigger questions about the viability, opportunity and underlying systems issues that factor into the true impact of these initiatives. (Note: Spoiler alert > this essay will discuss the film and plotlines, yet hopefully won’t dissuade you from seeing a good film). 

Last week I had the opportunity to see Patrick Creadon‘s terrific new documentary “If You Build It” at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto as part of the monthly Doc Soup screening series. It was a great night of film, discussion and popcorn that inspired more than just commentary about the film, but the larger story of social innovation that the film contributes to.

If You Build It is the story of the Project H studio that was developed in in Bertie County (click here for a film outline) and run for two years by Emily Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller. To learn more about the start of the story and the philosophy behind Project H, Emily’s TED talk is worth the watch:

It’s largely a good-news kind of story of how design can make a difference to the lives of young people and potentially do good for a community at the same time. While it made for a great doc and some inspiring moments, the film prompted thoughts about what goes on beyond the narrative posed by the characters, the community and those seeking to innovate through design and education.

Going beyond the story

Stories are often so enjoyable because they can be told in multiple ways with emphasis placed on different aspects of the plot, the characters and the outcomes. For this reason, they are both engaging and limiting as tools for making decisions and assessing impact of social interventions. It’s why ‘success stories’ are problematic when left on their own.

One of the notable points that was raised in the film is that the cost of the program was $150,000 (US), which was down from the original budget of $230,000 because Emily and Matthew (and later on, a close friend who helped out in the final few months) all didn’t take a salary. This was funded off of grants. Three trained designers and builders worked to teach students, build a farmers market, and administer the program for no cost at all.

The film mentions that the main characters — Matthew and Emily — live off credit, savings and grants (presumably additional ones?) to live off of. While this level of commitment to the idea of the Bertie County project is admirable, it’s also not a model that many can follow. Without knowing anything about their family support, savings or debt levels, the idea of coming out of school and working for free for two years is out of reach of most young, qualified designers of any discipline. It also — as we see in the film — not helpful to the larger cause as it allows Bertie County yo abdicates responsibility for the project and lessens their sense of ownership over the outcomes.

One segment of If You Build It looks back on Matthew’s earlier efforts to apply what he learned at school to provide a home for a family in Detroit, free of charge in 2007. Matthew built it himself and gave it to a family with the sole condition that they pay the utilities and electricity bills, which amounted to less than this family was paying in just rent at the time. That part of the story ends when Matthew returns to the home a few years later to find the entire inside gutted and deserted long after having to evict that original family 9 months after they took possession when they failed to pay even a single bill as agreed.

From Bertie County to Detroit and back

The Detroit housing experience is a sad story and there is a lot of context we don’t get in the film, but two lessons taught from that experience are repeated  in the story in Bertie County. In both cases, we see something offered that wasn’t necessarily asked for, with no up-front commitment of investment and the influence that the larger system has on the outcomes.

In Detroit, a family was offered a house, yet they were transplanted into a neighbourhood that is (like many in Detroit) sparsely populated, depressed, and without much infrastructure to enable a family to make the house a home easily. Detroit is still largely a city devoted to the automobile and there are wide swaths of the city where there is one usable home on every three or four lots. It’s hard to conceive of that as a neighbourhood. Images like the one taken below are still common in many parts of the city even though it is going through a notable re-energizing shift.

Rebirth of Detroit

Rebirth of Detroit

In the case of Bertie County, the same pattern repeats in a different form. The school district gets an entire program for free even to the point of refusing to pay for salaries for the staff (Emily and Matthew) over two years, after the initial year ended with the building of a brand-new farmers market pavillion that was fully funded by Project H and its grants.

The hypothesis ventured by Patrick Creadon when he spoke to the Doc Soup audience in Toronto was that there was some resentment at the project (having been initiated by a change-pushing school superintendent who was let go at the film’s start and was the one who brought Emily and Matthew to the community) and by some entrenched beliefs about education and the way things were done in that community.

Systems + Change = Systems Change (?)

There is a remarkably romantic view of how change happens in social systems. Bertie County received a great deal without providing much in the way of support. While the Studio H project had some community cheerleaders like the mayor and a few citizens, it appeared from the film that the community – and school board — was largely disengaged from the activities at Studio H. This invokes memories of Hart’s Ladder of Participation, (PDF) which is applied to youth, but works for communities, too. When there is a failure to truly collaborate, the ownership of the problem and solution are not shared.

At no time in the film do you get a sense of a shared ownership of the problem and solution between Studio H, the school board, and the community. While the ideas were rooted in design research, the community wasn’t invested — literally — in solving their problems (through design, at least). It represents a falsehood of design research that says you can understand a community’s needs and address it successfully through simple observation, interviews and data gathering.

Real, deep research is hard. It requires understanding not just the manifestations of the system, but the system itself.

Systems Iceberg

Systems Iceberg

Very often that kind of analysis is missing from these kinds of stories, which make for great film and books, but not for long-term success.

In a complex system, meaning and knowledge is gained through interactions, thus we need stories and data that reflect what kind of interactions take place and under what conditions. Looking at the systems iceberg model above, the tendency is to focus on the events (the Studio H’s), but often we need to look at the structures beneath.

To be sure, there is a lot to learn from Studio H now and from the story presented in If You Build It. The lesson is in the prototyping: Emily and Matthew provide a prototype that shows us it can be done and what kind of things we can learn from it. The mistake is trying to replicate Studio H as it is represented in the film, rather than seeing it as a prototype.

In the post-event Q & A with the audience, a well-intentioned gentleman working with school-building in Afghanistan asked Patrick Creadon how or whether he could get Emily and Matthew to come there and help (with pay) and Creadon rightly answered that there are Emilys and Matthews all over the place and that they are worth connecting to.

Creadon is half right. There are talented, enthusiastic people out there who can learn from the experience of the Studio H team, but probably far fewer who have the means to assume the risk that Emily and Matthew did. Those are the small details that separate out a good story from a sustainable, systemic intervention that really innovates in a way that changes the system. But its a start.

If You Build It is in theatres across North America.

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The Literacy of Change

Making Change

Making Change

It has been said that change is the only constant, yet for something so pervasive change is a remarkably thorny and poorly understood concept. One reason is that change is often approached as a set of facts about a static state of affairs instead of as a literacy, which at change in a far more dynamic context that reflects human systems more accurately. 

A summary of the literature on behaviour change research shows an enormous push towards cognitive rational models of thinking and acting. In brief, a cognitive rational approach to change posits that we acquire information; process that information’s relevance, timeliness, (possible) completeness*; and fit with our personal context and then usually make plans to change. These plans, as described in the Transtheoretical Model and related theories include a series of stages of change:

  1. Precontemplation: We are not even thinking about making a change
  2. Contemplation: We are considering making a change in the next 6-months
  3. Preparation: We are currently planning to make a change in the next 30 days and are taking some steps toward making that change a reality
  4. Action: We are actively working to make the change happen
  5. Maintenance: We are strengthening the new changed state

To the rational mind, this makes sense. Like other cognitive rational models of change like the Health Belief Model, Theory of Reasoned Action and Planned Behaviour, and others, this model assumes change is linear, straightforward and planned for. While some changes are planned, many are not. In a review of the literature on smoking cessation, Robert West and colleagues found that more than half of smokers quit without going through these stages or having any quit plan in place.

West and colleagues have since developed a model called the Behaviour Change Wheel that aims for a more nuanced, less prescriptive model for understanding change.  The Wheel is a refreshing model within a sea of linear stage or stepped approaches, yet still is an approach that encourages behaviour change to be deconstructed into parts first, then assembled to a whole. Complex systems — like much of what humans create individually and socially — are highly resistant to having linear frameworks imposed on them.  This is why many approaches to change fail to meet expectations.

Viewing change as a literacy

What if we stepped back and took a look at change a little differently.

Language is among the most adaptive, dynamic, change-oriented system we engage with on any day thus, it might provide a model for considering change. If I am trying to explain something to you there are myriad ways to do it. By using my words in different combinations, with different tones and cadences, and add some visual thinking to the mix and I create a potent method for communication.

Learning a language requires a lot of failure, many awkward phrases, and a complex array of trial and error, repetition, and luck we eventually learn how to communicate. Depending on the task at hand, we learn the language skill that matters. For someone looking to learn how to navigate a tourist area in another country, a set of basic phrases might suffice. For someone else, getting a technical job in a global organization might require a far deeper understanding of the language. In our efforts to change ourselves, our organizations and our communities we will find ourselves requiring different levels of skill and ‘good enough’ will look different from situation to situation depending on who we are talking with.

Frequently, we are talking to different audiences at the same time to take the metaphor further.

Design (thinking) change

We learn languages much like designers apply design thinking. We scope out our intended purpose, craft a strategy, prototype, evaluate and redesign accordingly until we get something right. Over time we get enough feedback to understand deeper patterns that allow for more sophisticated experimentation. If the feedback quality is high, we learn faster and more deeply.

Learning is by its very nature change. Language is applied learning; you can’t ‘theoretically’ learn a language — it’s useless without application.

Language learning also requires attention to learning on multiple levels simultaneously. It involves small, moment-to-moment interactions, something I call ‘micro-feedback’. This is akin to mindfulness-based approaches to innovation. By establishing a sensitivity to the situation, creating the means to reflect often on what is happening while it is happening without judgement, we create the means to observe ourselves behave and make modifications as we go. It allows us to provide the kind of rapid prototyping of our learning as we go.

It also requires macro-feedback mechanisms that focus on the bigger picture. Language is not just about words and sentences, but a larger way of phrasing that separates being ‘well spoke’ for just ‘speaking well’.

Viewing change developmentally

If change is a constant, viewing change as a persistent, ongoing process changes the way we look at it. By looking at change as a core feature of a complex system — one that brings together linear and non-linear elements, is constantly evolving, and involves random, planned and hybrid elements – we can see change in a manner that fits with complexity, rather than works against it.

Just as our language develops over time, so does the way we change. Viewing change as something that parallels the way we approach language might just be truer to the way we really change the way we want change to happen.

References:

Bridle, C., Riemsma, R. P., Pattenden, J., Sowden, A. J., Mather, L., Watt, I. S., & Walker, A. (2005). Systematic review of the effectiveness of health behavior interventions based on the transtheoretical model. Psychology & Health20(3), 283–301.

Michie, S., van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6(1), 42.

West, R. (2005). Time for a change: putting the Transtheoretical (Stages of Change) Model to rest. Addiction100(8), 1036–9.

* The argument for completeness of information is based on the often flawed assumption that we know what is missing from an informational context and how it fits with the other data we have before us.

Photo taken at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, MI by Cameron Norman. Original art by Tyree Guyton.

art & designcomplexityjournalismscience & technologysystems science

300: Crises in Complexity, Opportunities in Design

Designing ideas

Designing ideas

In 2009 Censemaking was launched as a platform to explore issues in complexity and ways we can make sense of it to design for better futures and a sustainable world. After 300 posts it has become evident that there is much more to write as we see ever-new crises from complexity and ever-greater design opportunities to deal with it all.

As I was reflecting on what to write for my 300th post  for Censemaking I found myself — as I often do — drawing some connections between disparate experiences as I started my daily reading and listening. Within moments of sitting at the table with materials, turning on the radio, and scanning online I found the following semi-related stories:

  • On the Stack, the Internet radio show about magazine publishing on Monocle 24, panelists were exploring the crisis of reporting that comes from citizen journalism and the generally lower quality of photography and detail that comes when professional work gets pushed out for reasons of economics and expediency;
  • This followed a profile of Ghost Lab – a hands-on architecture program that runs every summer to teach architects ways to link what founder Brian McKay-Lyons calls “the world of ideas and the world of things”  – a space that many designers are surprisingly disconnected from;
  • In the Globe and Mail newspaper (tablet edition), a column by Kathryn Borel, writes on reading both Miley Cyrus and Syria and the sanctimony that comes when we judge what is worthy reading;
  • The brilliant web comic The Oatmeal has circulated an insightful, funny and sad piece looking at what it takes to draw people’s attention to Syria’s conflict and the crises it promotes;
  • An email exchange from a group of colleagues — journalists and scientists — on how to collectively present the state of research and journalism to an audience of policymakers and peers at the upcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference;
  • Thumbing through two new magazine options that seek to bridge the gap between science, design, and public affairs by relying on quality content and publishing than advertising (The Alpine Review and Nautilus – below)
Premiere Issues of Nautilus & The Alpine Review

Premiere Issues of Nautilus & The Alpine Review

Within each of these categories is a reflection of some form of crisis — an unstable situation affecting many people — particularly the worlds of science, journalism, politics, publishing, policy, and design.

Patterns of complexity

This motley collection of tidbits loosely connects science, design, public affairs, knowledge translation and communication, and the complexity that comes when they intersect. It seems fitting that this greeted me as I sat down to write post #300.

The Censemaking name is a riff on both the name of my social innovation consultancy (CENSE Research + Design) and the term sensemaking that is a trans-disciplinary field / practice of making meaning from complex, divergent data points and experience (which is what I help my clients, collaborators and students do). It has been a vehicle that has allowed me the freedom and pleasure to explore the knotty intersections of these disparate areas of practice and scholarship that don’t fall under any particular umbrella, yet are things that are wrestled with in health promotion, industry, publishing and media, social services, policymaking, the military and social enterprise (to speak of a few).

And as I often do, I find the strangest threads are often the most useful in understanding complexity and our world.

Taking Miley Cyrus seriously

That I would even put those four words above together above might have already turned you off, but stick with me. While the Miley Cyrus reference in the above list of media notes might be the most disparate of them all, complexity science teaches us that there is often gold in looking at weak signals and Miley Cyrus might be the best example of that in this list.

In a week where the once Hannah Montana actor and singer has garnered enormous attention in the media for her moves, her behaviour and her attitude at last weekends’ MTV Video Music Awards, particularly her performance with singer Robin Thicke it seems there is little left to discuss. Or not.

Some media sources commented on Ms. Cyrus’ actions as a tasteless media ploy.

Others jumped on the fact that it was Miley Cyrus who got all the flack for the acts performed while Robin Thicke, a married father, gets away with little public condemnation despite being the main performer of a song with a deeply sexist, near misogynistic lyrics, message and related video.

The Belle Jar Blog points to how Miley’s appropriation of black culture is a racist and patriarchal act that deserved the real condemnation as much as any sexual act that it was associated with, something that only adds to the slut-shaming says the Washington Post who nevertheless seek to question the fuss.

Reading and contemplating Miley’s performance could at once be seen as juvenile, offensive, and racist, while also represent shrewd marketing, behaviour not inconsistent with previous VMA awards and its time-honoured practice of female sexualization to draw eyeballs (and commentary) , and a situation reflective of a woman growing up at a time and place where the lines between activities rooted in a particular racial, ethnic, geographic, socio-demographic heritage are — no pun intended — quite blurred and may be genuinely obscured to her.

This is a rather banal, yet clear example of the way complexity and wicked problems rise up from an interconnected, multimedia, 24/7, global culture of communication that we’ve created for ourselves. Miley is at once a perpetrator, a victim and a bystander all at the same time. She is a social construction and a real person who is accountable for what she says and does (but to whom and for what?). That is complexity in the modern age of public engagement, expression and media.

It’s one example. We are facing similar thorny, hairy issues with vaccination, big data, chronic disease, community planning, social media, journalism’s independence and viability, educational policy and the structure of learning, private-public partnerships for social benefit and beyond. There is no simple answer or simple problem. Sensemaking is a way to understand complexity and then determine what it means.

Designing compelling futures

When you know better you do better – Maya Angelou

Better knowing is the biggest step towards better doing. Sensemaking complexity means looking broadly and deeply, consulting widely and taking the time to reflect on what it means. Being mindful of our time, and its disruption, is critical.

What comes from that is the possibility not just to understand our world, but to shape it into something we deem to be better for us all. This motivation to shape is what makes us human. We are the one species that creates for enjoyment, expression, and practical need. We are makers and designers and often both at the same time.

Design is the conscious intent to shape things while design thinking is a means of engaging complexity to foster more effective designs. We cannot control complexity, but we can design for it (PDF) and work with the emergent patterns it produces. This process of design for emergence and developmental design, which brings together sensemaking, structured feedback through ongoing developmental evaluation, and foresight methods allows us to take account of complexity without letting it take hold of us. It helps us make the world we want, not just accept the world we get.

Thank you

Thank you to all of my readers — the tens of thousands of people who have come to Censemaking since it started and the many of you who come regularly and share it with the world. In a world of attention scarcity, I am deeply appreciative of you spending some of your time with my work.

I am a believer in what popular math video-blogger Vi Hart says about blogging: do it for yourself.

Create your own audiences.  I am honoured to have been able to create the audience I have; thank you for being a part of it. I hope to continue to provide you with things to contemplate and help you make sense of.

I look forward to the next 300 posts and finding new ways to navigate and contemplate complexity and design for innovation.

Image: Thinkstock used under license & Cameron Norman

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingevaluationsystems thinking

Design Thinking, Design Making

Designing and thinking

Designing and thinking

Critics of design thinking suggest that it neglects the craft of products while advocates suggest that it extends itself beyond the traditional constraints of design’s focus on the brief. What separates the two are the implications associated with making something and the question: can we be good designer thinkers without being good design makers?

A review of the literature and discussions on design thinking finds a great deal of debate on whether it is a fad, a source of innovation salvation, or whether it is a term that fails to take the practice of design seriously.  While prototyping — and particularly rapid prototyping — is emphasized there is little attention to the manner in which that object is crafted. There are no standards of practice for design thinking and the myriad settings in which it could be applied — everything from business to education to the military to healthcare — indicate that there is unlikely to be a single model that fits. But should there be some form of standards?

While design thinking encourages prototyping there is remarkably little in the literature on the elements of design that focus on the made product. Unlike design where there is at least some sense of what makes a product good or not, there are no standards for what ought to emerge from design thinking. Dieter Rams, among the most vocal critics of the term design thinking, has written 10 principles for good design that can be applied to a designed product. These principles include a focus on innovation, sustainability, aesthetics, and usability.

These principles can be debated, but they at least offer something others can comment on or use as foil for critique. Design thinking lacks the same correlate. Is that a good (or necessary) thing?

Designing for process and outcome

Unlike design itself, design thinking is not tied to a particular product profile; it can be used to create physical products as easily as policies and programs. Design thinking is a process that is centred largely on complex, ambiguous problems where success has no pre-defined outcome and the journey has no set pathway. It is for this reason that concepts like best practices are inappropriate for use in design thinking and complex problem solving. Design thinking offers a great deal of conceptual freedom without the pressure to produce a specific outcome that might be proscribed by a design brief.

Yet, design thinking is not design. Certainly many designers draw on design thinking in their work, but there is no requirement to create products using that way of approaching design problems. Likewise, there is little demand for design thinking to produce products that would fit what Dieter Rams suggests are hallmark features of good design. Indeed, we can use design thinking to create many possible futures without a requirement to actually manifest any of them.

Design requires an outcome and one that can be judged by a client (or customer or user or donor) as satisfactory, exemplary or otherwise. While what is considered ‘good design’ might be debated, there is little debate that if a client does not like what is produced that product it is a failure on some level*. Yet, if design thinking produces a product (a design?), what is the source of the excellence or failure? And does it matter if anything is produced at all?

Herein lies a fundamental dilemma of design and design thinking: how do we know when we are doing good or great work?

Can we have good design thinking and poor design making?

The case of the military

Roger Martin, writing in Design Observer, highlighted how design thinking was being applied to the US Army through the adaptation of its Field Operations Manual. This new version was based on principles of complexity science and systems thinking, which encourage adaptive, responsive unit actions rather than relying solely on top-down directives. It was an innovative step and design thinking helped contribute to the development of this new Field Manual.

On discussing the process of developing the new manual (FM-05) Martin writes:

In the end, FM5-0 defines design as “a methodology for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them” (Page 3.1), which is a pretty good definition of design. Ancker and Flynn go on to argue that design “underpins the exercise of battle command within the operations process, guiding the iterative and often cyclic application of understanding, visualizing, and describing” and that it should be “practiced continuously throughout the operations process.” (p. 15-16)

The manual’s development involved design thinking and the process in which it is enacted is based on applying design thinking to field operations. As unseemly as it may be to some, the US Army’s application of design thinking is notable and something that can be learned from. But what is the outcome?

Does a design thinking soldier become better at killing their enemy? Or does their empathy for the situation — their colleagues, opponents and neutral parties — increase their sensitivities to the multiplicities of combat and treat it as a wicked problem? What is the outcome in which design thinking is contributing to and how can that be evaluated in its myriad consequences intended or otherwise? In the case of the US Army it might not be so clear.

Craft

One of terms conspicuously absent from the dialogue on design thinking is craft. In a series of interviews with professionals doing design thinking it was noted that those trained as designers — makers — often referred to ‘craft’ and ‘materials’ in describing design thinking. Those who were not designers, did not**. No assessment can be made about the quality of the design thinking that each participant did (that was out of scope of the study), but it is interesting to note how concepts traditionally associated with making — craft and materials and studios — do not have much parallel discussion in design thinking.

Should they?

One reason to consider craft is that it can be assessed with at least some independence. There is an ability to judge the quality of materials and the product integrity associated with a designed object according to some standards that can be applied somewhat consistently — if imperfectly — from reviewer to reviewer. For programs and policies, this could be done by looking at research evidence or through developmental evaluation of those products. Developmental design, an approach I’ve written about before, could be the means in which evaluation data, rapid prototyping, design excellence and evidence could come together to potentially create more robust design thinking products.

We have little correlates with design thinking assessment.

The danger with looking at evaluation and design thinking is falling into the trap of devising and applying rigid metrics, best practices and the like to domains of complexity (and where design thinking resides) where they tend to fail catastrophically. Yet, there is an equal danger that by not aspiring to vision what great design thinking looks like we produce results that not only fail (which is often a necessary and positive step in innovation if there is learning from it), but are true failures in the sense that they don’t produce excellent products. It is indeed possible to create highly collaborative, design thinking-inspired programs, policies and products that are dull, ineffective and uninspiring.

Where we go and how we get there is a problem for design and design thinking. Applying them both to each other might be a way to create the very products we seek.

* It is interesting to note that Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s 1933 three-legged children’s stool has been considered both a design flop from a technical standpoint (it’s unstable given its three legs) and one of the biggest commercial successes for Artek, its manufacturer.

** The analysis of the findings of the project are still ongoing. Updates and results will be published on the Design Thinking Foundations project site in the coming months, where this post will be re-published.