Tag: boundaries

psychologysystems thinking

Authentic baloney and other sincere problems

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What does it mean to be authentic in an age of design and complex social systems? It’s not as simple as you think and, as two high-profile psychologists point out, not something that’s easily agreed upon, either. 

Over the past week, two high-profile psychologists and authors Adam Grant and Brene Brown have been engaged in a “debate” (or public disagreement? argument? — it’s hard to really tell) over the concept of authenticity and the role it plays in life — professional, personal and otherwise.

The debate was started by an op-ed post in the New York Times written by Grant who starts by referencing a description of Authenticity used by Brown in her work:

We are in the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining advice in life, love and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”

Brown, reacting to this piece on LinkedIn, corrects Grant by offering a better definition she’s used and criticizing his narrow-framed perspective on what authenticity is, which she states as:

In my research I found that the core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries.

For Grant, it’s about dropping the filters and saying what’s on your mind all the time, while for Brown it’s about embracing vulnerability. The two are not the same thing, but nor are they opposites or incompatible with authenticity, rather they point to the problems of creating firm positions in complex systems.

A matter of boundaries

Brown’s definition adds something Grant’s interpretation leaves out: boundaries. It’s how we draw the boundaries around what we’re doing, and how and for what effect that determine the appropriateness of filters, expression and vulnerability. It’s also about context. Grant’s argument tends to be the one-sized-fits all with the kind of blanket statements about what he believes others want and need to hear. In his Times article, he ends with this pronouncement for readers:

Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.

That Grant was so quick to equate authenticity with no-filtered thinking is somewhat surprising given his background in psychology. It shows a remarkably simplistic view of human psychology that isn’t befitting his other work. Yet, he’s managed to not only publish this piece in the Times, but doubled-down on the argument in a follow-up post also on LinkedIn. In that piece, he again equates authenticity with a sense of absoluteness around always saying what’s on your mind by drawing on research that looks at self-monitoring and expressiveness.

Here are some of the items—you can answer them true or false:

  • My behavior is usually an expression of my true inner feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.
  • I would not change my opinions (or the way I do things) in order to please someone else or win their favor.
  • I’m always the person I appear to be.

People who answer true are perceived as highly authentic—they know and express their genuine selves. And a rigorous analysis of all 136 studies shows that these authentic people receive significantly lower performance evaluations and are significantly less likely to get promoted into leadership roles.

In some fairness, Brown’s work can be easily muddled when it comes to the matter of boundaries. While she’s responded very clearly to his comments and work, there’s been a lot of slippage between boundaries in her work. Anyone who has read her books and seen her talks knows that Brown models the embrace of vulnerability by drawing on her own personal challenges with being authentic and valuing herself, illustrating points from her research with examples from her own human struggles. Yet, I recall reading her books Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection thinking to myself the stories often stumbled from being instructive, supportive and healthy examples of vulnerability to feeling like I was being used as a platform for supporting her self-development, rather than to learn from her.

For me, this was less about any one particular story of her being vulnerable, but the cumulative effect of these stories coming together as told through a book. It was the volume not content of the stories that shifted my perception. By the time I finished I felt like I’d been witness to Brown’s self therapy, which weakened my perception of her being authentic.

This cumulative effect is partly what Grant is referring to when citing work on self-monitoring. He’s not commenting on moments of vulnerability, rather it’s on creating a presentation of personhood that lacks a sense of boundaries.

The answer to authenticity might be in that complex middle space. If Brown is open to and eager to share her vulnerabilities it’s important that I as a listener be willing (and able and prepared) to welcome in that discussion. But what if I am not? In Grant’s demarcation of boundaries that might not matter, but then we end up with a set of rules based on his (and many others) view of authenticity, which can devolve into something that Brown connects to a traditional, stereotyped ‘male’ expression of authenticity:

Many of the behaviors that Grant associates with authenticity don’t reflect the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, or to set boundaries. They actually reflect crude, negative gender stereotypes. Male authenticity is associated with being hurtful, arrogant, manipulative, overbearing, and, in plain speak, an asshole. (italics added)

We must not stop listening, but we also must be cautious in how much (and when and in what context) we share and tell. Too little and we simply replicate the power positions of the past and surrender our true selves to social norms. Too much or done poorly and we might get a little closer to where Grant is.

Authentic baloney

What is authentic baloney (or Bologna Sausage for it’s original name)? Baloney is a indeed a thing, but it’s also a fake, synthetic meat product all at the same time. It’s a prepared meat that is designed to combine various ingredients together in a particular way that doesn’t really fit in any other types of sausage, yet is still ‘sausage like’. It’s difficult to describe using the language of sausage, yet also doesn’t have another peer to compare to (except Spam, which is a similar strange version of something familiar).

It is, in a sense, an authentic artificial product.

These two things — authenticity and artificiality — can coexist. Herb Simon wrote about design being partly about the science of the artificial. Stating in his book of the same name:

Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are but with how they might be – in short, with design.

Design is about what could be. Authentic is about what is and what could be, speaking about intention as well as reflection on what one believes and wishes to project to others. Baloney is just that. It’s a manifestation of a design of a meat product that is intended to reflect how a meat product might be when one combines some of the less sought after cuts of meat together with spices, herbs and fats. It’s not real meat, but it’s not fake either.

What is our authentic self?

Our authentic self is changing. If one believes we come into the world and grow into a form, then who we are as a child is largely deterministic for what comes afterward.

It’s interesting that this ding-dong on authenticity from Brown and Grant come when my colleague Mark Kuznicki from The Moment published a long, extensive and revealing piece into the process that his firm engages in to recalibrate and strategically plan its future. Taking Grant’s view, this level of openness in discussing the challenges and opportunities could quite easily be construed as over-sharing self-monitoring. Brown might argue that this kind of public self-reflection indicates a reflection of that organization’s true self. I think it’s both and neither.

Authenticity is very much like baloney, which takes many forms, has different cultural interpretations and expressions and levels of acceptance and quality within it. What makes for good baloney really does depend on a great many factors and the person who’s consuming it. Just like baloney, what gets lost in these arguments is position within the system.

Systems perspectives are partly about understanding where one is positioned in them, which determines what is seen, how something is perceived, what kind of information is available and, most importantly, the meaning that is attached to that information in order to assess what to do and what impact it might have.

Part of that perspective is time.

A developmental perspective

My authentic self is not the same as it once was. Part of that is because at various stages of life I was more (early childhood) or less (teen and young adult years) comfortable with expressing that authenticity. But interestingly, as I got older, what was truly authentic was becoming more complicated and harder to assess. It’s because I’ve become far more complicated and with experience, knowledge and the accumulation of both I’ve transformed that original person into someone different (and also very similar).

To provoke developmental thinking I often ask students or audiences the question: Is a 40-year-old an 8 times better 5-year-old? Is a person who was five and said: I want to be a princess / astronaut / firefighter and ends up being a senior policy advisor for the government, an accountant, a social worker or designer just someone who failed at their goals?

Are these even relevant questions? The answer is: no. I once wanted to be a firefighter, but now I can’t imagine doing that job. Why did that change? Because I developed into something different. My authentic self sought different challenges, opportunities and required other things to nurture itself. I still love to draw, doodle and play sports, just like I did when I was five. That part of me, too is authentic.

As authenticity becomes more of a fashionable word and thrown out for use in many contexts it is worth considering more about what it is, what it means, and how we really nurture it in our work. As I think both Brene Brown and Adam Grant would agree: Authenticity is too important to fake, lest it become baloney.

 

 

Photo credit: Untitled by themostinept used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.

 

 

environmentsystems sciencesystems thinking

Systems thinking and the simple plan

Building Castles in the Sky

Building Castles in the Sky, But Not Wheels on the Ground

 

Planning is something that is done all the time, but the shape in which these plans unfold is often complex in hidden ways. Without the same resources to evaluate those plans (and make different ones should they change) many organizations are left with great expectations that don’t match the reality of what they do (and can do). 

In my neighbourhood in Toronto there are no fewer than 10 building projects underway that involve development of a high-rise apartment/university residence/condominium on it of more than 20 stories in a 5 block radius from my home. Most are expected to be about 40 stories in height.

As a resident and citizen I was thinking one day: How does one even engage with this? I could attend a building planning meeting, but that would be looking at a single development on a single site, not a neighbourhood. There is a patchwork of plans for neighbourhoods, but they are guidelines, not embedded in specific codes. I was (and am) stuck with how to have a conversation of influence that might help shape decisions about how this was all going to unfold.

At the risk of being pegged as a NIMBY, let me state that I am fully able to accept that downtown living in a fast-growing, large urban centre means that empty lots or parking pads are a target for development and buildings will go up. I get to live here and so should others so I can’t complain about a development here and there. But when we are talking about development of that magnitude so quickly it gets quickly problematic for things like sidewalks, transit, parking, traffic, and even things like getting a seat at my favourite cafe that are all going to change in a matter of months, not years. There’s no evolution here, just revolution.

Adding a few hundred people to the neighbourhood in a year is one thing. Adding many thousand in that same time is something quite different. The problem is that city planning is done on a block-by-block basis when we live in an interconnected space. An example of this is transit. Anyone who takes a bus, streetcar or subway knows that the likelihood of getting a seat depends greatly on when you travel and where you get on. Your experience will radically change when you’re at the beginning of the line or near the end of it. Residents of one neighbourhood in Toronto were so tired of never being able to get on packed streetcars because they were in the middle of the line they crowdfunded a private bus service, which was ultimately shut down a few months later.

Planning for scale: bounding systems using foresight

On a piece-by-piece basis, planning impact is easier to assess. Buildings go through proposals for the lots — a boundary — and have to meet specific codes, which act as constraints on a system. Yet, next to these boundaries are boundaries for other systems; other lots and developments. They, too are given the same treatment and usually that produces a plan perfectly suited to that individual development, but something that might falter when matched with what’s next to it. Building plans are approved and weighed largely on their merits independent of the context and certainly not as a collective set of proposals. Why? Because there are different stakeholders with separate needs, timelines, investments and desires.

One of the keys is to have a vision for what the city will look like as a system.  Does your city have one? I’m not talking about something esoteric like “Be the greatest city in the world”, but generating some evidence-supported form of vision for what the city will look like in 5, 10, 25 years. This requires foresight, a structured, methodical means of drawing evidence-informed speculations about the future that combines design, data, and some imagination. In fact, my colleague Peg Lahn and I did this for the city of Toronto and what we envisioned the future ‘neighbourscapes’ of the city might look like using foresight methods.  We forecast out to 2030, drawing on trends and drivers of social activities and looking at current patterns of migration, development, policy and political activity.

That report focused on the city itself and its neighbourhoods in general, but didn’t look at specific neighbourhoods. Yet, strategic foresight can help create a bounded set of conditions where one can start to imagine the potential impact of decisions in advance and develop scenarios to amplify or mitigate against certain challenges or uncertainties. Foresight allows for better assessment of the landscape of knowns and unknowns within a complex system.

From cities to organizations

The same principles to civic planning through foresight can be applied to organizations. If you are assessing operations and plans for programs independent of one another and not as a whole, yet are operating an organization as a system with all its interdependencies, then without strategic foresight plans may just arbitrary statements of intent. Consider the “5-year plan“. Why is it five years? What is special about 5 years that makes us do that? How about four years? Ten? 18?

As former US President and general Dwight D. Einsenhower once said:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

The planning process, no matter what the time scale, works best when it allows for engagement of ideas about what the future might look like, how to create it, and how to tell when you’ve been successful. This is part of what developmental evaluation does when blended with strategic foresight and design. This creates conversations about what future we want, what we see coming and how we might get to shape it. The plan itself is secondary, but the planning — informed by data and design — is what is the most powerful part of the process.

To draw on another US President, Abraham Lincoln:

The best way to predict your future is to create it.

By focusing on the here and now, independent of what is to come and might be, organizations risk designing perfectly suited programs, policies and strategies that are ideal for the current context, but jeopardize the larger system that is the organization itself.

Do you have a plan? Do you know where you’re going? Can you envision where things are going to be? How will you know when you get there or when to change course?

Resources

For resources on these topics check out the Censemaking library tab on this blog, which has a lot of references to tools and products that can help advance your thinking on strategic foresight, evaluation, design and systems thinking. For those interested in how developmental evaluation can contribute to program development, check out Michael Quinn Patton’s lastest book (with Kate McKegg and Nan Wehipeihana) on Developmental Evaluation Exemplars.

Lastly, if you need strategic help in this work, contact Cense Research + Design as this is what they (we) do.

 

 

 

 

 

systems thinking

Thinking systemically about systems thinking

Carnaby Street

The Whole and the Parts

Systems thinking is a class of theories, models and methods for understanding human and non-human interactions as seen as wholes instead of parts. This focus on interconnections and relationships is precisely what makes it challenging for many when it comes to systemically considering what systems thinking is all about and the implications of this are many. This post provides an introduction to certain ideas in systems thinking and points to what makes it different than other non-systems thinking approaches to understanding something. 

Perhaps the most popular aphorism about systems thinking is the statement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, something borrowed from Gestalt Psychology. That statement is intended to reflect system thinking’s principal focus on the system itself rather than on the actors and actions within it.

It’s a subtle difference, but a meaningful one. For example, psychology might look at why individuals make choices and act and what implications come from those actions. Systems thinking seeks to look at the combined interaction of these interactions as a unified whole.

Boundaries

Fundamental to this way of seeing things is the concept of boundaries. Boundaries are essentially where the differences that make a difference lie. In a closed system, everything that makes a difference is clearly contained and observed within a relatively solid set of boundary conditions. Mechanical systems often function this way, making them simple or complicated in that they have the potential to be understood clearly in terms of causal connections and relations. These systems are more amenable to things like “best practices” where we can reasonably expect similar outcomes from consistent actions.

This kind of systems thinking is not as useful when applied to human systems, because they are mostly characterized as open systems. Open systems are those where the boundaries require some form of negotiation and may actually be in flux.

A general shorthand rule for setting boundaries in this kind of environment is this:

If you find yourself lost over and again in trying to understand where the influences and relationships within the system are, then you’ve probably bound your system too loosely. If you are finding too many influences laying outside of your boundaries, you’ve probably bound it too tightly.

Perspective: Where you sit

Systems are all about where you sit in relation to them. For instance, let’s take the example of family and some of the boundary questions one might ask in understanding this social entity as a system.

  • Firstly, who is family? You could define family as blood relationships. But is that immediate blood relations? For example, If parents and children count, then how do we consider grandparents who are the parents of the parents? Do they count as family when you bound the system? Do great grandparents? Should we use genes and, if so, what level of genetic similarity do we share? Are we all family?
  • Can family be defined socially? For example, if people become family by marriage and that marriage breaks down, does it influence the family system as you define it? What if that marriage ends via someone passing away? What if they are not married at all, but common law?
  • What about the roles that people play? Does an “Uncle” or “Aunt” who are close, intimate friends of the family, but not of blood ties still get included in the family? How about a trusted lifelong neighbour who has been a part of someone’s life the entire time, but was never genealogically connected to anyone?
  • Can our neighbourhood be part of the family?

One can make a case for any of these conditions. In defining a system there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to do it, just perspectives that are more or less useful and more or less attentive to specific details.

Purposeful systems

The answers to the questions about boundaries also depend on what the purpose of the system is in the first place. Purpose is the means by which we determine the differences and how they make a difference. You can imagine that one could potentially answer “yes” to almost every one of the questions asked above depending on where someone sits in the system and what kind of purpose they see in that system.

Part of thinking systemically about systems is defining the purpose of the system and ascertaining a perspective. That means being strategic about what you wish your systems thinking to support. It is here that much of the use of systems thinking I’ve witnessed breaks down. Organizations seeking to employ systems thinking often jump in without doing the pre-work needed to ground their perspective into some sense of purpose and perspective. This requires a mindful, honest accounting of the perspectives being brought into the discussion and connecting those to the strategic intent of your enterprise.

Being mindful of what one values, what one seeks to accomplish, and what kind of activities your organization engages in (or wants to engage in), and where the reach of your organization extends is a key starting position to thinking more systemically about systems.

design thinkingfood systemspublic healthsocial systemssystems science

Systems and Design Thinking Go to the Ballpark

Fenway Park #boston #redsox #baseball #stadium

A recent trip to baseball’s legendary Fenway Park provided the ideal example of understanding systems and how they can create public health problems like obesity through structural means. Being aware of these systems, their boundaries, and their activities can help us better find the causes of individual activity by looking at what encourages behaviour and not just at what people do.

Take me out to the ballgame… and into systems

I am not an obsessive sports fan, but I do enjoy athletics and watching a variety of sporting events.  When it comes to the sport of baseball, I grew up as a Boston Red Sox fan. As a fan of the Red Sox I always dreamt of attending a game at Fenway Park, home of The Green Monster and perhaps the most eclectic and endearing stadium as you’ll find in pro sports anywhere in the world, so when I had the chance to see the Sox face off against their rivals the New York Yankees in Boston I was overjoyed.

When I found out I was going I decided in advance that I would take in the fullest experience possible even down to the food. I am generally a mindful eater, preferring ethical, local and healthy options whenever possible so opting for an evening of beer, steamed hot dogs and ice cream was something as out of the ordinary as touring a legendary ballpark. But then, Fenway Park is not your your ordinary ballpark.

Thus began a look at systems thinking through the lens of food, design and culture. While this started being about a night at a baseball game it ended up being about so much more.

On the menu:

  • Fenway ‘Monster Dog’
  • Samuel Adams Draught Beer
  • Ice cream* served in a Boston Red Sox mini baseball helmet with Oreo cookie sprinkles (*soft serve – I have no idea if there is any real cream in it, or what is in it at all)
  • Popcorn

Take me out to the ball game #boston #redsox #fenway #stadium

An Anthropologist at Fenway

While I was at Fenway Park to enjoy America’s pastime, I couldn’t shut down the systems thinker, design thinker and psychologist parts of me. Add to the fact that I was attending it with a journalist with a health science and anthropology focus (who was seeing her first baseball game ever) and the experience quickly became a cultural study.

So what did we find? Entering the stadium via Yawkey Way one is immediately surrounded by souvenir and food vendors that, despite initial appearances, are nearly identical and plentiful. The same hats, shirts and banners are available at nearly every souvenir kiosk and nearly the identical foods related at most of the food vendors. Even though Fenway Park’s menu on the web suggests a variety of food options, the reality is that most vendors sell the same things, or near variants of them.  Hot dogs, burgers, fries and pretzels are dominant. Sometimes there’s ice cream.

You are enveloped in sales for products everywhere. It is nearly impossible to go anywhere in that ballpark save for the stairwells that some product isn’t in your face — for sale or advertisement.

Food is everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more food vendors anywhere per square feet in my life.

One of the things you notice quickly — by design — are the myriad ads lining the outfield fence. My companion was quick to note that Coca Cola had among the most noticeable of these ads (see photo above), which is far less ominous than the giant Coca Cola ad/bottle at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. A look to the other side will find a Budweiser sign prominently displayed (see photo below). Along the outfield wall one finds ads for other purveyors of foods laden with fat, excessive calories, salt and sugar.

None of this would come as any surprise to someone like Yoni Freedhoff, a bariatric medical professional** and prolific blogger on the relationship between (mostly fast, unhealthy) food and health (problems) and its marketing to the public. Dr. Freedhoff has made a social media career of pointing out how our food system is skewed towards particular types of products, quantities and how it is all pushed covertly and not-so-subtlely to all of us — including children — throughout our daily lives. I don’t know if Yoni’s a baseball fan, but he would certainly boo the visual team at Fenway.

Red Sox Win #fenway #boston #redsox #yankees #baseball

The hidden and not-so-hidden effects of systems

If one views the environment within and around the stadium and the game as a system, there is much that can be taken away from the experience I had at Fenway.

The availability of products is what is the explicit manifestation of the system on food choices. Fenway is a closed system so unless you smuggled some food from home, the only options for what to eat is determined by the management of the stadium. That substantially limits what you have available. While there are dozens of vendors throughout the stadium, I was shocked at how much of it was repeated as if to say: “You said no the first time; how about now? And now? And now?”. It wears you down, particularly if you spent a day walking through the city and up and down the stairs at the stadium with thousands of others.

Hot Dogs were available at nearly every second or third vendor; so was beer and nearly everyone sold pop. Salted peanuts, popcorn and pretzels were also highly available. Hamburgers? Maybe every 4th or 5th vendor. Ice cream? Maybe about every 7th vendor. Apparently there are some healthy options available at a single location on Yawkey Way, outside the stadium proper. I didn’t see them, but I am told they are there.

The option is to spend thousands and get yourself a private luxury box or admittance to the private club where there is better quality food…at a price. For the common fan, these are simply too inaccessible.

These are the more obvious manifestations of the food system. But then there are the more insidious, subtle effects that influence food choices that are built into the experience. A professional baseball game is about 4 hours long if you consider the pre and post event ceremonies that take place. This can be longer if the game itself goes into extra innings or is high scoring . In a town like Boston, you can reasonably add another hour to the beginning and end of that due to transit time.  It’s not unreasonable to want to eat during all of this.

While the options for eating are not that healthy (or rather, are positively UNhealthy) the effect of these choices go beyond any guilt for having consumed a lot of empty calories. The foods themselves are designed to create more desire.

I’m not just speaking of the neurobiological impact of fat and salts on the brain (which is sufficient enough), but the actual feelings that these foods create. Hot dogs are served on white bread and actually make you feel hungry not long after you’ve eaten it, not full. The popcorn is so salty you need something to drink and the absence of any visible water fountains (a design choice) you reach for something like beer or soda/pop. More calories, more sugar and more profit.

Just imagine sitting there watching the game, hungry and thirsty and seeing a gigantic Coke or Budweiser sign lit up like a firework over a bland green wall? No ads for tap water that I could see (or means of getting it save for bringing your emptied beer cup into the bathrooms to fill it up in the bathroom sink).  And the bathrooms themselves? They are down a long corridor, down the stairs and along another corridor. So at least you get some exercise in place of the convenience.

Making design visible

Some have claimed that great design is invisible; implying that it is so useful that no one even notices it (see the latest issue of Wired for this argument writ out as the ‘Age of Invisible Design’). In the case of Fenway Park — and the many hundreds of stadiums like it around North America – the design choices are both obvious and invisible and in both case influence our health. What struck me when watching what was going around me was that this same situation plays out (pun intended) every night across the major leagues (and all major professional sports), but also at shopping malls and food courts across North America.

In most of these venues the volume of people is high, traffic is congested, and the ability to literally see all the choices before you is difficult. What you visually rely on are things that light up — to help us navigate our way — and those are not shaped like broccoli florets, bananas, or bowls of Quinoa. When you are designing fast food you are also bound by very limited preparation space, while refrigeration and disposal capacity is limited. It’s hard to make wholesome, interesting food that isn’t whole on its own — like fruit — without the space to do it. Frozen weenies don’t require a lot of work to prepare. Creating the space for this in the first place is critical.

And if there was space to prepare the food, where will people wait? The concourses of most arenas are not designed for you to wait for your sandwich or salad to be prepared unless you get ready-made (which can be done to high quality, nutritional and taste standards, but often is not).

And space costs money. I can assure you that at every mall, stadium and food pavilion there is a cost-per-square-foot calculation done that makes the cheap-and-easy solution much more profitable than slow food. Yet, there is a real health cost to these decisions and one we fail to add to the calculus of our wellbeing.

Next time you are out at the ballgame pay attention to what is around you, how you are being shaped by advertising, design and time. We all have choices in the matter, but over time they stop feeling like it and become more challenging to make. Consciously choosing to have a hot dog at the game knowing all you know about what the food is, why it is served, who it serves as well as how it is served is a decision open to those who are aware and have the means to absorb all of the costs. Sadly, this represents too few of us.

So will our designs and health hit a grand slam or strikeout?

(As for the game? The Red Sox won with a grand slam home run in the 8th inning, unlike my stomach)

** the original post mistakenly referred to Dr. Freedhoff as a surgeon. See comments below or find out more about his work by clicking here.

complexitydesign thinkingemergenceinnovation

Wet and Dry Design for Social Innovation

Wet and Dry Social Innovation Design – Like Nature

Social innovation is often about engaging complicated systems like technology (dry) with complex systems like humans (wet). The implementation and evaluation approaches we take must match wet with dry and knowing when we are dealing with each. 

Seth Godin recently wrote on thriving in a wet environment, which he compares code and human interaction spaces:

If you’ve ever fixed any kind of machinery, you know that a device that’s exposed to the elements is incredibly difficult to maintain. A washing machine or the underside of a car gets grungy, fast.

On the other hand, the dryest, cleanest environment of all is the digital one. Code stays code. If it works today, it’s probably going to work tomorrow.

The wettest, weirdest environment is human interaction. Whatever we build gets misunderstood, corroded and chronic, and it happens quickly and in unpredictable ways. That’s one reason why the web is so fascinating–it’s a collision between the analytic world of code and wet world of people.

Much of social innovation is becoming like this: a collision between the wet world of people and the dry world of technology. It is hard not to be impressed at the technological capabilities we have at our disposal and how they can be put to use to serve humankind. Mobile handsets, low-cost portable computing tablets, social network platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn, or digital common spaces created by tools like Reddit and Twitter all provide incredible means to connect people and ideas together. Stop and think about what we have at our disposal and it is truly mindblowing, particularly when you think how much that’s changed in just 5 years, 10 years or 20 years.

Yet, the enormity of the scale of these tools and their ubiquity can mask their significance and not always for good. Take Facebook, which just launched its IPO and is the current champion of social networks with over 900 million users. It’s easy to forget that Facebook didn’t even exist 8 years ago and now almost one in 7 citizens on this earth have an account with its service.

This could be a tremendous opportunity for social innovation. Yet, it also speaks to the issue of Seth Godin’s wet and dry analogies for design.

Tom Chatfield, a tech writer from the UK, recently blogged about rethinking our social networks. He points to Dunbar’s number, a well-researched figure that estimates the limits to meaningful human relationships to be between 100 and 230. The drive to scale technologies (the dry) to ever-expanding and increasing numbers is problematic if the limits to my ability to meaningfully connect with the networks they create (the wet) are relatively fixed or difficult to change.

He writes:

It’s dangerously easy simply to gawp and grimace at the sheer scale of the networks connecting us. The numbers are staggering, and offer a powerful index of how much and how fast our world is changing. But we mustn’t overlook the great lesson to be drawn from work like Dunbar’s: the weight of a special few will always outweigh the many, no matter how great the “many” becomes.

Some have argued that Dunbar’s number is a fallacy in the social media world, choosing to rely more heavily on sociologist Mark Granovetter’s work often summed up as the argument for The Strength of Weak Ties . His early research (see link [pdf] for original paper) focused not on the strong ties between people who were close, but the ‘friends of friends’ effects on transmission of information, which is the space where many innovations and novelty comes from in a network.

This confuses the potential innovation and the human capability to connect across large, diverse networks (a technical, ‘dry’ issue) with the quality of the interaction (a relational, ‘wet’ one). Both exist and both will exist, but there is a difference between learning something new and taking it to scale.

Novelty of information and new ideas comes from the intersection created by cognitive diversity in the design process. This is why designers seek to bring people with different perspectives together to explore concepts and generate ‘wild ideas’ as part of an ideation phase. Lots of information can be very useful in this situation and allow designers (social and otherwise) to see things they might miss if they stuck with a narrow band of perspectives. Yet, bringing these ideas to focus, refining them and transforming them into a social innovation that matters to people is far more relational than we give credit for.

Facebook might be great at linking us to ‘friends’ we’ve lost track of, but in applying a model where all of these friends are treated more or less equally, along with all of the information streamed at us through the main feed, our ‘wet’ interactions are made to feel ‘dry’. Drawing the motivation to scale ideas and engage in the efforts needed to make real change happen from such an approach is unlikely.

A recent post from FastCoExist, part of the Fast Company network of sites, by Ashoka changemakers Alexa Kay and Jon Camfield pointed to the barriers and facilitators for making change happen. Among their principal barriers is the need to connect deeper, rather than broader with each other:

How do we learn to be change makers? Much of the art of change making involves soft skills that we absorb from others that model or demonstrate change making behaviors. This means that learning opportunities are limited by one-to-one interactions and by exposure to other change makers. Compared to traditional fields like entrepreneurship, where there are plentiful resources for training, the practice of change making is still far from being widespread.

One of their principles for change reflects the complexity of social change by encouraging and supporting self-organized networks:

Often leaders or institutions promote dependency with a community. But successful change making communities depend on reducing dependence on one anointed leader. Flat networks and peer-based accountability structures are necessary if a community is to sustain change beyond one individual. The need for change communities and networks to be self-regulating is vital for their sustainability.

This is where walled gardens like Facebook are likely to fall down, just as many custom Ning-based communities have fallen into disuse. Create systems that are too bounded (dry) and we risk sucking the moisture from the human elements (the wet) that make real social innovation happen. Our challenge is finding the right balance between the controlled, stable environments that these new technologies afford and the self-organized, emergent and innovative environments needed to implement and scale our initiatives more effectively.

Wet Leaf By Faustas L, via Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons License

systems thinking

Boundaries: The Food Example

Identifying boundaries and setting them in moving forward with modeling and planning is a critical step in systems thinking practice so much so that it may be time to consider seeing boundaries as a core skill or competency for work in complex systems. 

Traveling is one of the activities that embodies systems thinking concepts in almost everything. From security screening through to the arrangement of flights, connections, and imagining how it all gets done is truly systems thinking in action. One of the lesser-thought-of aspects of the travel-as-systems-thinking phenomenon is food. Food has been profiled here before, but for this post I want to highlight a different quality here.

As one who aspires to eat relatively well, traveling can be hell when it comes to food. I am currently in a city that has, like many American cities, abdicated the culture and cuisine of its core to the suburbs, which is bad on too many levels. Say what you want about suburban life, but good, healthy, available, economic food is not something that comes to mind (at least, not together). So as an urbanite who is somewhat accustomed or desirous of eating reasonably well (i.e., food that tastes good, is good value, and isn’t horrible to my body, the environment or those who make it) I get spoiled and feel disappointed when places I travel can’t offer this. Ironically, this was the way that most food was cooked and readied for consumption up until the last part of the 20th century.

In this case, the boundary conditions of the system I am looking at is the availability of good food. Where I am and how I got here meant airports, hotels, on-the-go-meals and staying in a relatively large city that has no interior life to it that isn’t about an office building.

The boundaries of good eating imposed on me has meant that my individual choices are seriously constrained. This happens a lot, yet doesn’t get acknowledged as much when we consider health behaviour and its limits. We too often blame individuals for not exercising, or eating well, or doing both without looking at the real problems associated with such activities when the boundaries of the system they are working under are taken into account. (And by the way, it was 41 degrees Celsius in the city I am staying in so there goes any outdoor exercise).

If we narrow our boundaries too close, we miss some considerable systems limitations. I would surmise that students learning systems thinking might want to consider boundary definitions as a critical skill.