behaviour change Category

The Disconnected Human

8474361613_f8e5a6ff2f_k

In this mini-series we look at the phenomenon of paradox and some of the prominent ones in our social world. Today we look at human disconnection in the face of mass-urbanization, globalization, social media and information technology and why so many feel so isolated in a world pushing ever-more interconnection.

It is possible to have a wristwatch that is connected to a phone which also connects to your online social network platforms, a heart rate monitor, earphones and maybe even the appliances in your home. We do not lack for connections, but we do often lack connectedness.

As it turns out, connectedness matters. Laboratory and clinical research on addiction (summary), has suggested that it is as much a problem of social connection as biochemistry. Those who are socially isolated experience a higher degree of, and experience with, addiction. Loneliness, in psychological terms, refers to the absence of connection and communication with others and both negative affect and cognition resulting from this. Loneliness is not just a social issue, it gets under the skin  (pdf) with research pointing to pathways for harmful biochemical changes among those who are lonely.

Still, how is it that we are in an age of increasing global urbanization (pdf) whereby more people are living closer to each other, exposed to more people than ever before, and yet there is a parallel increase in loneliness? How can it be that we have more tools — ones that are mobile, instantaneous, and easy to use — that can share rich media with nearly everyone we know at nearly any time of day and still find ourselves isolated?

This paradox is all by design — whether intended or not.

Disconnecting the social graph: Facebook

Facebook is a classic example of how to design isolation into a tool aimed at promoting connection. Once a college tool for meeting and connecting friends, it now serves as a news media source, community organizing tool, general communication platform, organizational home page, text message system and photography album. It’s ever-changing, sophisticated algorithm ensures that every login to Facebook is different, aside from the current format of seeing top post followed immediately by an ad, the next top posts, more advertising, and so on. When you need to find something explicit, it’s very hard and that’s by design. The more connections you have, the harder it is to find material and maintain those connections without having to sift through material that, ironically, disconnects you from the purpose of your visit.

This all helps keep you on the site and coming back.

But this very aspect of having to come back frequently, to see different things each time, and to have to root through social and marketing ephemera to get to something that feels social is what isolates us. Yet, the intermittent reinforcement that comes when you log in and find just what you want the moment you open the screen is based on a crude, but powerful set of psycho-biological principles that anchor behaviour to the pleasurable feel of dopamine that rushes through the brain when you get that social media high. Add in everyday stress and the cortisol it releases and oxytocin hormone rush that come when we connect and you’ve got the perfect ghost-in-the-machine scenario to keep you locked on to this tool that offers you the hope of connection.

Now Facebook is aiming to integrate it into its other properties like Instagram and WhatsApp presumably to integrate this experience and your data along with it. This has the added benefit of Facebook of doing what other marketers already do and that is follow me everywhere I go on the Internet and reminding of me of more things to buy, consume and connect to, which will only add (paradoxically) to my sense of disconnection. Other social media platforms do this differently, but nearly all of them offer a variant of the same sort of stimuli aimed at keeping you posting pictures, exchanging messages, and sharing content.

Stimuli addiction

A powerful post by my friend, colleague and fellow designer, Medina Eve, wrote a deeply personal, provocative piece on living with ADD as an adult and the lost generation of souls who share her circumstances. Her brave, detailed story chronicles how she, like many young women in particular, have struggled with focus due to ADD and reaping the benefits that come with it, despite being an incredibly productive, intelligent, engaged person. Her story provides a first-person account of a social epidemic and paradox on how the ability to connect to so much means there is little ability to connect deeply to many of the things that matter and the incredible isolation that this engenders.

When the world offers too much to pay attention to (or filter through), we get too little in return.

ADD is at its core is an addiction to stimuli. It is the bodymind getting overwhelmed with the amount of stimulation we have around us which reduces our ability to filter, ignore and reject stimulation of various sorts coming at us. If you have any doubts about how much stimuli we are exposed to practice a mindful meditation where you aim to simply pay attention to what’s around you and what’s in your head. It can be remarkable that everyone doesn’t have it.

This is also a problem I’ve certainly battled and continue to battle with limited success and I am certainly not alone. This addition to the stimulation around us, particularly through socially-connected media and our explicit and ambient technologies that facilitate it all, is not only making us less connected, it’s also making us less human. And this is also by design.

Stimulation by Design

A look at the image below provides an illustration of how we design for stimulation. Imagine the holiday season and the Covent Garden Market in central London. All around there is music, food, bustling crowds doing holiday shopping and business, shopkeepers and buskers selling everything from entertainment to handbags to Lebanese street food, and the air filled with the scents of perfume, various cuisines from around the world, and an air of cedar from the holiday wreaths. All of this is lit up and decorated as the crowds jam through the stalls, eateries and cafes to take it all in. This is what Covent Garden wants and it is why people come from all over the world to take it all in. If there were no people, less ‘stuff’ and less activity it wouldn’t be attractive, which is why not all of London’s markets look like this.

But thankfully for us all, we can’t take Covent Garden with us. We have the option to disengage from it in a way we don’t with social technology.

coventgarden_snapseed

The Holiday Crowd at Covent Garden

What you will also see among this bustle are families walking together, friends gathering over a drink, and individuals roaming through the market, maybe even stopping to take a picture or two. For those who are enjoying this space, I suspect they are doing so because it’s special. While London is a very crowded, colourful city, it’s not this crowded or colourful all the time (although that is changing, too).

But what happens when the energy of the crowd and the space turn against us? Most of teh time, human beings adapt. I am sure if you were to bring someone from even 100 years ago they might break down at the experience of all this stimulation, because they aren’t used to it. Many of us are, or are we?

Social disconnection and its sequalae may be pointing to the paradox present in our question to create more stimulation and feedback opportunities by loosening our ability to connect to the very things that are at the heart of much of this stimulation: pleasure and the connection to our own humanity.

 

Giving up the Internet: A case study

Comedian Louis C.K. has a funny, poignant reflection on what we lose in this stimulated world during a guest spot on the Conan O’Brien show.

Kids don’t build empathy through interactions and building the ability to be yourself, with yourself; the kind of experiences you can only have without technology. What a powerful thought.

Louis C.K. was so concerned about what technology was doing not only to his kids, but himself that he ‘quit the Internet’ altogether as you can see in the segment below.

What Louis C.K did was design the conditions in which he used (or didn’t use) technology. His aim was to create, improve, and remedy the experiences he had with his children and found a way to do it. Aside from some tech support from his daughters he did this all alone. The reward was increased connection to his family, however what we don’t know was what cost there was in disconnecting. Maybe that cost was worth the doing.

 

Invisible problems, invisible solutions?

The point here is that design is often best when it’s invisible. It’s what makes the stimulation economy so insidious because it’s reach is everywhere, yet is often not noticed, thus making it a very successful design. The challenge, if we wish to channel the stimulation and influence what we have in our lives and to increase the connectedness in which this paradox of connecting tools present, is to design equally invisible solutions.

That is the focus of what is to come in this series along with a deeper exploration of connectedness and its shadow, loneliness.

Photo credits: Disconnect by Randy Heinitz used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks for sharing your work Randy.

Covent Garden at Christmas by the author

Three Lessons From Summer Vacation

This year I took a summer holiday — something I’ve not done in years — and was reminded what literally stepping away from your everyday life and journeying to other spaces and places does for the mind, the heart and the soul. As kids (and adults) all over head back to school and tell their stories about their summer break, here is some of what I took away from my trip to the Netherlands and England. 

This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is typically called “back to school” time as students return to their classrooms or start a new educational journey altogether. For young and old this new beginning signals a change of state and a great opening to experience, new knowledge and new people.

Among the first things students in grade school do upon their return is share what they did on their summer vacation. This year I am not returning to school, but I did have a summer vacation and in the spirit of ‘back-to-school’ I wanted to share what I learned.

My journey to the Netherlands and England allowed me to partake in sightseeing, walking for hours through some of Europe’s most beautiful towns and cities, taking in the art and history of two incredible regions, getting inspired, learning from other cultures, taking (and making) a rest, and also figuring out how to become a better football goalkeeper (more on that some other time). However, like any trip it is often about the people not just the places that make the difference and that is what I wish to focus on here.

The importance of beauty

P1020141

Jordaan District, Amsterdam, NL

Amsterdam is a beautiful city and so it was fitting that I spent one of my first days in that great European capital having lunch with author, consultant and designer, Steven de Groot talking about — among other things — beauty in organizations. Steven wrote what I believe is the most interesting doctoral theses I’ve ever read (PDF) on the role of beauty in organizations and has been developing new thinking on organizational aesthetics ever since. What makes Steven’s work so interesting is that he has taken a collection of ideas that are straightforward and simple on their own and brought them together to reveal something that is (paradoxically) incredibly obvious and yet completely unnoticed in most organizations.

Truth, beauty, goodness — these are things that we are attracted to, yet rarely identify as fundamental qualities of a high performing organization. Steven inspires people to rethink this through his writing and consulting.

I was speaking to a bartender at the local pub near my hotel about Steven’s work the evening before he and I met and the bartender went through the same stages as I did upon first encounter with the topic of organizational aesthetics: puzzlement, uncertainty, curiosity, wonder, confusion and then the big “a-ha!” where he realized how much sense it all makes (and asking why is this the first time contemplating all of this?). Why should we not value beauty in our work and workplaces and spaces? After all, we do it in almost every other facet of life and yet rarely do we consciously consider the role that aesthetics play in our organizational creations even if it is an enormous driver of behaviour and contributor to our wellbeing and quality of life.

Steven and I spoke of the challenges and opportunities inherent in inspiring people to think like a designer, wrestle with change in organizations, and overcome the (largely) self-imposed constraints to possibility that groups place on their perspectives about what is possible. We also spoke of the Dutch approach to constraints and how they’ve managed to work with a series of physical and social ones to create a society that largely supports innovative design in cities and organizations. The big challenge in drawing lessons from the Dutch (or anyone) is dealing with scale and determining how best to take ideas from one context further into others and what the implications are for transporting designs in one space to another. Beauty however exists everywhere in its own space and time, which is why it offers so much to designers working in different contexts: it’s inherently a local and global phenomenon simultaneously.

We make selections of friends, partners, places to live, products and services all based on some connection to beauty — even if that definition of beauty is different between each of us. Human beings have their own sense of beauty and are attracted to things we find beautiful so why would we not collectively nurture those qualities in the work processes, outcomes and environments we spend time in by design? We can design beauty into our work and Steven’s research and practice have pointed to ways in which people build appreciation for beauty, nurture it, and design it into the environments they inhabit everyday to enhance wellbeing, creativity and productivity. This is powerful stuff.

The power to change

Rothko_Snapseed

Red on Maroon by Mark Rothko (Tate Modern, London, UK)

Power is no more evident than in the process of change-making and I have found few more thoughtful on this topic than John Wenger. John is a London-based (via New Zealand) Scot who is a psychotherapist, organizational change consultant, community animator and writer. John seeks to find, build and nurture what Meg Wheatley calls “islands of sanity” in a complex and chaotic world through his therapy, community and consulting work. In that vein he and I met at the Victoria & Albert museum for a coffee and a stroll through some of the collections as an island of cool on a hot summer’s day.

This was just the start our our journey as we soon found ourselves zipping over to the Tate Modern and then for a long walk through the Borough Market and along the Thames talking all the way about the role of capitalism, community, individual behaviour, organizational design and social connection in shaping the world we work in. In the frenetic chaos of London’s core during the height of tourist season John and I created our own island of sanity (and inspiration) through our walk and time together.

At the heart of our art visit was a trip to the Tate Modern to see a collection of works by Mark Rothko, the Seagram Murals immortalized in John Logan’s stage play Red. These works embody the kind of complexity that anyone working with human systems knows, but rarely can communicate so eloquently: the (appearing simple) works take vastly different shapes depending on where you sit in relation to them. Rothko’s pieces, like the one pictured above, look one way in a photograph, another from across the room, and something else when closer. Lighting matters, too as I suspect they would look considerably different in different gallery spaces. Rothko knew this and that was part of his genius. Each of these perspectives provides a new layer of information, wonder and reveals new patterns within what appears to be a simplistic frame of four lines connected into a box.

John understands that the same qualities that make Rothko’s work so mesmerizing is what also makes human relationships so important. It’s easy to make a judgement from afar, but it is only through getting closer, stepping away, turning things on their head that we begin to see things differently and, with it, open up possibilities. In the calamitous wake of Brexit John is leading workshops to help people make sense of what it means for Britain (and themselves) and is encouraging healing through use of reflective dialogue and sociodrama. He sees the rift created when, no matter what your position on Brexit might be, you see one half of your country holding a counter position to your own on a matter of great importance. How do we live together, see the differences, embrace the opportunities that come from difference and bridge the gap between what we see, what we know and what we do?

It is fitting that our day of conversation, food, and walking would be filled with art because that artistry and the attention to the way we co-create reality through art is what John brings to the world. It was a reminder of the power of  relationships to bring out our best and reveal new pathways to those islands of sanity that we might miss if we simply approach the world head-on in a cognitive-rational manner and take the world as its presented to us by media, social norms and our past interpretations of history. Art is a gift embraced with others.

Conserving the planet, humbly

IMG_4749

Twins of Brick Lane by Zabou, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London, UK

Alas, there are times when history cannot be avoided as a means of understanding our future and ecological sustainability is one of those issues. Right now, humanity is much like the twins above peering at us in Brick Lane: some of we call ‘art’ is a little noxious for the planet.

Andrew Knight and I along with a small group of conservation biologists, systems thinkers and evaluators are part of the Silwood Group: a ‘praxis’ tank (as opposed to a think tank) that seeks to bring new thinking about conservation and ecological systems together with concrete action to advance our protection of the planet. It sounds like heady stuff, but like an inversion of Rothko’s paintings there are areas of simplicity within the complexity presented by these issues that Andrew and I sought to work on over two days spent at Imperial College, where Dr. Knight is a Senior Lecturer.

Aside from some light-hearted discussion on the comic genius of the Flight of the Conchords or the maddening systems of administration within universities, our time together dealt with the ways in which we, as a transdisciplinary blend of scholars, practitioners and ‘pracademics’ from across the world and from different sectors who are the Silwood Group, could make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time with our limited resources — a typical conservation problem if ever there was one!

This is really a contemplative problem that combines many of the aspects of what Steven de Groot and I spoke of in Amsterdam and the conversations I had with John Wenger strolling along the Thames.

It is about creating / designing spaces and products that allow people to engage with complexity and the volume of issues that are entangled within conservation and to do so through by anchoring the work to beauty and to relationships. One avenue is through education (*and by education, we were thinking about real praxis-led learning and not just packaged toolkits, lesson plans and classrooms with rows and PowerPoint) because it is through curiosity, exchange, exposure to new thinking and the opportunity to try things out that we build the kind of relationships to people, organizations and ideas that allow them to stick.

Two days was not enough to flesh this idea out much further, but needless to say that there will certainly be much reflecting upon my summer vacation in the months to come in ways that I am only now, getting back to everyday life in Canada, appreciating had such an impact on my thinking. More, much more is to come.

Thanks Steven, John and Andrew for providing such inspiration, insight, camaraderie and intellectual and social companionship on my journey this summer. I am looking forward to building on that with you in the days and months to come and, like a Rothko painting, finding new meanings and layers to the work every time I encounter it.

Photo credits: Author.

Notes:

Mark Rothko’s work at the Tate is staggering in what it elicits when seen in person. Go see it. For more information click here.

Zabou’s street art can be found here, but like all art it’s better to engage with it up close if you can find it and Brick Lane in London is as good as anywhere to see some beautiful street art.

If you are in the UK (or even if you aren’t, I suppose) and interested in John Wenger’s post-Brexit workshop entitled Who Shall Survive Brexit on October 6th you can register for it here.

 

The healing power of curiosity

 

5223384112_7abe8d410f_b

It has been a heavy few weeks in the world. In times like this we often raise our voice to speak when perhaps we ought to listen more, for it is in listening and asking questions that we may be better positioned not only to understand what’s happening around us, but resist having these events control us and risk repeating unhealthy patterns.  

It’s hard not to get discouraged with all of the things that are going on; these are heavy days filled with conflict, tension and confusion.

These are dynamic, difficult times. It’s easy to get discouraged, but it’s also easy to get lulled into a pattern of thinking and behaviour that could serve to later perpetuate some of the very problems that these issues partly arise from: dealing with difference.

15955600848_e4a6698501_k

A curious thing…

A funny thing happens with certainty: you stop asking questions.

I don’t question how to tie my shoes: I simply know how to do it. I’m not curious about whether there are better ways to do it, more enjoyable or more efficient strategies or ones that will leave my shoes better tied. I’m Ok with that. But what happens when my certainty extends to things with more dimensions to it like what to eat for dinner, places to live, potential career paths, friendship or partner choices, or attitudes toward social groups or political situations? The consequences of excluding other perspectives and options are more substantial.

It reminds me of a scene in the first Men in Black film when the character played by Will Smith is confronted with a truth that he is living among aliens from other planets. Tommy Lee Jones’ character explains how it is that people resist the idea of accepting other possibilities because of what they ‘know’.

When we judge something or assert knowledge, we dampen or even shut down our curiosity. Particularly with complex systems, there are tremendous advantages (and need) to see them from different perspectives by asking questions and being curious.

Curiosity is what protects us from developing a locked in mindset focused on singular solutions and opens up possibilities.

Seeing the situation from others’ points of view may not shift your beliefs about that issue, but can make you better able to deal with it.

Contemplating alternative paths to love

Contemplative inquiry is one manner of doing this. Contemplative inquiry allows for seeing past events and anchoring those signals to the present and future desires. It is a very old way of doing things with more modern sensibilities. Arthur Zajonc, a professor of physics and former president of the Mind and Life Institute, has written about contemplative inquiry in a book with the same name. The approach is rooted in traditional mindfulness practices and brings, in many ways, the same focus and discipline that you would to science. Scientists ask questions and always seek to disprove their ideas for it is only then that they can make a confident assertion of something being ‘fact’ or evidence.

Contemplative inquiry is about advancing understanding to produce love. Adam Kahane of Reos Partners has written about the tensions between power and love, saying that it is in that quest for love and understanding of power that much of social change takes place. These are times where power and love are colliding and opening ourselves to being curious about perspectives that are different from us, hold alternative currency, or are simply alien to our way of life will help ensure that we don’t allow things like violence and aggressive conflict to consume us, lest we become the very thing we struggle against.

The Beatles sang “all you need is love”, but love on its own is blind. Curiosity with love is what help you to see.

7226222856_0dfe8d2376_o

Photo credits: Protest by Jennifer C., Black Lives Matter by Bille Grace Ward, and Curiosity by Jason Armstrong all used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thank you all for sharing your work.

 

Ethics and Systemic Change

7163119469_1cad4f288a_k

Systems change is a goal for many social advocates — whether aimed at politics, climate change, social norms or beyond — because often it’s only through changes to the interrelationships and boundaries that contain a system can lasting shifts be noticed. With great potential and power comes a responsibility to ensure that change yields more benefits than drawbacks and that’s not as simple to determine as we might desire. 

In the week after the historic Brexit vote we’ve seen massive destabilization in the United Kingdom, Europe and markets worldwide as the British populace seeks to understand what happened and what happens next for them. In the wake of the vote we’ve seen the sitting Prime Minister David Cameron, and Remain vote advocate, announce he will be stepping down and two of the most prominent leaders of the Leave campaign — Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage — announce they would not be seeking to lead or be heavily involved in what comes next.

The resignations by Mr Cameron, who’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place, and Mr’s Johnson and Farage, who led the winning side, stung many on both sides. The argument is that they were largely responsible for what has been described as a mess and yet have opted not to take responsibility for implementing what they created. It is something of a Mary Shelley novel.

Great Britain (and Europe) will be forever changed by Brexit and it will remain to be seen what balance of positives and negatives will come from it. While even dark decisions can yield positive outcomes (that silver lining we often look for in the clouds) there is a responsibility that must come from our actions and design choices to ensuring they minimize harms.

Ethics and Systemic design (thinking)

For a field that is literally shaping the world, design discourse is remarkably devoid of conversations on ethics. Only recently did the first book appear that took ethics in design research as its topic. Yet that is design research, the amount of work on design ethics — how we choose responsibly about what to create along with how to create it (and what role, if any, designers choose to take once something has been sent into the world) is painfully thin. While there’s been a growing movement towards sustainability and environmental responsibility in product design, there’s not as much on social system design.

One area where we are seeing these discussions starting is in the area of systemic design. Systemic design is, as its name suggests, a systems-focused, design-oriented approach to changing human systems. Systemic design is not just about changing social conditions in an ameliorative approach to change, but shaping the very conditions in which those conditions arise. In many ways is it the design manifestation of community psychology. Systemic designers seek to transform the world. However, much like the (mostly) men who led the Brexit Leave campaign, there is a need to have one’s intentions clear and ensure that what is designed is responsible and responsive and that’s not what we’ve seen in that case.

This might be because motivation for change is often very blunt — perhaps based on fear or dissatisfaction — that might not have a specific focus. This is the challenge for systemic design. Systems thinking is a powerful vehicle in systemic design, however its often a tool to determine where to intervene and what could transpire if certain actions are taken once chosen, but not as good as determining what actions are best suited. This is where design thinking comes in and together the two approaches inform systemic design.

Peter Jones, a systemic designer and professor at OCADU (and colleague of mine), has written on this and draws on his experience with healthcare and the Occupy Movement as part of his work in advancing systemic design research. In his paper on systemic design principles (PDF), Jones points to the limits that design thinking approach — that solution generation aspect of systemic design — can present:

Design thinking has been influenced by rapid prototyping culture. When virtual trials and failures are cheap, multiple prototypes are less expensive than in-depth analysis and research. However, this design thinking bias leads to a short-term bias that rewards immediate responses to prototypes.

Jones adds that this approach is suitable for certain products (and arguably, system types), but that this approach can fail to address systemic problems if not critically applied:

For industrial products, those bias’ risks are minimal. However, for complex social systems a prototyping mindset evaluates component subsystems (at best) selected by a saliency bias. This bottom-up approach fails to acquire a system-level understanding and even erodes a holistic view. New system relationships are formed through iterative trials and informal sample evaluations, but current relationships are not necessarily discovered, leading to significant gaps in systemic understanding.

From design thinking to conscious creation

Systemic design, if not carefully done, can end up creating these gaps as we saw with the ‘grassroots’ movements in both the Leave and Remain campaigns in the Brexit debate.

A powerful, simple technique to determining causes and consequences of current behaviour is to ask the question ‘why’ as many times as possible. Five ‘whys’ asked on any issue will likely lead to a revelation about fundamental drivers behind a particular activity. Systemic design seeks to address change at this level as much as possible by creating, with intention and purpose (i.e., by design), structures that support and shift behaviour and thinking to transform the situation and context that can lead to a more profound and sustained change.

A corollary to this approach to understanding root causes might be the five whats? What might happen if we do X? What might happen after that takes place? And then what? And so on. This is similar to The Future,Backwards technique that Cognitive Edge has developed based on research into foresight, strategic planning and systems thinking. Just because we can change something doesn’t mean we should and wise design informed by systems thinking, strategic foresight and ethics can help us understand what ought to be done rather than simply highlight what can be done.

To that last point, a fair criticism of design is that it too often focuses on possibility without responsibility. Even on social issues we see design jams, hackathons, and ideation sessions that produce more ‘stuff’ (too often an ‘app’, as if the only solution to the worlds’ problems originate from a handheld electronic device) that is cool, sexy and disruptive without paying attention to what kind of disruption comes with that ‘solution’. A recent story on CBC Radio on the future of farming considered this as it explored how robotics are shaping how food is being produced. One of the comments made was that the ‘savings’ that often is incurred by having robots do more work is the kind of ‘lock in’ that it produces as farmers now get committed to buying, maintaining and upgrading technology for the long-term.

Conscious creation and technology adoption is something that groups like the Quakers and Amish have mastered and might be worth more of a look by more people — particularly designers. For design — and particularly systemic design — the ethics of what we make, maintain and adopt affects not only us, but all of those around us. For that reason, we need to build in ethics to our design work, by design.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about systemic design consider attending the 2016 Systemic Design conference (RSD5) in Toronto, Canada October 13-15. Registration is open until the spots are filled.

Photo credit: Sea Ice Patterns by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks NASA — as always, you rock (and space and sea and space and….)🙂

Authentic baloney and other sincere problems

13959919887_9cb49f2b90_k

What does it mean to be authentic in an age of design and complex social systems? It’s not as simple as you think and, as two high-profile psychologists point out, not something that’s easily agreed upon, either. 

Over the past week, two high-profile psychologists and authors Adam Grant and Brene Brown have been engaged in a “debate” (or public disagreement? argument? — it’s hard to really tell) over the concept of authenticity and the role it plays in life — professional, personal and otherwise.

The debate was started by an op-ed post in the New York Times written by Grant who starts by referencing a description of Authenticity used by Brown in her work:

We are in the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining advice in life, love and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”

Brown, reacting to this piece on LinkedIn, corrects Grant by offering a better definition she’s used and criticizing his narrow-framed perspective on what authenticity is, which she states as:

In my research I found that the core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries.

For Grant, it’s about dropping the filters and saying what’s on your mind all the time, while for Brown it’s about embracing vulnerability. The two are not the same thing, but nor are they opposites or incompatible with authenticity, rather they point to the problems of creating firm positions in complex systems.

A matter of boundaries

Brown’s definition adds something Grant’s interpretation leaves out: boundaries. It’s how we draw the boundaries around what we’re doing, and how and for what effect that determine the appropriateness of filters, expression and vulnerability. It’s also about context. Grant’s argument tends to be the one-sized-fits all with the kind of blanket statements about what he believes others want and need to hear. In his Times article, he ends with this pronouncement for readers:

Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.

That Grant was so quick to equate authenticity with no-filtered thinking is somewhat surprising given his background in psychology. It shows a remarkably simplistic view of human psychology that isn’t befitting his other work. Yet, he’s managed to not only publish this piece in the Times, but doubled-down on the argument in a follow-up post also on LinkedIn. In that piece, he again equates authenticity with a sense of absoluteness around always saying what’s on your mind by drawing on research that looks at self-monitoring and expressiveness.

Here are some of the items—you can answer them true or false:

  • My behavior is usually an expression of my true inner feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.
  • I would not change my opinions (or the way I do things) in order to please someone else or win their favor.
  • I’m always the person I appear to be.

People who answer true are perceived as highly authentic—they know and express their genuine selves. And a rigorous analysis of all 136 studies shows that these authentic people receive significantly lower performance evaluations and are significantly less likely to get promoted into leadership roles.

In some fairness, Brown’s work can be easily muddled when it comes to the matter of boundaries. While she’s responded very clearly to his comments and work, there’s been a lot of slippage between boundaries in her work. Anyone who has read her books and seen her talks knows that Brown models the embrace of vulnerability by drawing on her own personal challenges with being authentic and valuing herself, illustrating points from her research with examples from her own human struggles. Yet, I recall reading her books Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection thinking to myself the stories often stumbled from being instructive, supportive and healthy examples of vulnerability to feeling like I was being used as a platform for supporting her self-development, rather than to learn from her.

For me, this was less about any one particular story of her being vulnerable, but the cumulative effect of these stories coming together as told through a book. It was the volume not content of the stories that shifted my perception. By the time I finished I felt like I’d been witness to Brown’s self therapy, which weakened my perception of her being authentic.

This cumulative effect is partly what Grant is referring to when citing work on self-monitoring. He’s not commenting on moments of vulnerability, rather it’s on creating a presentation of personhood that lacks a sense of boundaries.

The answer to authenticity might be in that complex middle space. If Brown is open to and eager to share her vulnerabilities it’s important that I as a listener be willing (and able and prepared) to welcome in that discussion. But what if I am not? In Grant’s demarcation of boundaries that might not matter, but then we end up with a set of rules based on his (and many others) view of authenticity, which can devolve into something that Brown connects to a traditional, stereotyped ‘male’ expression of authenticity:

Many of the behaviors that Grant associates with authenticity don’t reflect the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, or to set boundaries. They actually reflect crude, negative gender stereotypes. Male authenticity is associated with being hurtful, arrogant, manipulative, overbearing, and, in plain speak, an asshole. (italics added)

We must not stop listening, but we also must be cautious in how much (and when and in what context) we share and tell. Too little and we simply replicate the power positions of the past and surrender our true selves to social norms. Too much or done poorly and we might get a little closer to where Grant is.

Authentic baloney

What is authentic baloney (or Bologna Sausage for it’s original name)? Baloney is a indeed a thing, but it’s also a fake, synthetic meat product all at the same time. It’s a prepared meat that is designed to combine various ingredients together in a particular way that doesn’t really fit in any other types of sausage, yet is still ‘sausage like’. It’s difficult to describe using the language of sausage, yet also doesn’t have another peer to compare to (except Spam, which is a similar strange version of something familiar).

It is, in a sense, an authentic artificial product.

These two things — authenticity and artificiality — can coexist. Herb Simon wrote about design being partly about the science of the artificial. Stating in his book of the same name:

Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are but with how they might be – in short, with design.

Design is about what could be. Authentic is about what is and what could be, speaking about intention as well as reflection on what one believes and wishes to project to others. Baloney is just that. It’s a manifestation of a design of a meat product that is intended to reflect how a meat product might be when one combines some of the less sought after cuts of meat together with spices, herbs and fats. It’s not real meat, but it’s not fake either.

What is our authentic self?

Our authentic self is changing. If one believes we come into the world and grow into a form, then who we are as a child is largely deterministic for what comes afterward.

It’s interesting that this ding-dong on authenticity from Brown and Grant come when my colleague Mark Kuznicki from The Moment published a long, extensive and revealing piece into the process that his firm engages in to recalibrate and strategically plan its future. Taking Grant’s view, this level of openness in discussing the challenges and opportunities could quite easily be construed as over-sharing self-monitoring. Brown might argue that this kind of public self-reflection indicates a reflection of that organization’s true self. I think it’s both and neither.

Authenticity is very much like baloney, which takes many forms, has different cultural interpretations and expressions and levels of acceptance and quality within it. What makes for good baloney really does depend on a great many factors and the person who’s consuming it. Just like baloney, what gets lost in these arguments is position within the system.

Systems perspectives are partly about understanding where one is positioned in them, which determines what is seen, how something is perceived, what kind of information is available and, most importantly, the meaning that is attached to that information in order to assess what to do and what impact it might have.

Part of that perspective is time.

A developmental perspective

My authentic self is not the same as it once was. Part of that is because at various stages of life I was more (early childhood) or less (teen and young adult years) comfortable with expressing that authenticity. But interestingly, as I got older, what was truly authentic was becoming more complicated and harder to assess. It’s because I’ve become far more complicated and with experience, knowledge and the accumulation of both I’ve transformed that original person into someone different (and also very similar).

To provoke developmental thinking I often ask students or audiences the question: Is a 40-year-old an 8 times better 5-year-old? Is a person who was five and said: I want to be a princess / astronaut / firefighter and ends up being a senior policy advisor for the government, an accountant, a social worker or designer just someone who failed at their goals?

Are these even relevant questions? The answer is: no. I once wanted to be a firefighter, but now I can’t imagine doing that job. Why did that change? Because I developed into something different. My authentic self sought different challenges, opportunities and required other things to nurture itself. I still love to draw, doodle and play sports, just like I did when I was five. That part of me, too is authentic.

As authenticity becomes more of a fashionable word and thrown out for use in many contexts it is worth considering more about what it is, what it means, and how we really nurture it in our work. As I think both Brene Brown and Adam Grant would agree: Authenticity is too important to fake, lest it become baloney.

 

 

Photo credit: Untitled by themostinept used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.

 

 

Confusing change-making with actual change

658beggar_KeepCoinsChange

Change-making is the process of transformation and not to be confused with the transformed outcome that results from such a process. We confuse the two at our peril.

“We are changing the world” is a rallying cry from many individuals and organizations working in social innovation and entrepreneurship which is both a truth and untruth at the same time. Saying you’re changing the world is far easier than actually doing it. One is dramatic — the kind that make for great reality TV as we’ll discuss — and the other is rather dull, plodding and incremental. But it may be the latter that really wins the day.

Organizations like Ashoka (and others) promote themselves as a change-maker organization authoring blogs titled “everything you need to know about change-making”. That kind of language, while attractive and potentially inspiring to diverse audiences, points to a mindset that views social change in relatively simple, linear terms. This line of thinking suggests change is about having the right knowledge and the right plan and the ability to pull it together and execute.

This is a mindset that highlights great people and great acts supported by great plans and processes. I’m not here to dismiss the work that groups like Ashoka do, but to ask questions about whether the recipe approach is all that’s needed. Is it really that simple?

Lies like: “It’s calories in, calories out”

Too often social change is viewed with the same flawed perspective that weight loss is. Just stop eating so much food (and the right stuff) and exercise and you’ll be fine — calories in and out as the quote suggests — and you’re fine. The reality is, it isn’t that simple.

A heartbreaking and enlightening piece in the New York Times profiled the lives and struggles of past winners of the reality show The Biggest Loser (in parallel with a new study released on this group of people (PDF)) that showed that all but one of the contestants regained weight after the show as illustrated below:

BiggestLoser 2016-05-03 09.17.10

The original study, published in the journal Obesity, considers the role of metabolic adaptation that takes place with the authors suggesting that a person’s metabolism makes a proportional response to compensate for the wide fluctuations in weight to return contestants to their original pre-show weight.

Consider that during the show these contestants were constantly monitored, given world-class nutritional and exercise supports, had tens of thousands of people cheering them on and also had a cash prize to vie for. This was as good as it was going to get for anyone wanting to lose weight shy of surgical options (which have their own problems).

Besides being disheartening to everyone who is struggling with obesity, the paper illuminates the inner workings of our body and reveals it to be a complex adaptive system rather than the simple one that we commonly envision when embarking on a new diet or fitness regime. Might social change be the same?

We can do more and we often do

I’m fond of saying that we often do less than we think and more than we know.

That means we tend to expect that our intentions and efforts to make change produce the results that we seek directly and because of our involvement. In short, we treat social change as a straightforward process. While that is sometimes true, rare is it that programs aiming at social change coming close to achieving their stated systems goals (“changing the world”) or anything close to it.

This is likely the case for a number of reasons:

  • Funders often require clear goals and targets for programs in advance and fund based on promises to achieve these results;
  • These kind of results are also the ones that are attractive to outside audiences such as donors, partners, academics, and the public at large (X problem solved! Y number of people served! Z thousand actions taken!), but may not fully articulate the depth and context to which such actions produce real change;
  • Promising results to stakeholders and funders suggests that a program is operating in a simple or complicated system, rather than a complex one (which is rarely, if ever the case with social change);
  • Because program teams know these promised outcomes don’t fit with their system they cherry-pick the simplest measures that might be achievable, but may also be the least meaningful in terms of social change.
  • Programs will often further choose to emphasize those areas within the complex system that have embedded ordered (or simple) systems in them to show effect, rather than look at the bigger aims.

The process of change that comes from healthy change-making can be transformative for the change-maker themselves, yet not yield much in the way of tangible outcomes related to the initial charge. The reasons likely have to do with the compensatory behaviours of the system — akin to social metabolic adaptation — subduing the efforts we make and the initial gains we might experience.

Yet, we do more at the same time. Danny Cahill, one of the contestants profiled in the story for the New York Times, spoke about how the lesson learned from his post-show weight gain was that the original weight gain wasn’t his fault in the first place

“That shame that was on my shoulders went off”

What he’s doing is adapting his plan, his goals and working differently to rethink what he can do, what’s possible and what is yet to be discovered. This is the approach that we take when we use developmental evaluation; we adapt, evolve and re-design based on the evidence while continually exploring ways to get to where we want to go.

A marathon, not a sprint, in a laboratory

The Biggest Loser is a sprint: all of the change work compressed into a short period of time. It’s a lab experiment, but as we know what happens in a laboratory doesn’t always translate directly into the world outside its walls because the constraints have changed. As the show’s attending physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga, told the New York Times:

“Unfortunately, many contestants are unable to find or afford adequate ongoing support with exercise doctors, psychologists, sleep specialists, and trainers — and that’s something we all need to work hard to change”

This quote illustrates the fallacy of real-world change initiatives and exposes some of the problems we see with many of the organizations who claim to have the knowledge about how to change the world. Have these organizations or funders gone back to see what they’ve done or what’s left after all the initial funding and resources were pulled? This is not just a public, private or non-profit problem: it’s everywhere.

I have a colleague who spent much time working with someone who “was hired to clean up the messes that [large, internationally recognized social change & design firm] left behind” because the original, press-grabbing solution actually failed in the long run. And the failure wasn’t in the lack of success, but the lack of learning because that firm and the funders were off to another project. Without building local capacity for change and a sustained, long-term marathon mindset (vs. the sprint) we are setting ourselves up for failure. Without that mindset, lack of success may truly be a failure because there is no capacity to learn and act based on that learning. Otherwise, the learning is just a part of an experimental approach consistent with an innovation laboratory. The latter is a positive, the former, not so much.

Part of the laboratory approach to change is that labs — real research labs — focus on radical, expansive, long-term and persistent incrementalism. Now that might sound dull and unsexy (which is why few seem to follow it in the social innovation lab space), but it’s how change — big change — happens. The key is not in thinking small, but thinking long-term by linking small changes together persistently. To illustrate, consider the weight gain conundrum as posed by obesity researcher Dr. Michael Rosenbaum in speaking to the Times:

“We eat about 900,000 to a million calories a year, and burn them all except those annoying 3,000 to 5,000 calories that result in an average annual weight gain of about one to two pounds,” he said. “These very small differences between intake and output average out to only about 10 to 20 calories per day — less than one Starburst candy — but the cumulative consequences over time can be devastating.”

Building a marathon laboratory

Marathoners are guided by a strange combination of urgency, persistence and patience. When you run 26 miles (42 km) there’s no sprinting if you want to finish the same day you started. The urgency is what pushes runners to give just a little more at specific times to improve their standing and win. Persistence is the repetition of a small number of key things (simple rules in a complex system) that keep the gains coming and the adaptations consistent. Patience is knowing that there are few radical changes that will positively impact the race, just a lot of modifications and hard work over time.

Real laboratories seek to learn a lot, simply and consistently and apply the lessons from one experiment to the next to extend knowledge, confirm findings, and explore new territory.

Marathons aren’t as fun to watch as the 100m sprint in competitive athletics and lab work is far less sexy than the mythical ‘eureka’ moments of ‘discovery’ that get promoted, but that’s what changes the world. The key is to build organizations that support this. It means recognizing learning and that it comes from poor outcomes as well as positive ones. It encourages asking questions, being persistent and not resting on laurels. It also means avoiding getting drawn into being ‘sexy’ and ‘newsworthy’ and instead focusing on the small, but important things that make the news possible in the first place.

Doing that might not be as sweet as a Starburst candy, but it might avoid us having to eat it.

 

 

 

Decoding the change genome

11722018066_c29148186b_k

Would we invest in something if we had little hard data to suggest what we could expect to gain from that investment? This is often the case with social programs, yet its a domain that has resisted the kind of data-driven approaches to investment that we’ve seen in other sectors and one theory is that we can approach change in the same way we code the genome, but: is that a good idea?

Jason Saul is a maverick in social impact work and dresses the part: he’s wearing a suit. That’s not typically the uniform of those working in the social sector railing against the system, but that’s one of the many things that gets people talking about what he and his colleagues at Mission Measurement are trying to do. That mission is clear: bring the same detailed analysis of the factors involved in contributing to real impact from the known evidence that we would do to nearly any other area of investment.

The way to achieving this mission is to take the thinking behind the Music Genome Project, the algorithms that power the music service Pandora, and apply it to social impact. This is a big task and done by coding the known literature on social impact from across the vast spectrum of research from different disciplines, methods, theories and modeling techniques. A short video from Mission Measurement on this approach nicely outlines the thinking behind this way of looking at evaluation, measurement, and social impact.

Saul presented his vision for measurement and evaluation to a rapt audience in Toronto at the MaRS Discovery District on April 11th as part of their Global Leaders series en route to the Skoll World Forum ; this is a synopsis of what came from that presentation and it’s implications for social impact measurement.

(Re) Producing change

Saul began his presentation by pointing to an uncomfortable truth in social impact: We spread money around with good intention and little insight into actual change. He claims (no reference provided) that 2000 studies are published per day on behaviour change, yet there remains an absence of common metrics and measures within evaluation to detect change. One of the reasons is that social scientists, program leaders, and community advocates resist standardization making the claim that context matters too much to allow aggregation.

Saul isn’t denying that there is truth to the importance of context, but argues that it’s often used as an unreasonable barrier to leading evaluations with evidence. To this end, he’s right. For example, the data from psychology alone shows a poor track record of reproducibility, and thus offers much less to social change initiatives than is needed. As a professional evaluator and social scientist, I’m not often keen to being told how to do what I do, (but sometimes I benefit from it). That can be a barrier, but also it points to a problem: if the data shows how poorly it is replicated, then is following it a good idea in the first place? 

Are we doing things righter than we think or wronger than we know?

To this end, Saul is advocating a meta-evaluative perspective: linking together the studies from across the field by breaking down its components into something akin to a genome. By looking at the combination of components (the thinking goes) like we do in genetics we can start to see certain expressions of particular behaviour and related outcomes. If we knew these things in advance, we could potentially invest our energy and funds into programs that were much more likely to succeed. We also could rapidly scale and replicate programs that are successful by understanding the features that contribute to their fundamental design for change.

The epigenetic nature of change

Genetics is a complex thing. Even on matters where there is reasonably strong data connecting certain genetic traits to biological expression, there are few examples of genes as ‘destiny’as they are too often portrayed. In other words, it almost always depends on a number of things. In recent years the concept of epigenetics has risen in prominence to provide explanations of how genes get expressed and it has as much to do with what environmental conditions are present as it is the gene combinations themselves . McGill scientist Moshe Szyf and his colleagues pioneered research into how genes are suppressed, expressed and transformed through engagement with the natural world and thus helped create the field of epigenetics. Where we once thought genes were prescriptions for certain outcomes, we now know that it’s not that simple.

By approaching change as a genome, there is a risk that the metaphor can lead to false conclusions about the complexity of change. This is not to dismiss the valid arguments being made around poor data standardization, sharing, and research replication, but it calls into question how far the genome model can go with respect to social programs without breaking down. For evaluators looking at social impact, the opportunity is that we can systematically look at the factors that consistently produce change if we have appropriate comparisons. (That is a big if.)

Saul outlined many of the challenges that beset evaluation of social impact research including the ‘file-drawer effect’ and related publication bias, differences in measurement tools, and lack of (documented) fidelity of programs. Speaking on the matter in response to Saul’s presentation, Cathy Taylor from the Ontario Non-Profit Network, raised the challenge that comes when much of what is known about a program is not documented, but embodied in program staff and shared through exchanges.  The matter of tacit knowledge  and practice-based evidence is one that bedevils efforts to compare programs and many social programs are rich in context — people, places, things, interactions — that remain un-captured in any systematic way and it is that kind of data capture that is needed if we wish to understand the epigenetic nature of change.

Unlike Moshe Szyf and his fellow scientists working in labs, we can’t isolate, observe and track everything our participants do in the world in the service of – or support to – their programs, because they aren’t rats in a cage.

Systems thinking about change

One of the other criticisms of the model that Saul and his colleagues have developed is that it is rather reductionist in its expression. While there is ample consideration of contextual factors in his presentation of the model, the social impact genome is fundamentally based on reductionist approaches to understanding change. A reductionist approach to explaining social change has been derided by many working in social innovation and environmental science as outdated and inappropriate for understanding how change happens in complex social systems.

What is needed is synthesis and adaptation and a meta-model process, not a singular one.

Saul’s approach is not in opposition to this, but it does get a little foggy how the recombination of parts into wholes gets realized. This is where the practical implications of using the genome model start to break down. However, this isn’t a reason to give up on it, but an invitation to ask more questions and to start testing the model out more fulsomely. It’s also a call for systems scientists to get involved, just like they did with the human genome project, which has given us great understanding of what influences our genes have and stressed the importance of the environment and how we create or design healthy systems for humans and the living world.

At present, the genomic approach to change is largely theoretical backed with ongoing development and experiments but little outcome data. There is great promise that bigger and better data, better coding, and a systemic approach to looking at social investment will lead to better outcomes, but there is little actual data on whether this approach works, for whom, and under what conditions. That is to come. In the meantime, we are left with questions and opportunities.

Among the most salient of the opportunities is to use this to inspire greater questions about the comparability and coordination of data. Evaluations as ‘one-off’ bespoke products are not efficient…unless they are the only thing that we have available. Wise, responsible evaluators know when to borrow or adapt from others and when to create something unique. Regardless of what design and tools we use however, this calls for evaluators to share what they learn and for programs to build the evaluative thinking and reflective capacity within their organizations.

The future of evaluation is going to include this kind of thinking and modeling. Evaluators, social change leaders, grant makers and the public alike ignore this at their peril, which includes losing opportunities to make evaluation and social impact development more accountable, more dynamic and impactful.

Photo credit (main): Genome by Quinn Dombrowski used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks for sharing Quinn!

About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and assists organizations and networks in supporting learning and innovation in human services through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

My troubled relationship with social media

6847365223_79666079f5_o

Do you care about donuts? I did, once. I’m not so sure anymore.

I used to love donuts, was passionate about donuts and spent the better part of my early career looking at the power of social media to transform our understanding of and engagement with donuts. Just this week, I had a paper published that I co-authored with colleagues looked at Twitter is being used to engage audiences on donuts, er vaping and it’s potential public health implications. I’m still into donuts, but the question is whether donuts are still serving the purpose they once did. It’s left me asking….

Is it still time to make the donuts?

Twitter turned 10 this past month. When it was founded the idea of communicating short 140 character chunks of content to the world by default (unlike Facebook, where you could restrict you posts to your ‘friends’ only by default), the idea seemed absurd, particularly to me. Why would anyone want to use something that was the equivalent of a Facebook status update without anything else? (Keep in mind that link shorteners were not yet in wide use, the embedded pictures and lists that we have now were either not invented or highly cumbersome).

However, social media is a ‘participation sport’ as I like to say and by engaging with it I soon realized Twitter’s enormous potential. For the first time I could find people who had the same quirky collection of interests as I did (e.g, systems science, design, innovation, Star Wars, coffee, evaluation, soccer, politics, stationary and fine writing instruments – and not necessarily in that order, but in that combination) and find answers to questions I didn’t think to ask from people I didn’t know existed.

It was a wonder and I learned more about the cutting edge of research there than I ever did using traditional databases, conferences or books much to the shock, horror and disbelief of my professional colleagues. I’ve often been considered an early adopter and this was no exception. I did research, consultation and training in this area and expanded my repertoire to Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn and pretty much everything I could including some platforms that no longer exist.

I developed relationships with people I’d never (and still have never) met from around the world who’s camaraderie and collegiality I valued as much or more than those people I’d known for years in the flesh. It was heady times.

But like with donuts, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. And also like donuts, where I once loved them and enjoyed them regularly consuming them now starts to not sit so well and that’s maybe for the better.

I’m left questioning whether it’s still time to make the donuts.

The river I stand in

This river I step in is not the river I stand in – Heraclitus

Like with donuts the experience of social media — the context of its use — has changed. As I age, eat better, exercise more wisely and am more mindful of how I feel and what I do, donuts lost appeal. They probably taste the same, but the experience has changed and not because the donuts are different, but my dietary and lifestyle context is.

The same is true for social media.

I have never been a techno advocate or pessimist, rather I’ve been a pragmatist. Social media does things that traditional media does not. It helps individuals and organizations communicate and, depending on how its used, engage an audience interactively in ways that ‘old media’ like billboards, radio, TV and pamphlets do not. But we still have the old media, we just recognize that it’s good at particular things and not others.

But the river, the moving and transforming media landscape, is much faster, bigger and bolder than it was before. Take the birthday girl or boy, Twitter, it’s grown to be a ubiquitous tool for journalists, celebrities and scholars, but saw a small decline in its overall use after a year of flatlined growth.

TwitterMonthlyActive 2016-04-01 13.50.14(Twitter monthly users via Tech Crunch)

As for Facebook, it’s faring OK. While it still has growth, I’ve struggled to find anyone who speaks in glowing terms about their experience with the service, particularly anyone who wishes to change their privacy settings or wishes to stem the flow of ads. Over at Instagram, my feed has seen the rise of ‘brands’ following me. No longer is it the names of real people (even if its a nickname) it’s usually some variant of ‘getmorefollowers’ or brands or something like that. This is all as I see more ads and less life.

Information overload and filter failure

Speaking to an audience in 2008, author and media scholar Clay Shirky spoke to the problem of ‘information overload’ which was a term being applied to the exponential rise in exposure people had to information thanks to the Internet and World Wide Web. At the time, his argument was that it was less about overload of information, than a failure of our filter systems to make sense of what was most useful. 

But that was 2008. That was before the mobile Internet really took off. That was when Twitter was 2 and Facebook just a couple years later. In the third quarter of 2008, Facebook had around 100,000 users and now its got a population of more 1.6B users. The river has got bigger and more full. That might be nice if you’re into white water rafting or building large hydro-electric dams, but it might be less enjoyable if you’re into fly fishing. I can’t imagine A River Runs Through It with a water feature that’s akin to Niagara Falls.

As journalist Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out in many different fora, the Internet is changing the way we think.  Indeed, ‘smarter technologies’ are changing the way we live.

This all brings up a dilemma: what to do? As one who has studied and advised organizations on how to develop and implement social media strategies I would be a hypocrite to suggest we abandon them. Engaging with an audience is better than not doing so. Humanizing communications – which is something social media can do far better than speaking ‘at’ people — is better than not. Being timely and relevant is also better than not. Yet, the degree to which social media can answer these problems is masked by the volume of content out there and the manner in which people interact with content.

Walking through any major urban area, take public transit, or watching people in line for pretty much anything will find a substantial portion of humans looking at their devices. Even couples or friends at restaurants are left to concoct games to get people paying attention to each other, not their devices. We are living in the attentional economy and what is increasingly valuable is focus, not necessarily more information and that requires filtration systems that are not overwhelmed by the volume of content.

Emotional pollution and the antisocial media

I recently wrote about how ‘the stream’ of social media has changed the way that social activism and organizing is done. While social media was once and invaluable tool for organizing and communicating ideas, its become a far more muddled set of resources in recent years. To be sure, movements like Black Lives Matter and others that promote more democratic, active social engagement on issues of justice and human dignity are fuelled and supported by social media. This is a fantastic thing for certain issues, but the question might be left: for how long?

Not so long ago, my Facebook feed was filled with the kind of flotsam, jetsam and substance of everyday life. This was about pictures of children or vacations, an update on someone’s new job or their health, or perhaps a witty observation on human life, but the substance of the content was the poster, the person. Now, it is increasingly about other people and ‘things’ . It’s about injustices to others and the prejudices that come with that, it’s about politics (regardless of how informed people are), it’s about solidarity with some groups (at the willful ignorance of others) and about rallying people to some cause or another.

While none of these are problematic — and actually quite healthy in some measure — they are almost all I see. On Twitter, people are sharing other things, but rarely their own thoughts. On Facebook, it’s about sharing what others have written and the posters emotional reaction to it.

Increasingly, it’s about social validation. Believe my idea. “Like” this post if you’re really my friend. Share if you’re with me and not with them. And so on.

What I am left with, increasingly, is a lost sense of who the ‘me’ and the ‘them’ are in my social media stream. What it feels is that I am increasingly wading into a stream of emotional pollution rather than human interaction. And when my filters are full, this gets harder to do and I’m not sure I want to be less sensitized to the world, but I also don’t want my interactions with others to be solely about reacting to their rage at the world or some referendum on their worldview. It seems that social media is becoming anti-social media.

In complex systems we might see this is as a series of weak, but growing stronger, signals of something else. Whether that’s collective outrage at the injustices of the world, the need for greater support, or the growing evidence that social media use can be correlated with a sense of loneliness, I’m not sure.

But something is going on and I’m now beginning to wonder about all those donuts we’ve created.

Photo credit: Chris Lott Social Media Explained (with Donuts) used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and works at assisting organizations and networks in creative learning through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking.

 

The hidden cost of learning & innovation

7887767996_13f27106fa_k

The costs of books, materials, tuition, or conference fees often distort the perception of how much learning costs, creating larger distortions in how we perceive knowledge to benefit us. By looking at what price we pay for integrating knowledge and experience we might re-valuate what we need, what we have and what we pay attention to in our learning and innovation quest. 

A quote paraphrased and attributed to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer points to one of the fundamental problems facing books:

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.

Schopenhauer passed away in 1860 when the book was the dominant media form of codified knowledge and the availability of books was limited. This was before radio, television, the Internet and the confluence of it all in today’s modern mediascape from Amazon to the iPhone and beyond.

Schopenhauer exposes the fallacy of thought that links having access to information to knowledge. This fallacy underpins the major challenges facing our learning culture today: quantity of information vs quality of integration.

Learning time

Consider something like a conference or seminar. How often have you attended a talk or workshop and been moved by what you heard and saw, took furious notes, and walked out of the room vowing to make a big change based on what you just experienced? And then what happened? My guess is that the world outside that workshop or conference looked a lot different than it appeared in it. You had emails piled up, phone messages to return, colleagues to convince, resources to marshall, patterns to break and so on.

Among the simple reasons is that we do not protect the time and resources required to actually learn and to integrate that knowledge into what we do. As a result, we mistakenly look at the volume of ‘things’ we expose ourselves to for learning outcomes.

One solution is to embrace what consultant, writer and blogger Sarah Van Bargen calls “intentional ignorance“. This approach involves turning away from the ongoing stream of data and accepting that there are things we won’t know and that we’ll just miss. Van Bargen isn’t calling for a complete shutting of the door, rather something akin to an information sabbatical or what some might call digital sabbath. Sabbath and sabbatical share the Latin root sabbatum, which means “to rest”.

Rebecca Rosen who writes on work and business for The Atlantic argues we don’t need a digital sabbath, we need more time. Rosen’s piece points to a number of trends that are suggesting the way we work is that we’re producing more, more often and doing it more throughout the day. The problem is not about more, it’s about less. It’s also about different.

Time, by design

One of the challenges is our relationship to time in the first place and the forward orientation we have to our work. We humans are designed to look forward so it is not a surprise that we engineer our lives and organizations to do the same. Sensemaking is a process that orients our gaze to the future by looking at both the past and the present, but also by taking time to look at what we have before we consider what else we need. It helps reduce or at least manage complex information to enable actionable understanding of what data is telling us by putting it into proper context. This can’t be done by automation.

It takes time.

It means….

….setting aside time to look at the data and discuss it with those who are affected by it, who helped generate it, and are close to the action;

….taking time to gather the right kind of information, that is context-rich, measures things that have meaning and does so with appropriate scope and precision;

….understanding your enterprises’ purpose(s) and designing programs to meet such purposes, perhaps dynamically through things like developmental evaluation models and developmental design;

….create organizational incentives and protections for people to integrate what they know into their jobs and roles and to create organizations that are adaptive enough to absorb, integrate and transform based on this learning — becoming a true learning organization.

By changing the practices within an organization we can start shifting the way we learn and increase the likelihood of learning taking place.

Buying time

Imagine buying both the book and the time to read the book and think about it. Imagine sending people on courses and then giving them the tools and opportunity to try the lessons (the good ones at least) in practice within the context of the organization. If learning is really a priority, what kind of time is given to people to share what they know, listen to others, and collectively make sense of what it means and how it influences strategy?

What we might find is that we do less. We buy less. We attend less. We subscribe to less. Yet, we absorb more and share more and do more as a result.

The cost of learning then shifts — maybe even to less than we spend now — but what it means is that we factor in time not just product in our learning and knowledge production activities.

This can happen and it happens through design.

CreateYourFuture

Photo credit by Tim Sackton used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.

Abraham Lincoln quote image from TheQuotepedia.

Collective action, impact, intelligence & stupidity

5226206031_acf74d80cd_b

Collective impact is based largely on the concept that we can do more together than apart, which holds true under the assumption that we can coordinate, organize and execute as a unit. This assumption doesn’t always hold true and the implications for getting it wrong require serious attention. 

Anyone interested in social change knows that they can’t do it alone. Society, after all, is a collective endeavour — even if Margaret Thatcher suggested it didn’t exist.  Thatcherites aside, that is about where agreement ends. Social change is complex, fraught with disagreements, and challenging for even the most skilled organizer because of the multitude of perspectives and disparate spread of individuals, groups and organizations across the system.

Social media (and the Internet more widely) was seen as means of bridging these gaps, bringing people together and enabling them to organize and make social change. Wael Ghonim, one of the inspirational forces behind Egypt’s Arab Spring movement, believed this to be true, saying:

If you want to liberate society all you need is the Internet

But as he acknowledges now, he was wrong.

Ghonim’s beliefs were not illogical as he discusses in the Ted talk above. He espoused a belief about collective action that echoes what leadership consultant and author Ken Blanchard proclaims:

None of us is as smart as all of us

Blanchard’s quote is meant to illustrate the power of teams and working together; something that we can easily take for granted when we seek to do collective action. Yet, what’s often not discussed are the challenges that our new tools present for true systems change.

Complex (social) systems thrive on diversity, the interaction between ideas and the eventual coordination and synchrony between actions into energy. That requires some agreement, strategy and leadership before the change state becomes the new stable state (the changed state). Change comes from a coalescing of perspectives into some form of agreement that can be transformed into a design and then executed. It’s messy, unpredictable, imprecise, can take time and energy, but that is how social change happens. 

At least, that’s how it has happened. How it’s happening now is less clear thanks to social media and it’s near ubiquitous role in social movements worldwide.

Complicating complexity

The same principles underpinning complex social systems hasn’t changed, but what we’re seeing is that the psychology of change and the communications that takes place within those systems is. When one reviews or listens to the stories told about social change movements from history, what we see over and again is the power of stories.

Stories take time to tell them, are open to questions, and can get more powerful in their telling and retelling. They engage us and, because they take time, grant us time to reflect on their meaning and significant. It’s a reason why we see plays, read novels, watch full-length films, and spend time with friends out for coffee…although this all might be happening less and less.

Social media puts pressure on that attention, which is part of the change process. Social media’s short-burst communication styles — particularly with Tweets, Snapchat pictures, Instragram shots and Facebook posts — make it immensely portable and consumable, yet also highly problematic for longer narratives. The social media ‘stream’, something discussed here before, provides a format that tends to confirm our own beliefs and perspectives, not challenge them, by giving us what we want even if that’s not necessarily what we need for social change.

When we are challenged the anonymity, lack of social cues, immediacy, and reach of social media can make it too easy for our baser natures to override our thoughts and lash out. Whether its Wael Ghomim and Egypt’s Arab Spring or Hossein Derakhshan and Iranian citizen political movement or the implosion of the Occupy movement , the voices of constructive dissent and change can be overwhelmed by infighting and internal dissent, never allowing that constructive coalescing of perspective needed to focus change.

Collectively, we may be more likely to reflect one of the ‘demotivation’ posters from Despair instead of Ken Blanchard:

None of us is as dumb as all of us

Social media, the stream and the hive

Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Media Lab has written extensively about the irony of the social insularity that comes with the freedom and power online social networks introduce as was explored in a previous post.

The strength of a collective impact approach is that it aims to codify and consolidate agreement, including the means for evaluating impact. To this end, it’s a powerful force for change if the change that is sought is of a sufficient value to society and that is where things get muddy. I’ve personally seen many grand collaboratives fall to irrelevancy because the only agreements that participants can come up with are broad plaudits or truisms that have little practical meaning.

Words like “impact”, “excellence”, “innovation” and “systems change” are relatively meaningless if not channeled into a vision that’s attainable through specific actions and activities. The specifics — the devil in the details — comes from discussion, debate, concession, negotiation and reflection, all traits that seem to be missing when issues are debated via social media.

What does this mean for collective impact?

If not this, then what?

This is not a critique of collective activity, because working together is very much like what Winston Churchill said about democracy and it’s failings still making it better than the alternatives. But it’s worth asking some serious questions and researching what collective impact means in practice and how to we engage it with the social tools that are now a part of working together (particularly at a distance). These questions require research and systemic inquiry.

Terms like social innovation laboratories or social labs are good examples of an idea that sounds great (and may very well be so), yet has remarkably little evidence behind it. Collective impact risks falling into the same trap if it is not rigorously, critically evaluated and that the evaluation outcomes are shared. This includes asking the designer’s and systems thinker’s question: are we solving the right problem in the first place? (Or are we addressing some broad, foggy ideal that has no utility in practice for those who seek to implement an initiative?)

Among the reasons brainstorming is problematic is that it fails to account for power and for the power of the first idea. Brainstorming favours those ideas that are put forward first with participants commonly reacting to those ideas, which immediately reduces the scope of vision. A far more effective method is having participants go off and generate ideas independently and then systematically introducing those to the group in a manner that emphasizes the idea, not the person who proposed it. Research suggests it needs to be well facilitated [PDF].

There may be an argument that we need better facilitation of ideas through social media or, perhaps as Wael Ghonim argues, a new approach to social media altogether. Regardless, we need to design the conversation spaces and actively engage in them lest we create a well-intentioned echo chamber that achieves collective nothing instead of collective impact.

Photo credit “All Power to the Collective” to Mike Benedetti used under Creative Commons licence via Flickr (original artist, Graffito)

%d bloggers like this: