Category: design thinking

complexitydesign thinkingsocial systemssystems thinking

(Re) Making our World

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Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a nod to the future and the past and both perspectives illustrate how citizens everywhere are struggling with how to best make their world – and to what extent that’s possible. These are design choices with systems implications that will be felt far beyond those who are making such decisions.

We only understand systems from a perspective, because where you sit within a system determines the relevance of properties that are of that system. These properties look different (or may be wholly imperceptible) depending on the vantage point taken within that system. This is what makes understanding and working with systems so challenging.

This morning the world woke up to find that the British people voted to leave the European Union. For the Brits this was a choice about where they wanted to place a boundary around certain systems (political, economic, geographic) and how they perceived having control over what took place within, around (and indeed the very nature of) those boundaries. Boundaries and constraints are principally what defines a system as that is what shapes what happens inside that system. For Britain it was a choice to redefine those boundaries tighter with a hope that it will bring greater good to that nation.

Boundary critique in complex systems

There is a guide for systems thinking that says if you’re trying to understand a system and find yourself lost you’ve probably bounded your systems too loosely and if you’re finding yourself constantly seeking explanations for what happens in a system that occur outside those boundaries than you’ve bound it too tightly.

The choice of millions of Britons about their own country, their boundaries, has influenced the world as stock markets shake up, currencies are devalued and entire economies rattlednot just now, but potentially for a period to come. Oil prices have fallen sharply in the wake of the decision, which will impact every part of the economy and further delay any shift away from carbon-based fuel options. The European Union and the entire world is feeling the effect from 51% of Britons who voted (of about 17M citizens) deciding they would be better off outside the EU than within it. Consider how a small number of people can have such an enormous impact — a perfect illustration of complexity in action.

And as England seeks to re-draw its boundary, already there is discussion of another Scottish independence vote in the wake of this, which may re-draw the boundary further. These votes are intentional acts and perhaps the most straightforward expressions of intention and self-determination within a democracy, but their impact and outcomes on citizens and the world around them are far from straightforward making such direct-democracy far more problematic than those in support of such votes make out. This is not to say that such votes are necessarily good or bad, but they are certainly not simple.

Co-design and its problems

The Brexit vote invites memory of a quote from one of Britain’s famous leaders who famously quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Democracy creates the opportunity for co-design of our political systems, policy choices and boundaries. By having an opportunity to voice an opinion and engage in the act of voting we citizens have a role to play in co-designing what we want from our country. The downside is that we are engaging in this exercise from where we sit in the system, thus the design I want might not be the same as someone else in my country, nor may we see the same information the same way or even consider the same information relevant.

It’s for this reason that we’re seeing strange things in politics these days. The volume of information available to us and the complexity of the layered contexts in which that information applies makes a simple decision like a vote for or against something far more challenging. Complexity is created by volatility, lack of certainty, an absence of predictability and dynamism. Co-design introduces all of this and, on a national scale, amplifies the impact of that complexity.

This is a massive challenge for everyone, but in particular those who come from the design and systems science realms. For design, co-design has been touted as a desired, if not idealized, principle for guiding the making of everything from learning experiences to services to products to policies. In systems thinking and related sciences, too often the focus is less on what is created, but how it impacts things — offering more description and analytical insight than guidance on what ought to be developed and how. Bringing these two worlds together — systemic design — may have never been more important.

Systemic design, boredom and critical making

Roseanne Somerson, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, recently wrote about the importance of boredom in spurring creativity in design. In it she speaks of the term ‘critical making’ instead of using design thinking. I love that term. It does a better job of reflecting the thinking-in-action praxis that is really at the heart of good design. In this article she refers to the insights and bursts of creativity that come from her students when she allows them — rather, forces them — to be bored.

What boredom can do is prompt a form of mindfulness, an emptying of the thoughts allowing the opportunity to escape the rush of stimulation that we get from the world and permit new insights to come in. It is a way of temporarily freeing oneself from the path dependence that is created by an entrained thought pattern that seeks out certain stimulation (which is why we tend to re-think the same thing over and again). This is an enormously useful approach for supporting organizations and individuals operating in complex systems to see things differently and not to get swept up in the power of a prevailing current without being fully aware that such a current exists and evaluating whether that is useful or not useful.

Creating the space to be mindful and to understand better ones place in their system as well as the potential consequences of change within that system is one of the key contributions that systemic design can offer. It is about engaging in social critical making and perhaps, it may be away out of the trap of creating simple binaries of stay versus leave or yes vs no. Surely no Britons thought that membership in the EU was all bad or good, but to divide the choice to be in or out might have been a case of taking a simple approach to a complex problem and now we will see how a simple choice has complex reverberations throughout the system now and into the future. Time will tell whether these — and the resulting choices of other nations and regions — will bring us closer together, further apart, or something else entirely.

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Photo credits: Brexit Scrabble by Jeff Djevdet and Sad Day #brexit from Jose Manuel Mota both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks Jeff and Jose for sharing your art.

innovationstrategic foresight

Innovation Framing

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Innovation is easier to say than to do. One of the reasons is that a new idea needs to fit within a mindset or frame that is accustomed to seeing the way things are, not what they could be, and its in changing this frame that innovators might find their greatest obstacles and opportunities. 

Innovation, its creation and distribution is a considerable challenge to take up when the world is faced with so many problems related to the way we do things. The need to change what we do and how we live was brought into stark view this week as reports came out suggesting that April was the hottest month in history, marking the third month in a row that a record has been beaten by a large margin.

If we are to mitigate or mediate the effects of climate change we will need to innovate on matters of technology, social and economic policy, bioscience, education and conservation….and fast and on a planetary scale that we’ve never seen before.

In the case of climate change we are seeing the world and the causes and consequences  posed by it through a frame. A frame is defined as:

frame |frām| noun

1) a rigid structure that surrounds or encloses something such as a door or window, 2) [ usu. in sing. ] a basic structure that underlies or supports a system, concept, or text: the establishment of conditions provides a frame for interpretation.

When discussing innovation we often draw upon both of these definitions of a frame — both a rigid, enclosing structure and something that supports our understanding of a system. Terms like rigidity can imply strength, but it also resists change.

Missing the boat for the sea

If we continually look at the sea we may assume it’s always the same and fail to notice the boat that can take us across and through it. In a recent interview with the Atlantic magazine, journalist Tom Vanderbilt discusses how we can miss new opportunities because we feel we know what we like already, much like the kid who doesn’t want to eat a vegetable she’s never even tasted before. Vanderbilt hits on something critical: the absence of language to covey what the ‘new’ is:

I think often we really are lacking the language, and the ways to frame it. If you look at films like Blade Runner or The Big Lebowski, when these films came out they were box office disasters. I think part of that was a categorization thing—not knowing how to think about it in the right way. Blade Runner didn’t really match up with the existing tropes of science fiction, Big Lebowski was just kind of strange

Today, both Blade Runner and The Big Lebowski are hailed as classics — only after the fact. It’s very much like the Apple Newton in the 1980’s failing more than 20 years before the iPad arrived even though it was a decent product.

Believing to see

A traditional evidence-based approach to change is that you must see it to believe it. In innovation, we often need to believe in order to see.  This is particularly true in complex contexts where the linkages between cause-and-effect with evidence are less obviously made.

However, it’s more than about belief in evidence, it’s belief in possibility. It is for this reason that foresight can make such an important contribution to the innovation process. Strategic foresight can provide an imaginative, yet data-supported way of envisioning possible futures, outcomes and circumstances. It is a means of enabling us to see future states in possibility, which enable us to better ensure that we are ready to see the present when it comes.

This is part of the thinking behind training exercises, particularly obvious in sports. A team might imagine a number of scenarios, which may not happen as outlined during a game, but because the team has imagined certain things to be possible, there is an opportunity to have rehearsed or anticipated ways to deal with what comes up in reality and thus helps them to believe something enough to see it when it comes.

Spending time envisioning possible futures, whether through a deliberative process like strategic foresight, or simply allowing yourself time to notice trends and possibilities and how they might connect can be a means of imagining possibilities and preparing you to meet them (or create them) sometime down the road.

Do so gives you the power to select what frame fits what picture.

 

For more information on strategic foresight check out the library section on this blog. If you need help doing it, contact Cense Research + Design.

Photo credit: Innovation by Boegh used under Creative Commons License.

 

 

complexitydesign thinkingpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

Collective action, impact, intelligence & stupidity

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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)

businessdesign thinkingevaluationinnovation

Designing for the horizon

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‘New’ is rarely sitting directly in front of us, but on the horizon; something we need to go to or is coming towards us and is waiting to be received. In both cases this innovation (doing something new for benefit) requires different action rather than repeated action with new expectations. 

I’ve spent time in different employment settings where my full-time job was to work on innovation, whether that was through research, teaching or some kind of service contribution, yet found the opportunities to truly innovate relatively rare. The reason is that these institutions were not designed for innovation, at least in the current sense of it. They were well established and drew upon the practices of the past to shape the future, rather than shape the future by design. Through many occasions even when there was a chance to build something new from the ground up — a unit, centre, department, division, school  — the choice was to replicate the old and hope for something new.

This isn’t how innovation happens. One of those who understood this better than most is Peter Drucker. A simple search through some of the myriad quotes attributed to him will find wisdom pertaining to commitment, work ethic, and management that is unparalleled. Included in that wisdom is the simple phrase:

If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old

Or, as the quote often attributed to Henry Ford suggests:

Do what you’ve always done and you will get what you’ve always got

Design: An intrapreneurial imperative

In each case throughout my career I’ve chosen to leave and pursue opportunities that are more nimble and allow me to really innovation with people on a scale appropriate to the challenge or task. Yet, this choice to be nimble often comes at the cost of scale, which is why I work as a consultant to support larger organizations change by bringing the agility of innovation to those institutions not well set up for it (and help them to set up for it).

There are many situations where outside support through someone like a consultant is not only wise, but maybe the only option for an organization needing fresh insight and expertise. Yet, there are many situations where this is not the case. In his highly readable book The Designful Company, Marty Neumeier addresses the need for creating a culture of non-stop innovation and ways to go about it.

At the core of this approach is design. As he states:

If you want to innovate, you gotta design

 

Design is not about making things look pretty, it’s about making things stand out or differentiating them from others in the marketplace**. (Good) Design is what makes these differentiated products worthy of consideration or adoption because they meet a need, satisfy a desire or fill a gap somewhere. As Neumeier adds:

Design contains the skills to identify possible futures, invent exciting products, , build bridges to customers, crack wicked problems, and more.

When posed this way, one is left asking: Why is everyone not trained as a designer? Or put another way: why aren’t most organizations talking about design? 

Being mindful of the new

This brings us back to Peter Drucker and another pearl of wisdom gained from observing the modern organization and the habits that take place within it:

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.

This was certainly not something that was a part of the institutional culture of the organizations I was a part of and it’s not part of many of the organizations I worked with. The rush to do, to take action, is rarely complemented with reflection because it is inaction. While I might have created habits of reflective practice in my work as an individual, that is not sufficient to create change in an organization without some form of collective or at least shared reflection.

To test this out, ask yourself the following questions of the workplace you are a part of:

  • Do you hold regular, timely gatherings for workers to share ideas, discuss challenges and explore possibilities without an explicit outcome attached to the agenda?
  • Is reflective practice part of the job requirements of individuals and teams where there is an expectation that it is done and there are performance review activities attached to such activity? Or is this a ‘nice to have’ or ‘if time permits’ kind of activity?
  • Are members of an organization provided time and resources to deliver on any expectations of reflective practice both individually or collectively?
  • Are other agenda items like administrative, corporate affairs, news, or ’emergencies’ regularly influencing and intruding upon the agendas of gatherings such as strategic planning meetings or reflection sessions?
  • Is evaluation a part of the process of reflection? Do you make time to review evaluation findings and reflect on their meaning for the organization?
  • Do members of the organization — from top to bottom — know what reflection is or means in the context of their work?
  • Does the word mindfulness come into conversations in the organization at any time in an official capacity?

Designing mindfulness

If innovation means design and effective action requires reflection it can be surmised that designing mindfulness into the organization can yield considerable benefits. Certain times of year, whether New Years Day (like today’s posting date), Thanksgiving (in Canada & US), birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays or even the end of the fiscal year or quarter, can prompt some reflection.

Designing mindfulness into an organization requires taking that same spirit that comes from these events and making them regular. This means protecting time to be mindful (just as we usually take time off for holidays), including regular practices into the workflow much like we do with other activities, and including data (evaluation evidence) to support that reflection and potentially guide some of that reflection. Sensemaking time to bring that together in a group is also key as is the potential to use design as a tool for foresight and envisioning new futures.

To this last point I conclude with another quote attributed to Professor Drucker:

The best way to predict your future is to create it

As you begin this new year, new quarter, new day consider how you can design your future and create the space in your organization — big or small — to reflect and act more mindfully and effectively.

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** This could be a marketplace of products, services, ideas, attention or commitment.

Photo credit: Hovering on the Horizon by the NASA Earth Observatory used under Creative Commons Licence via Flickr

design thinkingevaluationsocial innovation

The Ecology of Innovation: Part 1 – Ideas

Innovation Ecology

Innovation Ecology

There is a tendency when looking at innovation to focus on the end result of a process of creation rather than as one node in a larger body of activity, yet expanding our frame of reference to see these connections innovation starts to look look much more like an ecosystem than a simple outcome. This first in a series examines innovation ecology from the place of ideas.

Ideas are the kindling that fuels innovation. Without good ideas, bold ideas, and ideas that have the potential to move our thinking, actions and products further we are left with the status quo: what is, rather than what might be.

What is often missed in the discussion of ideas is the backstory and connections between thoughts that lead to the ideas that may eventually lead to something that becomes an innovation*. This inattention to (or unawareness of) this back story might contribute to reasons why many think they are uncreative or believe they have low innovation potential. Drawing greater attention to these connections and framing that as part of an ecosystem has the potential to not only free people from the tyrrany of having to create the best ideas, but also exposes the wealth of knowledge generated in pursuit of those ideas.

Drawing Connections

Connections  is the title of a book by science historian James Burke that draws on his successful British science documentary series that first aired in the 1970’s and was later recreated in the mid 1990’s. The premise of the book and series is to show how ideas link to one another and build on one another to yield the scientific insights that we see. By viewing ideas in a collective realm, we see how they can and do connect, weaving together a tapestry of knowledge that is far more than the sum of the parts within it.

Too often we see the celebration of innovation as focused on the parts – the products. This is the iPhone, the One World Futbol, the waterless toilet, the intermittent windshield wiper or a process like the Lean system for quality improvement or the use of checklists in medical care. These are the ideas that survive.

The challenge with this perspective on ideas is that it appears to be all-or-nothing: either the idea is good and works or it is not and doesn’t work.

This latter means of thinking imposes judgement on the end result, yet is strangely at odds with innovation itself. It is akin to judging flour, salt, sugar or butter to be bad because a baker’s cake didn’t turn out. Ideas are the building blocks – the DNA if you will — of innovations. But, like DNA (and RNA), it is only in their ability to connect, form and multiply that we really see innovation yield true benefit at a system level. Just like the bakers’ ingredient list, ideas can serve different purposes to different effects in different contexts and the key is knowing (or uncovering) what that looks like and learning what effect it has.

From ideas to ecologies

An alternative to the idea-as-product perspective is to view it as part of a wider system. This takes James Burke’s connections to a new level and actually views ideas as part of a symbiont, interactive, dynamic set of relations. Just like the above example of DNA, there is a lot of perceived ‘junk’ in the collection that may have no obvious benefit, yet by its existence enables the non-junk to reveal and produce its value.

This biological analogy can extend further to the realm of systems. The term ecosystem embodies this thinking:

ecosystem |ˈekōˌsistəm, ˈēkō-| {noun}

Ecology

a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

• (in general use) a complex network or interconnected system: Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem | the entire ecosystem of movie and video production will eventually go digital.

Within this perspective on biological systems, is the concept of ecology:

ecology |iˈkäləjē| {noun}

1 the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

2 (also Ecology) the political movement that seeks to protect the environment, especially from pollution.

What is interesting about the definitions above, drawn from the Oxford English Dictionary, is that they focus on biology, the discipline where it first was explored and studied. The definition of biology used in the Wikipedia entry on the topic states:

Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy.[1]

Biologists do not look at ecosystems and decide which animals, plants, environments are good or bad and proceed to discount them, rather they look at what each brings to the whole, their role and their relationships. Biology is not without evaluative elements as judgement is still applied to these ‘parts’ of the system as there are certain species, environments and contexts that are more or less beneficial for certain goals or actors/agents in the system than others, but judgement is always contextualized.

Designing for better idea ecologies

Contextual learning is part of sustainable innovation. Unlike natural systems, which function according to hidden rules (“the laws of nature”) that govern ecosystems, human systems are created and intentional; designed. Many of these systems are designed poorly or with little thought to their implications, but because they are designed we can re-design them. Our political systems, social systems, living environments and workplaces are all examples of human systems. Even families are designed systems given the social roles, hierarchies, expectations and membership ‘rules’ that they each follow.

If humans create designed systems we can do the same for the innovation systems we form. By viewing ideas within an ecosystem as part of an innovation ecosystem we offer an opportunity to do more with what we create. Rather than lead a social Darwinian push towards the ‘best’ ideas, an idea ecosystem creates the space for ideas to be repurposed, built upon and revised over time. Thus, our brainstorming doesn’t have to end with whatever we come up with at the end (and may hate anyway), rather it is ongoing.

This commitment to ongoing ideation, sensemaking and innovation (and the knowledge translation, exchange and integration) is what distinguishes a true innovation ecosystem from a good idea done well. In future posts, we’ll look at this concept of the ecosystem in more detail.

Brainstorming Folly

Brainstorming Folly

Tips and Tricks:

Consider recording your ideas and revisiting them over time. Scheduling a brief moment to revisit your notebooks and content periodically and regularly keeps ideas alive. Consider the effort in brainstorming and bringing people together as investments that can yield returns over time, not just a single moment. Shared Evernote notebooks, Google Docs, building (searchable) libraries of artifacts or regular revisiting of project memos can be a simple, low-cost and high-yield way to draw on your collective intellectual investment over time.

* An innovation for this purpose is a new idea realized for benefit.

Image Credits: Top: Evolving ecology of the book (mindmap) by Artefatica used under Creative Commons License from Flickr.

Bottom: Brainstorming Ideas from Tom Fishburne (Marketoonist) used under commercial license.

art & designdesign thinkinginnovation

Creativity and Craft, Myth and Muscle

Applying Creative Muscle

Applying Creative Muscle

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

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

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

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

Accessing creativity

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

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

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

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

The design and innovation cycle

The CENSE design and innovation corkscrew model

The role of craft

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

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

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

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

Building design practice in the everyday

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

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

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

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

References: 

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

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

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

art & designdesign thinkingfood systemssocial systemssystems thinking

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

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

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

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

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

Going beyond the story

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

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

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

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

From Bertie County to Detroit and back

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

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

Rebirth of Detroit

Rebirth of Detroit

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

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

Systems + Change = Systems Change (?)

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

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

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

Systems Iceberg

Systems Iceberg

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

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

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

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

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

If You Build It is in theatres across North America.