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.
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.
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.
….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;
….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.
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.
Photo credit by Tim Sackton used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.
Abraham Lincoln quote image from TheQuotepedia.
‘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?
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.
** 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
Although Innovation is about producing value through doing something new or different than before, the concept is far from simple when applied in practice by individuals and institutions. This second in a series of articles on innovation ecology looks at the way we speak of innovation and how what we talk about new ideas and discovery shapes what we do about it.
“Language can be a way of hiding your thoughts and preventing communication” – Abraham Maslow
Innovation is one of the few concepts that offers little benefit contemplated in the abstract. We innovate on specific things with an eye to application, maybe even scaling that idea broadly. Humans innovate because the status quo is no longer satisfying, is unacceptable or has changed so we strive to come up with new ways of doing things, novel processes and tools to make the current situation a preferred one.
Thus, we are designers seeking our client, customer and creation through innovation and we do this through our words and actions — our language. Indeed, if one agrees with Marty Neumeier‘s assertion that design is the discipline of innovation and Greg Van Alystne & Bob Logan’s definition of design as “creation for reproduction” then our language of innovation is critical to ensuring that we design products and services that have the potential to reproduce beyond an idea.
Language matters in innovation.
To illustrate, lets look at how language manifests itself in the communication of ideas using an example from public health. In a paper entitled Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing communications in cancer control systems I co-authored with my colleagues Allan Best and Bob Hiatt, we looked at the way language was used within a deep and broad field like cancer control in shaping communications. This was not merely an academic exercise, but served to illustrate the values, practices and structures that are put in place to support communicating concepts and serves to illustrate how innovations are communicated.
Innovation as product
What we found was that there are three generations of cancer communications defined by their language and the practices and policies that are manifested in or representative of that language. The first generation of terms were traced up to the 1990’s and were characterized by viewing knowledge as a product. Indeed, the term knowledge products can be traced back to this period. Other key characteristics of this period include:
- The terminology used to describe communications included the terms diffusion, dissemination, knowledge transfer, and knowledge uptake.
- Focus on the handoff between knowledge ‘producers’ and knowledge (or research) ‘users’. These two groups were distinct and separate from one another
- The degree of use is a function of effective packaging and presentation presuming the content is of high quality.
The language of this first generation makes the assumption that the ideas are independent of the context in which they are to be used or where they were generated. The communication represented in this generation of models relies on expertise and recognition of this. But what happens when expertise is not recognized? Or where expertise isn’t even possible? This is a situation we are increasingly seeing as we face new, complex challenges that require mass collaboration and innovation, something the Drucker Forum suggests represents the end of expertise.
Innovation as a contextual process
From the early and mid-1990’s through to the present we’ve seen a major shift from viewing knowledge or innovation as a product to that of a dynamic process where expertise resides in multiple places and sources and networks are valued as much as institutions or individuals. Some of the characteristics of this generation are:
- Knowledge and good ideas come from multiple sources, not just recognized experts or leaders
- Social relationships media what is generated and how it is communicated (and to whom)
- Innovation is highly context-dependent
- The degree of use of ideas or knowledge is a function of having strong, effective relationships and processes.
What happens when the context is changing consistently? What happens when the networks are dynamic and often unknown?
What the paper argues is that we are seeing a shift toward more systems-oriented approaches to communication and that is represented in the term knowledge integration. A systems-oriented model views the design of knowledge structures as an integral to the support of effective innovation by embedding the activities of innovation — learning, discovery, and communication — within systems like institutions, networks, cultures and policies. This model also recognizes the following:
- Both explicit and implicit knowledge is recognized and must be made visible and woven into policy making and practice decisions
- Relationships are mediated through a cycle of innovation and must be understood as a system
- The degree of integration of policies, practices and processes within a system is what determines the degree of use of an idea or innovation.
The language of integration suggests there is some systems-level plan to take the diverse aspects within a set of activities and connect, coordinate and, to some degree, manage to ensure that knowledge is effectively used.
What makes language such a critical key to understanding innovation ecologies is that the way in which we speak about something is an indication of what we believe about something and how we act. As the quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow suggests above, language can also be used to hide things.
One example of this is in the realm of social innovation, where ideas are meant to be generated through social means for social benefit. This process can be organized many different ways, but it is almost never exclusively top-down, expert-driven. Yet, when we look at the language used to discuss social innovation, we see terms like dissemination regularly used. Examples from research, practice and connecting the two to inform policy all illustrate that the language of one generation continues to be used as new ones dawn. This is to be expected as the changes in language of one generation never fully supplants that of previous generations — at least not initially. Because of that, we need to be careful about what we say and how we say it to ensure that our intentions are reflected in our practice and our language. Without conscious awareness of what we say and what those words mean there is a risk that our quest to create true innovation ecosystems, ones where innovation is truly systems-embedded and knowledge is integrated we unwittingly create expectations and practices rooted in other models.
If we wish to walk the walk of innovation at a systems level, we need to talk the talk.
Tips and Tricks
Organizational mindfulness is a key quality and practice that embeds reflective practice and sensemaking into the organization. By cultivating practices that regularly check-in and examine the language and actions of an organization in reference to its goals, processes and outcomes. A recent article by Vogus and Sutcliffe (2012) (PDF) provides some guidance on how this can be understood.
Develop your sensemaking capacity by introducing space at regular meetings that bring together actors from different areas within an organization or network to introduce ideas, insights and observations and process what these mean with respect to what’s happened, what is happening and where its taking the group.
Some key references include:
Best, A., Hiatt, R. A., & Norman, C. D. (2008). Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing communications in cancer control systems. Patient Education and Counseling, 71(3), 319–327. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2008.02.013
Best, A., Terpstra, J. L., Moor, G., Riley, B., Norman, C. D., & Glasgow, R. E. (2009). Building knowledge integration systems for evidence‐informed decisions. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 23(6), 627–641. http://doi.org/10.1108/14777260911001644
Vogus, T. J., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2012). Organizational Mindfulness and Mindful Organizing: A Reconciliation and Path Forward. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(4), 722–735. http://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2011.0002C
Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409–421. http://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1050.0133
*** If you’re interested in applying these principles to your organization and want assistance in designing a process to support that activity, contact Cense Research + Design.
Social innovations are judged by their impact, but in the quest to assess what it does we can miss the way it does it and that is where justice and the emotional connections that justice deals with come into play. Unless we consider social justice a part of social innovation we are likely to exclude as much as we include the very people we need to help bring good ideas to light and promote true social change and development.
Social innovation is most often characterized with emphasis on new ideas and products generated in social ways. The social part of social innovation is what distinguishes it from other forms that don’t require that same social engagement.
Social innovation has been defined in the following ways such as:
” a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.” – Phills, Deiglmeier, & Miller (2008)
“Social innovation is an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system.”
“Social innovation is a new idea that meets social goals” — Geoff Mulgan (2013)
In all of these definitions the emphasis is on the new idea and the social environment in which that idea is cast. The first of these definitions above is the most detailed and includes mention of those new ideas being more just than those that are being replaced. Frances Westley’s definition speaks to authority flows and Mulgan’s addresses social goals. How social innovation addresses justice, authority flows and social goals is not suggested in these definitions. Indeed, a review of the literature and popular discourse on social innovation finds remarkably little mention of social justice.
Perhaps it is because there is an assumption that social innovation is a positive thing for society that justice is simply assumed to be part of the act. Yet, that is hardly the case in practice. While we may use terms like participatory, engagement, and co-creation in our discussion of social innovation, the manner in which society is part of the process and involved is not well-articulated or is described in vague terms such as “engage diversity”. What does that actually mean? And what does this mean for our connection to community?
The emotional connection
Part of the problem is that innovation gets defined in terms of the product produced and the methods of engagement used to produce that innovation. What doesn’t get discussed is the emotional connection to the innovation and the way that guides participation and engagement. That emotional connection is what sits at the seat of justice.
“Full membership in a community depends on certain feelings, and these feelings are easily starved. A community is a circle of respect, and respect is felt. When any of us don’t feel respected by the community, we withdraw”
Paul Woodruff’s book the Ajax Dilemma explores the matter of social justice and one can’t help but think of how we often neglect this important concept and the emotional way in which people connect to their community or are excluded from that community via social innovation.
Woodruff’s excellent book looks at the complex relationship between people, their community and the means that hold them together, which is justice. He maintains:
“The purpose of justice is to maintain the integrity of a community. It’s not merely what you decide that matters, but how you decide it, and how you communicate the decision”
For social innovation this means ensuring that our ideas are not only sound, but that we have generated them in a manner that promotes justice within the community and that we are clear in how we communicate the purpose and impact of our innovation to the world. This challenges the impression that good ideas are self-evident and that the ends justify the means even if they are well-intended and co-creative. This means that the innovation itself needs to fit and enhance the integrity of the community while simultaneously challenging it.
The communication imperative
The last part of Woodruff’s quote above is the piece that ties justice to making our innovations social. It’s not enough to engage others in our innovation efforts, its about communicating what we’re doing to those that are participating and those that are not at the same time. It means evaluating what we do and documenting what decisions we make along the way to ensure that we make our ideas and their implications transparent to others because, ultimately, an innovation that seeks to transform society is one that won’t always involve everyone, but it needs to consider them.
That consideration provides that emotional attachment between individuals and the ideas that we generate to serve the society in which those societies belong. In doing so we create these new ideas that preserve integrity while pushing the bounds of what communities are and the status quo that isn’t always serving the best interests of society. By communicating ourselves and our intentions and putting justice at the heart of what we do social innovators are more likely to do well and do good at the same time.
(For those interested in learning more about Paul Woodruff’s perspective the lecture below gives a sense of what justice means in general as he discusses what the Ajax dilemma really is).
Evaluation is supposed to be driven by a program’s needs and activities, but that isn’t always the case. What happens when the need for numbers, metrics, ‘outcomes’ and data shape the very activities programs do and how that changes everything is something that is worth paying some attention to.
Since the Second World War we’ve seen a gradual shift towards what has been called presence of neo-liberal values across social institutions, companies, government and society. This approach to the world is characterized, among other things, by its focus on personal and economic efficiency, freedom, and policies that support actions that encourage both. At certain levels of analysis, these policies have rather obvious benefits.
Who wouldn’t like to have more choice, more freedom, more perceived control and derive more value from their products, services and outputs? Not many I suspect. Certainly not me.
Yet, when these practices move to different levels and systems they start to produce enormous complications that are at odds with — and produce distortions of — the very values that they espouse. We’ve seen the same happen with other value systems that have produced social situations that are highly beneficial in some contexts and oppressive and toxic in others – capitalism and socialism both fit this bill.
Invisible tails and wags
What makes ‘isms’ so powerful is that they can become so prevalent that their purpose, value and opportunity stop being questioned at all. It is here that the tail starts to wag the dog.
Take our economy (or THE economy as it is somewhat referred to). An economy is intended to be a facilitator and product of activities used to create certain types of value in a society. We work and produce goods (or ideas), exchange and trade them for different things, and these allow us to fulfill certain human goals. It can take various shapes, be regulated more or less, and can operate at multiple scales, but it is a human construction — we invented it. Sometimes this gets forgotten and in times when we use the economy to justify behaviour we forget that it is our behaviour that is the economy.
We see over and again with neoliberalism (which is among the most dominant societal ‘ism’ of the past 50 years in the West and more reflected globally all the time) taken at the broadest level, the economy becomes the central feature of our social systems rather than a byproduct of what we do as social beings. Thus, things like goods, experiences, relations and so on we used to consider as having some type of inherent value suddenly become transformed into objects that judgements can be made.
The role of systems
This can make sense where there are purpose-driven reasons to assign particular value scores to something, but the nature of value is tied to the systems that surround what is valued. If we are dealing with simple systems, those where there are clear cause-and-effect connections between the product or service under scrutiny and its ability to achieve its purpose, then valuation measurement makes sense. We can assert that X brand of laundry detergent is better than Y on the basis of Z. We can conduct experiments, trials and repeated measures that can compare across conditions.
It is also safe to make an assumption of value based on the product’s purpose that can be generalized. In other words, our reason for using the product is clear and relatively unambiguous (e.g., to clean clothes using the above example). There may be additional reasons for choosing X brand over Y, but most of those reasons can be also controlled for and understood discretely (e.g., scent, price, size, bottle shape etc..).
This kind of thinking breaks down in complex systems. And to make it even more complex, it breaks down imperfectly so we have simple systems interwoven within complex ones. We have humans using simple products and services that operate in new, innovative and complex conditions. Unfortunately, what comes with simple systems is simple thinking. Because they are — by their nature — simple, these system dynamics are easy to understand. Returning to our example of the economy, classical micro-economic models of supply and demand as illustrated below.
Relationships and the systems that surround them
Using this model, we can do a reasonable job of predicting influence, ascertaining value and hypothesizing relationships between both.
In complex systems, the value links are often in flux, dynamic, and relative requiring a form of adaptive evaluation like developmental evaluation. But that doesn’t happen as much as it should, mostly because of a failure to question the systems and their influence. Without questioning the values and value that systems create — the isms that were mentioned earlier — and their supposed connection to outcomes, we risk measuring things that have no clear connection to value and worse, we create systems that get designed around these ineffective measures.
What this manifests itself in is mindless bureaucracy, useless meetings, pompous and intelligible titles, and innovation-squashing regulations that get divorced from the purpose that they are meant to solve. And in doing so, this undermines the potential benefit that the original purpose of a bureaucracy (to document and create an organizational memory to guide decisions), meetings (to discuss and share ideas and solve problems), titles (to denote role and responsibility — although these aren’t nearly as useful as people think in the modern organization), and regulations (to provide a systems lens to constrain uncoordinated individual actions from creating systems problems like the Tragedy of the Commons).
More importantly, this line of thinking also focuses us on measuring the things that don’t count. And as often quoted and misquoted, the phrase that is apt is:
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.
Counting what counts
It is critical to be mindful of the purpose — or to reconnect, rediscover, reinvent and reflect upon the purposes we create lest we allow our work to be driven by isms. Evaluators and their program clients and partners need to stand back and ask themselves: What is the purpose of this system I am dealing with?
What do we measure and is that important enough to matter?
Perhaps the most useful way of thinking about this is to ask yourself: what is this system being hired to do?
Regular mindful check-ins as part of reflective practice at the individual, organizational and, where possible, systems level are a way to remind ourselves to check our values and practices and align and realign them with our goals. Just as a car’s wheels go out of alignment every so often and need re-balancing, so too do our systems.
In engaging in reflective practice and contemplating what we measure and what we mean by it we can better determine what part of what we do is the dog, what is the tail and what is being wagged and by whom.
In social innovation we are at risk of confusing our stories of success for real, genuine impact. Without theories, implementation science or evaluation we risk aspiring to travel to the moon, yet leaving our rockets stuck on the launchpad.
There is a Buddhist expression that goes like this:
Be careful not to confuse the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. *
It’s a wonderful phrase that is playful and yet rich in many meanings. Among the most poignant of these meanings is related to the confusion between representation and reality, something we are starting to see exemplified in the world of social innovation and its related fields like design and systems thinking.
On July 13, 2014 the earth experienced a “supermoon” (captured in the above photograph), named because of its close passage to earth. While it may have seemed also close enough to touch, it was still a distance unfathomable to nearly everyone except a handful on this planet. There was a lot of fingers pointed to the moon that night.
While the moon has held fascination for humans for millennia, it’s also worth drawing our attention to the pointing fingers, too.
How often do you hear “we are doing amazing stuff“when hearing about leaders describe their social innovations in the community, universities, government, business or partnerships between them? Thankfully, it’s probably a lot more than ever because the world needs good, quality innovative thinking and action. Indeed, judging from the rhetoric at conferences and events and published literature in the academic literature and popular press it seems we are becoming more innovative all the time.
We are changing the world.
…Except, that is a largely useless statement on its own, even if well meaning.
Without documentation of what this “amazing stuff” looks like, a theory or logic explaining how those activities are connected to an outcome and an observed link between it all (i.e., evaluation) there really is no evidence that the world is changed – or at least changed in a manner that is better than had we done something else or nothing at all. That is the tricky part about working with complex systems, particularly large ones. How the world is changed is subtitle of the the book by Brenda Zimmerman, Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton on complexity and evaluation in social change, Getting to Maybe. It is because change requires theory, strategic implementation and evaluation that these three leaders in such topics came together to discuss what can be called social innovation. They introduce theory, strategy and evaluation ideas in the book and — while the book has remained a popular text — I rarely see them referred to in serious conversations about social innovation.
Unfortunately, concrete discussion of these three areas — theory, strategic implementation, and evaluation — is largely absent from the dialogue on social innovation. No more was this evident than in the social innovation week events held across Canada in May and June of this year as part of a series of gatherings between practitioners, researchers and policy makers from all kinds of different sectors and disciplines. The events brought together some of the leading thinkers, funders, institutes and social labs from around the world and was as close to the “social innovation olympics” as one could get. The stories told were inspirational, the diversity in the programming was wide, and the ideas shared were creative and interesting.
And yet, many of those I spoke to (including myself) were left with the question: What do I do with any of this? Without something specific to anchor to that question remained unanswered.
Lots of love, not enough (research) power
As often happens, these gatherings serve more as a rallying cry for those working in a sector — something that is quite important on its own as a critical support mechanism — but less about challenging ourselves. As Geoff Mulgan from Nesta noted in the closing keynote to the Social Frontiers event in Vancouver (and riffing off Adam Kahane’s notion of power and love as a vehicle for social transformation), the week featured a lot of love and not so much expression of power (as in critique).
Reflecting on the social innovation events I’ve attended, the books and articles I’ve read, and the conversations I’ve had in the first six months of 2014 it seems evident that the love is being felt by many, but that it is woefully under-powered (pun intended). The social innovation week events just clustered a lot of this conversation in one week, but it’s a sign of a larger trend that emphasizes storytelling independent of the kind of details that one might find at an academic event. Stories can inspire (love), but they rarely guide (power). Adam Kahane is right: we need both to be successful.
The good news is that we are doing love very well and that’s a great start. However, we need to start thinking about the power part of that equation.
There is a dearth of quality research in the field of social innovation and relatively little in the way of concrete theory or documented practice to guide anyone new to this area of work. Yes, there are many stories, but these offer little beyond inspiration to follow. It’s time to add some guidance and a space for critique to the larger narrative in which these stories are told.
What often comes from the Q & A sessions following a presentation of a social innovation initiative are the same answers as ‘lessons learned’:
- Partnerships and trust are key
- This is very hard work and its all very complex
- Relationships are important
- Get buy-in from stakeholders and bring people together to discuss the issues
- It always takes longer than you think to do things
- It’s hard to get and maintain resources
I can’t think of a single presentation over the past six months where these weren’t presented as ‘take-home messages’.
Yet, none of these answers explain what was done in tangible terms, how well it was done, what alternatives exist (if any), what was the rationale for the program and any research/evidence/theory that underpins that logic, and what unintended consequences have emerged from these initiatives and what evaluated outcomes they had besides numbers of participants/events/dollars moved.
We cannot move forward beyond love if we don’t find some way to power-up our work.
Theories of change: The fingers and the moons
Perhaps the best place to start to remedy this problem of detail is developing a theory of change for social innovation**.
Indeed, the emergence of discourse on theory of change in worlds of social enterprise, innovation and services in recent years has been refreshing. A theory of change is pretty much what it sounds like: a set of interconnected propositions that link ideas to outcomes and the processes that exist between them all. A theory of change answers the question: Why should this idea/program/policy produce (specific) changes?
The strengths of the theory of change movement (as one might call it) is that it is inspiring social innovators to think critically about the logic in their programs at a human scale. More flexible than a program logic model and more detailed than a simple hypothesis, a theory of change can guide strategy and evaluation simultaneously and works well with other social innovation-friendly concepts like developmental evaluation and design.
The weaknesses in the movement is that many theories of change fail to consider what has already been developed. There is an enormous amount of conceptual and empirical work done on behaviour change theories at the individual, organization, community and systems level that can inform a theory of change. Disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political theory, geography and planning, business and organizational behaviour, evolutionary biology and others all have well-researched and developed theories to explain changes in activity. Too often, I see theories developed without knowledge or consideration of such established theories. This is not to say that one must rely on past work (particularly in the innovation space where examples might be few in number), but if a theory is solid and has evidence behind it then it is worth considering. Not all theories are created equal.
It is time for social innovation to start raising the bar for itself and the world it seeks to change. It is time to start advancing theories, strategic implementation and evaluation practice and research so that the social innovation events of the future foster real power for change and not just inspiration and love.
* one of the more cited translated versions of this phrase has been attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh who suggests the Buddha remarked: “just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”
** This actually means many theories of change. A theory of change is program-specific and might be identical to another program and built upon the same foundations as others, but just as a program logic model is unique to each program, so too is a theory of change.
Some fields stagnate because they fail to take the bold steps into the unknown by taking chances and proposing new ideas because the research isn’t there to guide it while social innovation has a different twist on the problem: it has plenty of ideas, but little research to support those ideas. Unless the ideas and research match up it is unlikely that either area will develop.
Social innovation is a space that doesn’t lack for dreamers and big ideas. That is a refreshing change of pace from the world of public policy and public health that are well-populated by those who feel chained down to what’s been done as the entry to doing something new (which is oxymoronic when you think about it).
Fields like public health and medicine are well-served by looking to the evidence for guidance on many issues, but an over-reliance on using past-practice and known facts as the means to guide present action seriously limits the capacity to innovate in spaces where evidence doesn’t exist and may not be forthcoming.
The example of eHealth, social media and healthcare
A good example of this is in the area of eHealth. While social media has been part of the online communication landscape for nearly a decade (or longer, depending on your definition of the term), there has been sparse use of these tools and approaches within the health domain by professionals until recently. Even today, the presence of professional voices on health matters is small within the larger discourse on health and wellbeing online.
One big reason for this — and there are many — is that health systems are not prepared for the complexity that social media introduces. Julia Belluz’s series on social media and healthcare at Macleans provides among the best examples of the gaps that social media exposes and widens within the overlapping domains of health, medicine, media and the public good. Yet, such problems with social media do not change the fact that it is here, used by billions worldwide, and increasingly becoming a vehicle for discussing health matters from heart disease to weight management to smoking cessation.
Social innovation and research
Social innovation has the opposite problem. Vision, ideas, excitement and energy for new ideas abound within this world, yet the evidence generation to support it, improve upon it and foster further design innovations is notably absent (or invisible). Evaluation is not a word that is used much within this sphere nor is the term research applied — at least with the rigour we see in the health field.
In late May I participated in a one-day event in Vancouver on social innovation research in Vancouver organized by the folks at Simon Fraser University’s Public Square program and Nesta as part of the Social Innovation Week Canada events.Part of the rationale for the event can be explained by Nesta on its website promoting an earlier Social Frontiers event in the UK:
Despite thriving practitioner networks and a real commitment from policymakers and foundations to support social innovation, empirical and theoretical knowledge of social innovation remains uneven.
Not only is this research base uneven, it’s largely invisible. I choose to use the word invisible because it’s unclear how much research there is as it simply isn’t made visible. Part of the problem, clearly evident at the Vancouver event, is that social innovation appears to be still at a place where it’s busy showing people it exists. This is certainly an important first step, but as this was an event devoted to social innovation research it struck me that most attendees ought to have already been convinced of that.
Missing was language around t-scores, inter-relater reliability, theoretical saturation, cost-benefit analysis, systematic reviews and confidence intervals – the kind of terms you’d expect to hear at a research conference. Instead, words like “impact” and “scale” were thrown out with little data to back them up.
Bring us down to earth to better appreciate the stars
It seems that social innovation is a field that is still in the clouds with possibility and hasn’t turned the lights on bright enough to bring it back down to earth. That’s the unfortunate part of research: it can be a real buzz-kill. Research and evaluation can confirm what it means for something to ‘work’ and forces us to be clear on terms like ‘scale’ and ‘impact’ and this very often will mean that many of the high-profile, well-intentioned initiatives will prove to be less impactful than we hope for.
Yet, this attention to detail and increase in the quality and scope of research will also raise the overall profile of the field and the quality and scope of the social innovations themselves. That is real impact.
By bringing us down to earth with better quality and more sophisticated research presented and discussed in public and with each other we offer the best opportunity for social innovation to truly innovate and, in doing so, reach beyond the clouds and into the stars.
Innovation is a term commonly associated with ‘new’ and sparkly products and things, but that quest for the bigger and more shiny in what we do often obscures the true innovative potential within systems. Rethinking what we mean by innovation and considering the role that quality plays might help us determine whether bigger and glossy is just that, instead of necessarily better.
Einstein’s oft paraphrased line about new thinking and problems goes something like this:
“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”
In complex conditions, this quest for novel thinking is not just ideal, it’s necessary. However genuine this quest for the new idea and new thing draws heavily upon widely shared human fears of the unknown it is also framed within a context of Western values. Not all cultures revere the new over what came before it, but in the Western world the ‘new’ has become celebrated and none more so than through the word innovation.
Innovation: What’s in a word?
A look at some of the terms associated with innovation (above) finds an emphasis on discovery and design, which can imply a positive sense of wonder and control to those with Westernized sentiments. Indeed, a survey of the landscape of actors, services and products seeking to make positive change in the world finds innovation everywhere and an almost obsessive quest for ideas. What is less attended to is providing a space for these ideas to take flight and answer meaningful, not trivial, questions in an impactful way.
I recently attended an event with Zaid Hassan speaking on Social Labs and his new book on the subject. While there was much interest in the way a social lab engages citizens in generating new ideas I was pleased to hear Hassan emphasize that the energy of a successful lab must be directed at the implementation of ideas into practice over just generating new ideas.
Another key point of discussion was the overall challenge of going deep into something and the costs of doing that. This last point got me thinking about the way we frame innovation and what is privileged in that discussion
Innovating beyond the new
Sometimes innovation takes place not only in building new products and services, but in thinking new thoughts, and seeing new possibilities.
Thinking new thoughts requires asking new or better questions of what is happening. As for seeing new possibilities, that might mean looking at things long forgotten and past practices to inform new practice, not just coming up with something novel. Ideas are sexy and fun and generate excitement, yet it is the realization of these ideas that matter more than anything.
The ‘new’ idea might actually be an old one, rethought and re-purposed. The reality for politicians and funders is often confined to equating ‘new’ things with action and work. Yet, re-purposing knowledge and products, re-thinking, or simply developing ideas in an evolutionary manner are harder to see and less sexier to sell to donors and voters.
When new means better, not necessarily bigger
Much of the social innovation sector is consumed or obsessed with scale. The Stanford Social Innovation Review, the key journal for the burgeoning field, is filled with articles, events and blog posts that emphasize the need for scaling social innovations. Scaling, in nearly all of these contexts, means taking an idea to more places to serve more people. The idea of taking a constructive idea that, when realized, benefits as many as possible is hard to argue against, however such a goal is predicated highly upon a number of assumptions about the intervention, population of focus, context, resource allocations and political and social acceptability of what is proposed that are often not aligned.
What is bothersome is that there is nowhere near the concern for quality in these discussions. In public health we often speak of intervention fidelity, intensity, duration, reach, fit and outcome, particularly with those initiatives that have a social component. In this context, there is a real threat in some circumstances of low quality information lest someone make a poorly informed or misleading choice. We don’t seem to see that same care and attention to other areas of social innovation. Sometimes that is because there is no absolute level of quality to judge or the benefits to greater quality are imperceptibly low.
But I suspect that this is a case of not asking the question about quality in the first place. Apple under Steve Jobs was famous for creating “insanely great” products and using a specific language to back that up. We don’t talk like that in social innovation and I wonder what would happen if we did.
Would we pay more attention to showing impact than just talking about it?
Would we design more with people than for them?
Would we be bolder in our experiments?
Would we be less quick to use knee-jerk dictums around scale and speak of depth of experience and real change?
Would we put resources into evaluation, sensemaking and knowledge translation so we could adequately share our learning with others?
Would we be less hyperbolic and sexy?
Might we be more relevant to more people, more often and (ironically, perhaps) scale social innovation beyond measure?
Marketoonist Cartoon used under license.
Who would have thought that failure would be held up as something to be desired just a few years ago? Yet, it is one thing to extol the virtues of failure in words, it is quite another to create systems that support failure in action and if the latter doesn’t follow the former, failure will truly live up to its name among the innovation trends of the 21st century.
Ten years ago if someone would have said that failure would be a hot term in 2014 I would have thought that person wasn’t in their right mind, but here we are seeing failure held up as an almost noble act with conferences, books and praise being heaped on those who fail. Failure is now the innovator’s not-so-secret tool for success. As I’ve written before, failure is being treated in a fetishistic manner as this new way to unlock creativity and innovation when what it might be is simply a means reducing people’s anxieties.
Saying it’s OK to fail and actually creating an environment where failure is accepted as a reasonable — maybe even expected — outcome is something altogether different. Take strategic planning. Ever see a strategic plan that includes failure in it? Have you ever seen an organization claim that it will do less of things, fail more often, and learn more through “not-achieving” rather than succeeding?? Probably not.
How often has a performance review for an individual or organization included learning (which is often related to failure) as a meaningful outcome? By this I refer to the kind of learning that comes from experience, from reflective practice, from the journey back and forth through confusion and clarity and from the experimentation of trying and both failing and succeeding. It’s been very rare that I’ve seen that in either corporate or non-profit spaces, at least in any codified form.
But as Peter Drucker once argued: what gets measured, get’s managed.
If we don’t measure failure, we don’t manage for it and nor do our teams include failure as part of their core sets of expectations, activities and outcomes and our plans or aspirations.
Failure, mindfulness and judgement
In 2010 post in Harvard Business Review, Larry Prusak commented on the phenomenon of measurement and noted that judgement — something that comes from experience that includes failure — is commonly missing from our assessments of performance of individuals and organizations alike. Judgement is made based on good information and knowledge, but also experience in using it in practice, reminding me of a quote a wise elder told me:
Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.
One of the persistent Gladwellian myths* out there is that of the 10,000 hours rule that suggests if we put that amount of time into something we’re likely to achieve a high level of expertise. This is true only if most of those 10,000 hours were mindful, deliberate ones devoted to the task at hand and involve learning from the successes, failures, processes and outcomes associated with those tasks. That last part about mindful, reflective attention or deliberate practice as the original research calls it (as so many Gladwellian myths suffer from) is left off of most discussions on the subject.
To learn from experience one has to pay attention to what one is doing, what one is thinking while doing it, and assessing the impact (evaluation) of that action once whatever is done is done. For organizations, this requires alignment between what people do and what they intend to do, requiring that mindful evaluation and monitoring be linked to strategy.
If we follow this lead where it takes us is placing failure near the centre of our strategy. How comfortable are you with doing that in your organization?
A failure of failure
Failure is among the most emotionally loaded words in the English language. While I often joke that the term evaluation is the longest four-letter word in the dictionary, failure is not far off. The problem with failure, as noted in an earlier post, is that we’ve been taught that failure is to be avoided and the opposite of success, which is viewed in positive terms.
Yet, there is another reason to question the utility of failure and that is also related to the term success. In the innovation space, what does success mean? This is not a trivial question because if one asks bold questions to seek novel solutions it is very likely that we don’t know what success actually looks like except in its most general sense.
A reading of case studies from Amazon to Apple and Acumen to Ashoka finds that their success looks different than the originators intended. Sometimes this success is far better and more powerful and sometimes its just different, but in all cases the path was littered with lessons and few failures. They succeeded because they learned, not because they failed.
Why? Because those involved in creating these ‘failures’ were paying attention, used the experience as feedback and integrated that into the next stage of development. With each stage comes more lessons and new challenges and thus, failure is only so if there is no learning and reflection. This is not something that can be wished for; it must be built into the organization.
So what to do?
- Build in the learning capacity for your organization by making learning a priority and creating the time, space and organizational support for getting feedback to support learning. Devoting a small chunk of time to every major meeting to reflecting back what you’re learning is a great way to start.
- Get the right feedback. Developmental evaluation is an approach that can aid organizations working in the innovation space to be mindful.
- Ask lots of questions of yourself, your stakeholders, what you do and the systems you’re in.
- Learn how to design for your particular program context based on feedback coming from the question asking and answering. Design is about experimenting without the expectation of immediate success.
- Develop safe-fail experiments that allow you to try novel approaches in a context that is of relatively low risk to the entire organization.
There are many ways to do this and systems that can support you in truly building the learning capacity of your organization to be better at innovating while changing the relationship you have with ‘failure’.
For more information about how to do this, CENSE Research + Design offers consultation and training to get organizations up to speed on designing for social innovation.
* Refers to ideas popularized by journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell that are based on the scientific research of professionals and distilled into accessible forms for mass market reading that become popular and well-known through further social discussion in forms that over-simplify and even distort the original scientific findings. It’s a social version of the “telephone game“. The 10,000 hour ‘rule’ was taken from original research by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues on deliberate practice and is often discussed in the context of professional (often medical) training, where the original research was focused. This distortion is not something Gladwell intends, rather becomes an artifact of having ideas told over and again between people who may have never seen the original work or even Gladwell’s, but take ideas that become rooted in popular culture. A look at citations on failure and innovation finds that the term deliberate practice is rarely, if ever, used in the discussion of the “10,000 rule”.