Category: innovation

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkinginnovationpsychology

The Organizational Zombie Resistance Kit

How to thwart a zombie

How to thwart a zombie

Zombies — unaware, semi-conscious, distracted individuals — are all around us and running many of the organizations we work in or with. And just like combatting real zombies there is a need to target the head.

There is much musing about what a zombie apocalypse might look like, but anyone paying attention to what is going on around them might not have to imagine what that looks like as they’d be forgiven for thinking it is already here. Whether its people glued to cellphones while walking/running/biking/driving, asking ‘dumb’ questions immediately following the answer, or scientists lazily allowing junk to pass peer review, we are surrounded by zombie-like behaviour.

As discussed in a previous post, the zombies are already here. A zombie in this context exhibits mindless attention in a manner that restricts awareness and appreciation of one’s immediate context and the larger system to which that behaviour occurs. Zombies are great fodder for horror movies, but lousy companions on the journey of life and even worse problem solvers. Building resistance to them involves more than just aiming for the head, it means aiming for the heart (of an organization). Thankfully, there are methods and tools that can do that and thus, CENSEMaking brings you the Zombie Resistance Kit.

Building resistance to zombies

I am a professional zombie hunter. I do this by helping organizations to be more mindful. A mindful organization is aware of where it sits in the systems it inhabits, connects the current context to its past, and from those places envisions paths to futures not yet realized; it is part psychology, part strategic foresight, and part research and evaluation. How it expresses this knowledge into value is design.

Building a mindful organization — one resistant to zombies — requires inoculation through awareness. There are eight broad areas of attention.

1. Grounding is a process of holding to where you are by first revealing to yourself where that is. It is about locating yourself within the system you are in and connecting to your history. Mindfulness is often seen as being focused on the present moment, but not at the expense of the past. Understanding the path you took to get to the present allows you to see path dependencies and habits and mindfully choose whether such pathways are beneficial and how they relate to the larger system. Surfacing assumptions and system mapping are key methods and tools to aid in the process of grounding an organization.

2.  Attunement is a means of syncing yourself to the environment, your role within it (after having been grounded) and increasing your receptor capacity for sensing and learning. It is about calibrating ones mission, vision, and strategy with the system purposefully and intentionally building your awareness for understanding how harmonious they are for your organization. When attuned to what is going on — literally being tuned into the signals around you — the potential to see and process both strong and weak signals is heightened, increasing sensemaking and sensing capability at the same time. The ability to see the system and understand what it means for who you are and what you do is a terrific means of combating zombie-like thinking.

3. Discovery: Encouraging curiosity and promoting a culture of inquiry is another key means of enhancing awareness. Kids are constantly amazed by the things they see and experience everyday. The world is no less amazing today than it is was when we were kids, but the pressures to act and ‘be’ particular ways can greatly inhibit the natural curiosity that we all have about what is going on around us. Encouraging discovery and asking critical questions about what we find is a means of enhancing overall engagement with the raw materials of our enterprise. It is risky because it might call into question some long-held assumptions that are no longer true, but if people are genuinely supported in asking these questions an organization increases the number of ‘sensors’ it has in it across conditions, roles and sectors generating new, context-ready knowledge that can seed innovation and enhance overall resiliency.

4. Creativity: Application of creative methods of problem finding, framing and solving via design thinking is a means of promoting engagement and seeing systems solutions. Design thinking can be a means of creative facilitation that guides mindful development, discovery, synthesis and solution proposals. Encouraging generation of ideas of all types, firsthand research, creation of prototypes, and the opportunity to test these prototypes in practice allow for individuals to claim legitimate ownership of the problem space and the solution space. This ownership is what creates true investment in the work and its outcomes, which is what zombies lack.

5. Strategic Foresight: By envisioning not only what a design can produce in the short-term, but see a future for what is created today into the years ahead, we build commitment to long-term goals. Strategic foresight brings together all of the preceding components to start envisioning what possible futures might look like so that an organization can better prepare for them or even create them. Strategic foresight is a structured means of visualizing possible futures based on current trends, data-driven projections, models and strategic priorities of the organization and connects the present activities to the past and projects possible futures from all of this giving the zombie a reason to stop its relentless blind pursuit of an unaware present goal.

6. Focus: While creative thinking is useful in enhancing divergent perspective taking and seeing new possibilities, focus allows for attendance to the critical path and refinement of strategy to fit the context, desires, capacity and intentions. Of the many futures that a strategic foresight process might produce, focusing the energy on those that are the most beneficial, congruent with goals and desires, and synchronous with the systems that an organization engages is another way to shock mindless thinking out of its zombie-like state. A focus provides a richer experience and something to strive for.

7. Knowledge integration. Introducing possibilities, building a creative culture, enhancing receptor capacity and building a focus is not sustainable if knowledge isn’t integrated throughout the process of moving forward; it is the knowledge practice behind developmental design.  Knowledge integration involves critically examining the organizational structure and culture to observe current knowledge practices. Do you have the right tools? The ability to use those tools effectively and make sense of the findings? Is the system understood and aligned to the purpose and resources available? When your system is aligned and the structures are put into place to work with that alignment knowledge is put to use.

8. Design Cycling: Developmental design is the means of engaging in ongoing evaluation and design simultaneously, while knowledge integration is taking the learning from those products and incorporating it into the DNA of the organization. Design cycling is the process by which this unfolds and iteratively repeats over cycles of innovation. Invariably, organizations tend to drift a little and by framing the innovation process as a cycle it acknowledges that even the best ideas will reach an ebb and flow and require renewal. This cyclical process encourages us to return to the first stage. This is an approach consistent with the Panarchy approach to life cycle development in complex systems. Everything runs its course.  This approach is consistent with a natural systems perspective and a pillar of the work on sustainable development in natural systems.

This model of development and organizational awareness provides balm against zombie-like behaviour. It gets people excited, it produces visible results that can be scrutinized in a transparent way, and it heightens engagement by bringing everyone in an organization into the role of problem framing, finding and solving. It enhances accountability for everyone who are now enlisted as creators, researchers, designers, and sensemakers.

By being more aware and alive we better engage brains rather than use that grey matter as food for zombies.

For more details on using this approach with your organization contact CENSE Research + Design.

Photo credit: From Zombie Walk 2012 SP collection by Gianluca Ramahlo Misiti used under Creative Commons Licence

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Kindness Confusion in Collaboration and Co-creation

Hidden Love?

Hidden Love?

An emerging look at evolutionary behaviour is suggesting that we are better suited for survival by working together than in competition. This cooperation imperative has been called “survival of the kindness” which risks lumping affective social generosity and goodwill with effectiveness and desirability and, in doing so, risks the entire enterprise of collaboration-based efforts. 

A recent article in Mindfulness Magazine* profiled work of behavioural scientists who’ve looked at the evolutionary patterns of humans throughout the ages and see convincing evidence that the ‘survival of the fittest’ metaphorical explanation for human development is misleading at best or even outwardly wrong altogether. We are socially better off working together than competing.

What I found disconcerting was the term Survival of the Kindest which has been used multiple times in Mindful in its early issues.  As attractive as this idea is, it a lens. In the photo above love is visible if you look for it. Indeed the lens is literally focusing on what the photographer wants you to see – love. That we see love through the trees (and in our work) is notable, but it doesn’t mean that collaboration and co-operation is necessarily a loving act. In the case of the picture, it draws our attention past the man sleeping on the street with his cardboard donation placemat lying beside him.

And that might be the problem. Framing co-work as necessarily imbued with a set of qualities like kindness or love may mean we miss seeing the forest, the trees or the people sleeping beneath them.

Why might this idea of linking the two together so emphatically be problematic? After all, who doesn’t want a little more love in their life?

Cruelty of kindness

There are many utilitarian reasons to cooperate, co-create and work with others, which has a lot to do with the kind of problems we face. Collaboration requires co-labour — working together. For complex (sometimes wicked) problems that is usually necessary. For complicated problems (or very large ones like healthcare [PDF] ) that is also usually required. But for simple problems and small ones — of which we encounter in abundance every day and are often embedded within larger, complex ones — working alone might be sufficient and efficient.

Working together requires a set of skills that are often assumed, but not rarely paired up. Working together requires different motivational structures, leadership and coordination efforts than working independently. These are not better or worse, just different.

Coupling kindness with the ‘co’s’ of working together — cooperation, collaboration and co-creation — takes a human experience of generosity and imposes it on our work situations**. Certain contemplative traditions emphasize the role in kindness, generosity and love in all things and that embracing kindness in our daily lives we are enabling greater equanimity with our world around us. But to equate one with the other is to betray another saying from the Buddhist tradition:

Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself

Thus, do not confuse bringing kindness to co-work with cooperation, collaboration or co-creation itself.

Another issue is the ‘est‘ part of the term survival of the kindest. By placing kindness on some form of evaluative gradient where one is either more or less kind we impose a very specific set of cultural parameters around our work. Who is the kindest in the bunch? Assuming we had some tool to measure kindness (which I don’t know exists) are we really comfortable rating and ranking people’s ability to be kind in their work? Should we reward the kindest of the bunch? What does it mean if we are not the kindest?

You can see where this might go.

Working smarter is kind

Min Basadur and his colleagues have been studying work preferences for over 20 years doing research on how people work together. His Basadur profile (below) is based on rigorous psychometric tested data and allows teams to see what kind of preferences their members have for certain types of work. These are preferences only, not value or competence judgements and amenable to change over time. It can be a tool to validate the way we like to work and help us guide how we work with others as well as potentially identify what parts of the problem finding, framing and solving process so important to design and complexity that we might be best suited for.

For example, some are more amenable to generating ideas, while others are more comfortable organizing them or putting together plans of action that are useful to those who are ready to act. While everyone draws on each quadrant in their life, there are spaces where they feel more at home and what the Basadur profile does is help us identify those so we can use our talents well and provide guidance on areas we might wish to develop. I’ve used the Basadur profile with my own work, my academic learning and with clients to helpful effect in spotting problems. Like anything that can ‘type’ people it needs to be used with care and like the Buddhist quote above, it is important to remember that this is pointing to something (work preference) as opposed to being those things.

The Basadur Profile

The Basadur Profile

Just as the Basadur profile shows preferences for certain type of work there are also aptitudes for certain kinds of work that leverage these preferences, for leadership, and for social engagement. Some are better working in groups and some just prefer it.

Collaboration and it’s co-siblings are frequently touted as desirable, positive qualities, yet like many forms of work it is the context in which they are used that matters as much as whether they are used. Certain problems — as mentioned above — are more likely to need co-work to address, but not all. Perhaps more importantly, not all facets of problem solving require co-labour; some may simply require coordination.

The personality of creative work

Co-work makes many assumptions about people’s work preferences and capabilities that are often untested. It also places certain implicit value judgements on personality type. In her popular TED talk and book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain speaks to the often hidden, but large segment of our population of people who draw energy from contemplation, solitary work, or reduced social engagement rather than other people.  As she points out, there are myths and prejudices placed on those who don’t want the attention or are quiet rather than boisterous in this age of social broadcasting. That has enormous potential implications for our work and quietly excludes those who don’t fit the profile of the innovator, the leader, the ideator or whatever archetype we hold in our cultural minds.

Just as the knee-jerk reaction of many in the social innovation community to bringing things to scale, so too is our push to collaborate and co-create everything all the time. And like scaling, there are well-intentioned motives behind this push. Working together brings in many voices to the problem and appears not to exclude people, however if those people we bring in are not as comfortable (indeed, dislike or feel uncomfortable with) working closely together or not skilled at doing so (it is a skill regardless of your personality) we are creating a new set of inequities in the process of trying to fix others.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t work together; indeed, many of the problems we face demand it. Rather, it’s worth being creative and reflective about what that means in practice and explore ways to work together closely and also apart in a coordinated manner.

How do we honestly, genuinely, and appropriately engage the voices we need and recognize their work styles, personalities, and preferences in a manner that supports the best co-creative aspects rather than imposing a work-together-at-all-cost approach that can sometimes come through in our rhetoric? How can we foster kindness in what we do organically rather than impose it as a value on our work and recognize that co-work is simply working together, not good or bad or kind or unkind?

In being clear about our intentions and how we create the conditions for us to all meaningfully contribute to social transformation efforts in our own way will be more effective in the long run. By allowing all parts of the system — the big and boisterous, the collaborative, the quiet, the solitary — to come together in ways that fit how we actually work and how we like to work we are much more likely to bring about the innovation and systems change we seek.

* link is to supporting ‘extra’s’ not the original article, which is available only through subscription.

**  By work I am referring to any activity that requires some effort to accomplish and not necessarily paid employment

Photo: Cameron Norman

Link: Basadur profile

behaviour changedesign thinkinginnovationsystems thinking

No Contest: The Cost of Crowd-based Social Innovation

The madness of crowds (sourcing)?

The madness of crowds (sourcing)?

Contests are seen by many in the social sector as a way to engage audiences and generate new thinking about important issues, yet in generating all of these contributions from the crowd are we undermining the very aims of work in social innovation when the fruits of these ideas largely remain to rot on the vine and what is the true cost of harvesting them? 

Kevin Starr, writing on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, recently pointed to the many ways in which well-meaning contests for public engagement in social innovation ideas undermine their very goals. After watching many a contest come and go I felt he was channeling my inner curmudgeon:

After years of watching and participating in this stuff, I’ve concluded that it does more harm than good—and by “this stuff” I mean the whole contest/challenge/prize/award industry. Yes, this lumps together way too many disparate things; yes, there are exceptions to everything I say here; and yes, it deserves a more nuanced discussion. That’s all true, but on the whole, I think we could dump it all and not miss a thing.

His reasoning is four-fold:

  1.  It wastes huge amounts of time.
  2.  There is way too much emphasis on ideation* and not nearly enough on implementation.
  3. It gets too much wrong and too little right.
  4. It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem.

Starr makes reference to a scenario posed by futurist Thomas Frey who comments on the false wisdom of crowds by considering the idiocy of having crowds vote on how to fly a plane as it was en route as a way of democratizing the experience of flight.

Crowds and their crowds

Crowd-based anything seems to be popular. With the rise of behavioural economics, social network influence maps, and the popularity of crowd-enabled funding projects proliferating there is much to be found for those looks at how the ‘wisdom of crowds’ . The popularity of opinion-based journalism reveals that you need not have to know much about anything you’re talking about, just having an opinion matters. Indeed, we are asking people for their opinion on things they know nothing about, yet are making enormous decisions based on feedback.

This is not about experts vs novices, it’s about knowing when expertise or more information is needed and when new, fresh thinking is necessary. The two aren’t always incompatible, but there is a place for knowing what information to trust, when and where. The madness of crowd enthusiasm has lost this subtlety.

In the case of contests, Kevin Starr remarks:

The current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing innovation reflects this fallacy that ideas are somehow in short supply. I’ve watched many capable professionals struggle to find implementation support for doable—even proven—real-world ideas, and it is galling to watch all the hoopla around well-intentioned ideas that are doomed to fail. Most crowdsourced ideas prove unworkable, but even if good ones emerge, there is no implementation fairy out there, no army of social entrepreneurs eager to execute on someone else’s idea. Much of what captures media attention and public awareness barely rises above the level of entertainment if judged by its potential to drive real impact.

There is this common notion that ideas will change the world. That’s nonsense.

Doing something with a good idea is what changes the world. It’s what Seth Godin and Scott Belsky and his group at 99u have been pushing: it’s making ideas happen that counts most. The world has never been changed by inventions that were left solely in people’s minds. Putting ideas out into the world also allows for their critique and other types of innovation through additive elements, iteration and prototyping.

Ideas themselves are plentiful, easy to cultivate and a seed, not a tree.

As the late George Carlin put so well (as he often does):

Ideas? I have plenty of amazing ideas! I have lots of ideas. Trouble is, most of them suck

There is a crowd of cheerleaders that presume crowdsourcing ideas or problem-solving will work for almost anything and that is a myth. Much of the data on effective crowd-based decision-making points to very specific circumstances and where there is an ability to average decisions. Thus predictions of movement or assessment of quantity or dichotomous outcomes are all good areas for crowdsourcing. But what has happened is that this effective use of crowds to make sense of large phenomena has been over-extracted to areas it is less adept at dealing with. There are also processes that facilitate effective ways to engage crowds to get better data.

Contests play into this mindset when they seek the ‘best idea’ from many on issues where very often people are ill-informed about the scope of the projects.

Systems thinking about impact

Some might argue that enlisting many people’s involvement in a topic is still good value because it gets people thinking about an issue. This might be true for some things, but does that thinking produce any change in something else? Starr points to another recent work by the Knight Foundation that looks at the energy that went into its contests and the wider impact that it saw when it stepped back at looked at the contests winners and losers in its totality.

The Knight Foundation recently released a thoughtful, well-publicized report on its experience running a dozen or so open contests. These are well-run contests, but the report states that there have been 25,000 entries overall, with only 400 winners. That means there have been 24,600 losers. Let’s say that, on average, entrants spent 10 hours working on their entries—that’s 246,000 hours wasted, or 120 people working full-time for a year. Other contests generate worse numbers. I’ve spoken with capable organization leaders who’ve spent 40-plus hours on entries for these things, and too often they find out later that the eligibility criteria were misleading anyway. They are the last people whose time we should waste.

Putting aside the motivation for giving to a prize, the bigger issue is what these prizes cost the social benefit sector by drawing out so much energy that ends up stored in one place, for one purpose and likely never for use again. Unlike academic science grants — which introduce their own system of waste, but generally have calls every year that allow people to rework failed project proposals — there is often a one-shot opportunity with these contests that mean creating large amounts of content from scratch to meet the idiosyncratic circumstances of the contest. Starr adds:

And it’s exploitive. For social sector organizations, money is the oxygen they need to stay alive, so leaders have to chase prizes just like they do other, more sensible sources of funding. Some in the industry justify this as a useful learning process. It’s not. Few competitions (with some notable exceptions) provide even the most rudimentary feedback. Too many of these contests and prizes seem like they are more about the givers than the getters anyway.

If we are looking at creating impact perhaps we need more systems thinking and design thinking about what it is we are intending to produce and how we can better design our initiatives to produce them. Otherwise, we’ll create much creative noise, very little innovation signal while reducing the impact of the system as a whole in the process.

* Starr uses the word ‘innovation’ in the original text, however my definition of innovation is one that necessitates implementation — you must actually do something different than before to innovate, not just have a good idea. It requires some rearrangement of the social and technological relationships to the product or service being designed.

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Developmental Design and The Innovator’s Mindset

Blackberry Swarmed By Ignorance

Blackberry Swarmed By Ignorance

Blackberry, once the ‘must have’ device is no longer so and may no longer even exist. Looking back on how the mighty device maker stumbled the failure is attributed to what was done and not done, but I would argue it is more about what was unseen and not thought. Ignorance of the past, present and future is what swarmed them and a lack of developmental design in their culture.

Today’s Globe and Mail features the above-pictured story about how and why Blackberry lost out to Apple’s iOS iPhone and Google’s Android powered phones due in large part to their focus on their stellar enterprise security system and failing to consider what would happen when competitors yielded ‘good enough’ models.  It’s a tale years in telling and what may be the beginning of the end of the once globally dominant Canadian tech leader.

Getting out

Those I’ve known who’ve worked for Blackberry describe a culture devoted to engineering excellence above all, which emphasized technical superiority and attention to the technology over the users of that technology. Perhaps if more of those engineers got out a more beyond their own circles they might have noticed a few things:

  1. Facebook, Twitter and social media sites that all seemed fun at first were quickly becoming more than just pastimes, they were being used as communications tools for everything from family and friends to work;
  2. Cameras were being used to capture photos and videos, share them and edit them (like Instagram and now Vine) for purposes beyond social, but also to take photos of PowerPoint presentations at events, brainstorming whiteboards and prototypes;
  3. The rich media experience provided through other devices meant that the keyboards were less important — typing faster and easier was being weighed against screen dimensions for videos, photos and interactive content;
  4. Workers were passionate enough about these new tools that they would bear the cost of their own phone to use these tools and carry two devices than just rely on a Blackberry if they were required to have one.

I saw this phenomena all over the place. Embedded in this pattern were some assumptions:

  1. Email was the most important form of productivity. (This might also include learning);
  2. Email was fun;
  3. Email got people communicating

Few people I know like email anymore. We tolerate it. Almost no one who is in the work world gets too few emails. Email is a useful and highly embedded form of communication; so much so as to nearly be a form of dominant design in our business communications.

What a little anthropological research on RIM’s part would have produced is some insights into how people communicate. Yes, email is the most pronounced electronic method of communication for business, but it doesn’t excite people like a video does or engage conversation like Twitter can or enable re-connection to close peers or family like LinkedIn and Facebook do. These are all platforms that were lesser served by the Blackberry model. What that means is that email is vulnerable to those things that attract people.

In complexity terms rich media is an attractor; it organizes patterns of activity around it that stimulate creativity in the system. This meant that a lot of positive energy was being directed into these new means of engagement over others and that when given the opportunity to choose and use a device that supported this engagement better people (and eventually the firms they worked for) began to opt for them over Blackberry.

Ongoing innovation

Developmental design is a process of incorporating the tenets of design thinking with developmental evaluation, strategic foresightbusiness model innovation and contemplative inquiry. It means constantly evaluating, assessing, designing and re-designing your product offerings as things change and developing a constant attentive focus on where you are, where you came from and the weak and strong signals that indicate shifts in a culture.

This is a new way of doing innovation development, evaluation and strategy, but it is the necessary ingredient in a space where there is high levels of complexity, rapid churn in the system, and high demand for action. Increasingly, this is no longer just the domain of high tech, but banking, retail, healthcare, education and nearly every system that is operating in multi-jurisdictional environments. When we (the customer, patients, students…) were very much the same, we could treat our system simply. Now the ‘we’ is different and the systems are complex.

Developmental design is the praxis of innovation.

What would Steve Jobs do?

It is interesting to note that today is the day the bio-pic on Steve Jobs is released into theatres. Jobs knew developmental design even if he never named it as such. He famously ‘got out’ in his own, unique way. He went for walking meetings rather than sat in boardrooms. He watched what people did and channeled his own passion for creating things into a company culture that was designed to create things to help people create things. To that end, he was among the most outstanding innovators of the last 50 years.

Yet, Jobs and his team were good at paying attention to where things had gone (the computer), where they were (increasing bandwidth capability and demand with the Internet), and where they were going (decentralized production). Thus we had a number-crunching machine turned it into a suite for personal creativity (Mac), which spawned a music player (iPod) and online store (iTunes), which led to a multimedia communications handset (iPhone), which inspired a handheld tablet (iPad).

Apple is the most valued tech company in the world because of that vision, one that has been questioned in light of Jobs’ passing on and new leadership in place at the company.

Blackberry is not unique. The leaderboard in consumer mobile technology has changed from Motorola to Nokia to RIM (Blackberry) to Apple to Samsung (Android) in less than 15 years. That is enormous churn in a sector that touches over three quarters of the world’s population directly (more than toilets). While perhaps an extreme case, it is becoming a model to pay attention to for other industries on different scales.

Ask yourself: Are you Blackberry today or Apple yesterday?

If you apply developmental design to your work, you’ll have your answer.

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingevaluationinnovation

Defining the New Designer

Who is the real designer?

It’s been suggested that anyone who shapes the world intentionally is a designer, however those who train and practice as professional designers question whether such definition obscures the skill, craft, and ethics that come from formal disciplinary affiliation. Further complicating things is the notion that design thinking can be taught and that the practice of design can be applied far beyond its original traditional bounds. Who is right and what does it mean to define the new designer?

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. – Herbert Simon, Scientist and Nobel Laureate

By Herb Simon’s definition anyone who is intentionally directing their energy towards shaping their world is a designer. Renowned design scholar Don Norman (no relation) has said that we are all designers [1]. Defined this way, the term design becomes something more accessible and commonplace removing it from a sense elitism that it has often been associated with. That sounds attractive to most, but is something that has raised significant concerns from those who identify as professional designers and opens the question up about what defines the new designer as we move into an age of designing systems, not just products.

Designer qualities

Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end – Sir George Cox

Sir George Cox, the former head of the UK Design Council, wrote the above statement in the seminal Cox Review of Creativity in Business in the UK in 2005 sees design as a strategic deployment of creative energy to accomplish something. This can be done mindfully, skilfully and ethically with a sense of style and fit or it can be done haphazardly, unethically, incompetently and foolishly. It would seem that designers must put their practice of design thinking into use which includes holding multiple contradictory ideas at the same time in one’s head. Contractions of this sort are a key quality of complexity and abductive reasoning, a means of thinking through such contradictions, is considered a central feature of design thinking.

Indeed, this ‘thinking’ part of design is considered a seminal feature of what makes a designer what they are. Writing on Cox’s definition of design, Mat Hunter, the Design Council’s Chief Design Officer, argues that a designer embodies a particular way of thinking about the subject matter and weaving this through active practice:

Perhaps the most obvious attribute of design is that it makes ideas tangible, it takes abstract thoughts and inspirations and makes something concrete. In fact, it’s often said that designers don’t just think and then translate those thoughts into tangible form, they actually think through making things.

Hunter might be getting closer to distinguishing what makes a designer so. His perspective might assert that people are reflective, abductive and employ design thinking actively, which is an assumption that I’ve found to be often incorrect. Even with professionals, you can instill design thinking but you can’t make them apply it (why this is the case is something for another day).

This invites the question: how do we know people are doing this kind of thinking when they design? The answer isn’t trivial if certain thinking is what defines a designer. And if they are applying design thinking through making does that qualify them as a designer whether they have accreditation or formal training degree in design or not?

Designers recognize that their training and professional development confers specific advantages and requires skill, discipline, craft and a code of ethics. Discipline is a cultural code of identity. For the public or consumers of designed products it can also provide some sense of quality assurance to have credentialed designers working with them.

Yet, those who practice what Herb Simon speaks of also are designers of something. They are shaping their world, doing with intent, and many are doing it with a level of skill and attention that is parallel to that of professional designers. So what does it mean to be a designer and how do we define this in light of the new spaces where design is needed?

Designing a disciplinary identity

Writing in Design Issues, Bremner & Rodgers (2013) [2] argue that design’s disciplinary heritage has always been complicated and that its current situation is being affected by three crisis domains: 1) professionalism, 2) economic, and 3) technological. The first is partly a product of the latter two as the shaping and manufacture of objects becomes transformed. Materials, production methods, knowledge, social context and the means of transporting – whether physically or digitally — the objects of design have transformed the market for products, services and ideas in ways that have necessarily shaped the process (and profession) of design itself. They conclude that design is not disciplinary, interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary, but largely alterdisciplinary — boundless of time and space.

Legendary German designer Dieter Rams is among the most strident critics of the everyone-is-a-designer label and believes this wide use of the term designer takes away the seriousness of what design is all about. Certainly, if one believes John Thackara’s assertion that 80 per cent of the impact of any product is determined at the design stage the case for serious design is clear. Our ecological wellbeing, social services, healthcare, and industries are all designed and have enormous impact on our collective lives so it makes sense that we approach designing seriously. But is reserving the term design(er) for an elite group the answer?

Some have argued that elitism in design is not a bad idea and that this democratization of design has led to poorly crafted, unusable products. Andrew Heaton, writing about User Experience (UX) design, suggests that this elitist view is less about moral superiority and more about better products and greater skill:

I prefer this definition: elitism is the belief that some individuals who form an elite — a select group with a certain intrinsic quality, specialised training, experience and other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight. By that definition, Elitist UX is simply an insightful and skilled designer creating an experience for an elevated class of user.

Designing through and away from discipline

Designers recognize that their training and professional development confers specific advantages and requires skill, discipline, craft and a code of ethics, but there is little concrete evidence that it produced better designed outcomes. Design thinking has enabled journalists like Helen Walters, healthcare providers like those at the Mayo Clinic, and business leaders to take design and apply it to their fields and beyond. Indeed, it was business-journalist-cum-design-professor Bruce Nussbaum who is widely credited with contributing to the cross-disciplinary appeal of design thinking (and its critique) from his work at Newsweek.

Design thinking is now something that has traversed whatever discipline it was originally rooted in — which seems to be science, design, architecture, and marketing all at the same time. Perhaps unlocking it from discipline and the practices (and trappings) of such structure is a positive step.

Discipline is a cultural code of identity and for the public it can be a measure of quality. Quality is a matter of perspective and in complex situations we may not even know what quality means until products are developmentally evaluated after being used. For example, what should a 3-D printed t-shirt feel like? I don’t know whether it should be like silk, cotton, polyester, or nylon mesh or something else entirely because I have never worn one and if I was to compare such a shirt to my current wardrobe I might be using the wrong metric. We will soon be testing this theory with 3-D printed footwear already being developed.

Evaluating good design

The problem of metrics is the domain of evaluation. What is the appropriate measurement for good design? Much has been written on the concept of good design, but part of the issue is that what constitutes good design for a bike and chair might be quite different for a poverty reduction policy or perhaps a program to support mothers and their children escaping family violence. The idea of delight (a commonly used goal or marker of good design) as an outcome might be problematic in the latter context. Should mothers be delighted at such a program to support them in time of crisis? That’s a worthy goal, but I think if those involved feel safe, secure, cared for, and supported in dealing with their challenges that is still a worthwhile design. Focusing on delight as a criteria for good design in this case is using the wrong metric. And what about the designers who bring about such programs?

Or should such a program be based on designer’s ability to empathize with users and create adaptive, responsive programs that build on evidence and need simultaneously without delight being the sole goal? Just as healthy food is not always as delightful for children as ice cream or candy, there is still a responsibility to ensure that design outcomes are appropriate. The new designer needs to know when to delight, when and how to incorporate evidence, and how to bring all of the needs and constraints together to generate appropriate value.

Perhaps that ability is the criteria for which we should judge the new designer, encouraging our training programs, our clients (and their asks and expectations), our funders and our professional associations to consider what good design means in this age of complexity and then figure out who fits that criteria. Rather than build from discipline, consider creating the quality from the outcomes and processes used in design itself.

[1] Norman, D. (2004) Emotional design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[2] Bremner, C. & Rodgers, P. (2013). Design without discipline. Design Issues, 29 (3), 4-13.

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Mythmaking about speed and scale in social innovation

Temples to the Gods of Scale?

Temples to the Gods of Scale?

Yes, but does it scale? – Question asked at nearly every presentation on a social innovation ever made*

It is maddening to see wheels get reinvented and something that is so impactful in one setting never seen outside of that context.  At a time of widespread austerity, global resource constraints, and pressing social problems it is tempting to seek answers that will get us to the biggest, boldest, most ambitious solutions the fastest.

I like to consider myself a patient person, but there are times when I want, need and demand speed. More than most** I get agitated at bureaucratic delays — the kind that draw things out for no reason other than the system it operates in is inefficient, demotivating, disorganized, too large for the scale of action, under-resourced, incompetent or some combination of them all. I’ve seen too much energy dissipated waiting for some metaphorical Godot to arrive. However, there is a difference waiting 8 weeks to get simple paperwork processed that probably takes 20 minutes of staff time and taking the time to do something thoughtfully and appropriately. In this post we look at the thinking behind this need for speed and scale.

And like many of the best intentions, these demands could be paving a road to places we don’t want to go.

Scaling social innovation

The social innovation literature suggests a near fetish for speed and scale (just do a search).

Writing on the McKinsey on Society blog, Steve Davis of PATH writes:

Unless a program can be replicated and sustained on a large scale, it will not be transformational. Identifying and scaling our best solutions has become the sector’s most important challenge. To meet that challenge, we can no longer evaluate programs simply based on how well they’ve performed in a given locality. Instead, we need to factor in their potential to achieve scale. We need to channel resources to the solutions that can produce the most good for the most people. As Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has pointed out, “Solutions to many of the world’s most difficult social problems don’t need to be invented, they need only to be found, funded, and scaled.” ***

Davis goes on to suggest that scaling can be achieved through four solutions: 1) technology innovation, 2) geopolitical shifts such as the movements in the BRIC nations, 3) cross-sector collaboration, and 4) knowledge sharing. Davis’ argument suggests that if we just shared what we knew, collaborated, used technology and connected to BRIC we’d better achieve the vision of scaling social innovation. Given the age of networked and social media, crowdsourced knowledge and funding platforms and global travel and markets it seems this strategy is already in place. It also supposes a global cultural hegemony that first assumes BRIC is a unified culture and secondly that it’s in sync with the rest of the world. These are widely false.

It may also be worth considering the phrase often attributed to Peter Drucker:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

Designing for scale

In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jenna Cullinane speaks to need to design innovations to work at scale from the beginning, rather than taking something small and building up. Looking at education, Cullinane writes:

Unfortunately, our pursuit of scale rarely has a clear road map—more often, it feels like a search for gold at the end of the rainbow. Scholar Archibald Cochrane wryly observed that scaling innovations was like working in a crematorium: So much goes in, and so very little comes out.

Scaling up a promising innovation is difficult under any circumstances. In higher education, it is especially challenging because of decentralized decision-making, antiquated incentive systems, and increasingly unpredictable funding challenges.

Given these inherent complications, it’s arguable that the basic premise of “scaling up”—that one starts with small pilot projects, and then grows the numbers of colleges or individuals served—is untenable. An alternative might be to work at scale.

Drawing on her work with New Mathways Project, a developmental mathematics education project based in Texas, Cullinane suggests three ‘big ideas’ for scaling social innovations:

  1. Design the innovation for scale. Drawing on examples from Thomas Edison and the invention of the modern electric light bulb, an example is provided for how the light bulb was designed explicitly to be used as widely as possible from its beginning, which is what helped it to be adopted so quickly.
  2. Design the initiative for scale. By engaging the intended scaled-up users and partners in the project at the pilot stage, the potential adoption and likelihood of designing the scale right is increased.
  3. Seek permission to scale. Those at all levels of the system need to see the innovation as advantageous and desirable from the beginning and consent at the start of the process rather than imposing top-down approaches.

Another approach is that favoured by Frances Westley, who argues that often social innovations need to scale out before scaling up. Writing with Nino Antadze (PDF), they look at the pathways for scaling that have shown promise. While they acknowledge the promise of scale, the complexity inherent in much of the environments in which social innovations seek to operate or influence requires a scaling process that is much less simplistic than first appears:

Action and impact in complex processes are not governed by straightforward cause-and effect relationships. A good idea, the resources to develop it, leadership capacity, and drive – all  must be combined with opportunity, which can be recognized and seized but not directly  controlled (Westley et al., 2006). Moreover, as the innovation changes and evolves through its  development, other kinds of opportunity become necessary (Bacon et al., 2008). Durability,  scale, and impact depend not only on the degree of engagement with the broader social context but upon engagement of a different kind. – Westley & Antadze -The Innovation Journal (italics in original)

What might that engagement look like and is that the same as scaling up?

Speeding into myth

I recently wrote about similar dominant ideologies in the area of design and how the dominant discourse is on rapid prototyping and how speed is not always linked to better products. What is important is taking the necessary time — whatever that time is — to make the appropriate decisions about the benefits and consequences associated with any designed product. Failure to do so could yield unintended consequences that are harmful.

Like with scale, the idea of speed is not inherently bad if well-considered. Who would not want to share the benefits of something effective with as many as possible as quickly as we can? However, the ethics of scaling social interventions depends on our ability to assess the potential impacts of our design prior to scaling. The three point approach suggested by Jenna Cullinane is one way to go about scaling up, however it seems that approach is impractical for exceptionally large, complex environments — those that Steve Davis writes about and perhaps even the kind of settings Frances Westley set her paper against.

But behind the discussion of scale is a set of assumptions that challenges us to ask a bigger question about why we push to scale so much in the first place and why it spoken about as a necessary feature of a successful social innovation. Consultant and social innovation scholar Peter Block, speaking to a webinar audience in March on stewardship, went so far as to say:

“Taking innovations to scale as being necessary is part of a patriarchal, over-rated myth” – Peter Block

Patriarchy and scale: Questioning our ambition

Small is not sexy. It is hard to market. It is nearly impossible to become a big name, make lots of money, get invited to be a keynote speaker, and sell books when you operate at a local level. These outward, extroverted qualities are often associated with patriarchal values. The sheer flippancy of the way the question posed at the start of this post is asked at gatherings of social innovators illustrates how poorly considered it is and how embedded patriarchal values are within the social innovation sector (like many others).

Just as we ask “can it scale?” could we ask of a social innovation, we could equally contemplate the question: “how can we make the impact deeper?”

Or “how can the impact linger, longer?”

Or “what is needed to nurture this innovation so that it meets the needs of all its intended to influence in its current design, equitably?”

Or “why might this intervention be inappropriate to take beyond its current context?”

These questions are not sexy, but are as valid as scale. Perhaps we need to consider why we go so quickly to scale and speed when we critically assess a social innovation. Instead of it being a ‘pat’ or standard question, why might we not ask any or all of these of everything we do?

The naivete behind the notion that we can quickly import innovations from contexts like North America (specifically, Canada and the United States) or parts of Europe and transplant them easily into Africa, India or China is striking. Too little do we imagine the opposite happening, even though there is some promise in certain innovations transporting from developing economies back to fully developed ones. Our desire for global impact is vastly out of sync with our knowledge of global influences and what actually causes change, what the outcomes are, and how they manifest over time.

A simple look at the Arab Spring movement and what it has (and hasn’t) achieved and what it hasn’t suggests there are few easy social / innovation imports that globally work at scale.

Canadian singer-songwriter Matthew Good‘s song 21st Century Living captures this quest for bigger, better ambition  by asking about the costs of ambition****. Is bigger, better?

Some further questions to consider are:

  • What does it really mean to scale?
  • What is the appropriate speed at which a scaled intervention should develop?
  • Do you know the system dynamics of the culture and economy of both settings you wish to scale in before you start building up?
  • Do you have permission?
  • Is the quest to scale driven by the genuine needs and interests of others or yours?
  • How can we recognize and celebrate social innovations that scale small and large with equal verve?
  • Can a program be transformational (as Steve Davis asks for) at a small scale?

Lastly: are we building temples to ourselves or the gods or to those we claim to serve (and is one leading us to ruins?)

Are we building temples to Gods or ruins for people?

Are we building temples to Gods or ruins for people?

* I wish this was some joke, but I can’t think of the last time I was at a presentation on a social innovation topic or program where this wasn’t asked or part of the presentation itself.

** – seriously. You want to see me go off on a rant, just talk to me about the way our health and education systems transform mundane, simple procedures into an epic, confused, incomplete and inspiration-suppressing mess by burying well-intentioned, energetic people in senseless and unnecessary paperwork.

*** – See more at:

**** – For a unique experience of this song play it (from the album Avalanche) while watching this found footage video art piece which was set to it.

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The Developmental Evaluation and Design Imperative


Developmental evaluation is an approach to evaluating programs that takes account of complexity and changing conditions, supports innovation, and serves as a vehicle for adaptation for leaders seeking feedback on how to adapt to these evolving forces. It is not simply about improving programs, but developing them.

From a technical point of view, this means working with program inputs, processes and the environmental conditions surrounding a program to optimally amplify the positive attracting forces to facilitate evolution of a program while dampening the negative attracting forces. That’s a mouthful, but basically it allows programs to see helpful trends and work with them and deter unhelpful patterns of activity in a program.

Rather than wait until these forces have exhausted themselves, developmental evaluation seeks to create levers of change with the data available to assist decision making allowing programs to be active not reactive in creating their future.

Embracing novelty and complexity


It is folly to expect that any operation within a social innovation context will produce predictable, repeatable results with high certainty. If something is truly innovative then it is, by definition, moving into new territory. When the ‘social’ component is added to the word ‘innovation’ then one of the few certainties is that complexity will emerge in some form. Complexity is unpredictable by its nature. It involves many (inter) actions simultaneously occurring within a particular time, set of boundaries and context to produce results that are highly context sensitive and unlikely to be  reproduced consistently. This is what makes complexity such a challenge from the perspective of traditional science, which seeks to isolate, control and de-construct systems into parts and explain the whole by the relationship of these parts to one another.

Complexity breaks this down and forces us to consider interactions, context and systems as wholes, embracing the paradox that each complex system is unique with actions and ‘behaviours’ that can be understood by rules that are often common across similar environments. Reconciling the rigour of science with the contingencies associated with complexity is perhaps the biggest challenge to an informed social innovation program of activity.

Resolving New Science and Practice Tensions


Why is this such an issue for social innovation?

The reason has to do with impact. If one is operating a program that has a highly defined scope, relatively focused set of objectives and anticipated outcomes – planned and unintended — that can be predicted based on a strong body of evidence from research and practice, and the means to deliver the program consistently to achieve such outcomes, the ethics of practice are clear and it is possible to use a specific set of tools to evaluate the program.

(Note: Among the things that make complexity and social innovation such a challenge is that the number of qualifiers one has to make to illustrate a point are many, hence the length of the last sentence — CN).

This is rarely the case with social innovation. Often we are implementing ideas that have promise given certain experience and evidence from one context into another that is complicated by differences in time, place, policies, population and the intersection of all of these factors. That does not mean we can’t learn from other programs, but unlike a baking recipe, it is unlikely that the same outcome will be achieved in the same way with repeated effort.

It is not that programs can assume perfect foresight on each possible consequence, but that they have mechanisms in place to understand what could happen and develop reasonable means for paying attention to what is when it is happening. It means using methods of data capture and design that enable us to see the small within the large, the whole and the parts simultaneously and building the scaffolding to allow us to graft new insights into existing program plans.

The Developmental Design Imperative


Developmental evaluation provides data and an approach to support decision making within programs and initiatives operating in complex spaces. While preferable compared with traditional formative and summative program evaluation approaches, developmental evaluation is not enough to assure social innovation success.

Without an organizational environment that has receptor capacity to receive the information gleaned from a developmental evaluation and the skills and knowledge to transform that into sustainable, optimal design decisions, it is unlikely that developmental evaluation will yield much in the way of benefits.

Developmental evaluation requires developmental design to go with it. Developmental design is a form of design thinking that systematically integrates evidence with program experience to modify and develop programs and initiatives while they are in operation. It incorporates evaluation with sensemaking and design to (re)create programs as they develop. It also involves an organizational commitment to ongoing monitoring, feedback and modification of programs using evidence and the consultative principles inherent in much of design thinking.

The Art and Science of Wholes and Parts


Like a mosaic, programs have details that may not always be obvious at first or even make sense at different scales. A mosaic is a static piece of art, whereas social innovation is art-in-practice. Developmental evaluation and developmental design are the means by which we can transform and make sense of the initiatives we create to help positively transform our world. This brings together the fields of evaluation and design thinking with the content expertise that social innovators bring with their motivation and enthusiasm to the initiatives they help create.

By combining the social psychology of program development, the science of developmental evaluation and the design thinking sensibilities that allow us to create and channel our intentions appropriately we can better support initiatives that last and respond to the realities of the day, rather than fade into the background.

It allows us to create our social innovation art at different scales and better display it for everyone to enjoy today and well into the future.