Tag: discovery

behaviour changecomplexitypublic healthsocial innovation

Confusing change-making with actual change

658beggar_KeepCoinsChange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BiggestLoser 2016-05-03 09.17.10

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

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

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

We can do more and we often do

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

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

This is likely the case for a number of reasons:

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

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

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

“That shame that was on my shoulders went off”

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

A marathon, not a sprint, in a laboratory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a marathon laboratory

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

evaluationsocial innovation

E-Valuing Design and Innovation

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Design and innovation are often regarded as good things (when done well) even if a pause might find little to explain what those things might be. Without a sense of what design produces, what innovation looks like in practice, and an understanding of the journey to the destination are we delivering false praise, hope and failing to deliver real sustainable change? 

What is the value of design?

If we are claiming to produce new and valued things (innovation) then we need to be able to show what is new, how (and whether) it’s valued (and by whom), and potentially what prompted that valuation in the first place. If we acknowledge that design is the process of consciously, intentionally creating those valued things — the discipline of innovation — then understanding its value is paramount.

Given the prominence of design and innovation in the business and social sector landscape these days one might guess that we have a pretty good sense of what the value of design is for so many to be interested in the topic. If you did guess that, you’d have guessed incorrectly.

‘Valuating’ design, evaluating innovation

On the topic of program design, current president of the American Evaluation Association, John Gargani, writes:

Program design is both a verb and a noun.

It is the process that organizations use to develop a program.  Ideally, the process is collaborative, iterative, and tentative—stakeholders work together to repeat, review, and refine a program until they believe it will consistently achieve its purpose.

A program design is also the plan of action that results from that process.  Ideally, the plan is developed to the point that others can implement the program in the same way and consistently achieve its purpose.

One of the challenges with many social programs is that it isn’t clear what the purpose of the program is in the first place. Or rather, the purpose and the activities might not be well-aligned. One example is the rise of ‘kindness meters‘, repurposing of old coin parking meters to be used to collect money for certain causes. I love the idea of offering a pro-social means of getting small change out of my pocket and having it go to a good cause, yet some have taken the concept further and suggested it could be a way to redirect money to the homeless and thus reduce the number of panhandlers on the street as a result. A recent article in Macleans Magazine profiled this strategy including its critics.

The biggest criticism of them all is that there is a very weak theory of change to suggest that meters and their funds will get people out of homelessness. Further, there is much we don’t know about this strategy like: 1) how was this developed?, 2) was it prototyped and where?, 3) what iterations were performed — and is this just the first?, 4) who’s needs was this designed to address? and 5) what needs to happen next with this design? This is an innovative idea to be sure, but the question is whether its a beneficial one or note.

We don’t know and what evaluation can do is provide the answers and help ensure that an innovative idea like this is supported in its development to determine whether it ought to stay, go, be transformed and what we can learn from the entire process. Design without evaluation produces products, design with evaluation produces change.

658beggar_KeepCoinsChange

A bigger perspective on value creation

The process of placing or determining value* of a program is about looking at three things:

1. The plan (the program design);

2. The implementation of that plan (the realization of the design on paper, in prototype form and in the world);

3. The products resulting from the implementation of the plan (the lessons learned throughout the process; the products generated from the implementation of the plan; and the impact of the plan on matters of concern, both intended and otherwise).

Prominent areas of design such as industrial, interior, fashion, or software design are principally focused on an end product. Most people aren’t concerned about the various lamps their interior designer didn’t choose in planning their new living space if they are satisfied with the one they did.

A look at the process of design — the problem finding, framing and solving aspects that comprise the heart of design practice — finds that the end product is actually the last of a long line of sub-products that is produced and that, if the designers are paying attention and reflecting on their work, they are learning a great deal along the way. That learning and those sub-products matter greatly for social programs innovating and operating in human systems. This may be the real impact of the programs themselves, not the products.

One reason this is important is that many of our program designs don’t actually work as expected, at least not at first. Indeed, a look at innovation in general finds that about 70% of the attempts at institutional-level innovation fail to produce the desired outcome. So we ought to expect that things won’t work the first time. Yet, many funders and leaders place extraordinary burdens on project teams to get it right the first time. Without an evaluative framework to operate from, and the means to make sense of the data an evaluation produces, not only will these programs fail to achieve desired outcomes, but they will fail to learn and lose the very essence of what it means to (socially) innovate. It is in these lessons and the integration of them into programs that much of the value of a program is seen.

Designing opportunities to learn more

Design has a glorious track record of accountability for its products in terms of satisfying its clients’ desires, but not its process. Some might think that’s a good thing, but in the area of innovation that can be problematic, particularly where there is a need to draw on failure — unsuccessful designs — as part of the process.

In truly sustainable innovation, design and evaluation are intertwined. Creative development of a product or service requires evaluation to determine whether that product or service does what it says it does. This is of particular importance in contexts where the product or service may not have a clear objective or have multiple possible objectives. Many social programs are true experiments to see what might happen as a response to doing nothing. The ‘kindness meters’ might be such a program.

Further, there is an ethical obligation to look at the outcomes of a program lest it create more problems than it solves or simply exacerbate existing ones.

Evaluation without design can result in feedback that isn’t appropriate, integrated into future developments / iterations or decontextualized. Evaluation also ensures that the work that goes into a design is captured and understood in context — irrespective of whether the resulting product was a true ‘innovation’ Another reason is that, particularly in social roles, the resulting product or service is not an ‘either / or’ proposition. There may many elements of a ‘failed design’ that can be useful and incorporated into the final successful product, yet if viewed as a dichotomous ‘success’ or ‘failure’, we risk losing much useful knowledge.

Further, great discovery is predicated on incremental shifts in thinking, developed in a non-linear fashion. This means that it’s fundamentally problematic to ascribe a value of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ on something from the outset. In social settings where ideas are integrated, interpreted and reworked the moment they are introduced, the true impact of an innovation may take a longer view to determine and, even then, only partly.

Much of this depends on what the purpose of innovation is. Is it the journey or is it the destination? In social innovation, it is fundamentally both. Indeed, it is also predicated on a level of praxis — knowing and doing — that is what shapes the ‘success’ in a social innovation.

When design and evaluation are excluded from each other, both are lesser for it. This year’s American Evaluation Association conference is focused boldly on the matter of design. While much of the conference will be focused on program design, the emphasis is still on the relationship between what we create and the way we assess value of that creation. The conference will provide perhaps the largest forum yet on discussing the value of evaluation for design and that, in itself, provides much value on its own.

*Evaluation is about determining the value, merit and worth of a program. I’ve only focused on the value aspects of this triad, although each aspect deserves consideration when assessing design.

Image credit: author

businesscomplexityinnovation

What’s the big idea and how are you going to make it real?

What is your strategy?

What is your strategy?

Concepts like design thinking and developmental evaluation are best used when they help ask big questions before seeking answers. How we frame the problem is much more important than the solution we generate, but that way of thinking means going into an area that is much talked about and rarely delivered on: strategy.

Many companies and human service organizations are getting desperate for solutions to the vexing problems they face. However, it may be that the organizations are as stuck finding solutions because they are tackling the wrong problem.

Problem framing is among the most critical, yet often overlooked, steps in design and innovation and often leads to more solutions that fail than those that succeed. Asking better questions is a start and developing a strategy from that is where to go next.

The big idea is your problem, making it real is the strategy to solving it.

What is the big idea?

Herbert Simon wrote about problem forming, framing and solving as the central tenets of design. Albert Einstein, another Nobel laureate, was famously (mis?)quoted as saying this about the discovery process:

If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.

Like so many of these ‘famous’ quotes, its origins are murky and the (hypothesized) original is much less poetic, but the spirit of the phrase is that problem finding and forming is enormously important for innovation. Case studies from design missions, innovation labs, and my own personal experience suggest that this ratio of 55 and 5 in resourcing is probably not far off from the truth.

Problem forming is also tied to a greater sense of mission, which is where a lot of organizations get it wrong. A clear, appropriately scoped mission provides the boundaries for creativity to flourish and innovation efforts to focus. Steve Jobs charged Apple with the mission of developing tools to enable people to create. That may have started with computers, but it soon grew to software with features that were design-forward and attractive, and then mobile devices and the ecosystems that powered them. When viewed from the mission of enabling creativity, the move to being a music and bookseller isn’t a leap from Apple’s roots as a maker of desktop computers.

Where are you going?

Strategy is about saying what you don’t do as much as it is about saying what you do. It also means saying what you do clearly and meaning it. Both of these have enormous implications for what a program focuses on and what feedback systems they develop to help them innovate and guide their strategy moving forward.

A good, simple resource on strategy is Howell J. Maltham Jr‘s recent book I Have a Strategy, No You Don’t. In the book the author illustrates the many ways in which we claim strategy when really it’s a wish. Malthan asserts that a strategy has:

  1. A purpose
  2. A plan
  3. A sequence of actions or tactics
  4. A distinct, measurable goal

However, most importantly according to Maltham is that this all needs a narrative – the story of what you do and how you do it. Too often we see the absence of narrative or a lack of connection to any of the four components above. Apple has famously developed a strong narrative for how it operates and realizes it mission.

Maltham’s four-point description of strategy works when you are dealing with simple and maybe slightly complicated systems; those with some measure of predictability and control. It doesn’t work well for complexity, which is where many human services are either immersed or shifting to. For that, we need some form of adaptive strategy that provides guidance, but also works with, rather than against complexity. Yet, it still requires a narrative.

Strategy for complex times

Like the above cartoon from Tom Fishburne, the tactics should not precede the strategy. It’s interesting to see how often the term tactic and strategy get confused and conflated. It’s easy to see why. Tactics are tangible. They — like 90% of meetings, answering email and phone messages — offer the illusion of productivity and impact. Getting hundreds or thousands of likes, followers, and re-tweets is a proxy for impact for a lot of people.

But if you’re looking to make real change, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re doing stuff, but rather whether you’re moving stuff.

It’s why adaptive strategy is difficult, because it means moving your ideas, your thinking, your relationships and your operations to constantly re-calibrate your focus. Just like looking at birds through binoculars or watching a football game from the stands, you need to constantly adjust your focus to maintain engagement. The same thing happens with strategy.

At the same time, difficult shouldn’t be the reason not to do something.

This is the new thinking that is needed to innovate and that is why many organizations seek to do the wrong thing righter by doubling down on trendiness to appear innovative without thinking deeply about what the big idea is and how it is supposed to become real. Whether static or adaptive, the narrative will tie that together. So what is your organization’s story and do you know how to tell it?

 

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkinginnovationpsychology

The Organizational Zombie Resistance Kit

How to thwart a zombie

How to thwart a zombie

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

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

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

Building resistance to zombies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

behaviour changeeducation & learninghealth promotioninnovationpublic health

How Serious Are We About Learning?

How Serious Are We About Learning?

When journalist and book author Daniel Pink tweeted the above image the other day it provoked thinking about what real learning means and what it takes to achieve it. We produce enormous amounts of knowledge, yet struggle to put it into use, but we also teach much and learn little because the systems we’ve designed for education and experience don’t match our expressed interest and rhetoric around learning. 

In my graduate course on behaviour change I would ask students on the first day why they were taking the class in the first place. Aside from the few students for whom the course was required everyone else was doing it by choice because there were many others to choose from. So why would they choose this one?

The answers would vary, but inevitably I’d hear over and again that students love learning and wanted to understand more about behaviour change, because they were interested in change and some would even say they were good at it and wanted to help others do it.

These are all well-meaning and said in a spirit that I think was honest and true. Except the reality is that it is likely a big, huge lie and one that we all share in its telling.

I would counter with two things:

  1. Loving the idea of learning something new is different than actually seeking out learning opportunities and that most of us love the former, but are not so enthused about the latter;
  2. The only people who regularly welcome change are babies with soiled diapers.

To illustrate the first point I simply ask people to consider the last conference they went to where there were options on what sessions to attend. How many of the sessions did they attend that featured content that confirmed or gently extended what they already knew versus content that was new? If you’re a health promoter doing community engagement work, sessions on Bayesian modelling for epidemics might offer far more learning than a session on working with diversity in communities (particularly if that is what you already do). Even more, how often do people go to sessions from people they know or have already seen speak? Chances are, many.

One could argue that there are subtleties that a conference presentation might offer on a familiar topic that are worth attending and while I would say that has merit, most learning that has impact is uncomfortable at some level. It extends our thinking, challenges our beliefs, or re-arranges our worldview — in ways small and large.

Wanting knowledge and living learning

Many people will say “I love change”, but that is usually in the context that everyone else is changing, not them. When I was the boss and said “things must change” it was very different than when my staff or my boss would say “things must change“. As a behaviour change educator and intervener, I need to be mindful of my own ironies and resistance to change. So should we all.

The same thing goes for knowledge. Academics are famous for ending studies with “more research is needed”. We never seem to have enough knowledge. There are two problems with this idea.

The first is that, in dynamic and evolving environments, we will never have  perfect knowledge that fits like a glove, because the contexts are always novel. This isn’t to say that evidence isn’t useful, but ‘good enough’ knowledge might be a more reasonable demand than ‘best evidence’ in many of the situations where complexity is high and so is change. That’s why data gathering techniques like developmental evaluation aren’t attractive to those who need certainty.

But there is another problem with the knowledge quest and that is one of integration. In our efforts to seek more knowledge, are we integrating what we are learning from what we already have? Are we savouring the data we collect, the articles we read, the Tweets and blogs that get forwarded are way?

We quest for more, but should we quest for better?

A newly published paper synthesized research on event horizons on memory and found that shifts in activities around an event — boundaries — can prompt forgetting and recall. We remember transitions between activities, but they also prompt forgetting depending on the mindfulness associated with the act. When we are deluging ourselves with more data, more media, more everything, we are increasing the potential remember rate, but due to the volume of content, I would surmise that we are increasing the forget rate much more. Simply reflect on your high school or undergraduate education and ask yourself if you remember more than you forgot about what you learned.

We are so busy with our search for new knowledge that we interrupt opportunities to learn from what we have.

Serious learning means non-doing

Returning to the tweet from Dan Pink, it’s worthwhile considering what it means to learn and the systems we have in place to facilitate learning. The tweet links to a discussion of how German companies give their employees five days of off-site continuing education each year. This concept of Bildungsurlaub is a leave designed to allow employees to stretch their thinking and integrate something new. Not only is off-site learning important, but the time associated with integrating material is critical.

A read of the literature on innovation and research shows consistently how time off, quiet time, slow time and down time all contribute to discovery. Robert Scott Root-Bernstein’s brilliant Discovering, Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, or Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From are all books that dive deep into creative production and show that great discoveries and innovations come from having time (with limits) to integrate material to learn. Freedom to create, explore and sit and mindfully reflect are all united concepts in the pursuit of good learning. Not everything requires this, but big concepts and bold ideas do from mathematics to science to social science and philosophy.

Yet, at an organizational and systems level, where is the support for this? Even university faculty (the tenured ones at least) who have generous vacations and sabbaticals are finding themselves crunched for time between the fight for one of the ever-fewer grants, increasing numbers of students and teaching demands, and the added push to ensure knowledge is translated. The image of faculty sitting and reading and thinking is truly an imagination. Most of my colleagues in academia do little of this, because they are out of time.

In the corporate and non-profit world this is worse. Every hour and day is to be accounted for. The idea of sending people off to learn and to think seems anathema to productivity, yet research shows incredible powers associated with taking a break and doing less and not more.

Getting serious about learning

To illustrate the scope of the problem, the University of Toronto holds one of the finest academic library systems in the world and has over 11.5 million books and 5.7 million microform materials. It is one university (of many) in one city. Add in the local Toronto public library system, the network of universities and other libraries it is connected to, local and global bookstores and all the content freely available online that is not part of this system and I challenge anyone working in social innovation or public health to say with conviction that there is a lack of knowledge out there on any important topic. Yes, we don’t know it all, but we don’t do nearly enough with what we do know because there is so much.

We will not read it all nor can we hope to synthesize it all, but we can do much with what we have. Just looking at my own personal library of physical books (not including all I have in the digital realm between books and papers) it’s easy to see that I have more than enough knowledge to tackle most of what I am facing in my work. Most of us do. But do we have the wisdom to use it? Do we have the systems — organizations and personal — that allow us to take the time and soak this in, share our ideas with others, and be mindful of the world around us enough to learn, not just consume?

When we spend as much time creating those spaces, places and systems, then we can answer “yes” to the question of whether we’re serious about learning.

Enough knowledge here?

design thinkinginnovation

Failure Fetishism and the Language of Success

Failure is always an option

This month’s Harvard Business Review is focusing on failure, showcasing a concept that was once avoided at all costs. But is this new lexicon of success by failure really helpful?

The global design firm IDEO has a mantra that caught my attention when it was first shown to me many years ago.

Fail often to succeed sooner

The thinking behind this is that lots of ineffective ideas create the likelihood that one of them will be effective. In other words, to generate good ideas, you need to first generate a lot of bad ones.

This month, the Harvard Business Review, features a special issue on the subject of failure and how it impacts organizations and innovation.

It seems we have come a long way from a culture that once embraced the words of NASA flight director Gene Kranz who, in speaking of the efforts to save the Apollo 13 mission and crew, told his charges:

Failure is not an option

It is perhaps ironic that the Apollo 13 mission is held as one of greatest examples of creative problem-solving ever cited.

Failure is a tricky beast as it invokes a lot of emotion. Decades of formal education have taught us to fear failure and that it was a negative thing. It was one thing to get a low grade on an assignment, but to outright fail a course was (for some) a fate worse than death. It is for that reason that the widespread embracing of the concept seems so unusual.

In his column in HBR, Daniel Isenberg seeks to calm the enthusiasm for failure that has taken over much of the discourse on innovation:

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

To deal with the anxiety part, Isenberg points to three strategies:

1. Accept failure as a natural part of doing business

2. Remove structural obstacles to reduce the objective risks of a failed venture

3. Turn failure into fodder

The last one is perhaps the most important for anyone seeking to make good from bad, but this language in itself is what I find problematic (including my use of the term “good” and “bad”). As Shakespeare’s Hamlet suggests:

Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

The concept of failure, as discussed above, hinges on language of fear and cultural expectations of success. In some cultures, this can be overly intense (see my post on Tiger Moms). Rather than viewing outcomes as failures or successes, might it not be worth considering a spectrum of effectiveness from “highly relevant discoveries” (making obvious strides towards achieving an objective) to “less relevant discoveries” (non-obvious strides towards an objective). It’s a small point, but one worth noting.

If we fear failure and it has been engrained as something to fear most of our life, any celebrating it now is going to fall on deaf (unconscious) ears. And if that is true, we will be losing opportunities to innovate. If people embraced failure all the time, HBR wouldn’t need a special issue.

Our entrainment to what we see as “success” also leads us to certain dominant perspectives of what that means, shutting down discourse on other ways of seeing the problem. My post yesterday on the Toronto slutwalk hints at this: if we focus on the sensational elements we miss the deeper meaning; by diving too deeply into an issue we risk missing ways to connect more broadly.

The entire success / failure language requires recasting the entire language into something less anxiety producing and more optimistic: a sort of Twitter Fail Whale for innovation. By removing the fear of discovery, we are much more likely to innovate and that is good for all of us.

Failing is fun

** Photo from tinou bou used under Creative Commons License from Flickr
art & designdesign thinkingknowledge translationresearchscience & technology

Design and Science: An Opportunity for Knowledge Translation and Exchange??

Design of Science or Science of Design

IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown recently observed a renewed interest in design within science, but is that same feeling reciprocated and, if so, what does that mean for both fields?

Tim Brown, author and CEO of the renowned design firm IDEO, recently posted on the firm’s blog some observations he had on the relationship between design and science.

In that post, he asks some important questions of both designers and scientists.

I wonder how much might be gained if designers had a deeper understanding of the science behind synthetic biology and genomics? Or nanotechnology? Or robotics? Could designers help scientists better see the implications and opportunities of the technologies they are creating? Might better educated and aware designers be in a position to challenge the assumptions of the science or reinterpret them in innovative ways? Might they do a better job of fitting the new science into our lives so that we can gain more benefit?

The question of the relationship between designers and the science used to inform the materials or products they us is one that will play out differently depending on the person and context. However, I would welcome the opportunity for designers to challenge much of what science — and I use that term broadly — does, particularly with regards to the application or translation of scientific research into policies and practices. Indeed, this is a frontier where designers have tremendous opportunities to contribute as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Knowledge translation and translational research are two of the most vexing problem domains in science, particularly with health. Despite years of efforts, scientists haven’t been able to advance the integration of what is learned into what is done at a rate that is acceptable to policy makers, practitioners and the public alike. The problem isn’t just with scientists, but the way the scientific enterprise has been engineered.

Scientists haven’t had to consider design before. Tim Brown asks further questions about what it might be like if they did:

If scientists were more comfortable with intuitive nature of design might they ask more interesting questions? The best scientists often show great leaps of intuition as they develop new hypotheses and yet so much modern science seems to be a dreary methodical process that answers ever more incremental questions. If scientists had some of the skills of designers might they be better able to communicate their new discoveries to the public?

In this case, it might be the chance for designers to step up and consider ways to work with those in science to create better institutional policies, laboratories, and collaborative environments to foster the kind of linkages necessary for effective knowledge translation.

Knowledge translation models, such as the widely cited one conceived of by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, are both process and outcome oriented; ideal for designers. KT is a designed process and the more it is approached through the lens of design thinking, the greater likelihood we’ll get a system that reflects its intentions better than what we currently have.