Category: systems thinking

art & designcomplexitysocial systemssystems thinking

A Beautiful Idea

MakeSomethingBeautiful_Snapseed

Is what you do, where you work, or how you organize, beautiful? Among the many words used to describe our work lives the most neglected and maybe necessary might be described that one word: it’s time to take it seriously. 

For those working in design one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand that good design isn’t just about making things pretty, but making them better, more useful, more responsive, sustainable, and impactful. Good design is too often seen as a ‘nice to have’ than a ‘must have’ and is thus invested in accordingly.

‘Beautiful’ as a concept has it even worse. In my entire working career I’ve never heard the word uttered even once on a matter of professional importance by others. That’s a shame and it speaks loudly to our present situation where innovation is hard to come by, organizations struggle to attract and retain good people, and the battle for attention — of the market and our workforce — is maybe the biggest one of them all.

But beauty is worth a look, particularly because it is, well, beautiful.

A beautiful term

What is beautiful? Consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition.

beautiful |ˈbyo͞odəfəl| adjective

pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically: beautiful poetry | a beautiful young woman | the mountains were calm and beautiful.

• of a very high standard; excellent: the house had been left in beautiful order | she spoke in beautiful English.

Note two key features of this definition: pleasing the senses or mind and high standards. The first part might sound a bit hedonistic (PDF), but when you consider what motivates us at the most base level of existence: it’s pleasure and pain. We are attracted to people, experiences, objects and environments that generate pleasure. In an environment described above when attracting talent, eyeballs — attention — is so hard to come by, why would we not amplify beauty?

The second term is high standards. It’s not enough to attract attention, we need to hold it and to inspire action, loyalty and persistence if we wish to succeed on most counts. Quality is a competitive advantage in many environments, particularly in human services where the complexity associated with poor quality decisions, processes and management are potentially catastrophic. (Enron, anyone?).

An associated term to this is aesthetics, which is defined as:

aesthetic |esˈTHedik| (also estheticadjective

concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty: the pictures give great aesthetic pleasure.

• giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty; of pleasing appearance.

Aesthetics is the more active appreciation of beauty — the application of it in the world. Organizational aesthetics is an emergent area of scholarship and practice that seeks to understand the role of beauty in the organization and its implications. Steven Taylor describes organizational aesthetics through storytelling, outlining the way he came to know something through connecting his work with his senses. His story points to different ways in which organizational aesthetics is experienced and understood, but ultimately how its sensed. It’s that attention to the senses that really sets this field apart, but also how practical it is.

Practical beauty

Organizational aesthetics are about practical realities of organizational life, brought to bear through our five senses, not just the mind. Strange that so much of what is produced in the literature and scholarship is so cognitive and devoid of discussion of any other sensory experiences. Yet, we are sensuous beings and most healthy when we are in touch (literally!) with our senses in our lives. Consider the cortical homunculus and you’ll know that we feel through a lot more than we often use in our work lives.

Organizational aesthetics is about using methods that tap into these senses and the qualities of physical, social, psychological spaces where they can be used more fully to contribute to more impactful, healthier and happier environments for humans to work and thrive. This approach is rooted in design and the hypothesis that, as human created (thus designed) constructs, the modern organization can design in beauty as much as it can design beauty away. Like design itself, organizational aesthetics is practical, above all.

Citing earlier work from Roozenberg & Eekles (1995) on the topic of design causality, Steven De Groot, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, points to the way in which design is a responsive means to helping an organization adapt.

By fulfilling functions a design satisfies needs, and gives people the possibility to realize one or more values. Transferring these fundamentals, the design of the organization needs to change as a consequence of changing roles and needs of the employees in this case.

Roozenberg and Eekles assert that form follows value and thus, as De Groot sought to explore, explicit value of beauty can produce beautiful organizations. The reasoning for this research comes from earlier studies that show that when organizations value and nurture beauty within them, employees are happier, their commitment increases and the organizational function is improved.

Dispelling beautiful myths

Despite the reams of research that has emerged from a variety of disciplines showing the connections between beauty and positive outcomes and experiences in organizations, there will be many who are still troubled by the idea of integrating the word ‘beautiful’ into the serious world of work. It may be tempted to rely on a few myths to deny its utility so let’s dispel those right away.

  1. Promotion of beauty is not denial of the ugly. Ugly is everywhere: in the news, on social media (spent time on Facebook lately?), and embedded in many of our global, social challenges. Embracing the beautiful is not about denying ugly, but drawing our focus to areas where we can create change. As I discussed in a previous post, good design is increasingly about reducing information overload and focusing on areas we can influence by creating positive attractors, not negative ones. It’s based on attention and human nature. We stop and remark on fresh cut flowers. We comment on a colleagues’ attractive new outfit or clothing item (“I love your new socks!”). We see something that is well designed and we admire it, covet it or just enjoy it. Beauty captures something of the most rarest of commodities in the modern age: attention. We won’t change the world by yelling louder, we’ll change it by speaking beautifully, better.
  2. There’s no single definition of beauty. Beauty is truly subjective. What I might find particularly beautiful is different than what someone else will, yet there is much evidence that there is also a shared sense of the beautiful. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on taste and taste-making (PDF) points to the social means in which we — fair or not — share perspectives to elevate ideas, concepts and artifacts. We are social and thus share social rules, tastes and ideas and that this might be done across cultures, within ‘tribes’ or tied to specific settings or groups, but there is always something shared.
  3. There are shared principles of beauty. What makes for a shared cultural experience is something that we refer to as simple rules in complexity studies. These are rules that may be explicit, unconscious or tacit that guide collective actions and shared experiences. It, combined with history (and something we call path dependence – a driver of stability and stasis in a system), is what allows us to have some collective appreciation of the beautiful. It’s why natural elements (e.g., plants) or use of certain colours can create a positive atmosphere and psychological experience within a setting even if those plants or colours are universally loved.
  4. There is plenty of evidence to support the case for making changes based on beauty. This ‘absence of evidence’ myth will take a while to dispel as people will see (or not see) what they want to. All I would suggest is that you take a long hard look at some of the research — in particular Steven de Groot’s doctoral work — and put that up against any other theory or program of research and explain how it’s less than — particularly given how young of a field it is. There is an entire academic journal devoted to this topic (and, like in any journal, not all the evidence is top-notch, but there’s good work in there and throughout the literature). Consider how management theory, a well-established area of scholarship, is already becoming ‘a compendium of dead ideas‘ given the paucity of solid research behind it and yet something like organizational aesthetics hasn’t taken hold? The battle is long, but adoption of some new, beautiful thinking is one that will pay off. I’ve not even started getting into the arguments for environmental and organizational psychology or design.

Change in a complex system is about creating, finding and amplifying positive attractors and dampening and eliminating negative ones (and in complex systems positive isn’t always good and negative bad, it’s about what the goals are in the system — what you wish to achieve within that system. In society, these are almost always socially negotiated, somewhat contested).

Attracting attention, ideas, and energy is one of our biggest social challenges at the moment and a huge barrier to change.

Everyone’s looking for a way to capture attention and hold it when there is a beautiful solution right under their noses.

Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike” – John Muir, 1869

Image Credit: Author

art & designcomplexityinnovationsocial innovationsystems science

Seeking simplicity among complexity? Go Dutch!

DutchCycle_Snapseed

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

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

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

Data streams of distraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information overload

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing away complexity: going Dutch

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

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

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

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

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

Coherence within boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You Want It Darker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complexity just got real

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

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

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

Complexity rhetoric vs science

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

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

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

Showing our work

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluators and social sciences’ new moral imperative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we could use some love right now.

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

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

Image Credit: Shutterstock, used under licence.

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Fail Fast, Succeed Sooner(?)

 

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiety & failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

The innovation problem

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

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

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

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

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

Failed systems, not failed individuals

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

knowledge translationsocial systemssystems thinking

When More is Less: The Information Paradox

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There is a point at which information ceases to increase knowledge and understand and begins to undermine it, creating a paradox. When information on nearly anything is more abundant than ever the choices we make about how to engage it become more important than ever. 

The Information Age has been described as the period where industrial production was replaced by knowledge production as the key driver of social and economic benefit for society. Underpinning the thinking behind the information age (and the digital revolution that accompanies it) is that having more information, more access to it and improved tools to use it to solve problems will improve life for everyone. Presented with a choice to have access to more information or less people will almost always choose more.

More information leads to more options, which equals more choice and more choice is about freedom and that is seen as an inherent social good derived from the capitalist system, which further leads to better choices, more freedom and greater happiness overall. At least, this is what we’ve been led to believe and Barry Schwartz explains this quite eloquently in the opening of talk embedded later in this post.

This is the theory of change that underpins information theory as its played out in modern capitalist societies. It’s also the source of many of our modern paradoxes and problems.

Systems of influence: The case of the ePatient

I’ve stopped going to health-related hackathons and design jams altogether for the simple reason that one can almost always guarantee that one third or more of the solutions generated will be some form of app or information-focused tool. These well-meaning, creative tools are part of a consumer health movement that is all about putting information in the hands of patients with the idea that putting information in the hands of patients is the key to empowerment and better health outcomes, except they rarely lead to this promised land.

Few are better at explaining — and indeed living — this reality than Dave deBronkart or ‘e-Patient Dave’ who has been a tireless advocate for better information tools, access and engagement on health for patients. His Ted Talk captures the spirit of the movement nicely.

With all due respect to the positive sentiments around what the ePatient movement is about, it is based on a series of assumptions about health systems, patients and health itself in ways that don’t always hold. For certain patients, certain conditions, and certain contexts having more information delivered in the right format is indeed empowering and may be life saving as deBronkart’s story illustrates. But what’s often missing from these stories of success are the many layers of assumptions and conditions that underpin information-driven healthcare.

A few years ago I interviewed a patient who spoke about his experience with health care decision-making and information technology and his response was that having more information didn’t make his life much better, rather it made it even more complicated because with more access to more information he had more responsibility related to that information.

“I don’t know what to do with it all and there’s an assumption that once I know (this health information) I am in a position to do something. I don’t have the foggiest idea what to do, that’s why I am going to see (the health professionals) because that is what their job is for. They are the ones who are supposed to know what is to be done. It’s their world, not mine.”

This case is less about deferral to authority, but about resources (e.g., knowledge, skill, time, networks, etc..) and expectations around what comes with those resources. When you are unwell the last thing you want is to be told you have even more work to do.

The assumptions around personal health information and decision-making are that people have:

1) access to the data in the first place, 2) time, 3) information gathering tools, 4) knowledge synthesis tools, 5) skill and knowledge of how to sift, sort, synthesize and sense-make all the information obtained (because it may be in different formats, incomplete, or require conversions), 6) access to the people and other knowledge and skills required to appropriately sense-make the data, 7) the resources to act on whatever conclusions are drawn from that process, 8) a system that is able to respond to the actions that are needed and taken (and in a timely manner), 9) the personal willpower, energy, and resolve to persist through the various challenges and pushback from the system to resist the actions taken, 10) social support (because this is virtually impossible to do without any support at all) and 11) the motivation and interest in doing all of this in the first place.

Dave deBronkart and his peers are advocating for patient engagement on a broader level and that includes creating spaces for patients to have the choice as to what kind of information they use or not. This also means having choice to NOT have information. It’s not about technology pushing, but having a choice about what to access, when and how. That’s noble and often helpful to those who are used to not having much say in what happens, but that, too has problems of its own.

The paradox of choice

Barry Schwartz’s work (pdf) doing and synthesizing research on consumer decision-making puts truth to this lie that more choice is better. Choice options add value only to a certain point after which they degrade value and even subvert it altogether. The problem is that choice options are often ‘all or nothing’ and may be addictive if left unconstrained as we’ll see below.

Schwartz addresses the matter of decision-making in healthcare in the above video and points to the shifting of responsibility away from experts to everyone. Perhaps it is not surprising that we are seeing an incredible backlash against expert-driven knowledge and science in a way that we’ve not seen in over a hundred years. This is at a time when the public has access to more scientific data — the same data that scientists and other experts have — through open data and open access scientific publications to validate the claims by experts.

As discussed in a previous post, another feature of this wealth of information is that we are now living in what some call a post-truth political climate where almost anything goes. Speaking on the matter of science and climate change former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin suggested that, when compared to Dr Bill Nye (the Science Guy and a rocket scientist — yes, a real rocket scientist ), she is as much of a scientist as he is.

Why have science when you can have opinion?

Distracted driving on the information superhighway

Recent data from Canada shows that year-over-year growth in smartphone use at 24% to over two thirds of the population with 85% reporting some form of mobile phone ownership. One of the key features of modern smartphones is the ‘always on’ nature of their tools and alert systems allowing you to bring maps, address books, a digital library, video and audio telephony, and the entire Internet in your pocket.

The distractions that come from the tools meant to deliver information are becoming crippling to some to the point of distancing us from our humanity itself. The title of a beautiful, sad piece in New York Magazine by Andrew Sullivan put this into perspective: I used to be a human being. (We will come back to this in a future post.)

But even if one still feels human using information technology, its a different experience of humanity than it once was. Behaviour change writer and coach Tony Schwartz (I’m not sure if he’s related to Barry), writing in the New York Times magazine, noted how his use of information technology was affecting his ability to, ironically, glean information from something simple as a book.

One evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.

He goes on to explain what is being exchanged for the books he had aspired to read:

Instead of reading them, I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”

We can laugh at the last bit because most of us have been online and lured by something we thought was impossible or ridiculous and had to inquire about. Link bait is not new or particularly clever, but it works. It works for a variety of reasons, but largely because we need to inhabit the same space to work as well as to play. The problem comes when these worlds cross-over into one another.

For example, I recently was shopping for a safe (no, it’s not to store my non-existent millions, but rather protect hard drives and enhance data security) and wanted to return to a story I’d read in the Guardian for a different blog post. As I returned to pull the URL for this I found the page looking like this:

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All of a sudden I am confronted with shopping choices amidst a quest for a URL.

Information wealth: A Faustian bargain to knowledge poverty?

“We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

Tony Shwartz’s comments above and below point to what we know about how information works in our brain. We can try and resist, but the evolutionary reasons we pay attention to things and the biological limitations we have to processing it all are most likely to trump any efforts to resist it without substantial shifts to our practices.

Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.

I wish I had the answers to what these are. Schwartz, has proposed a digital vacation. As beneficial as it was for him, he was also willing to admit that it’s not a perfect strategy and that he still spends too much time online, too distracted. But, its better.

Comedian Louis C.K. has taken to ‘quitting the internet’ altogether and, in a touching moment of reflection (as he often does with wit), notes how it has improved the relationship with his daughters.

It’s these relational aspects of the new information technology and how it impacts our world that concern me the most and creates the most troubling paradox: the tools that are designed to bring us together might just be making it harder to be together and pushing us apart from each other and ourselves. This is what I will look at in the next piece in this series on paradox.

Image credit: Information by Heath Brandon used under Creative Commons License and by author

 

 

behaviour changeevaluationpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

Three Lessons From Summer Vacation

This year I took a summer holiday — something I’ve not done in years — and was reminded what literally stepping away from your everyday life and journeying to other spaces and places does for the mind, the heart and the soul. As kids (and adults) all over head back to school and tell their stories about their summer break, here is some of what I took away from my trip to the Netherlands and England. 

This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is typically called “back to school” time as students return to their classrooms or start a new educational journey altogether. For young and old this new beginning signals a change of state and a great opening to experience, new knowledge and new people.

Among the first things students in grade school do upon their return is share what they did on their summer vacation. This year I am not returning to school, but I did have a summer vacation and in the spirit of ‘back-to-school’ I wanted to share what I learned.

My journey to the Netherlands and England allowed me to partake in sightseeing, walking for hours through some of Europe’s most beautiful towns and cities, taking in the art and history of two incredible regions, getting inspired, learning from other cultures, taking (and making) a rest, and also figuring out how to become a better football goalkeeper (more on that some other time). However, like any trip it is often about the people not just the places that make the difference and that is what I wish to focus on here.

The importance of beauty

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Jordaan District, Amsterdam, NL

Amsterdam is a beautiful city and so it was fitting that I spent one of my first days in that great European capital having lunch with author, consultant and designer, Steven de Groot talking about — among other things — beauty in organizations. Steven wrote what I believe is the most interesting doctoral theses I’ve ever read (PDF) on the role of beauty in organizations and has been developing new thinking on organizational aesthetics ever since. What makes Steven’s work so interesting is that he has taken a collection of ideas that are straightforward and simple on their own and brought them together to reveal something that is (paradoxically) incredibly obvious and yet completely unnoticed in most organizations.

Truth, beauty, goodness — these are things that we are attracted to, yet rarely identify as fundamental qualities of a high performing organization. Steven inspires people to rethink this through his writing and consulting.

I was speaking to a bartender at the local pub near my hotel about Steven’s work the evening before he and I met and the bartender went through the same stages as I did upon first encounter with the topic of organizational aesthetics: puzzlement, uncertainty, curiosity, wonder, confusion and then the big “a-ha!” where he realized how much sense it all makes (and asking why is this the first time contemplating all of this?). Why should we not value beauty in our work and workplaces and spaces? After all, we do it in almost every other facet of life and yet rarely do we consciously consider the role that aesthetics play in our organizational creations even if it is an enormous driver of behaviour and contributor to our wellbeing and quality of life.

Steven and I spoke of the challenges and opportunities inherent in inspiring people to think like a designer, wrestle with change in organizations, and overcome the (largely) self-imposed constraints to possibility that groups place on their perspectives about what is possible. We also spoke of the Dutch approach to constraints and how they’ve managed to work with a series of physical and social ones to create a society that largely supports innovative design in cities and organizations. The big challenge in drawing lessons from the Dutch (or anyone) is dealing with scale and determining how best to take ideas from one context further into others and what the implications are for transporting designs in one space to another. Beauty however exists everywhere in its own space and time, which is why it offers so much to designers working in different contexts: it’s inherently a local and global phenomenon simultaneously.

We make selections of friends, partners, places to live, products and services all based on some connection to beauty — even if that definition of beauty is different between each of us. Human beings have their own sense of beauty and are attracted to things we find beautiful so why would we not collectively nurture those qualities in the work processes, outcomes and environments we spend time in by design? We can design beauty into our work and Steven’s research and practice have pointed to ways in which people build appreciation for beauty, nurture it, and design it into the environments they inhabit everyday to enhance wellbeing, creativity and productivity. This is powerful stuff.

The power to change

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Red on Maroon by Mark Rothko (Tate Modern, London, UK)

Power is no more evident than in the process of change-making and I have found few more thoughtful on this topic than John Wenger. John is a London-based (via New Zealand) Scot who is a psychotherapist, organizational change consultant, community animator and writer. John seeks to find, build and nurture what Meg Wheatley calls “islands of sanity” in a complex and chaotic world through his therapy, community and consulting work. In that vein he and I met at the Victoria & Albert museum for a coffee and a stroll through some of the collections as an island of cool on a hot summer’s day.

This was just the start our our journey as we soon found ourselves zipping over to the Tate Modern and then for a long walk through the Borough Market and along the Thames talking all the way about the role of capitalism, community, individual behaviour, organizational design and social connection in shaping the world we work in. In the frenetic chaos of London’s core during the height of tourist season John and I created our own island of sanity (and inspiration) through our walk and time together.

At the heart of our art visit was a trip to the Tate Modern to see a collection of works by Mark Rothko, the Seagram Murals immortalized in John Logan’s stage play Red. These works embody the kind of complexity that anyone working with human systems knows, but rarely can communicate so eloquently: the (appearing simple) works take vastly different shapes depending on where you sit in relation to them. Rothko’s pieces, like the one pictured above, look one way in a photograph, another from across the room, and something else when closer. Lighting matters, too as I suspect they would look considerably different in different gallery spaces. Rothko knew this and that was part of his genius. Each of these perspectives provides a new layer of information, wonder and reveals new patterns within what appears to be a simplistic frame of four lines connected into a box.

John understands that the same qualities that make Rothko’s work so mesmerizing is what also makes human relationships so important. It’s easy to make a judgement from afar, but it is only through getting closer, stepping away, turning things on their head that we begin to see things differently and, with it, open up possibilities. In the calamitous wake of Brexit John is leading workshops to help people make sense of what it means for Britain (and themselves) and is encouraging healing through use of reflective dialogue and sociodrama. He sees the rift created when, no matter what your position on Brexit might be, you see one half of your country holding a counter position to your own on a matter of great importance. How do we live together, see the differences, embrace the opportunities that come from difference and bridge the gap between what we see, what we know and what we do?

It is fitting that our day of conversation, food, and walking would be filled with art because that artistry and the attention to the way we co-create reality through art is what John brings to the world. It was a reminder of the power of  relationships to bring out our best and reveal new pathways to those islands of sanity that we might miss if we simply approach the world head-on in a cognitive-rational manner and take the world as its presented to us by media, social norms and our past interpretations of history. Art is a gift embraced with others.

Conserving the planet, humbly

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Twins of Brick Lane by Zabou, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London, UK

Alas, there are times when history cannot be avoided as a means of understanding our future and ecological sustainability is one of those issues. Right now, humanity is much like the twins above peering at us in Brick Lane: some of we call ‘art’ is a little noxious for the planet.

Andrew Knight and I along with a small group of conservation biologists, systems thinkers and evaluators are part of the Silwood Group: a ‘praxis’ tank (as opposed to a think tank) that seeks to bring new thinking about conservation and ecological systems together with concrete action to advance our protection of the planet. It sounds like heady stuff, but like an inversion of Rothko’s paintings there are areas of simplicity within the complexity presented by these issues that Andrew and I sought to work on over two days spent at Imperial College, where Dr. Knight is a Senior Lecturer.

Aside from some light-hearted discussion on the comic genius of the Flight of the Conchords or the maddening systems of administration within universities, our time together dealt with the ways in which we, as a transdisciplinary blend of scholars, practitioners and ‘pracademics’ from across the world and from different sectors who are the Silwood Group, could make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time with our limited resources — a typical conservation problem if ever there was one!

This is really a contemplative problem that combines many of the aspects of what Steven de Groot and I spoke of in Amsterdam and the conversations I had with John Wenger strolling along the Thames.

It is about creating / designing spaces and products that allow people to engage with complexity and the volume of issues that are entangled within conservation and to do so through by anchoring the work to beauty and to relationships. One avenue is through education (*and by education, we were thinking about real praxis-led learning and not just packaged toolkits, lesson plans and classrooms with rows and PowerPoint) because it is through curiosity, exchange, exposure to new thinking and the opportunity to try things out that we build the kind of relationships to people, organizations and ideas that allow them to stick.

Two days was not enough to flesh this idea out much further, but needless to say that there will certainly be much reflecting upon my summer vacation in the months to come in ways that I am only now, getting back to everyday life in Canada, appreciating had such an impact on my thinking. More, much more is to come.

Thanks Steven, John and Andrew for providing such inspiration, insight, camaraderie and intellectual and social companionship on my journey this summer. I am looking forward to building on that with you in the days and months to come and, like a Rothko painting, finding new meanings and layers to the work every time I encounter it.

Photo credits: Author.

Notes:

Mark Rothko’s work at the Tate is staggering in what it elicits when seen in person. Go see it. For more information click here.

Zabou’s street art can be found here, but like all art it’s better to engage with it up close if you can find it and Brick Lane in London is as good as anywhere to see some beautiful street art.

If you are in the UK (or even if you aren’t, I suppose) and interested in John Wenger’s post-Brexit workshop entitled Who Shall Survive Brexit on October 6th you can register for it here.

 

social innovationsocial systemssystems thinking

Lost together

Lost and found

A post certainty world

Doing new things to create social value means going into the great unknown, yet our fear of being lost need not prevent us from innovating, wisely and sustainably. Instead of being lost alone, we can be lost together. 

I’ve heard it all so many times before

It’s all a dream to me now
A dream to me now
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together

– Blue Rodeo (Lost Together)

Humans have real problems with uncertainty. Risk mitigation is an enormous field of work within business, government and politics and permeates decision making in our organizations. It’s partly this reason that our politicians too often speak so cryptically to the point of basically uttering nonsense – because they want to avoid the risk of saying something that will hurt them. The alternative perhaps is to spout so much untruth that it no longer matters what you say, because others will create messages about you.

Thankfully, we are still — and hopefully into the future — in a world where most of what organizations do is considered and evaluated with some care to the truth. ‘Truth’ or facts are much easier to deal with in those systems where we can generate the kind of evidence that enable us to make clear decisions based on replicable, verifiable and defensible research. Ordered systems where there is a cause-and-effect relationship that is (usually) clear, consistent and observable are those where we can design interventions to mitigate risk with confidence.

Risky options

There are four approaches to risk mitigation.

  1. Risk Acceptance involves awareness of what risks are present within the system and establishing strategy and an organizational culture where the nature, type and potential consequences of risks are (largely) known, accepted and lived with.
  2. Risk Avoidance takes the opposite approach and seeks to steer operations away from activities where risk is limited.
  3. Risk Limitation seeks to curtail and mitigate the effects of risk where possible and often involves contingency planning and balancing activities with higher levels of uncertainty with areas of greater confidence and certainty.
  4. Risk Transference involves finding ways to offload risk to a third party. An example can be found in many partnerships between organizations of different sizes or types where one is able to absorb certain risks while others cannot for various reasons and the activities allow for one partner to take lead on an activity that isn’t feasible for another to do so.

Within social innovation — those activities involving public engagement, new thinking and social benefit — there are few opportunities for #2, plenty for #1 and #3 and a growing number for #4.

Risk is a core part of innovation. To innovate requires risking time, energy, focus and other resources toward the attempt at something new to produce a valued alternative to the status quo. For many human service organizations and funders, these resources are so thinly spread and small in abundance that the idea of considering risk seems like a risk itself. Yet, the real problem comes in assuming that one can choose whether or not to engage risk. Unless you’re operating in a closed system that has relatively few changing elements to it, you’re exposed to risk by virtue of being in the system. To draw on one of my favourite quotes from the author Guiseppe di Lampedusa:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

So even keeping things away from risk involves risk because if the world around you is changing the system changes with it and so, too does your position in it. If this makes you feel lost, you’re not alone. Many organizations (individuals, too) are struggling with figuring out where they fit in the world. If you want evidence of this consider the growing calls for skilled knowledge workers at the same time we are seeing a crisis among those with a PhD — those with the most knowledge (of certain sorts) — in the job market.

Community of flashlights

There is a parable of the drunkard who loses his keys on his way home at night and searches for them under the streetlight not because that’s where he lost them, but because it’s easier to see that spurred something called the Streetlight Effect. It’s about the tendency to draw on what we know and what we have at our disposal to frame problems and seek to solve them, even if they are the wrong tools — a form of observation bias in psychology. Streetlights are anchored, stable means of illuminating a street within a certain range – a risk zone, perhaps — but remain incomplete solutions.

Flashlights on the other hands have the same limitations (a beam of light), are less powerful, but are adaptive. You can port a flashlight or torch and aim it to where you want the light to shine. They are not as powerful as a streetlight in terms of luminosity, but are far more nimble. However, if you bring more than one flashlight together, all of a sudden the power of the light is extended. This is the principle behind many of the commercial LED systems that are in use. Small numbers of lights brought together, each using low energy, but collectively providing a powerful, adaptive lighting system

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This same principle can apply to organizations seeking to make change. Like an LED flashlight, they need a housing to hold and focus the lights. This can be in the form of a backbone organization such as those advocated in collective impact strategies. It can also be a set of principles or simple rules that provide a set of guides for organizations operating independently to follow, which will stimulate a consistent pattern of activity when applied, allowing similar, focused action on the same target at a distance.

This latter approach differs from collective impact, which is a top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously and is a good means of focusing on larger, macro issues such as poverty reduction, climate change and city-building. It is an approach that holds potential for working within these larger issues on smaller, more dynamic ones such as neighbourhood building, conservation actions within a specific region, and workplace health promotion. In both cases the light analogy can hold and they need not be done exclusive of one another.

Let there be light

A flashlight initiative requires a lot of things coming together. It can be led by individuals making connections between others, brokering relationships and building community. It requires a vision that others can buy into and an understanding of the system (it’s level of complexity, structure and history). This understanding is what serves as the foundation for the determination of the ‘rules’ of the system, those touch points, attractors, leverage points and areas of push and pull that engage energy within a system (stay tuned to a future post for more detailed examples).

Much of the open-source movement is based on this model. This is about creating that housing for ideas to build and form freely, but with constraints. It’s a model that can work when collective impact is at a scale too large for an organization (or individual) to adequately envision contribution, but an alternative to going alone or relying only on the streetlight to find your way.

You might be lost, but with a flashlight you’ll be lost together and may just find your way.

Image credits: Author (Cameron Norman)