Category: psychology

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Designing for Empathy and Health

Transparent Contemplation

Seeing Inside Others

When does common sense make little sense? How do we sense-make evidence when it seems to make little sense? The answers could lie in getting inside the heads of those we seek to influence and designing our communications for empathy and health.

Evidence in public / health

Last week there was a brief uproar in the mainstream media and on Twitter created by a tweet from Toronto Public Health to their Twitter followers suggesting they contact the producers of the TV show The View and protest their recent hiring of Jenny McCarthy a a co-host. Ms McCarthy is an outspoken critic of childhood vaccinations in spite of overwhelming evidence to show that they generate enormous benefits over the relative and small risk for many conditions and for promoting the falsified science used to prop up the myths that they cause autism (which is her primary concern).

That post led to much discussion, including posts on Censemaking and the Public Health and Social Media blog (reposted here) and Twitter on the challenges of communicating evidence, engaging the public, and the role of public health in these conversations. Watching comedy duo Penn & Teller offer a humourous if angry take on evidence for vaccinations and health might make the risks and benefits obvious, yet this isn’t the case. Why?

It turns out, that some of these supposed obvious connections still don’t impact those who support the anti-vaccination movement. Indeed, evidence from Australian researchers shows that engaging these audiences does relatively little to influence their behaviour. To some, they may be immune to the evidence (pardon the pun).

In a qualitative study of parents on their pro and anti-vaccination beliefs, the authors found a complex mix of beliefs that governed how information was received and processed. For example, expectations of guilt at the thought that a child would fall ill because of something that could have been prevented due to a vaccine or conversely due to a vaccine side-effect were prominent in the findings.

What arose in the dialogue arising from the Jenny McCarthy / Toronto Public Health flurry was familiar territory: health professionals using the moment to logically persuade the public to choose vaccination, hand-wringing over why people fail to believe evidence or why they believe celebrities, the awful use or mis-use of evidence in the media, and gasps of collective frustration at how out of sync public health is in its engagement with the public on these issues.

What was missing was empathy.

Stories trump evidence

The above quote has been uttered many times in public health circles when the use of evidence in health communication emerges in conversation. Journalists know this and that is why they tell stories in their reportage and not “just the facts”. All one needs is a story about the human experience on one side of an argument and all the evidence to suggest it is an anomaly or rare event gets covered over. It’s why we bristle at news stories of violent crimes  and fear for our safety despite wildly declining crime rates throughout countries in the ‘developed’ world.

A Problem of Perspective

Public health professionals — indeed all of us in any field — need to get out more. It’s easy to scoff at the ignorance of people when you have an advanced degree, spend great amounts of time contemplating or generating evidence, see the health effects of faulty reasoning firsthand, and associate with many others who share the same view. It’s obvious what the right course of action is.

But obvious is a matter of perspective. Health professionals tend to design their materials for themselves. Looking at much of what is developed for health promotion and communication with the public, we might make some assumptions:

  1. People are able to read and understand health related materials (and they like to read in the first place)
  2. They like printed materials and learn best from text
  3. They trust scientists, physicians and health professionals for information on health issues above all
  4. Health is something they think about a lot and always want to learn more about issues
  5. The public is invested in carefully weighing evidence claims to make the right choice
  6. Health behaviour change is a linear, knowledge-driven process

There are more, but let’s examine these briefly. I am not going to dive deeply into the evidence for each of these points (that is for another day) rather ask you to consider how true these are in your observations.

I Want to Believe

These are all assumptions and mostly based on a rational, linear model of decision making and behaviour. They are based on a model that correlates knowledge, expertise and authority and assumes that people respond to such authority. It emphasizes the use of media that is appropriate (and historically priviliged) for academic and technical communications, not public consumption.

On that last point, many educated professionals — particularly academics — are shocked to find people that neither need or want to read. Yet, we propel print materials and websites at people in text form to audiences that we imagine value the same things.

When you study health for a living or treat people with health problems you spend your entire day thinking about health. It may come as a surprise to realize that many others don’t really care much about their health until it’s compromised. They aren’t constantly mired in decisions about evidence, long-term implications of daily decisions, or the social determinants of their wellbeing. Health is just another thing to think about among many.

If we are to be better at communicating with our audiences, we need to empathize more and design our messages, media and services in ways that reflect the reality they perceive and the one they live in knowing that might not be the same thing and nor is it necessarily the same one we live in and perceive.

It also means confronting some big questions about what we are doing in the first place.

What is the destination and the journey we wish to take with the public? Do they want to take it with us in the first place? And if not, what might we do to inspire people to want what we have to offer — and do so in a manner that promotes what they want to accomplish, not just what we want them to.

This avoids us taking the approach to dealing with people who don’t speak our language by talking slower and louder as if they are deaf and stupid rather than unfamiliar with our native tongue.

This is the realm of design and empathic design thinking about communications and perhaps its time to start bringing more of it into our work. Maybe then we might not be so surprised when the obvious answers are no longer so.

Photos: Cameron Norman, Joe Ross (used under Creative Commons License via Flickr)


Tips to Maximize Creativity at Work

How to maximize the creative potential of what you do? Becoming good at something is a huge start. But what if getting good at being a generalist is what you aspire towards? It’s an interesting challenge for those who see value in those with the kind of cross-disciplinary, multi-faceted sets of skills often needed to thrive in complex social systems, but resist specialization. What do you think?

The Creativity Guru


These tips, from Scientific American Mind, are all also found in the book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity:

  • Become an expert. You need a solid knowledge base. (Zig Zag Chapter 2: LEARN)
  • Observe. Carefully study how people use what they currently have, and what problems they face. (Zig Zag Chapter 3: LOOK)
  • Know your audience. Walk in the shoes of the intended consumer. (Again, LOOK)
  • Step out of your comfort zone. Seek activities outside your field of expertise. (LOOK again)
  • Be willing to work alone. Balance group time with alone time.
  • Talk to outsiders about your work. This helps with novel perspectives. (Research on how to balance solitary and group time is in my book Group Genius)
  • Have fun. A good mood helps! (Zig Zag Chapter 4: PLAY)
  • Take a nap or let…

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complexityinnovationpsychologysystems thinking

Normative Complexity: Breaking Up is Hard To Do


Normative behaviour is what we expect from others operating in the world around us. It is what defines the world “normal”. It’s based on a complex array of history, social conventions, mores, values, context and timing, but it is the reason we know weird or odd from something else. Weird, is by definition, something that is not normal.


What I Learned From Denim

Many years ago I saw a TV special looking at the world of fashion and was struck by the process of designing denim jeans for men. The audience was told that jeans are often designed based on the prototype of the ‘average’ man and then worked out from there. What struck me was that they also said the ‘average’ man has a size that matches about 1 in every 7500 men. So the average — the normal — is not average at all. Indeed, he is particularly rare. Male models who represent this size do very well in their profession.

While there is a norm of social behaviour, there are actually very few people who are wholly ‘normal’ in their actions, nor are there obvious cases where normal is indeed, then norm in social systems. Why? Because social systems are complex by their very nature. They bring together diverse, overlapping, dynamic elements together operating at different scales simultaneously. This is complexity.

Just as individuals we bring our familial history, education, gender, sex, age, faith (if it exists), height, race (which might be highly mixed), experience, physical abilities, fashion choice, body type, vocal acuity, energy level and on to every single interaction we have. Every one of those factors — of this limited group — bring with it a set of unique attributes that individually and socially have differing weight and ‘normality’ depending on the circumstance. To imagine that there is a place where all of these line up with everyone else is utterly absurd if not statistically impossible.

Yet, we cling to the idea that normal exists and might even be something to aspire to. We push a conformity on to our expectations of each other and our research that is unreasonable and often harmful.

It’s not unexepcted. From our earliest days in the society we belong there is pressure to conform. Norms are what hold societies together. They are what creates culture. But where the confusion comes in is with the treatment of norms as truly common things that is universally positive (if attainable).

It is the often mis-attributed following quote to many that still stands out as true:

There is nothing so uncommon as common sense

In complexity science, norms are not disregarded, but are only minimally useful in helping understand patterns of activity. There are path dependencies, which guide certain activities and point to the importance of knowing where things start to help trace the manner in which they project outward. There are things called minimum specifications, often referred to as ‘simple rules’, that can help us create certain conditions within boundaries to shape behaviour. Yet, no matter how we shape these, the normative condition is not and will not be normal in any sense like your favourite pair of jeans.

What Relationship Break-Ups Can Teach Us About Complexity

Psychology and Psychotherapy, when operating at its best, helps people to understanding their true selves independent of, although interdependent with, the world around them. It falls short when it pushes people to conform to social norms apart from their true self. This is a shame.

Ask anyone who has endured a particularly heartfelt breakup of a relationship about normal and you’ll see the pain caused when we ascribe normative behaviour to complex systems. Sensemaking in a breakup is hard to do because of the massive cultural and social baggage we attach to them. Marriages, engagements, boy/girlfriend partnerships, affairs, flings, and flirts all bring socially normative expectations (and taboos) with them. And yet, if you think to any of those relations you’ve had I suspect that you’ll find that at its core there was relatively little ‘normal’ actually going on. Each relationship has its own cadence, pattern and normalness to it.

The best relationships have their own way of creating patterns that are unique to themselves, which is why we can’t replace or hope to replace one with another. They are irreplaceable for the very reason they are special. Not necessarily better or worse — but perhaps more congruent, happy, loving and so on — but different. The things that turn one person on are not the same as some one else and this is what makes relationships hard, but also exciting. This is what a complex adaptive system is like in real life.

Unless there was some obvious punctuated event like an affair or assault or major crime, most relationships don’t end because of a single thing. There might not even be a clear sense of what the “thing” that caused the breakup was. Sometimes people drift apart, sometimes the spark disappears, other times individuals forget who they are, while in some cases people discover themselves to be altogether new. Even still, sometimes this all happens at the same time, over time, in ways that neither couple can see until they are too far apart to connect. A complex system.

Treat this like a linear system and you may find potentially catastrophic consequences and hence the drama that TV and film introduce in their break-up scenes. For a funnier, but no less important take on this, see the video below from Dave Snowden.

This happens with lovers, spouses and friends all the time. A look to popular psychology or media will suggest that there are ways to handle this and no doubt efforts will be made to show how ‘healthy’ people transition and what they do to do so. These ‘healthy’ people will represent the ‘norm’. They’ll take time out for themselves, they’ll ‘get back up on the horse’, they’ll do the Eat, Pray, Love journey.. All of these might work, but they are based on an assumption that whomever is recommending these strategies knows the complexity of the individual’s case to whom they are referring.

Some therapists do, many do not. If you’re in for two or three sessions it will undoubtedly fall to the latter.

This is parallel to what we do in our efforts to inspire systems change. We look to the norms of our society, our discipline, our sector, our community and so on and we hire people for the equivalent of one to three to five sessions to tell us what to expect and do. What we get is Dr. Phil, which sounds great, allows us to boil enormous complications into a one hour soundbite or self-help book, and feel good because we are doing something that matches society’s expectation and we end up with what Russell Ackoff suggests as doing the wrong things righter.

Minding Our Norms

We expect to go into these encounters being the 1 in 7500 male model for jeans, when we are our own model for our our denim.

Work in complexity means breaking up with normative expectations and becoming mindful of what our own unique ones are as well as what the minimum specifications are that link us to that common thread of humanity — society, discipline, family, community, whatever. This is not easy. Mindfulness is very hard, but remarkably simple.

The more mindful we are of the rules and norms we live by or try to live up to, the better we can understand where they fit and where they collide against our own specific condition and setting and better craft strategies and design opportunities for real, genuine social innovation and not a caricature.

We need to be the model for our own jeans. When we do that, the fit will be both bespoke and very fashionable.

Photo by Muffet Used under Creative Commons Licence


Creativity in the Wild: How Wilderness Exposure Enhances Problem Solving

Keith Sawyer points to a remarkable study that shows how exposure to the outdoors enhances creativity. The mechanisms are unclear, but it could be that there is a sense of possibility that comes from the outdoors due to the expanded boundaries of perception. By that, I think of how the topography, fauna and flora constantly present novelty and new combinations that are not seen when you are on screen. With our computers and tech tools, the format of information is presented in ways that are relatively consistent moment to moment and introduce little novelty. It’s an idea, but certainly its something to look at with more detail. So for now, the lesson might be to take a vacation from your tech and get outside if you want to spur creative problem solving.

The Creativity Guru

I just read about a fascinating new study* that examined 56 people who went on an Outward Bound wilderness expedition. No electronic devices were allowed on the trips. Of the 56 people, 24 took a creativity test before they left for the trip. The other 32 took the test out in the wilderness, on the fourth day of the trip…after four days disconnected from the grid. These 32 people scored 50% higher on the creativity test than the 24 people who hadn’t yet started their trip! The intriguing implication is that those four days enhanced creativity.

The test they used was the Remote Associates Test (RAT). The way it works is that you’re given three words, and your task is to identify a fourth “target word” that is related to all three of those words. For example, an answer to SAME/TENNIS/HEAD would be MATCH (because a match is the same…

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education & learninghealth promotioninnovationpsychology

Reflecting on Gratitude and Going Beyond Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving grace 1942

Today is the day that Americans come together to celebrate Thanksgiving, a day dedicated to gratitude (in Canada, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October, to traditionally align with the harvest).

What a wonderful holiday concept: spending time focused on gratitude for what one has.

There are many good reasons for giving thanks. Psychologist Robert Emmons and other researchers working within the emergent field of positive psychology  have looked intently at the psychological effects of gratitude and found it positively correlates with well-being and goal-attainment. For example, Emmons and McCullogh (2003) conducted a series of experiments comparing those with a grateful outlook to those who did not and found those who expressed gratitude more often reported higher levels of subjective wellbeing in some of those studies. (For those interested, Emmons’ 2007 book Thanks! is an accessible primer on the research on gratitude).

Giving thanks is a way of introducing a small disruption in the everyday and inspiring reflection on the present moment. Gratitude is a part of many meditiation and yoga practices, as well as mindfulness practice (PDF – example).

So in solidarity with my American friends who are giving thanks on this day and all of us who take time to express gratitude on any day, I offer a departure from the usual post and share some things I am thankful for (in no particular order):

  • To everyone who is willing to fail, get up again, improve and work to succeed and tell others about their story so others can be inspired to fail and succeed in new ways.
  • To teachers (and that doesn’t have to be the person at the front of the class). To those who take the time to help others to learn, really learn, and understand material. This could be trainers, classmates, or grandparents — anyone who cares that I learn something and tries to help myself and others toward that goal.
  • To students of life. Those who are willing to be taught, to learn, to adapt and to innovate when necessary. This includes clinicians and scientists using the best evidence to make decisions and pointing out where it doesn’t exist (and taking action on filling the gaps). It’s people asking hard, but important questions — including those about their own closely held beliefs. It’s those who see learning as fun and seek to infect that sense of joy in their fellow knowledge travellers. It also includes all of those who work in knowledge translation and exchange to help the learning process along in professional and personal life.
  • To the organizers, funders, sponsors and participants behind and in front of TED, Thinkr, the RSA, Google Zietgeist Minds and all the organizations and individuals out there sharing stories of success, creativity, and inspiring us all to think in new ways. It’s easy to take all this for granted so today, I am not.
  • To everyone who takes the time to listen and seeks to understand . We all don’t agree, but if we try to truly understand each other by listening, cultivate empathy, and mindfully reflect on our impact on the world, those differences can be sources of learning and creativity than unproductive conflict, hatred and ignorance. Too much of that and in a world of the 140-character sound bite, it’s too easy to be seduced by quick outrage and self-supported misconceptions.
  • To the individuals who work at inspiring others to be their best selves through compassion and creation. The diverse voices of people like Seth Godin, Jonathan Fields, Brene Brown, John Maeda, and Jon Kabat Zinn who all provide means of making sense of human life and inspiring a greater appreciation of what happens along its journey.
  • To the Internet and every person and organization responsible for developing it, delivering it, and maintaining it and fighting for the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that come with having so much knowledge, information and entertainment at our fingertips. It’s easy to take this enormous treasure trove of knowledge and services for granted.
  • To every administrator or department chair who marshalls power to change the structure of the workplace to make it more humane, by rewarding earnest effort while providing the space to slow time to pause and think, nurture the organization’s collective mental health, and allow everyone to genuinely learn and share their best with those they engage with. Work takes up a lot of our lifetime — imagine if it buoyed us and sustained us rather than trapped us?
  • To every person who says, means and listens to the message that we are all enough. The rat race is for rats and the human race is intended for human beings, not human doings.
  • To everyone who feeds us — from farm to market to fork to the earth. Most of us have little comprehension of where our food comes from, travels to, goes through, or ends up and if we did, we might act a little (or a lot) differently. We have the luxury of ignorance in North America, but should we? Spend time with a farmer and you’ll be amazed at what you don’t know about the very things that sustain us.
  • To every blogger and Tweeter out there who takes the time to share their thoughts and promote positive, critical thinking about topics that inspire new thinking. Thanks to the amazing blogosphere and Twittersphere, I have made a lot of wonderful friends I’ve never met in person, but who inspire me every week.

Thanks to everyone out there making the world better. Today is the day I give thanks to all of you.

What are you grateful for?

Photo By Marjory Collins, photographer for Farm Security Administration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

complexityinnovationknowledge translationpsychology

Jonah Lehrer and the Crisis of Knowledge Synthesis

Jonah Lehrer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME
Jonah Lehrer is/was as big as it gets in science writing and two weeks ago proved the adage that the higher one climbs the farther the fall after admitting to some false content in his stories. This is bad news for him, but may be much worse for all of us interested in making science and innovation knowledge accessible for reasons that have as much to do with the audience as it does the message and messenger. 

Jonah Lehrer was one of our most prolific and widely read science writers until he admitted fudging some quotes about Bob Dylan in his new book, Imagine, which looks at the process of discovery, creativity and innovation. The discovery by fellow journalist (and fervent Bob Dylan fan) Michael Moynihan set off a wave of reflections and investigations of Lehrer’s work revealing passages in the book (and other pieces) that had been reused from his other writings without proper self-attribution and sparking questions about the integrity of the author’s entire body of work. The “fall of Jonah Lehrer” was big news at a time when the London Olympics were dominating most of the media’s attention.

This case is a testament to the wide appeal that Lehrer’s work had beyond the usual ‘science geeks’ while illustrating the power of the internet to enable the kind of curation and investigation to support on and offline fact checking. But what it spoke to most for me is the role

The Writer and his Craft

Much digital type has been spent on the Lehrer incident. Search Google and you’ll find dozens of commentaries looking at how things transpired and how Lehrer ironically succumbed to the cognitive biases he wrote about.

Roxane Gay, writing in Salon, took a gendered approach to the issue and questioned whether our fascination is less with the science and more about the ‘young male genius’. Lehrer’s youth was something she saw as critical to amplifying the fascination with his work. She writes:

When young people display remarkable intelligence or creativity, we are instantly enamored. We want or need geniuses to show us the power and potential of the human mind and we’re so eager to find new people to bestow this title upon that the term and the concept have become quite diluted.

I agree with her on the point about our desire to over-inflate the accomplishments of youth (as if we are *amazed* that any of them could possibly do anything brilliant, which is as offensive to them and it is to older people), although a careful look at Lehrer’s articles and much of the press around his work suggests that he was much less a focus of the attention than his ideas.

John McQuaid‘s take on the affair in Forbes speaks to a larger issue:

Call it “Gladwellization.” It’s not just lucrative, but powerful: your ideas (or rather, the ideas you’ve turned into compelling anecdotes for a popular audience) can influence everything from editorial choices across the publishing world to corporate management and branding strategies.

But with this comes mounting demands to produce, and to recycle. You have to be prolific, churning out longer pieces that give your insights some ballast, and brilliant, bite-sized items. And yet you can’t be too new either: people want to hear what you’re already famous for. In this cauldron of congratulation and pressure for more and more, it’s not hard to see how standards might erode, how the “ideas” might become more important than doing the necessary due diligence to make sure they sync with reality.

‘Snappy Science’ and Synthesis

Innovation is about ‘new’ and there are good reasons why its a challenge to get the message out that this ‘new’ can be adapted, small, and unsexy and still make a large difference in the long run instead of big, bold and transformative right away. We are in an age of selling “snappy science” and it says more about the media and audiences than the authors and scientists producing the original work.

This snappy, bite-sized science might sell books and make for great TED talks, but it is a misrepresentation of what we actually know and do as scientists. Rarely does a single finding lead to a solution, rather it is an amalgam of discoveries small and large brought together that gets us to closer to answers. Synthesis is the driver of change and synthesis is what journalists do particularly well. Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson and Jonah Lehrer are among the best synthesizers out there and I would imagine (no pun intended) that they contribute to more to public and professional understanding of social innovation than all of the original-sourced scientific knowledge on the subject combined.

When I hear Malcolm Gladwell cited as an original source in serious discussions with colleagues on scientific matters, I realize we have a problem…and an opportunity. Gladwell’s writings popularized the concept of tipping points, but his work is based on a wealth of scientific data on complex systems. They are not his original ideas, but they are his syntheses and (sometimes) his interpretations. This is important work and I am not taking anything from anyone who makes science data digestible and accessible, but it is not the original science.

That Jonah Lehrer is as well known as he is tells me that there is an appetite for science and I’ll freely admit to using his work (and that of the other authors I’ve mentioned) to inform what I do in a general sense. It is good work, however I also acknowledge that I have the scientific training to know how to go beyond the initial articles to critically appraise the information, place it in context, and I have the resources to go to the original sources in academic journals. Most people (professionals and lay people) do not. This access is going to decrease as resources shrink.

It is for this reason that synthetic work is so important. My Twitter feed often is filled with references to such synthetic work, rather than original works of research because I aim to fill role that is somewhere between journalism and the science of design, systems and psychology. I am not a pure science blogger, nor am I speaking to the lay public, but rather other professionals seeking to enrich their knowledge base. That is a role I’ve created for myself, largely because there is a high demand and low supply.

We have a need for synthesis and a demand for it, but little acknowledgement of the value of this role in professional scientific circles. Yet, when we leave journalists to do the work for us, we allow a different system to take charge. John McQuaid ended his article with this caution:

 Book publishers don’t do fact-checks, so there’s no fail-safe, just the conscience of the writer. Reach that point, and all is lost.

Filling the gap, meeting a need and shooting the messenger

Journalists like Johnson, Gladwell and Lehrer fill a gap, which is why I am saddened by the loss of one of them and angry at what has transpired. While there is no doubt that Lehrer made mistakes, they were of a rather minor nature in the grand scheme of things. Synthetic work is designed to provide a big picture overview, not guide microscopic decisions. I would like people to read Lehrer and learn about the creative process and the role of neuroscience in making our lives better, to appreciate systems thinking and decision making because of Malcolm Gladwell, and see innovation, emergence and discovery in new ways because of writers like Steven Johnson.

Yet, when we seek more and more from these authors, we might get less and less. This is what happened to Jonah Lehrer. As more people found themselves drawn to his work, the pressure grew for doing more, faster and getting that ‘snappy science’ out the door. GOOD magazine in the ‘tyranny of the big idea‘ goes further:

The problem is that it’s unreasonable to expect that every new piece of media should upend conventional wisdom or deliver a profound new insight. To think that Jonah Lehrer could expose an amazing new facet of human psychology every week, in 1,000-odd words no less, is ludicrous. There are only so many compelling, counterintuitive, true ideas out there.

But the demand for them doesn’t abate. That’s why you see so many science writers talking about the same handful of studies (the Stanford prison experimentthe rubber hand illusionDunbar’s numberthe marshmallow test) over and over. That’s why you see pop economists who should know better creating flimsy and irresponsible contrarian arguments about climate change for shock value. That’s why you get influential bloggers confessing they’re only 30 percent convinced of their own arguments but “you gotta write something.” That’s why the#slatepitches meme hits home.

Search Censemaking and you’ll find many of these topics not just because they are punchy, but because they are useful.

I hope we haven’t lost Jonah Lehrer as a voice just as I hope more people stop putting writers like him on a pedestal, where they don’t belong (nor do the scientists who produce the research). Synthesis is about bringing ideas together to produce innovative insights that often lead to bigger conversations about how to socially innovate. Synthesis is bigger than science, but dependent on it. It means paying attention to parts and wholes together and is the epitome of systems thinking in knowledge work.

It also means taking responsibility as knowledge producers and consumers and be wary of shooting the messengers while asking more from the messages they deliver.

Unless we are prepared to give people time to search, appraise and synthesize research on their own — and train them to make informed choices — the role of synthesizers – professional, journalistic, or otherwise – will become more important than ever.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons and is used under licence.


The Complex Consequences of Simple and Easy

PS2-complex In this second post on marketing complexity I look at how the allure of simple and easy lulls us into seeing past complexity and focusing on the least powerful forces that impact sustained change and meaningful innovation.

H.L. Mencken’s oft quoted phrase (including on this blog) about simple answers being wrong lest we commit to doing the wrong things righter (as Russell Ackoff said) . Simplicity however, is seductive,”neat”, “clean” and wrong when it comes to addressing complex problems. Such problems require complex responses and such responses are hard to market to a public used to the neat and clean. To take a look at how this happens it’s first worth contemplating ways we get people to buy into the simple, wrong ideas in the first place.

Going past the guru

We’ve all seen the gurus and maybe have a few of their books on our shelves. They can make us feel good as they feel our pain and propose 3, 5, 7, 10, 101 simple, easy steps to success. Lists are everywhere packed with gems toting advice on how we can be better, live better, perform better and beyond. The track record of success for these books is mixed in their impact on human action, but they might make people feel better about themselves. Mitch Joel over at Six Pixels of Separation / Twist Image even noted how this desire for inspiration in simple motivational messagin has found its way increasingly into the world of Facebook.

“If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else.” – Marvin Gaye. I just saw an image on Facebook of this quote. It’s not the first time. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a veritable onslaught of motivation and personal development quotes that are embedded in images (with varying degrees of artistic quality). Some of them are profound and powerful and some of them are quirky and cheesy. My added interest in this trend is the request to share, comment and spread them.

They are everywhere and I’ve shared some of them on Facebook and Twitter, too. But the sheer volume of these messages ironically might be their undoing in effect. It is as if the world is fine and we’re OK and life really is simple at its core. This, like many profundities in this world, is both the truth and a lie. Being true to yourself and aware is incredibly powerful, but it alone doesn’t change our collective wellbeing unless most of us do it together. For that, we need to do the work outside ourselves and within simultaneously. These messages imply change is simple (and sometimes easy), but the mistake is in thinking changing your world is changing the world at the same time.

Aspiring for change and doing the work to get it

This is both a marketing and unmarketing problem. Simple sells. It’s easy to Tweet and relatively simple to package. It’s also easy to mislead people into a sense of false progress and inspiring guruship with those who are the prophets or thought leaders behind this simplistic thinking. The next step is taking the meaning in these messages of hope and inspiration and connecting them to something beyond ourselves into something larger. It also means wishing for better, thinking healthier and acting on these in the world requires work. A lot of work… and that is unsexy and complicated.

Seth Godin is one who I find to be an ‘unsexy’ (with apologies to Seth, this is about his ideas not him) truth-telling antidote to the guru. His messages about success are both inspirational and aspirational, but always gilded with a message that the path is complex: it is about discovering our art, committing to it, sharing it with the world, and keeping at it over the bumps (work hard) while knowing when or if to quit.

In an age where there is a quick fix, discovering one’s art no matter what it is and living life through it not something that has a recipe attached to it. It requires we pay attention to ourselves (and our world) and our deepest needs, but also the patterns forming around us. Yet, with so much information swirling around us, we run into a problem of a widening signal to noise ratio. In marketing every message we send has to get through the din created by all the other marketing messages on every medium or device, all the other correspondence, the social media channels, the billboards, the books and pamphlets and on-the-field paint that bombards us with signals that are largely about creating an image of cause and effect.

Simple (but not obvious) rules

So how to get through it? One of the ways we naturally navigate through complexity is the use of heuristics (PDF book link). Heuristics are guidelines* that serve as simple rules to follow, providing a start point in the complex environment from which to act on. A tongue-in-cheek hueristic is to follow someone when in doubt, building on Douglas Adams’ line in The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy:

Follow that car, it looks like it knows where it’s going.

But this can fail us in complex environments and sometimes simple ones. Our preoccupation with leadership, success, and champions can be leading us on the wrong path. In a post earlier today, Annie Murphy Paul provoked some thinking about what it means to be #1 in a particular field and how it may be wiser to learn from #2 if we are seeking to emulate success in our work. Paul recognizes that success sometimes involves good fortune that cannot be planned, yet that there is research that suggests those not considered the guru might be worth paying attention to if we relax our gaze. She writes:

Tellingly, the most genuinely useful innovations tend to emerge from companies’ on-the-ground responses to economic and social challenges — not from business advice books. So concluded researchers Danny Miller and Jon Hartwick in an article in the Harvard Business Review, for which they tracked the coverage of business trends in academic, professional, business and trade publications over a 17-year period. Evanescent fads, they found, are usually simple, one-size-fits-all solutions promoted by charismatic “gurus.” Approaches with real staying power are more complex and multifaceted, and demand deep organizational changes.

Gurus, reputation and the failure of filters

One of the ways around this is to create filters based on reputation, which is at the core of social network research. However, it also falls into the trap mentioned by Murphy as attracting followers to the wrong gurus. Gurus can also be in the form of institutions. Another post by Mark Carrigan on the London School of Economics Impact of Social Sciences blog about how high impact journals also carry with them a sense of cultural power that off-loads much of the critical thinking to academic reputation. Drawing on the parallels with the art world, he points to the issue of time:

The obscenely wealthy but time-poor rely on such brands to guarantee the virtues of the art they invest in, assuaging the insecurities about their purchases which are only sustained because “they are not willing to spend the time required to educate themselves to the point of overcoming insecurity”.

We do this in scholarly work all the time and, I believe, even more so as the number of academic sources rise and our filters get filled. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, we are becoming overwhelmed by information and filter failure, short on time, and struggling to make sense of the complexity around us partly as a result of all of this. As complexity grows, the patterns of action become harder to see.

Carrigan challenges us to imagine what might happen if one of these patterns — prestige title — was removed:

Is it the case that within the academic world, inclusion in a prestigious journal becomes a substitute for, and certainly is a reinforcement of, intellectual judgement? As a thought-experiment: how would academic life differ if these status hierarchies weren’t available to help us navigate the knowledge system? How would we respond? I suspect that activities which are already everyday features of the academic world (particularly dialogue and debate within communities of practice) would take on a newfound importance. What else would be different?

For any marketing of complexity to work, the risk in creating a false guru is high, but so too is the risk of installing overly simplistic filters (reputation-heavy promotion). In both cases we need to address complexity with a complex response and doing so with one that doesn’t exacerbate the problem by adding too much extraneous information to our media ecology, getting us back into trouble elsewhere. This is pointing to problems, however there are possible ways to address them. In an upcoming post, I’ll explore what some of these are.

* I purposefully did not use the common term “rule of thumb” on account of its contested origin and overuse.