Category: complexity

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkingsocial systemssystems thinking

Ethics and Systemic Change

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Systems change is a goal for many social advocates — whether aimed at politics, climate change, social norms or beyond — because often it’s only through changes to the interrelationships and boundaries that contain a system can lasting shifts be noticed. With great potential and power comes a responsibility to ensure that change yields more benefits than drawbacks and that’s not as simple to determine as we might desire. 

In the week after the historic Brexit vote we’ve seen massive destabilization in the United Kingdom, Europe and markets worldwide as the British populace seeks to understand what happened and what happens next for them. In the wake of the vote we’ve seen the sitting Prime Minister David Cameron, and Remain vote advocate, announce he will be stepping down and two of the most prominent leaders of the Leave campaign — Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage — announce they would not be seeking to lead or be heavily involved in what comes next.

The resignations by Mr Cameron, who’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place, and Mr’s Johnson and Farage, who led the winning side, stung many on both sides. The argument is that they were largely responsible for what has been described as a mess and yet have opted not to take responsibility for implementing what they created. It is something of a Mary Shelley novel.

Great Britain (and Europe) will be forever changed by Brexit and it will remain to be seen what balance of positives and negatives will come from it. While even dark decisions can yield positive outcomes (that silver lining we often look for in the clouds) there is a responsibility that must come from our actions and design choices to ensuring they minimize harms.

Ethics and Systemic design (thinking)

For a field that is literally shaping the world, design discourse is remarkably devoid of conversations on ethics. Only recently did the first book appear that took ethics in design research as its topic. Yet that is design research, the amount of work on design ethics — how we choose responsibly about what to create along with how to create it (and what role, if any, designers choose to take once something has been sent into the world) is painfully thin. While there’s been a growing movement towards sustainability and environmental responsibility in product design, there’s not as much on social system design.

One area where we are seeing these discussions starting is in the area of systemic design. Systemic design is, as its name suggests, a systems-focused, design-oriented approach to changing human systems. Systemic design is not just about changing social conditions in an ameliorative approach to change, but shaping the very conditions in which those conditions arise. In many ways is it the design manifestation of community psychology. Systemic designers seek to transform the world. However, much like the (mostly) men who led the Brexit Leave campaign, there is a need to have one’s intentions clear and ensure that what is designed is responsible and responsive and that’s not what we’ve seen in that case.

This might be because motivation for change is often very blunt — perhaps based on fear or dissatisfaction — that might not have a specific focus. This is the challenge for systemic design. Systems thinking is a powerful vehicle in systemic design, however its often a tool to determine where to intervene and what could transpire if certain actions are taken once chosen, but not as good as determining what actions are best suited. This is where design thinking comes in and together the two approaches inform systemic design.

Peter Jones, a systemic designer and professor at OCADU (and colleague of mine), has written on this and draws on his experience with healthcare and the Occupy Movement as part of his work in advancing systemic design research. In his paper on systemic design principles (PDF), Jones points to the limits that design thinking approach — that solution generation aspect of systemic design — can present:

Design thinking has been influenced by rapid prototyping culture. When virtual trials and failures are cheap, multiple prototypes are less expensive than in-depth analysis and research. However, this design thinking bias leads to a short-term bias that rewards immediate responses to prototypes.

Jones adds that this approach is suitable for certain products (and arguably, system types), but that this approach can fail to address systemic problems if not critically applied:

For industrial products, those bias’ risks are minimal. However, for complex social systems a prototyping mindset evaluates component subsystems (at best) selected by a saliency bias. This bottom-up approach fails to acquire a system-level understanding and even erodes a holistic view. New system relationships are formed through iterative trials and informal sample evaluations, but current relationships are not necessarily discovered, leading to significant gaps in systemic understanding.

From design thinking to conscious creation

Systemic design, if not carefully done, can end up creating these gaps as we saw with the ‘grassroots’ movements in both the Leave and Remain campaigns in the Brexit debate.

A powerful, simple technique to determining causes and consequences of current behaviour is to ask the question ‘why’ as many times as possible. Five ‘whys’ asked on any issue will likely lead to a revelation about fundamental drivers behind a particular activity. Systemic design seeks to address change at this level as much as possible by creating, with intention and purpose (i.e., by design), structures that support and shift behaviour and thinking to transform the situation and context that can lead to a more profound and sustained change.

A corollary to this approach to understanding root causes might be the five whats? What might happen if we do X? What might happen after that takes place? And then what? And so on. This is similar to The Future,Backwards technique that Cognitive Edge has developed based on research into foresight, strategic planning and systems thinking. Just because we can change something doesn’t mean we should and wise design informed by systems thinking, strategic foresight and ethics can help us understand what ought to be done rather than simply highlight what can be done.

To that last point, a fair criticism of design is that it too often focuses on possibility without responsibility. Even on social issues we see design jams, hackathons, and ideation sessions that produce more ‘stuff’ (too often an ‘app’, as if the only solution to the worlds’ problems originate from a handheld electronic device) that is cool, sexy and disruptive without paying attention to what kind of disruption comes with that ‘solution’. A recent story on CBC Radio on the future of farming considered this as it explored how robotics are shaping how food is being produced. One of the comments made was that the ‘savings’ that often is incurred by having robots do more work is the kind of ‘lock in’ that it produces as farmers now get committed to buying, maintaining and upgrading technology for the long-term.

Conscious creation and technology adoption is something that groups like the Quakers and Amish have mastered and might be worth more of a look by more people — particularly designers. For design — and particularly systemic design — the ethics of what we make, maintain and adopt affects not only us, but all of those around us. For that reason, we need to build in ethics to our design work, by design.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about systemic design consider attending the 2016 Systemic Design conference (RSD5) in Toronto, Canada October 13-15. Registration is open until the spots are filled.

Photo credit: Sea Ice Patterns by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks NASA — as always, you rock (and space and sea and space and….) 🙂

complexityevaluationsystems thinking

Diversity / Complexity in Focus

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Diversity in focus?

 

As cities and regions worldwide celebrate Pride the role of diversity, understanding and unity has been brought to mind just as it has contemplating the British public’s choice to leave the EU with Brexit. Both events offer lessons in dealing with complexity and why diversity isn’t about either/or, but more both and neither and that we might learn something not just from the English, but their gardens, too. 

It’s a tad ironic that London has been celebrating its Pride festival this past week, a time when respect and celebration of diversity as well as unification of humanity was top-of-mind while the country voted to undo many of the policies that fostered political and economic union and could likely reduce cultural diversity with Europe. But these kind of ironies are not quirky, but real manifestations of what can happen when we reduce complexity into binaries.

This kind of simplistic, reductionist thinking approach can have enormously harmful and disrupting effects that ripple throughout a system as we are seeing with what’s happened so far in the United Kingdom, Europe and the world in the past week.

Complexity abhors dichotomies

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t

The above quote (which has many variations, including one attributed to author Tom Robbins that I like) makes light of the problem of lumping the complex mass of humanity into two simple categories. It abstracts variation to such a level that it becomes nearly meaningless. The Brexit vote is similar. Both are lessons in complexity lived in the world because they reflect a nuanced, mutli-faceted set of issues that are reduced into binary options that are clustered together.

It is no surprise that, in the days following the Brexit vote in the UK, that there is much talk of a divided, rather than a united kingdom.

Diversity is difficult to deal with and is often left unaddressed as a result. The benefits to having diversity expressed and channeled within a complex system are many and articulated in research and practice contexts across sectors and include protection from disruption, better quality information, a richer array of strategic options and, in social contexts, a more inclusive social community.

The risks are many, too, but different in their nature. Diversity can produce tension which can be used for creative purposes, liberation, insight as well as confusion and conflict, simultaneously. This as a lot do with humans uneasy relationship with change. For some, change is easier to deal with by avoiding it — which is what many in the Leave camp thought they could do by voting the way they did. The darker side of the Leave campaign featured change as an image of non-white immigrant/refugees flooding into Britain, presumably to stoke those uncomfortable with (or outwardly hostile) to others to fear the change that could come from staying in the European Union.

Staying the same requires change

The author Guiseppe de Lampedussa once wrote about the need to change even when desiring to keep things as they are, because even if we seek stability, everything around us is changing and thus the system (or systems) we are embedded in are in flux. That need to change to stay the same was something that many UK citizens voiced. What was to change and what was to stay the same was not something that could be captured by a “Leave” or “Remain” statement, yet that is what they were given.

It should come to no surprise that, when presented with a stark choice on a complex matter, that there would be deep dissatisfaction with the result no matter what happened. We are seeing the fallout from the vote in the myriad factions and splintering of both of the main political parties — Conservative and Labour — and a House of Commons that is now filled with rebellion. Is the UK better off? So far, no way.

This is not necessarily because of the Leave vote, but because of what has come from the entire process of mis-handling the campaigns and the lack of plan for moving forward (by both camps). Further complicating matters is that the very EU that Britain has voted to leave is now not the same place as it was when the Brexit vote was held just five days ago. It’s also faced with rising voices for reform and potential separation votes from other member states who saw their causes bolstered or hindered because of the UK referendum. This is complexity in action.

Tending the garden of complex systems

The English know more about complexity than they might realize. An English garden is an example of complexity in action and how it relates to the balance of order, disorder and unordered systems. A look at a typical English garden will find areas of managed beauty, wildness, and chaos all within metres of one another.

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What also makes a garden work is that it requires the right balance of effort, adaptive action, planning and compensating as well as the ability to let go all at the same time. Gardening requires constant attention to the weather, seasons, the mix of diversity within the system, the boundaries of the system itself (lest weeds or other species seek to invade from outside the garden or plants migrate out to a neighbours place) and how one works with all of it in real time.

Social systems are the same way. They need to be paid attention to and acted upon strategically, in their own time and way. This is why annual strategic planning retreats can be so poorly received. We take an organization with all it’s complexity and decide that once per year we’ll sit down and reflect on things and plan for the future. Complexity-informed planning requires a level of organizational mindfulness that engages the planning process dynamically and may involve the kind of full-scale, organization-wide strategy sessions more frequently or with specific groups than is normally done. Rather than use what is really arbitrary timelines — seen in annual retreats, 5-year plans and so forth — the organization takes a developmental approach, like a gardener, and tends to the organizations’ strategic needs in rhythms that fit the ecosystem in which it finds itself.

This kind of work requires: 1) viewing yourself as part of a system, 2) engaging in regular, sustained planning efforts that have 3) alignment with a developmental evaluation process that continually monitors and engages data collection to support strategic decision-making as part of 4) a structured, regular process of sensemaking so that an organization can see what is happening and make sense of it in real-time, not retrospectively because one can only act in the present, not the future or past.

Just as a garden doesn’t reduce complexity by either being on or off, neither should our social or political systems. Until we start realizing this and acting on it — by design — at the senior strategic level of an organization, community or nation, we may see Brexit-like conditions fostered in places well beyond the white cliffs of Dover into governments and organizations globally.

Photo Credits: The London Eye Lit Up for Pride London by David Jones and Hidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor Garden by David Catchpole both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks to the Davids for sharing their work.

complexitydesign thinkingsocial systemssystems thinking

(Re) Making our World

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

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

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

Boundary critique in complex systems

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

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

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

Co-design and its problems

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

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

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

Systemic design, boredom and critical making

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

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

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

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

complexityjournalismscience & technologysocial media

The more we get together

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As we forge ever-greater connections online to each other and the world of ideas the thinking was that we would be far better off, more tolerant, educated and wise and yet there is much evidence to suggest this isn’t the case. What does it mean to come together and how can we do this that brings us closer rather than driving us further apart? 

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be – lyric from popular song for children

Like many, I’ve grown up thinking this very thing and, for the most part, my experience has shown this to be true. However upon reflection, I’m realizing that most of this experience is related to two things that could reveal a potential flaw in my thinking: 1) I’m thinking of face-to-face encounters with others more than any other type and also 2) most of the relationships I’ve formed without aid of or post use-of the Internet.

Face-to-face interactions of any real quality are limited in nature. We only have so many hours in a day and, unless your job is extremely social or you live in a highly communal household complex, we’re unlikely to have much interaction with more than a few dozen people per day that extends beyond “hello” or something like that. This was explored in greater detail by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who determined that our social networks are usually capped at 100 – 250 individuals. Dunbar’s number (the commonly held mean number of people in these networks) is commonly considered to be 150.

Why does this matter? When we engage others online, the type of interactions and the number of ideas we engage can be far larger, or at least is certainly different in how those relationships are managed. We see comments on discussion boards, social media posts, videos and pictures shared online, and are exposed to media messages of all types and through myriad news (official, professional and otherwise) sources. Ethan Zuckerman, who I’ve written about before, has written extensively about the paradox of having such incredible access to diversity in the world and yet we often find ourselves increasingly insular in our communication patterns, choosing like-minded opinions over alternative ones.

Looking ahead by looking back at Marshall McLuhan

Journalist Nicholas Carr, who’s written extensively on the social context of technology, recently posted an interview with Marshall McLuhan from 1977 speaking on his views about where media was going and his idea of “the global village”. His piece, the global village of violence, was enlightening to say the least. In it, Carr points to the violence we are committing in this global village and how it doesn’t square with what many thought were the logical outcomes of us connecting — and does so by pointing back to McLuhan’s own thoughts.

McLuhan’s work is often a complicated mess, partly because there is a large, diverse and scattered academic culture developed around his work and thus, often the original points he raised can get lost in what came afterwards. The cautions he had around hyper-connection through media are one of those things. McLuhan didn’t consider the global village to be an inherently good thing, indeed he spoke about how technology at first serves and then partly controls us as it becomes normalized part of everyday life — the extension becomes a part of us.

As is often the case with McLuhan, looking back on what he said, when he said it and what it might mean for the present day is instructive for helping us do, just as his seminal work sought to help us do, understand media and society. Citing McLuhan, Nicholas Carr remarked that:

Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends

Electronic media, physical realities

These ‘little groups’ are not always so little and they certainly aren’t weak. As we are seeing with Donald Trump‘s ability to rally a small, but not insignificant population in the United States to join him despite his litany of abusive, sexist, inflammatory, racist, discriminatory and outwardly false statements has been constantly underestimated. Last week’s horrible mass shooting in Orlando brought a confluence of groups into the spotlight ranging from anti-Muslim, both anti-gay and gay rights, pro-gun, along with Republican and Democratic supporters of different issues within this matter, each arguing with intensity and too often speaking past each other. Later this week we saw British MP Jo Cox murdered by someone who saw her as a traitor to Britain, presumably on account of her position on the pending ‘Brexit’ vote (although we don’t yet know the motivation of the killer).

 

There are many reasons for these events and only some that we will truly know, but each matter points to an inability to live with, understand and tolerate others’ viewpoints and extreme reactions to them. The vitriol of debate on matters in the public sphere is being blamed for some of these reactions, galvanizing some to do horrible things. Could it be that our diversity, the abundance of interactions we have and the opportunities to engage or disengage selectively

If this hypothesis holds, what then? Should we start walling off ourselves? No. But nor should we expect to bring everyone together to share the tent and expect it to go well without very deliberate, persistent, cultivation and management of relationships, collectively. Much like a gardener does with her garden, there’s a need to keep certain things growing, certain things mixing, certain things out and others in and these elements might be different depending on the time of year, season, and plants being tended to. Just as there is no ‘one garden’ style that fits everywhere, there is no one way to do ‘culture’, but some key principles and a commitment to ongoing attention and care that feed healthy cultures (that include diversity).

As odd as this may sound, perhaps we need to consider doing the kind of civic development work that can yield healthy communities online as well as off. We certainly need better research to help us understand what it means to engage in different spaces, what types of diversity work well and under what conditions, and to help us determine what those ‘simple rules’ might be for bring us closer together so, like the childrens song above, we can be happier rather than what we’ve been becoming.

Complexity isn’t going away and is only increasing and unless we are actively involved in cultivating and nurturing those emergent properties that are positive and healthy and doing it by design, and viewing our overlapping cultures as complex adaptive systems (and creating the policies and programs that fit those systems), we put ourselves at greater risk for letting those things emerge that drive us further apart than bring us together.

 

Photo credit: Connections by deargdoom57 used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks deargdoom57 for sharing your work!

 

behaviour changecomplexitypublic healthsocial innovation

Confusing change-making with actual change

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Change-making is the process of transformation and not to be confused with the transformed outcome that results from such a process. We confuse the two at our peril.

“We are changing the world” is a rallying cry from many individuals and organizations working in social innovation and entrepreneurship which is both a truth and untruth at the same time. Saying you’re changing the world is far easier than actually doing it. One is dramatic — the kind that make for great reality TV as we’ll discuss — and the other is rather dull, plodding and incremental. But it may be the latter that really wins the day.

Organizations like Ashoka (and others) promote themselves as a change-maker organization authoring blogs titled “everything you need to know about change-making”. That kind of language, while attractive and potentially inspiring to diverse audiences, points to a mindset that views social change in relatively simple, linear terms. This line of thinking suggests change is about having the right knowledge and the right plan and the ability to pull it together and execute.

This is a mindset that highlights great people and great acts supported by great plans and processes. I’m not here to dismiss the work that groups like Ashoka do, but to ask questions about whether the recipe approach is all that’s needed. Is it really that simple?

Lies like: “It’s calories in, calories out”

Too often social change is viewed with the same flawed perspective that weight loss is. Just stop eating so much food (and the right stuff) and exercise and you’ll be fine — calories in and out as the quote suggests — and you’re fine. The reality is, it isn’t that simple.

A heartbreaking and enlightening piece in the New York Times profiled the lives and struggles of past winners of the reality show The Biggest Loser (in parallel with a new study released on this group of people (PDF)) that showed that all but one of the contestants regained weight after the show as illustrated below:

BiggestLoser 2016-05-03 09.17.10

The original study, published in the journal Obesity, considers the role of metabolic adaptation that takes place with the authors suggesting that a person’s metabolism makes a proportional response to compensate for the wide fluctuations in weight to return contestants to their original pre-show weight.

Consider that during the show these contestants were constantly monitored, given world-class nutritional and exercise supports, had tens of thousands of people cheering them on and also had a cash prize to vie for. This was as good as it was going to get for anyone wanting to lose weight shy of surgical options (which have their own problems).

Besides being disheartening to everyone who is struggling with obesity, the paper illuminates the inner workings of our body and reveals it to be a complex adaptive system rather than the simple one that we commonly envision when embarking on a new diet or fitness regime. Might social change be the same?

We can do more and we often do

I’m fond of saying that we often do less than we think and more than we know.

That means we tend to expect that our intentions and efforts to make change produce the results that we seek directly and because of our involvement. In short, we treat social change as a straightforward process. While that is sometimes true, rare is it that programs aiming at social change coming close to achieving their stated systems goals (“changing the world”) or anything close to it.

This is likely the case for a number of reasons:

  • Funders often require clear goals and targets for programs in advance and fund based on promises to achieve these results;
  • These kind of results are also the ones that are attractive to outside audiences such as donors, partners, academics, and the public at large (X problem solved! Y number of people served! Z thousand actions taken!), but may not fully articulate the depth and context to which such actions produce real change;
  • Promising results to stakeholders and funders suggests that a program is operating in a simple or complicated system, rather than a complex one (which is rarely, if ever the case with social change);
  • Because program teams know these promised outcomes don’t fit with their system they cherry-pick the simplest measures that might be achievable, but may also be the least meaningful in terms of social change.
  • Programs will often further choose to emphasize those areas within the complex system that have embedded ordered (or simple) systems in them to show effect, rather than look at the bigger aims.

The process of change that comes from healthy change-making can be transformative for the change-maker themselves, yet not yield much in the way of tangible outcomes related to the initial charge. The reasons likely have to do with the compensatory behaviours of the system — akin to social metabolic adaptation — subduing the efforts we make and the initial gains we might experience.

Yet, we do more at the same time. Danny Cahill, one of the contestants profiled in the story for the New York Times, spoke about how the lesson learned from his post-show weight gain was that the original weight gain wasn’t his fault in the first place

“That shame that was on my shoulders went off”

What he’s doing is adapting his plan, his goals and working differently to rethink what he can do, what’s possible and what is yet to be discovered. This is the approach that we take when we use developmental evaluation; we adapt, evolve and re-design based on the evidence while continually exploring ways to get to where we want to go.

A marathon, not a sprint, in a laboratory

The Biggest Loser is a sprint: all of the change work compressed into a short period of time. It’s a lab experiment, but as we know what happens in a laboratory doesn’t always translate directly into the world outside its walls because the constraints have changed. As the show’s attending physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga, told the New York Times:

“Unfortunately, many contestants are unable to find or afford adequate ongoing support with exercise doctors, psychologists, sleep specialists, and trainers — and that’s something we all need to work hard to change”

This quote illustrates the fallacy of real-world change initiatives and exposes some of the problems we see with many of the organizations who claim to have the knowledge about how to change the world. Have these organizations or funders gone back to see what they’ve done or what’s left after all the initial funding and resources were pulled? This is not just a public, private or non-profit problem: it’s everywhere.

I have a colleague who spent much time working with someone who “was hired to clean up the messes that [large, internationally recognized social change & design firm] left behind” because the original, press-grabbing solution actually failed in the long run. And the failure wasn’t in the lack of success, but the lack of learning because that firm and the funders were off to another project. Without building local capacity for change and a sustained, long-term marathon mindset (vs. the sprint) we are setting ourselves up for failure. Without that mindset, lack of success may truly be a failure because there is no capacity to learn and act based on that learning. Otherwise, the learning is just a part of an experimental approach consistent with an innovation laboratory. The latter is a positive, the former, not so much.

Part of the laboratory approach to change is that labs — real research labs — focus on radical, expansive, long-term and persistent incrementalism. Now that might sound dull and unsexy (which is why few seem to follow it in the social innovation lab space), but it’s how change — big change — happens. The key is not in thinking small, but thinking long-term by linking small changes together persistently. To illustrate, consider the weight gain conundrum as posed by obesity researcher Dr. Michael Rosenbaum in speaking to the Times:

“We eat about 900,000 to a million calories a year, and burn them all except those annoying 3,000 to 5,000 calories that result in an average annual weight gain of about one to two pounds,” he said. “These very small differences between intake and output average out to only about 10 to 20 calories per day — less than one Starburst candy — but the cumulative consequences over time can be devastating.”

Building a marathon laboratory

Marathoners are guided by a strange combination of urgency, persistence and patience. When you run 26 miles (42 km) there’s no sprinting if you want to finish the same day you started. The urgency is what pushes runners to give just a little more at specific times to improve their standing and win. Persistence is the repetition of a small number of key things (simple rules in a complex system) that keep the gains coming and the adaptations consistent. Patience is knowing that there are few radical changes that will positively impact the race, just a lot of modifications and hard work over time.

Real laboratories seek to learn a lot, simply and consistently and apply the lessons from one experiment to the next to extend knowledge, confirm findings, and explore new territory.

Marathons aren’t as fun to watch as the 100m sprint in competitive athletics and lab work is far less sexy than the mythical ‘eureka’ moments of ‘discovery’ that get promoted, but that’s what changes the world. The key is to build organizations that support this. It means recognizing learning and that it comes from poor outcomes as well as positive ones. It encourages asking questions, being persistent and not resting on laurels. It also means avoiding getting drawn into being ‘sexy’ and ‘newsworthy’ and instead focusing on the small, but important things that make the news possible in the first place.

Doing that might not be as sweet as a Starburst candy, but it might avoid us having to eat it.

 

 

 

behaviour changecomplexitypsychologysocial innovationsocial systems

Decoding the change genome

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Would we invest in something if we had little hard data to suggest what we could expect to gain from that investment? This is often the case with social programs, yet its a domain that has resisted the kind of data-driven approaches to investment that we’ve seen in other sectors and one theory is that we can approach change in the same way we code the genome, but: is that a good idea?

Jason Saul is a maverick in social impact work and dresses the part: he’s wearing a suit. That’s not typically the uniform of those working in the social sector railing against the system, but that’s one of the many things that gets people talking about what he and his colleagues at Mission Measurement are trying to do. That mission is clear: bring the same detailed analysis of the factors involved in contributing to real impact from the known evidence that we would do to nearly any other area of investment.

The way to achieving this mission is to take the thinking behind the Music Genome Project, the algorithms that power the music service Pandora, and apply it to social impact. This is a big task and done by coding the known literature on social impact from across the vast spectrum of research from different disciplines, methods, theories and modeling techniques. A short video from Mission Measurement on this approach nicely outlines the thinking behind this way of looking at evaluation, measurement, and social impact.

Saul presented his vision for measurement and evaluation to a rapt audience in Toronto at the MaRS Discovery District on April 11th as part of their Global Leaders series en route to the Skoll World Forum ; this is a synopsis of what came from that presentation and it’s implications for social impact measurement.

(Re) Producing change

Saul began his presentation by pointing to an uncomfortable truth in social impact: We spread money around with good intention and little insight into actual change. He claims (no reference provided) that 2000 studies are published per day on behaviour change, yet there remains an absence of common metrics and measures within evaluation to detect change. One of the reasons is that social scientists, program leaders, and community advocates resist standardization making the claim that context matters too much to allow aggregation.

Saul isn’t denying that there is truth to the importance of context, but argues that it’s often used as an unreasonable barrier to leading evaluations with evidence. To this end, he’s right. For example, the data from psychology alone shows a poor track record of reproducibility, and thus offers much less to social change initiatives than is needed. As a professional evaluator and social scientist, I’m not often keen to being told how to do what I do, (but sometimes I benefit from it). That can be a barrier, but also it points to a problem: if the data shows how poorly it is replicated, then is following it a good idea in the first place? 

Are we doing things righter than we think or wronger than we know?

To this end, Saul is advocating a meta-evaluative perspective: linking together the studies from across the field by breaking down its components into something akin to a genome. By looking at the combination of components (the thinking goes) like we do in genetics we can start to see certain expressions of particular behaviour and related outcomes. If we knew these things in advance, we could potentially invest our energy and funds into programs that were much more likely to succeed. We also could rapidly scale and replicate programs that are successful by understanding the features that contribute to their fundamental design for change.

The epigenetic nature of change

Genetics is a complex thing. Even on matters where there is reasonably strong data connecting certain genetic traits to biological expression, there are few examples of genes as ‘destiny’as they are too often portrayed. In other words, it almost always depends on a number of things. In recent years the concept of epigenetics has risen in prominence to provide explanations of how genes get expressed and it has as much to do with what environmental conditions are present as it is the gene combinations themselves . McGill scientist Moshe Szyf and his colleagues pioneered research into how genes are suppressed, expressed and transformed through engagement with the natural world and thus helped create the field of epigenetics. Where we once thought genes were prescriptions for certain outcomes, we now know that it’s not that simple.

By approaching change as a genome, there is a risk that the metaphor can lead to false conclusions about the complexity of change. This is not to dismiss the valid arguments being made around poor data standardization, sharing, and research replication, but it calls into question how far the genome model can go with respect to social programs without breaking down. For evaluators looking at social impact, the opportunity is that we can systematically look at the factors that consistently produce change if we have appropriate comparisons. (That is a big if.)

Saul outlined many of the challenges that beset evaluation of social impact research including the ‘file-drawer effect’ and related publication bias, differences in measurement tools, and lack of (documented) fidelity of programs. Speaking on the matter in response to Saul’s presentation, Cathy Taylor from the Ontario Non-Profit Network, raised the challenge that comes when much of what is known about a program is not documented, but embodied in program staff and shared through exchanges.  The matter of tacit knowledge  and practice-based evidence is one that bedevils efforts to compare programs and many social programs are rich in context — people, places, things, interactions — that remain un-captured in any systematic way and it is that kind of data capture that is needed if we wish to understand the epigenetic nature of change.

Unlike Moshe Szyf and his fellow scientists working in labs, we can’t isolate, observe and track everything our participants do in the world in the service of – or support to – their programs, because they aren’t rats in a cage.

Systems thinking about change

One of the other criticisms of the model that Saul and his colleagues have developed is that it is rather reductionist in its expression. While there is ample consideration of contextual factors in his presentation of the model, the social impact genome is fundamentally based on reductionist approaches to understanding change. A reductionist approach to explaining social change has been derided by many working in social innovation and environmental science as outdated and inappropriate for understanding how change happens in complex social systems.

What is needed is synthesis and adaptation and a meta-model process, not a singular one.

Saul’s approach is not in opposition to this, but it does get a little foggy how the recombination of parts into wholes gets realized. This is where the practical implications of using the genome model start to break down. However, this isn’t a reason to give up on it, but an invitation to ask more questions and to start testing the model out more fulsomely. It’s also a call for systems scientists to get involved, just like they did with the human genome project, which has given us great understanding of what influences our genes have and stressed the importance of the environment and how we create or design healthy systems for humans and the living world.

At present, the genomic approach to change is largely theoretical backed with ongoing development and experiments but little outcome data. There is great promise that bigger and better data, better coding, and a systemic approach to looking at social investment will lead to better outcomes, but there is little actual data on whether this approach works, for whom, and under what conditions. That is to come. In the meantime, we are left with questions and opportunities.

Among the most salient of the opportunities is to use this to inspire greater questions about the comparability and coordination of data. Evaluations as ‘one-off’ bespoke products are not efficient…unless they are the only thing that we have available. Wise, responsible evaluators know when to borrow or adapt from others and when to create something unique. Regardless of what design and tools we use however, this calls for evaluators to share what they learn and for programs to build the evaluative thinking and reflective capacity within their organizations.

The future of evaluation is going to include this kind of thinking and modeling. Evaluators, social change leaders, grant makers and the public alike ignore this at their peril, which includes losing opportunities to make evaluation and social impact development more accountable, more dynamic and impactful.

Photo credit (main): Genome by Quinn Dombrowski used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks for sharing Quinn!

About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and assists organizations and networks in supporting learning and innovation in human services through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

complexitydesign thinkingpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

Collective action, impact, intelligence & stupidity

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Collective impact is based largely on the concept that we can do more together than apart, which holds true under the assumption that we can coordinate, organize and execute as a unit. This assumption doesn’t always hold true and the implications for getting it wrong require serious attention. 

Anyone interested in social change knows that they can’t do it alone. Society, after all, is a collective endeavour — even if Margaret Thatcher suggested it didn’t exist.  Thatcherites aside, that is about where agreement ends. Social change is complex, fraught with disagreements, and challenging for even the most skilled organizer because of the multitude of perspectives and disparate spread of individuals, groups and organizations across the system.

Social media (and the Internet more widely) was seen as means of bridging these gaps, bringing people together and enabling them to organize and make social change. Wael Ghonim, one of the inspirational forces behind Egypt’s Arab Spring movement, believed this to be true, saying:

If you want to liberate society all you need is the Internet

But as he acknowledges now, he was wrong.

Ghonim’s beliefs were not illogical as he discusses in the Ted talk above. He espoused a belief about collective action that echoes what leadership consultant and author Ken Blanchard proclaims:

None of us is as smart as all of us

Blanchard’s quote is meant to illustrate the power of teams and working together; something that we can easily take for granted when we seek to do collective action. Yet, what’s often not discussed are the challenges that our new tools present for true systems change.

Complex (social) systems thrive on diversity, the interaction between ideas and the eventual coordination and synchrony between actions into energy. That requires some agreement, strategy and leadership before the change state becomes the new stable state (the changed state). Change comes from a coalescing of perspectives into some form of agreement that can be transformed into a design and then executed. It’s messy, unpredictable, imprecise, can take time and energy, but that is how social change happens. 

At least, that’s how it has happened. How it’s happening now is less clear thanks to social media and it’s near ubiquitous role in social movements worldwide.

Complicating complexity

The same principles underpinning complex social systems hasn’t changed, but what we’re seeing is that the psychology of change and the communications that takes place within those systems is. When one reviews or listens to the stories told about social change movements from history, what we see over and again is the power of stories.

Stories take time to tell them, are open to questions, and can get more powerful in their telling and retelling. They engage us and, because they take time, grant us time to reflect on their meaning and significant. It’s a reason why we see plays, read novels, watch full-length films, and spend time with friends out for coffee…although this all might be happening less and less.

Social media puts pressure on that attention, which is part of the change process. Social media’s short-burst communication styles — particularly with Tweets, Snapchat pictures, Instragram shots and Facebook posts — make it immensely portable and consumable, yet also highly problematic for longer narratives. The social media ‘stream’, something discussed here before, provides a format that tends to confirm our own beliefs and perspectives, not challenge them, by giving us what we want even if that’s not necessarily what we need for social change.

When we are challenged the anonymity, lack of social cues, immediacy, and reach of social media can make it too easy for our baser natures to override our thoughts and lash out. Whether its Wael Ghomim and Egypt’s Arab Spring or Hossein Derakhshan and Iranian citizen political movement or the implosion of the Occupy movement , the voices of constructive dissent and change can be overwhelmed by infighting and internal dissent, never allowing that constructive coalescing of perspective needed to focus change.

Collectively, we may be more likely to reflect one of the ‘demotivation’ posters from Despair instead of Ken Blanchard:

None of us is as dumb as all of us

Social media, the stream and the hive

Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Media Lab has written extensively about the irony of the social insularity that comes with the freedom and power online social networks introduce as was explored in a previous post.

The strength of a collective impact approach is that it aims to codify and consolidate agreement, including the means for evaluating impact. To this end, it’s a powerful force for change if the change that is sought is of a sufficient value to society and that is where things get muddy. I’ve personally seen many grand collaboratives fall to irrelevancy because the only agreements that participants can come up with are broad plaudits or truisms that have little practical meaning.

Words like “impact”, “excellence”, “innovation” and “systems change” are relatively meaningless if not channeled into a vision that’s attainable through specific actions and activities. The specifics — the devil in the details — comes from discussion, debate, concession, negotiation and reflection, all traits that seem to be missing when issues are debated via social media.

What does this mean for collective impact?

If not this, then what?

This is not a critique of collective activity, because working together is very much like what Winston Churchill said about democracy and it’s failings still making it better than the alternatives. But it’s worth asking some serious questions and researching what collective impact means in practice and how to we engage it with the social tools that are now a part of working together (particularly at a distance). These questions require research and systemic inquiry.

Terms like social innovation laboratories or social labs are good examples of an idea that sounds great (and may very well be so), yet has remarkably little evidence behind it. Collective impact risks falling into the same trap if it is not rigorously, critically evaluated and that the evaluation outcomes are shared. This includes asking the designer’s and systems thinker’s question: are we solving the right problem in the first place? (Or are we addressing some broad, foggy ideal that has no utility in practice for those who seek to implement an initiative?)

Among the reasons brainstorming is problematic is that it fails to account for power and for the power of the first idea. Brainstorming favours those ideas that are put forward first with participants commonly reacting to those ideas, which immediately reduces the scope of vision. A far more effective method is having participants go off and generate ideas independently and then systematically introducing those to the group in a manner that emphasizes the idea, not the person who proposed it. Research suggests it needs to be well facilitated [PDF].

There may be an argument that we need better facilitation of ideas through social media or, perhaps as Wael Ghonim argues, a new approach to social media altogether. Regardless, we need to design the conversation spaces and actively engage in them lest we create a well-intentioned echo chamber that achieves collective nothing instead of collective impact.

Photo credit “All Power to the Collective” to Mike Benedetti used under Creative Commons licence via Flickr (original artist, Graffito)