Category: innovation

art & designcomplexityinnovationsocial innovationsystems science

Seeking simplicity among complexity? Go Dutch!

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In a world awash in content and the resulting complexity that comes when it all intersects the viable options for how to manage it remain few. The Dutch De Stijl art and design movement might offer some lessons on dealing with complexity that we can apply beyond products to creating beautiful, functional, and effective services, settings and policy options.

Are you informed about the world? Chances are the answer to that question is both no and yes. There’s no question that you’re informed, the question might be more on what you’re informed about, to what extent, whether that’s of your interest (and relevance and need) and whether it’s an accurate (and useful) depiction of the world around you. That’s a much more complicated set of questions with a troubling set of answers. But one group (the Dutch) may have found some solutions… but we’ll get to that in a moment.

First let’s look at what we’re up against: data streams of distraction.

Data streams of distraction

Consider the many information sources we’re presented with daily.

Consider mine in no particular order, starting with digital : Email (multiple accounts), two course management portals, Instagram, Twitter (two accounts), LinkedIn, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Whats App, comments on my website or Facebook company page, about 2 dozen apps (on my iPhone and iPad), myriad websites I visit, text messages and, oh yes, occasionally the phone will ring. Next, there’s physical magazines, books, radio or music streams and television, too. Looking out my window I see cranes and buildings and billboards from my downtown loft apartment (and hear birds singing, above it all).

I also encounter real-life human beings, too and they have things to share and more information for me. Funny, that.

This is based on what I choose to look at (even if some choices are rather constrained, such as knowing there is only one way to reach someone and that means engaging with a particular media form I intensely dislike — I’m talking about you, Facebook). Travelling through my day, others will approach and engage, I’ll encounter new things that present themselves and will be handed, shown, flashed or spoken to plenty of other information. The volume of information keeps growing with every encounter.

Then there’s the information stored in memory, the remnants of all of those other days, experiences, and a lifetime of events and information.

This will all happen in real-time, refer to present situations, the past, many possible futures, contain truths, lies, myths and be incomplete in parts all over. It is, in short, a perfect representation of complexity. And it’s causing us a lot of problems.

Information overload

The term ‘information(al) overload’ has been coined to describe the exposure to too much information or data. Information overload and the design problems that information abundance provides has contributed to . Engineers, the builders of much of our critical infrastructure (including, ironically, information technology), know this firsthand and are growing in their concern over how they see that influencing their work. In 2012 the IEEE published a book (PDF) that looked deeply at the role of information overload where the authors note that information overload is not just when people seek new information, but when it information searches for them. The authors argue that:

Information overload “places knowledge workers and managers worldwide in a chronic state of mental overload. It exacts a massive toll on employee productivity and causes significant personal harm, while organizations ultimately pay the price with extensive financial loss”

Annual Reviews, an academic publisher of multidisciplinary research, was motivated to write a piece on information overload in their industry (PDF), noting the present problem is partly one of removing intermediaries:

“…the removal of the intermediary (typically the librarian, but sometimes the publisher) from the information seeking chain…means we are all librarians now, and have to behave like them—constantly reviewing and validating data.”

That takes a lot of work. Both of these works are from 2011-2012 and since then the continued expansion of broadband and mobile technologies, facilitated by cameras and cheaper access to technology, has only added to the amount of information available. The content generation capacity of the public has increased, the consequences are no different, and the solutions fewer.

Perversely, one of the strategies we use to battle overload is to throw more content at the problem as Tom Fishburne shows in this cartoon. We create greater complexity by adding more complexity.  This is the tension. We want to add more information to clarify, rather than strip it away, and end up doing the opposite.

Yet, there may be hope and it is rooted in pragmatism and a desire for beauty: the Dutch design movement, De Stijl.

Designing away complexity: going Dutch

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To the untrained eye (which, until a few weeks ago, was mine until I met Corrie van Walraven) the image above would suggest a modern styled home built in the last 20 or 30 years.  Rietveld Schröder House, pictured, was actually built in 1924 and reflects a Dutch design ethos that’s continued through to today of keeping things clean, organized, efficient, flexible, and beautiful.

By many standards the Netherlands has shown itself to be an expert in complexity. Holland is among the most densely populated countries in the world, manages to grow food, survive and thrive in a physical environment that shouldn’t even exist (it is, after all , situated mostly under water). They’ve become masters of adaptation, because they’ve had to be. Dutch design reflects much of this and De Stijl is a perfect example.

Though Dutch design has had many facets and movements De Stijl remains popular partly because of it’s ability to create simplicity amid complexity while creating beauty. Beauty in a designed artifact means it has an evident function, but also elicits a positive aesthetic experience. As Steven de Groot’s research has shown, beauty does not only have intrinsically attractive qualities, but its presence in organizations can lead to higher productivity, employee retention and satisfaction, and overall institutional effectiveness.

Beauty provides an experience of positivity, generally free from confusion, and often clarity. It is lack of clarity and the presence of confusion that is what complexity often brings. Anything that can increase the first and reduce the second while remaining adaptive to the realities of complexity (e.g., information seeking you out) and the data stream is something worth paying attention to; that’s where De Stijl and examples like the Rietveld Schröder House provide guidance.

The house, pictured above, was designed to create a fluid, adaptive space that could configure to a variety of situations and evolve over time. It deals with the amount of content — people, furniture — adaptively, within the boundaries of its walls, in ways that preserve form and function, yet do not get bound too tightly to any particular model. Another distinction is that it is designed to provide the least distinction between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Thus, the design feels somewhat less visible through its simplicity.

Coherence within boundaries

What the De Stijl movement does well is integrate complex ideas together, beautifully, and subscribing to a design philosophy that mirrors Dieter Rams’ belief that we should design as little as possible. De Stijl is about creating coherence – beneficial coherence in complexity terms — within boundaries. It’s work doesn’t seek to integrate the outside and inside (indeed, the criticism of the Rietveld Schröder House is that it doesn’t integrate well within the neighbourhood), but it does exceptionally well within the boundaries of its walls.

What we can take from this is the emphasis on internal coherence within our informational and organizational spaces, because those are the areas we can place boundaries. Systems thinking is all about boundary setting otherwise the focus becomes incoherent. This means being deliberate about where we set up our personal boundaries, professional boundaries and learning boundaries, but in keeping with De Stijl, keeping those flexible and adaptive and always moving, yet in a system that strives for coherence. One of the reasons information overload happens is because we have too much to create coherence with and because we’ve lost what our intention was with the information in the first place.

So a takeaway is this: be intentional about what you’re looking for and what you use. Be mindful of the things that give you coherence in your work and life and create a learning space where you can adapt. Strategy and purpose can help determine this — connect to this. Use the principles of Dutch design through De Stijl to design the conditions that support meaning making.

And if you want a great example in the personal realm, check out another creative thinker with Dutch lineage, Leisse Wilcox, on how self-love through better personal, environmental and social design (my word, not hers) can make you a happier person. That might be the best design you can create of them all.

Acknowledgements: A big thank you to Corrie van Walraven for sharing with me a piece on the De Stijl movement that inspired this post. Corrie’s a great representative of how wonderful the Dutch are and her generosity of spirit and great job as a host is greatly appreciated.

Image Credits: Author and Rietveld Schröder House by frm_tokyo used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.

complexityeducation & learningevaluationinnovationknowledge translation

You Want It Darker?

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It is poetic irony on many levels that weeks after Leonard Cohen releases his album about the threat of death that he passes on, mere days after we saw the least poetic, most crass election campaign end in the United States with an equally dramatic outcome. This points to art, but also to the science of complexity and how we choose to approach this problem of understanding– and whether we do at all — will determine whether we choose to have things darker or not. 

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Canadian-born and citizen-of-the-world poet, literary author, and songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away last night and the words above were part of his final musical contribution to the world. It is fitting that those words were penned at time not only when Cohen was ill and dying, but also as we’ve witnessed the flames of social progress, inclusion, and diversity fall ill.

Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States, a fact that for many is not only unpalatable, but deeply troubling for what it represents. A Trump presidency and the social ills that have been linked to his campaign are just the latest sign that we are well into a strange, fear-ful, period of history within Western democracies. His was not a win for ideas, policy, but personality and as a vector for many other things that simply cannot be boiled down exclusively to racism, sexism, celebrity, or education — although all of those things played some part. It was about the complexity of it all and the ability for simplicity to serve as a (false) antidote.

No matter what side of the political spectrum you sit, it’s hard to envision someone less suited to the job of President of a diverse, powerful nation like the United States than Donald Trump using any standard measure of leadership, personality, experience, personal integrity or record of public conduct. Yet, he’s in and his election provides another signal that we are living in complex times and, like with Brexit, the polls got it very wrong.

We are seeing global trade shrink at a time when globalization is thought to be at its highest. We are witnessing high-profile acts of hatred, discrimination and abuse at at time when we have more means to be socially connected across contexts than ever before. We are lonely when the world and connection is at our fingertips.  It is a time of paradox and when we have so many means to cast light on the world, we seem to find new ways to kill the flame.

It is for this reason that those who deal with complexity and seek positive social change in the world need to take action lest things get darker.

Complexity just got real

The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote are two examples that should serve to wake-up anyone who seeks greater accounting of complexity in the making of social decisions.

This is not about voting for a Republican President or for citizens wanting greater control of Britain, it’s about understanding the premise of which those decisions were based on. The amount of cognitive dissonance required to assume that Donald Trump has the qualities befitting a leader of a country like the United States is truly astounding. And just like Brexit, the theories and models proposed post-event by the same people who predicted the opposite outcome pre-event will be just words, backed with too little understanding of complexity or why things actually happened.

Those who understand complexity know that these simplistic explanations are likely to be problematic. But that doesn’t make us better people, but it does mean we have certain responsibilities.

Complexity rhetoric vs science

For those who rely on complexity science as a means of understanding these kinds of events its now time to start matching the science to our rhetoric so we can back up the talk. In crude, but truth-speaking pop culture parlance: “This shit just got real“.

As complexity and systems thinking has gained attention in social science and policy studies we are seeing much more attention to the idea of complexity. Yet, the level of rhetoric on social complexity has overwhelmed any instances of evidence of how complexity actually is manifest, emergent, harnessed, or accounted for in practical means.

This isn’t to say that the tenets of complexity for understanding social systems aren’t true, but rather we don’t know that it’s true for sure and to what extent in what situations. I write this as a true-believer, but also as one who believes in science. Science is about challenging our beliefs and only if we cannot refute our theories through our best efforts can claim something is true. Thus, if we can’t show consistently how the principles of complexity are employed to make useful choices and inform the documentation of some of the outcomes related to our actions based on those choices, we are simply making fables not flourishing organizations, communities and societies.

Showing our work

Without something more than rhetoric to back our claims up we become no better than a politician claiming to make America great again because we’ve got great ideas and will be the greatest president ever because we have great ideas.

This is not about reverting to positivist science to understand the entire world, but about responsible practice in evaluation and research that allows us to document what we do and explore the consequences in context. Powered by complexity theory and the appropriate methods, we can do this. Yet, too often I hear reference to complexity theories in presentations, discussions and papers without any reference to how its been used in real terms (and not just extracted from some other realm of science like bee colonies, natural ecosystems and simulation models) to influence something of value beyond serving as an organizing framework.

Like little kids in math class: we need to show our work.

How did complexity manifest in practice in this case? What methods were used to systematically document the process? How does this fit / challenge the theories we know? These are questions that are what responsible scientists and evaluators ask of their subjects and its time to do this with complexity, regularly and often. No longer can we give it the relatively unchallenged ride it’s been given since first being introduced as a viable contributor to social theory about 20 years ago.

The reasons have to do with what happens when we stop trying to understand complex systems.

Evaluators and social sciences’ new moral imperative

As the US election was unfolding I became aware of some prescient, wise words that were uttered by former US Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaking at a town hall prior to the last election. His words were chilling to anyone paying attention to the world today. In the quote and interview (see link) he says on the matter of government and democracy:

What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible.

His words are not just about the United States or even politics alone. The further we get from understanding how our social, economic, political and environmental systems work the more we all become vulnerable to the kind of simplistic thinking that leads us to someone that embodies H.L. Mencken’s mis-paraphrased words*:

There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong

It is our duty as scientists and evaluators to show the world the work of the programs, policies and initiatives that are aimed at changing systems — no matter what that system is. We need to be better at telling the story of programs using data and communicating what we learn to the world. It’s our role to show the work of others and to let others see our work in the process. By doing so we can make a contribution to helping address what Justice Souter meant about people not knowing who is responsible.

And like Mencken’s message, our answer won’t be one that is all that neat, but we if we approach our work with the wisdom and knowledge of how systems work we can avoid Mencken’s trap and avoid presenting the complex as simple, but we will go further and illustrate what complexity means.

It is our moral duty to do this. For if not us, who?

People do understand complexity. Anyone with a child or garden knows that there is no ‘standard practice’ that applies to all kids or any years’ crop of vegetables all the time in all cases. It’s evident all around us. We have the tools, theories and models to help illuminate this in the world and a duty to test them and make this visible to help shed that light on how our increasingly complex world works. Without that we are at risk of demagogues and the darker forces of our nature taking hold.

We have the means for people to see light through the work of those who build programs, policies and communities to illuminate our world. In doing so we not only create the candles as Leonard Cohen speaks of, but the curiosity and love that keeps that flame burning. We can’t kill the flame.

And we could use some love right now.

Thanks Leonard for sharing your gifts with us. I hope your art inspires us to reflect on what world you left to better create a world we move to.

*Mencken’s original quote was: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Alas, this doesn’t make as pithy, Powerpoint worthy comment. Despite the incorrectness of the paraphrased quote attributed to Mencken, it’s fair to say that in many organizations we see this as a true statement nonetheless.

Image Credit: Shutterstock, used under licence.

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Fail Fast, Succeed Sooner(?)

 

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Our series on paradox continues today by taking a look at the curious case of failure and how it’s popularity as a means to success represents more than just a paradox, but a series of contradictions that might just thwart the very innovation it seeks to support by embracing it. 

Failure is everywhere. Today I noticed a major research university share a post on LinkedIn celebrating failure in the workplace. This follows a recent conversation with a colleague who was thrilled that she’d received funding to study failure, having secured peer-reviewed funding to do it. If it hadn’t done so before, failure has finally jumped the shark. With all due respect to my colleague, the university and everyone who’s embraced failure, it’s use in common discourse has now reached a level where it was never intended to go and has perhaps done more to mask real solutions to problems than solve them.

The more we celebrate failure, the more likely we are to get it.

I’ve written about the failure fetishism that is sweeping over the world of business, innovation and now education. You know failure and innovation has reached its peak when scholars are getting peer-reviewed funding to study it. This in itself represents a paradox on many levels when you consider that research is intended to support innovation, yet the very process that funders typically use to support funding innovative ideas is based on the evidence of how those ideas have been used before as judged by peer review. Thus, you need to show that an innovative idea is worthy by means of evidence to support the research to generate the evidence of the innovative idea.

If you are doing peer review appropriately one could argue that you should never approve projects that are highly innovative as there simply isn’t evidence to support it. Given that the university and science have the goal of advancing new knowledge it’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of paradox.

Anxiety & failure

It’s interesting to review that post from 2011 — 5 years ago — in that much of the material seems as relevant and fresh today as it was back then. Citing a column in HBR by Daniel Isenberg, I highlighted a passage that resonated with me and what I was seeing in the discourse and use of failure in scholarship and innovation development:

Well-intentioned though they may be, these attempts to celebrate failure are misguided. Fear should not be confused with anxiety—and celebrating failure seems aimed at reducing anxiety.

Anxiety is defined as an extreme un-ease and a discomfort and stress about a situation, scenario or circumstance. While the rates of clinical anxiety and mood disorders appear to be quiet prevalent at over 11% of the adult population in Canada, the general mood of the public as expressed in the media, social media, and coffee pub conversations suggests this might be the tip of an iceberg of yet indeterminable size. Some have branded this the Age of Anxiety, drawing on the mid-19th century poem (pdf) of the same name  by W.H. Auden (suggesting our worry about worry isn’t new).

However, as digital marketing strategist and author Mitch Joel writes, digital technologies lend themselves to their own anxiety among citizens, business owners, marketers and communications professionals alike. As Joel and many others have advocated: we might need to unplug to better connect.

IBM has conducted its global C-Suite studies for years and has found that terms like collaboration, partnership, and social all emerged from the interviews and surveys across the world as priorities for business moving forward. All of these involve non-specific measures of success. Unlike profit (which is still a top-line item, even if not always spoken), the metrics of success in any of those areas are not clear and success is poorly defined. Ambiguity in the measures of your success and the uncertainty surrounding pathways to success is a recipe for anxiety.

If you don’t know what your criteria for success is, or what is expected of you, the ability to fail is low. But what often happens is that we see metrics almost arbitrarily introduced to program evaluations and research because we are using what worked before in one context into a new context. All of a sudden we have inappropriate measures and metrics meeting uncertainty meeting anxiety and all of a sudden failure becomes a big deal. Of course people are failing, but that doesn’t necessarily help the bigger picture.

The innovation problem

Innovation is something that can be enabled, but often not well-managed and the distinction is important. The former is more organic, complex and unpredictable while the latter notion implies a degree of control. The less control we have, the more anxiety we are likely to feel. But innovation is not just some word that’s sexy, it’s also about critically adapting to new conditions and new circumstances.

This Thursday in London, my friend and colleague John Wenger is leading a workshop on how to deal with Brexit for those feeling confused, upset, angry, or isolated because of the decision made by referendum this year. Through the use of sociodrama, dialogue and discussion, John helps people connect with their feelings and thoughts in novel settings and contexts to help them to ground what they don’t know in what they do. That is innovation lived out in real-time. This workshop’s not technological, it might not be easily commercialized, nor will it ‘scale’ enough to secure massive investments of venture capital, but it is a process that is at its heart about innovation: new thinking realized in practice through design to produce value.

If those participants go off and have more compassionate conversations with each other, their neighbours and with themselves as a result of this we will truly see social innovation.

Participants in processes like this are designing their life, their way of thinking and relating to each other that is new, even if the process, memories and material might be quite old and established. The confusion about the need for innovation to somehow be this (high) technological or world-reaching ‘thing’ is what limits our sense of what’s really possible and produces considerable failure. Failure would be a failure to learn and attend to what is happening, not a failure to experience hurt, shame, joy, confusion, or community.

Yet, if one were to adopt the rhetoric of failure in this case we might actually produce the very kind of failure that we, ironically are trying to avoid. Anchoring our metrics and focus on what constitutes ‘failure‘ — which is a concept that is rooted to some definition of success — leads us away from the complicated, tricky questions about what it means to innovate and adapt. It also draws us away from looking at problems of systems to problems of individuals.

Failed systems, not failed individuals

When individuals fail at not reaching an inappropriate target, it’s not a problem of them as individuals, but the system itself. Celebrating that failure might reduce some of the stigma associated with this ‘failure’, but it doesn’t address a larger set of problems.

While it may be that our interventions are aimed at individuals, it is the problem of the system in which individuals, groups and organizations are rooted that contribute to a great deal of the issues we individuals face. It’s why innovation requires platforms to be successful at a larger scale because they create new systems and ecosystems for innovations to anchor to other changes, which strengthens their power for change. If we were to look solely at individuals, divorced from context and the community/socitey in which they arise, concepts like Brexit cannot make any sense no matter how you look at them (whether voting for or against it).

Platforms and ecosystems do not fail as much as they succeed, but they do support the necessary change far more that idolizing the fact that we’ve not succeeded in achieving the wrong thing, which is more and more what failure is all about.

To borrow the phrase from design thinking: We may fail fast, but will not succeed sooner or ever if we continue to fail at the wrong thing.

Photo credit: Fail by Denise Krebs used under Creative Commons License. Thanks for sharing your art Denise!

 

 

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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.

 

 

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The hidden cost of learning & innovation

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

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

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

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

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

Learning time

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

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

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

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

Time, by design

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

It takes time.

It means….

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

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

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

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

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

Buying time

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

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

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

This can happen and it happens through design.

CreateYourFuture

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

Abraham Lincoln quote image from TheQuotepedia.

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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

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The Ecology of Innovation: Part 2 – Language

Idea Factories or ecologies of innovation?

Idea Factories or ecologies of innovation?

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?

Systems-embedded innovation

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.

Talking innovation

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.