Tag: design thinking

complexityevaluationsystems thinking

Diversity / Complexity in Focus

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Diversity in focus?

 

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

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

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

Complexity abhors dichotomies

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

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

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

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

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

Staying the same requires change

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

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

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

Tending the garden of complex systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Re) Making our World

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

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

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

Boundary critique in complex systems

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

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

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

Co-design and its problems

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

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

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

Systemic design, boredom and critical making

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

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

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

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

education & learningevaluation

Reflections said, not done

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Reflective practice is the cornerstone of developmental evaluation and organizational learning and yet is one of the least discussed (and poorly supported) aspects of these processes. It’s time to reflect a little on reflection itself. 

The term reflective practice was popularized by the work of Donald Schön in his book The Reflective Practitioner, although the concept of reflecting while doing things was discussed by Aristotle and serves as the foundation for what we now call praxis. Nonetheless, what made reflective practice as a formal term different from others was that it spoke to a deliberative process of reflection that was designed to meet specific developmental goals and capacities. While many professionals had been doing this, Schön created a framework for understanding how it could be done — and why it was important — in professional settings as a matter of enhancing learning and improving innovation potential.

From individual learners to learning organizations

As the book title suggests, the focus of Schön’s work was on the practitioner her/himself. By cultivating a focus, a mindset and a skill set in looking at practice-in-context Schön (and those that have built on his work) suggest that professionals can enhance their capacity to perform and learning as they go through a series of habits and regular practices by critically inquiring about their work as they work.

This approach has many similarities to mindfulness in action or organizational mindfulness, contemplative inquiry, and engaged scholarship among others. But, aside from organizational mindfulness, these aforementioned approaches are designed principally to support individuals learning about and reflecting about their work.

There’s little question that paying attention and reflecting on what is being done has value for someone seeking to improve the quality of their work and its potential impact, but it’s not enough, at least in practice (even if it does in theory). And the evidence can be found in the astonishing absence of examples of sustained change initiatives supported by reflective practice and, more particularly, developmental evaluation, which is an approach for bringing reflection to bear on the way we evolve programs over time. This is not a criticism of reflective practice or developmental evaluation per se, but the problems that many have in implementing it in a sustained manner. From professional experience, this comes down largely to the matter of what is required to actually do reflective practice or any in practice. 

For developmental evaluation it means connecting what it can do to what people actually will do.

Same theories, different practices

The flaw in all of this is that the implementation of developmental evaluation is often predicated on implicit assumptions about learning, how it’s done, who’s responsible for it, and what it’s intended to achieve. The review of the founding works of developmental evaluation (DE) by Patton and others point to practices and questions that that can support DE work.

While enormously useful, they make the (reasonable) assumption that organizations are in a position to adopt them. What is worth considering for any organization looking to build DE into their work is: are we really ready to reflect in action? Do we do it now? And if we don’t, what makes us think we’ll do it in the future? 

In my practice, I continually meet organizations that want to use DE, be innovative, become adaptive, learn more deeply from what they do and yet when we speak about what they currently do to support this in everyday practice few examples are presented. The reason is largely due to time and the priorities and organization of our practice in relation to time. Time — and its felt sense of scarcity for many of us — is one of the substantive limits and reflective practice requires time.

The other is space. Are there places for reflection on issues that matter that are accessible? These twin examples have been touched on in other posts, but they speak to the limits of DE in affecting change without the ability to build reflection into practice. Thus, the theory of DE is sound, but the practice of it is tied to the ability to use time and space to support the necessary reflection and sensemaking to make it work.

The architecture of reflection

If we are to derive the benefits from DE and innovate more fully, reflective practice is critical for without one we can’t have the other. This means designing in reflective space and time into our organizations ahead of undertaking a developmental evaluation. This invites questions about where and how we work in space (physical and virtual) and how we spend our time.

To architect reflection into our practice, consider some questions or areas of focus:

  • Are there spaces for quiet contemplation free of stimulation available to you? This might mean a screen-free environment, a quiet space and one that is away from traffic.
  • Is there organizational support for ‘unplugging’ in daily practice? This would mean turning off email, phones and other electronic devices’ notifications to support focused attention on something. And, within that space, are there encouragements to use that quiet time to focus on looking at and thinking about evaluation data and reflecting on it?
  • Are there spaces and times for these practices to be shared and done collectively or in small groups?
  • If we are not granting ourselves time to do this, what are we spending the time doing and does it add more value than what we can gain from learning?
  • Sometimes off-site trips and scheduled days away from an office are helpful by giving people other spaces to reflect and work.
  • Can you (will you?) build in — structurally — to scheduled work times and flows committed times to reflect-in-action and ensure that this is done at regular intervals, not periodic ones?
  • If our current spaces are insufficient to support reflection, are we prepared to redesign them or even move?

These are starting questions and hard ones to ask, but they can mean the difference between reflection in theory and reflection in practice which is the difference between innovating, adapting and thriving in practice, not just theory or aspiration.

 

 

 

 

businessdesign thinkingevaluationinnovation

Designing for the horizon

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‘New’ is rarely sitting directly in front of us, but on the horizon; something we need to go to or is coming towards us and is waiting to be received. In both cases this innovation (doing something new for benefit) requires different action rather than repeated action with new expectations. 

I’ve spent time in different employment settings where my full-time job was to work on innovation, whether that was through research, teaching or some kind of service contribution, yet found the opportunities to truly innovate relatively rare. The reason is that these institutions were not designed for innovation, at least in the current sense of it. They were well established and drew upon the practices of the past to shape the future, rather than shape the future by design. Through many occasions even when there was a chance to build something new from the ground up — a unit, centre, department, division, school  — the choice was to replicate the old and hope for something new.

This isn’t how innovation happens. One of those who understood this better than most is Peter Drucker. A simple search through some of the myriad quotes attributed to him will find wisdom pertaining to commitment, work ethic, and management that is unparalleled. Included in that wisdom is the simple phrase:

If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old

Or, as the quote often attributed to Henry Ford suggests:

Do what you’ve always done and you will get what you’ve always got

Design: An intrapreneurial imperative

In each case throughout my career I’ve chosen to leave and pursue opportunities that are more nimble and allow me to really innovation with people on a scale appropriate to the challenge or task. Yet, this choice to be nimble often comes at the cost of scale, which is why I work as a consultant to support larger organizations change by bringing the agility of innovation to those institutions not well set up for it (and help them to set up for it).

There are many situations where outside support through someone like a consultant is not only wise, but maybe the only option for an organization needing fresh insight and expertise. Yet, there are many situations where this is not the case. In his highly readable book The Designful Company, Marty Neumeier addresses the need for creating a culture of non-stop innovation and ways to go about it.

At the core of this approach is design. As he states:

If you want to innovate, you gotta design

 

Design is not about making things look pretty, it’s about making things stand out or differentiating them from others in the marketplace**. (Good) Design is what makes these differentiated products worthy of consideration or adoption because they meet a need, satisfy a desire or fill a gap somewhere. As Neumeier adds:

Design contains the skills to identify possible futures, invent exciting products, , build bridges to customers, crack wicked problems, and more.

When posed this way, one is left asking: Why is everyone not trained as a designer? Or put another way: why aren’t most organizations talking about design? 

Being mindful of the new

This brings us back to Peter Drucker and another pearl of wisdom gained from observing the modern organization and the habits that take place within it:

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.

This was certainly not something that was a part of the institutional culture of the organizations I was a part of and it’s not part of many of the organizations I worked with. The rush to do, to take action, is rarely complemented with reflection because it is inaction. While I might have created habits of reflective practice in my work as an individual, that is not sufficient to create change in an organization without some form of collective or at least shared reflection.

To test this out, ask yourself the following questions of the workplace you are a part of:

  • Do you hold regular, timely gatherings for workers to share ideas, discuss challenges and explore possibilities without an explicit outcome attached to the agenda?
  • Is reflective practice part of the job requirements of individuals and teams where there is an expectation that it is done and there are performance review activities attached to such activity? Or is this a ‘nice to have’ or ‘if time permits’ kind of activity?
  • Are members of an organization provided time and resources to deliver on any expectations of reflective practice both individually or collectively?
  • Are other agenda items like administrative, corporate affairs, news, or ’emergencies’ regularly influencing and intruding upon the agendas of gatherings such as strategic planning meetings or reflection sessions?
  • Is evaluation a part of the process of reflection? Do you make time to review evaluation findings and reflect on their meaning for the organization?
  • Do members of the organization — from top to bottom — know what reflection is or means in the context of their work?
  • Does the word mindfulness come into conversations in the organization at any time in an official capacity?

Designing mindfulness

If innovation means design and effective action requires reflection it can be surmised that designing mindfulness into the organization can yield considerable benefits. Certain times of year, whether New Years Day (like today’s posting date), Thanksgiving (in Canada & US), birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays or even the end of the fiscal year or quarter, can prompt some reflection.

Designing mindfulness into an organization requires taking that same spirit that comes from these events and making them regular. This means protecting time to be mindful (just as we usually take time off for holidays), including regular practices into the workflow much like we do with other activities, and including data (evaluation evidence) to support that reflection and potentially guide some of that reflection. Sensemaking time to bring that together in a group is also key as is the potential to use design as a tool for foresight and envisioning new futures.

To this last point I conclude with another quote attributed to Professor Drucker:

The best way to predict your future is to create it

As you begin this new year, new quarter, new day consider how you can design your future and create the space in your organization — big or small — to reflect and act more mindfully and effectively.

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** This could be a marketplace of products, services, ideas, attention or commitment.

Photo credit: Hovering on the Horizon by the NASA Earth Observatory used under Creative Commons Licence via Flickr

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The Ecology of Innovation: Part 1 – Ideas

Innovation Ecology

Innovation Ecology

There is a tendency when looking at innovation to focus on the end result of a process of creation rather than as one node in a larger body of activity, yet expanding our frame of reference to see these connections innovation starts to look look much more like an ecosystem than a simple outcome. This first in a series examines innovation ecology from the place of ideas.

Ideas are the kindling that fuels innovation. Without good ideas, bold ideas, and ideas that have the potential to move our thinking, actions and products further we are left with the status quo: what is, rather than what might be.

What is often missed in the discussion of ideas is the backstory and connections between thoughts that lead to the ideas that may eventually lead to something that becomes an innovation*. This inattention to (or unawareness of) this back story might contribute to reasons why many think they are uncreative or believe they have low innovation potential. Drawing greater attention to these connections and framing that as part of an ecosystem has the potential to not only free people from the tyrrany of having to create the best ideas, but also exposes the wealth of knowledge generated in pursuit of those ideas.

Drawing Connections

Connections  is the title of a book by science historian James Burke that draws on his successful British science documentary series that first aired in the 1970’s and was later recreated in the mid 1990’s. The premise of the book and series is to show how ideas link to one another and build on one another to yield the scientific insights that we see. By viewing ideas in a collective realm, we see how they can and do connect, weaving together a tapestry of knowledge that is far more than the sum of the parts within it.

Too often we see the celebration of innovation as focused on the parts – the products. This is the iPhone, the One World Futbol, the waterless toilet, the intermittent windshield wiper or a process like the Lean system for quality improvement or the use of checklists in medical care. These are the ideas that survive.

The challenge with this perspective on ideas is that it appears to be all-or-nothing: either the idea is good and works or it is not and doesn’t work.

This latter means of thinking imposes judgement on the end result, yet is strangely at odds with innovation itself. It is akin to judging flour, salt, sugar or butter to be bad because a baker’s cake didn’t turn out. Ideas are the building blocks – the DNA if you will — of innovations. But, like DNA (and RNA), it is only in their ability to connect, form and multiply that we really see innovation yield true benefit at a system level. Just like the bakers’ ingredient list, ideas can serve different purposes to different effects in different contexts and the key is knowing (or uncovering) what that looks like and learning what effect it has.

From ideas to ecologies

An alternative to the idea-as-product perspective is to view it as part of a wider system. This takes James Burke’s connections to a new level and actually views ideas as part of a symbiont, interactive, dynamic set of relations. Just like the above example of DNA, there is a lot of perceived ‘junk’ in the collection that may have no obvious benefit, yet by its existence enables the non-junk to reveal and produce its value.

This biological analogy can extend further to the realm of systems. The term ecosystem embodies this thinking:

ecosystem |ˈekōˌsistəm, ˈēkō-| {noun}

Ecology

a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

• (in general use) a complex network or interconnected system: Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem | the entire ecosystem of movie and video production will eventually go digital.

Within this perspective on biological systems, is the concept of ecology:

ecology |iˈkäləjē| {noun}

1 the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

2 (also Ecology) the political movement that seeks to protect the environment, especially from pollution.

What is interesting about the definitions above, drawn from the Oxford English Dictionary, is that they focus on biology, the discipline where it first was explored and studied. The definition of biology used in the Wikipedia entry on the topic states:

Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy.[1]

Biologists do not look at ecosystems and decide which animals, plants, environments are good or bad and proceed to discount them, rather they look at what each brings to the whole, their role and their relationships. Biology is not without evaluative elements as judgement is still applied to these ‘parts’ of the system as there are certain species, environments and contexts that are more or less beneficial for certain goals or actors/agents in the system than others, but judgement is always contextualized.

Designing for better idea ecologies

Contextual learning is part of sustainable innovation. Unlike natural systems, which function according to hidden rules (“the laws of nature”) that govern ecosystems, human systems are created and intentional; designed. Many of these systems are designed poorly or with little thought to their implications, but because they are designed we can re-design them. Our political systems, social systems, living environments and workplaces are all examples of human systems. Even families are designed systems given the social roles, hierarchies, expectations and membership ‘rules’ that they each follow.

If humans create designed systems we can do the same for the innovation systems we form. By viewing ideas within an ecosystem as part of an innovation ecosystem we offer an opportunity to do more with what we create. Rather than lead a social Darwinian push towards the ‘best’ ideas, an idea ecosystem creates the space for ideas to be repurposed, built upon and revised over time. Thus, our brainstorming doesn’t have to end with whatever we come up with at the end (and may hate anyway), rather it is ongoing.

This commitment to ongoing ideation, sensemaking and innovation (and the knowledge translation, exchange and integration) is what distinguishes a true innovation ecosystem from a good idea done well. In future posts, we’ll look at this concept of the ecosystem in more detail.

Brainstorming Folly

Brainstorming Folly

Tips and Tricks:

Consider recording your ideas and revisiting them over time. Scheduling a brief moment to revisit your notebooks and content periodically and regularly keeps ideas alive. Consider the effort in brainstorming and bringing people together as investments that can yield returns over time, not just a single moment. Shared Evernote notebooks, Google Docs, building (searchable) libraries of artifacts or regular revisiting of project memos can be a simple, low-cost and high-yield way to draw on your collective intellectual investment over time.

* An innovation for this purpose is a new idea realized for benefit.

Image Credits: Top: Evolving ecology of the book (mindmap) by Artefatica used under Creative Commons License from Flickr.

Bottom: Brainstorming Ideas from Tom Fishburne (Marketoonist) used under commercial license.

education & learningresearchsystems thinking

The urban legends of learning (and other inconvenient truths)

Learning simulacrum, simulation or something else?

Learning simulacrum, simulation or something else?

Learning styles, technology-driven teaching, and self-direction are all concepts that anyone interested in education should be familiar with, yet the foundations for their adoption into the classroom, lab or boardroom are more suspect than you might think. Today we look at the three urban legends of learning and what that might mean for education, innovation and beyond. 

What kind of learner are you? Are you a visual learner perhaps, where you need information presented in a particular visual style to make sense of it? Maybe you need to problem-solve to learn because that’s the way you’ve been told is best for your education.

Perhaps you are a self-directed learner who is one that, when given the right encouragement and tools, will find your way through the muck to the answers and that others just need to get out of the way. With tools like the web and social media, you have the world’s knowledge at your disposal and have little need to be ‘taught’ that stuff, because its online.

And if you’re a digital native (PDF), this is all second nature to you because you’re able to use multiple technologies simultaneously to solve multiple problems together with ease if given the ability to do so. After all, you’ve had these tools your entire life.

A recent article by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen van Merriënboer published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Psychologist challenges these ‘truths’ and many more, calling them urban legends:

An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true.

The authors are quick to point out that there are differences in the way people approach material and prefer to learn, but they also illustrate that there is relatively little evidence to support much of the thinking that surrounds these practices, confusing learning preferences for learning outcomes. I’ve commented on this before, noting that too often learning is conflated with interest and enjoyment when they are different things and if we were really serious about it we might change the way we do a great deal many things in life.

In the paper, the authors debunk — or at least question — the evidence that supports the ‘legends’ of digital natives as a type of learner, the presence of specific learning styles and the need to customize learning to suit such styles of learning, and that of the lone self-educator. In each case, the authors present much evidence to challenge these ideas so as not to take them as truths, but hypotheses that have little support for them in practice.

Science and its inconvenient truths about learning

Science has a funny way of revealing truths that we may find uncomfortable or at least challenge our current orthodoxy.

This reminds me of a terrific quote from the movie Men in Black that illustrates the fragility of ideas in the presence and absence of evidence after one of the characters (played by Will Smith) uncovers that aliens were living on earth (in the film) and is consoled by his partner (played by Tommy Lee Jones) about what is known and unknown in the world:

Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

One of the problems with learning is that there is a lot to learn and not all of it is the same in content, format and situational utility. Knowledge is not a ‘thing’ in the way that potatoes, shoes, patio furniture, orange juice, and pencils are things where you can have more or less of it and measure the increase, decrease and change in it over time. But we often treat it that way. Further, knowledge is also highly contextualized and combines elements that are stable, emergent, and transformative in new, complex arrangements simultaneously over time. It is a complex adaptive system.

Learning (in practice) resists simple truths.

It’s why we can be taught something over and again and not get it, while other things get picked up quickly within the same person even if the two ‘things’ seem alike. The conditions in which a person might learn are cultural (e.g., exposure to teaching styles at school, classroom designs, educational systems, availability and exposure to technology, life experiences, emphasis on reflective living/practice within society, time to reflect etc..) and psycho-social/biological (e.g., attention, intelligence, social proximity, literacy, cognitive capacity for information processing, ability to engage with others) so to reduce this complex phenomena to a series of statements about technology, preference and perception is highly problematic.

Science doesn’t have all the answers — far from it — but at least it can test out what is consistent and observable over time and build on that. In doing so, it exposes the responsibility we have as educators and learners.

With great power comes great responsibility…?

Underpinning the urban legends discussed by Kirschner and van Merriënboer and not discussed is the tendency for these legends to create a hands-off learning systems where workplaces, schools, and social systems are freed from the responsibility of shaping learning experiences and opportunities. It effectively reduces institutional knowledge, wisdom and experience to mere variables in a panoply of info-bites treated as all the same.

It also assumes that design doesn’t matter, which undermines the ability to create spaces and places that optimize learning options for people from diverse circumstances.

This mindset frees organizations from having to give time to learning, provide direction (i.e., do their own homework and set the conditions for effective learning and knowledge integration at the outset). It also frees us up from having to choose, to commit to certain ideas and theories, which means some form of discernment, priority setting, and strategy. That requires work up front and leadership and hard, critical, and time-consuming conversations about what is important, what we value in our work, and what we want to see.

When we assume everyone will just find their way we abdicate that responsibility.

Divesting resources and increasing distraction

In my home country of Canada, governments have been doing this with social investment for years where the federal government divests interest to the provinces who divest it to cities and towns who divest it to the public (and private) sector, which means our taxes never go up even if the demands on services do and we find that individual citizens are responsible for more of the process of generating collective benefit without the advantage of any scaled system to support resource allocation and deployment throughout society (which is why we have governments in the first place). It also means our services and supports — mostly — get smaller, lesser in quality, more spread thinly, and lose their impact because there isn’t the scaled allocation of resources to support them.

Learning is the same way. We divest our interests in it and before you know it, we learn less and do less with it because we haven’t the cultural capital, traditions or infrastructure to handle it. Universities turn campus life to an online experience. Secondary schools stop or reduce teaching physical education that involves actual physical activity.  Scholarly research is reduced to a Google search. Books are given up as learning vehicles because they take too long to read. It goes on.

It’s not that there are no advantages to some of these ideas in some bites, but that we are transforming the entire enterprise with next to no sense of the systems they are operating in, the mission they are to accomplish, a theory of change that is backed up by evidence, or the will to generate the evidence needed to advise and the resources to engage in the sensemaking needed to evaluate that evidence.

Science, systems and learning

It is time to start some serious conversations about systems, science and learning. It would help if we started getting serious about what we mean when we speak of learning, what theories we use to underpin that language and what evidence we have (or need) to understand what those theories mean in practice and for policy. This starts by asking better questions — and lots of them — about learning and its role in our lives and work.

Design thinking and systems thinking are two thinking tools that can help us find and frame these issues. Mindfulness and its ethics associated with non-judgement, open-mindedness, compassion and curiosity are also key tools. The less we judge, the more open we are to asking good questions about what we are seeing that can lead us to getting better answers rather than getting trapped by urban legends.

Doing this within a systems thinking frame also allows us to see how what we learn and where and how we learn is interconnected to better spot areas of leverage and problems in our assumptions.

This might allow us to make many of our urban legends obsolete instead of allowing them to grow like the alligators that live in the sewers of New York City. 

 

 

art & designdesign thinkinginnovation

Creativity and Craft, Myth and Muscle

Applying Creative Muscle

Applying Creative Muscle

Creativity is a word shrouded in myth that has been held up as this elusive, seductive object that will reveal the true secrets of innovation if ever reached. Creativity is something we all have, but not all of us are craftspeople and knowing where these two are separate and meet is the difference between myth and the muscles needed to turn creativity into innovations.  

A tour of blogs, journals, and magazines that cover innovation from Inc, Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, Entrepreneur and all the way to Brain Pickings will find one topic more visible than most: creativity.

Creativity is one of those terms that everyone knows, many use, has multiple meanings and is highly dependent on person and context. It’s also something that many of us feel we lack. This is not surprising given the way we set our schools and workplaces up as Sir Ken Robinson has discussed throughout his career.

Robinson has delivered perhaps one of the best and certainly most viewed talks on this at TED a few years ago illustrating the ways creativity gets ‘schooled’ out of us early on:

Accessing creativity

A look at the evidence base — which is enormous, unstructured, and varied in quality and scope — finds that creativity is hardly the mythical thing it gets made out to be and, following Sir Ken’s points raised in his TED talk, something we all have in us that may simply be hidden. More than anyone, Dr Keith Sawyer knows this having put together perhaps the strongest collection of evidence for the application of creativity in his books Explaining Creativity and, more recently, Zig Zag. (Both books are highly recommended).

Sawyer dispels such myths of the creative genius or the “flash of insight” as a linear process, rather pointing to creativity as often the cultivation of practices and habits that people go through to generate insights and products. This ‘zig zag’ represents metaphorically taking switchbacks to climb a mountain rather than going straight uphill. As you engage in creative thinking and action you build a deeper knowledge base, hone and acquire skills, and simply become more creative. “Creative people” are those that engage in these practices, build the habits of mind of creativity, and persist through each zig and zag along the way.

Design and design thinking is often associated with creativity because it is, in part, about creatively finding, framing and addressing problems through a structured process of inquiry, prototyping and revision. David and Tom Kelley in their recent book Creative Confidence point to design thinking as a layered foundation that is what much creativity is built upon. The disciplined, guided process that design thinking (well applied) offers is a vehicle for building creative confidence in those who might not feel very creative in what they do.

The process of design thinking — illustrated in the CENSE model of innovation development below — fits with Sawyer’s assertion of how creativity unfolds.

The design and innovation cycle

The CENSE design and innovation corkscrew model

The role of craft

What Robinson, Sawyer, the Kelley brothers and others have done is dispelled the myths that creativity is some otherworldly trait and shown that its something for all of us. What can get lost in the blind adoption of this way of thinking is attention to craft.

Craft is the technical skill of applying creativity to a problem or task and that is something that is quite varied. The debate over whether or not the term designer belongs to everyone who applies creativity to solving problems or those with formal design training largely is one of craft.

Craft is the thing that brings wisdom from experience and technical skill in transforming creative ideas into quality products, not just interesting ones.

In our efforts to free people from the shackles of their education and a social world that told them they weren’t creative we’ve put aside discussion of craft in the hopes that we simply get people moving and creating. That is so very important to unlocking creative confidence and ensuring that our efforts to develop social innovations are truly social and engage the widest possible numbers of participants. However, it will be craft that ensures these solutions don’t turn into what George Carlin referred to as (great) ideas that suck. 

Building design practice in the everyday

The habits of creativity are just that, habits. And if design is the way of applying creativity to problems then building a design practice is key. This means bringing elements of design into the way you operate your enterprise. Spend a lot of time finding the right problems is a start (as discussed in a previous post). Discover, inquire and be curious. Visualize, prototype, create small ‘safe-fail’ experiments, and ensure that there is a learning mechanism through the evaluation to allow your enterprise to adapt.

This is all easier said than done. It can be easy to be satisfied with being creative, but to be excellent involves craft and that requires something beyond creativity alone. It may involve training (formal or otherwise), it most certainly involves mindful attention to the work (which is what underlies the ‘10,000 hour rule’ of practice that make someone an expert), but it also requires skill. Many will find their creative talents in art, management, leadership, or service, but not all will be remarkable in exercising that skill.

To put it another way; it’s like a muscle. Everyone can work their muscles and develop them with training, nutrition, rest, and attention, but some will respond to this differently for a variety of reasons due to how all of those activities come together. This is what helps contribute to reasons why someone might be better adept at long-distance running, while others are good at bulking up and still others are far more flexible on the yoga mat.

We are all creative. We are all designers, too. But not all of us are stellar designers for all things and its important to build our collective design literacy, which includes knowing when and how to cultivate, hire and retail craftspeople and not just assume we can design think our way through everything. This last point is what will ensure that design thinking doesn’t fade away as a fad after it “didn’t produce results” because people have confused creativity with craft, myth with muscle.

References: 

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishers.

Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation (2nd Edition.). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Sawyer, R. K. (2013). Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.