Tag: education

complexityeducation & learningpsychologysystems thinking

Complex problems and social learning


Adaptation, evolution, innovation, and growth all require that we gain new knowledge and apply it to our circumstances, or learn. While much focus in education is on how individuals attend, process and integrate information to create knowledge, it is the social part of learning that may best determine whether we simply add information to our brains or truly learn. 

Organizations are scrambling to convert what they do and what they are exposed to into tangible value. In other words: learn. A 2016 report from the Association for Talent Development (ATD) found that “organizations spent an average of $1,252 per employee on training and development initiatives in 2015”, which works out to an average cost per learning hour of $82 based on an average of 33 hours spent in training programs per year. Learning and innovation are expensive.

The massive marketplace for seminars, keynote addresses, TED talks, conferences, and workshops points to a deep pool of opportunities for exposure to content, yet when we look past these events to where and how such learning is converted into changes at the organizational level we see far fewer examples.

Instead of building more educational offerings like seminars, webinars, retreats, and courses, what might happen if they devoted resources to creating cultures for learning to take place? Consider how often you may have been sent off to some learning event, perhaps taken in some workshops or seen an engaging keynote speaker, been momentarily inspired and then returned home to find that yourself no better off in the long run. The reason is that you have no system — time, resources, organizational support, social opportunities in which to discuss and process the new information — and thus, turn a potential learning opportunity into neural ephemera.

Or consider how you may have read an article on something interesting, relevant and important to what you do, only to find that you have no avenue to apply or explore it further. Where do the ideas go? Do they get logged in your head with all the other content that you’re exposed to every day from various sources, lost?

Technical vs. Social

My colleague and friend John Wenger recently wrote about what we need to learn, stating that our quest for technical knowledge to serve as learning might be missing a bigger point: what we need at this moment. Wenger suggests shifting our focus from mere knowledge to capability and states:

What is the #1 capability we should be learning?  Answer: the one (or ones) that WE most need; right now in our lives, taking account of what we already know and know how to do and our current situations in life.

Wenger argues that, while technical knowledge is necessary to improve our work, it’s our personal capabilities that require attention to be sufficient for learning to take hold. These capabilities are always contingent as we humans exist in situated lives and thus our learning must further be applied to what we, in our situation, require. It’s not about what the best practice is in the abstract, but what is best for us, now, at this moment. The usual ‘stuff’ we are exposed to is decontextualized and presented to us without that sense of what our situation is.

The usual ‘stuff’ we are exposed to under the guise of learning is so often decontextualized and presented to us without that sense of how, whether, or why it matters to us in our present situation.

To illustrate, I teach a course on program evaluation for public health students. No matter how many examples, references, anecdotes, or colourful illustrations I provide them, most of my students struggle to integrate what they are exposed to into anything substantive from a practical standpoint. At least, not at first. Without the ability to apply what they are learning, expose the method to the realities of a client, colleague, or context’s situation, they are left abstracting from the classroom to a hypothetical situation.

But, as Mike Tyson said so truthfully and brutally: “Every fighter has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

In a reflection on that quote years later, Tyson elaborated saying:

“Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.”

Tyson’s quote applies to much more than boxing and complements Wenger’s assertions around learning for capability. If you develop a plan knowing that it will fail the moment you get hit (and you know you’re going to get hit), then you learn for the capability to adapt. You build on another quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said:

“I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

Better social, better learning

Plans don’t exist in a vacuum, which is why they don’t always turn out. While sometimes a failed plan is due to poor planning, it is more likely due to complexity when dealing with human systems. Complexity requires learning strategies that are different than those typically employed in so many educational settings: social connection.

When information is technical, it may be simple or complicated, but it has a degree of linearity to it where one can connect different pieces together through logic and persistence to arrive a particular set of knowledge outcomes. Thus, didactic classroom learning or many online course modules that require reading, viewing or listening to a lesson work well to this effect. However, human systems require attention to changing conditions that are created largely in social situations. Thus, learning itself requires some form of ‘social’ to fully integrate information and to know what information is worth attending to in the first place. This is the kind of capabilities that Wenger was talking about.

My capabilities within my context may look very much like that of my colleagues, but the kind of relationships I have with others, the experiences I bring and the way I scaffold what I’ve learned in the past with what I require in the present is going to be completely different. The better organizations can create the social contexts for people to explore this, learn together, verify what they learn and apply it the more likely they can reap far greater benefits from the investment of time and money they spend on education.

Design for learning, not just education

We need a means to support learning and support the intentional integration of what we learn into what we do: it fails in bad systems.

It also means getting serious about learning, meaning we need to invest in it from a social, leadership and financial standpoint. Most importantly, we need to emotionally invest in it. Emotional investment is the kind of attractor that motivates people to act. It’s why we often attend to the small, yet insignificant, ‘goals’ of every day like responding to email or attending meetings at the expense of larger, substantial, yet long-term goals.

As an organization, you need to set yourself up to support learning. This means creating and encouraging social connections, time to dialogue and explore ideas, the organizational space to integrate, share and test out lessons learned from things like conferences or workshops (even if they may not be as useful as first thought), and to structurally build moments of reflection and attention to ongoing data to serve as developmental lessons and feedback.

If learning is meant to take place at retreats, conferences or discrete events, you’re not learning for human systems. By designing systems that foster real learning focused on the needs and capabilities of those in that system, you’re more likely to reap the true benefit of education and grow accordingly. That is an enormous return on investment.

Learning requires a plan and one that recognizes you’re going to get punched in the mouth (and do just fine).

Can this be done for real? Yes, it can. For more information on how to create a true learning culture in your organization and what kind of data and strategy can support that, contact Cense and they’ll show you what’s possible. 

Image credit: Social by JD Hancock used under Creative Commons license.

education & learningknowledge translationpsychologysystems thinking

Bullying, the market for education and the damaged quest for learning

Dark classroom, light minds

Dark classroom, light minds

A recent study found looked into the experience of cyberbullying by university professors at the hands of their students. This disturbing phenomenon points to much larger issues beyond mental health promotion and calls into question many of the assumptions we have about the systems we’ve designed to foster education and what it means to be a learner at university. 

The university is one of our oldest cultural institutions and its instructors are considered to have among societies most respected jobs, even if not always well compensated. In the past, students often approached their professors with a mixed sense of wonder, respect, curiosity and fear and that, in healthy situations, was reciprocated by faculty to create a space where people could explore ideas, learn, and challenge themselves and others to grow. That relationship has started to change as evidenced by the rise of cyberbullying in the classroom.

A recent article in Macleans Magazine looked at the changing state of the post-secondary classroom and the role of cyberbullying. Only this was not about student victims, but students as the perpetrators against their professors. The effects of cyberbullying are crippling and professors are bearing the burden of having hundreds of eyes watching them, writing about them and writing ‘consumer reviews’ about them in anonymous and sometimes unflattering, inflammatory and questionable terms on sites like RateMyProfessor.com .

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside found that as students age the incidence of face-to-face bullying decreases and cyberbullying increases, which might partly explain why we’re seeing this in university settings when face-to-face bullying goes subterranean. Yet, the notion that professors that are getting bullied by their students belies some other issues that require further investigation, namely those related to the nature of education and the role of students-as-consumers.

Consuming knowledge, producing expectations

If you pay for something, should you not expected to get something rather specific for that experience or product? Aside from some rare experiences of profane/profound personal challenge/punishment like Tough Mudder and its peers or dental work, there are few things we willingly pay for that we don’t derive pleasure from or achieve a very specific (anticipated) outcome.

Education is problematic because we might not know what we’ll get from it going in, what kind of experiences or ideas will emerge, and how our relationship to those experiences will change us. That is its great gift.

Many of us have had profound life changes because of something we experienced through our education and writing as one who has completed four different degree programs and a post-doc I can confidently say that I didn’t receive a lot of what I expected in any of those programs and I am a better person for it. Indeed, if I go to a specific learning event (aside from those focused on a specific technique or technology) I am disappointed if I actually come away with exactly what I expected.

That is part of the point. We don’t know what we don’t know.

But when you start viewing education as a thing that resembles any other market-driven product or services, you begin to focus on learning as a consumable good and your students as customers. In following this line of thought, it makes some sense to focus the delivery of this product on the desires of the consumer.

Increasingly, teachers (of various stripes) are being asked to consider a range of student-related variables in their education. Things like learning styles and preferences are now being woven into classroom instruction and students have come to learn to expect and are increasingly demanding to be taught in ways that match their unique learning preferences and styles. While there is reason to imagine that this approach is useful in stimulating engagement of students in the lessons, there is increasing evidence much of it does little to enhance actual learning. Many of the life lessons we’ve gained that shape what we do and who we are were not delivered in the manner of our choosing, conformed with our preferences and were not desired, expected or enjoyed in the moment. We risk confusing enjoyment with learning; they can be aligned but one isn’t necessary for the other to take place.

However, when we are viewing education from a consumer model, the specific outcomes become part of the contract. If I come to get a degree in X because I believe that the job market demands the skills and knowledge that X brings and I am paying tens of thousands of dollars and spending four or more years acquiring X then I feel entitled to expect all the benefits that X brings. Further, I expect that my journey to acquiring X will be enjoyable, because why would I spend more money than I’ve ever seen on something I don’t enjoy.

Particularly when that is money I don’t have.

A debt to pay

In Canada and the United States, student debt rates have dramatically increased. The Canadian Federation of Students note that Canadian’s attending post-secondary education now owe more than $15B to the Canadian federal government (PDF) as part of their student loan program, a number that doesn’t include debt accumulated from borrowing from banks, family, credit cards and other means. In Canada’s largest province, Ontario, the rate of graduate employment has decreased since 2001 and the overall youth unemployment rate continues to be the highest, despite the province having one of the most educated youth population in the country (and arguably, the world). And while Ontario universities continue to promote the fact that education is a better pathway to success, it is a hard pill for many students to swallow when many can’t apply what they trained for and paid for after they graduate.

Satirist John Oliver has an informative, humorous and distressing take on student debt and the state of consumer-oriented education for those who want to learn more.

None of these reasons are excuses for cyberbullying, but it does give a more complicated picture of those that might feel they are entitled to bully others and their reasoning behind it.

What we are seeing is a systems change in the way education is being produced, consumed and experienced. Even the mere fact that we can now reasonably use the language of consumerism to speak to something like education should give us pause and concern. I’ve been involved in post-secondary education for nearly 20 years and there has always been students who simply wanted the ‘piece of paper’ (degree) as a stepping stone to a job and little more than that from their time at school. They were willing to do the work — often the minimum possible — to graduate, but they knew they had to put the effort in to be successful. There was never an expectation that one was entitled to anything from going to school, although that might be changing.

Market identities and education systems

Belgian psychotherapist Paul Verhaeghe has explored the role of identity in market-based economies in his new book What About Me? In the book, Verhaeghe illustrates how we construct our identities as people drawing on the research that reflects (and often contradicts or obscures) the two major perspectives on personality and identity: the person-as-blank-slate and the person as a reflection of the environment. The former perspective assumes we come into the world as we are while the latter assumes the world makes us who we are and both have enormous amount of moral, cultural and evidentiary baggage attached to them.

What Verhaeghe does is point to the ways in which both have elements of truth to them, but that they are mediated by the manner in which we construct the very questions about who we are and what our purpose is. These questions are (for many cultural, historical, economic and political reasons that he elaborates on) frequently market-based. Thus, who we are is defined by what we do, what we own, what we produce, and how we use such things once out into the world and that the value that come with such ways of defining ourselves is considered self-evident. He makes a disturbing and convincing case when one stops to reflect on the way we think about how we think (metacognition + mindfulness) .

When viewed from the perspective of a market, knowledge and its products soon become the goal and not the journey. Indeed, I’ve even written about this in support of an argument for better research-to-action and knowledge translation. Much of the knowledge-to-action discourse is about viewing knowledge as a product even if the more progressive models also view this as part of a process and even more as part of a system. But it is the last part — the system — that we often give the shortest shrift to in our discussions. What Verhaeghe and others are doing is encouraging us to spend more time thinking about this and the potential outcomes that emerge from this line of thinking.

Unless we are willing to talk more about the systems we create to learn, explore and relate we will continue to support Verhaeghe’s thesis and uphold the conditions for the kind of education-as-a-product thinking that I suspect is contributing to students’ changing behaviour with their professors and creating a climate at universities that is toxic instead of inspiring.

Photo credit: Classroom by Esparta Palma used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Check out Esparta’s remarkable work here.

education & learning

The Myth of Fast-tracking Learning

The time keeper / El guardián del tiempo

The time keeper

In a quest for getting more, faster we pursue strategies that aim to compress and challenge the physics of time. Education is one of these areas where the quest to learn more, faster and ‘better’ may actually be taking us away from knowledge and speeding us to folly. 

What would you say or do if your physician or attending nurse in the hospital told you that they attended a medical school that distilled all the key sources of knowledge into packages that allowed them to complete their training in half the time?

Would you be comfortable being treated by them?

What if you were seated on your next flight  and learned that the pilot of your aircraft was taught by a flight school that claimed it could train pilots without the thousands of flight hours by focusing on the essence of what it meant to fly and do that really well in a short period of time?

Would you still want to fly with them?

What if someone said that they had a formula for taking Ericcson’s near mythical 10,000 hour rule* on building expertise and could halve it to produce the exact same results?

Would you believe them? And would you follow them?

Packaged learning and the myths of efficiency

While we might say no to these, we say yes to a lot of other things that are perhaps just as hard to believe. One of these is the myth of online education. Major online learning platforms (MOOC’s) like EdX, Coursera, and Udacity along with global education pioneers Khan Academy are delivering educational content to millions along with universities and thousands of smaller or independent education providers with the promise of offering distance education, some with degrees attached to them.

There is a place for this type of learning, but as often happens, the enthusiasm for speed, efficiency and profit blind and blur. Correspondence classes and the earliest online or distance learning programs were designed to meet the educational needs of those who were geographically isolated from others where face-to-face learning was impractical. What had a practical idea to solving a specific set of problem existing in a particular set of constraint conditions it is suddenly morphing into a standard for everyone and that isn’t a good idea.

Look around and you will see more ‘packaging’ educational experiences so that they can be scaled and delivered efficiently to different audiences. This might be fine if the content is simple and can be matched with the educator, the learning space (physical or online), and the cognitive and emotional demands placed on the learner in the process of learning the material. Yet, frequently this isn’t the case. Now, we see efforts to create programs to teach complex, important topics in a weekend, a week or a short retreat with the idea that we can just get to the essence of what’s needed and the rest will take care of itself.

Doing the work, putting in the time

No better example of this is hyper-learning myth is found that with Timothy Ferris, author of the 4-hour workweek and other rapid-fire learning books. Ferris takes his readers through his journeys to be hyper-efficient and learn things in a compressed time along the way.

One example is how he became a champion in a martial arts tournament in a sport he knew nothing about before engaging in mere weeks of training before the event. This achievement was done through some clever exploitation of tournament rules and engaging in a near obscene dehydration plan that enabled him to lose weight prior to weigh ins to allow him to fight below his normally expected weight class. This doesn’t change the outcome, but it adds a very big asterisk to its notation in the record books. Ferris’ work is filled with these sleight of hand kind of efficiencies that might work for a one-off, who’s longer term is questionable**.

Ferris has made a career out of intense, hyper-condensed learning and, even if he does what he claims, his approach to learning is his job and life. For most people, learning is one of a great many things they have on the go. Further, the problems they are trying to solve might not be ones that have a clear answer or a way to circumvent using a close read of the rules, rather they may be the kind of protracted, complex, thorny and wicked problems that we see in healthcare, social policy, environmental action, and organizational development. These are spaces where sleights of hand aren’t well received.

Other sleights of hand

In professional circles it is the longer-term that matters. System change, social innovation, healthcare transformation and community or organizational development are all areas where learning needs to start and continue throughout a long process. It often involves consideration of complex scenarios, an understanding of theory, reflective practice and experimentation that simply take time to not only engage with, but to contemplate.

It is like the parable about the farmer who wakes up one morning to find all of his crops dead because his unknowing son spent the night pulling up every stalk of grain with the belief that he could make them grow faster.

We have not been able to circumvent time, no matter what we wish.

The sleight of hand is in making busywork and information disguised as active learning and knowledge. There are certainly ways we can improve teaching, learning, knowledge translation and exchange and knowledge integration in its effectiveness, reach and impact, but we won’t be finding the ‘killer app’ that gives us the ability to download knowledge to our heads like the Matrix. These are developmental problems and thus ought to be treated using developmental thinking.

But we still try. Apps are being developed that allow us to learn anything, anywhere, in real time, from our phone or change our behaviour with a couple simple clicks, except there is virtually no evidence that we actually learn, actually change or do anything other than buy more and worry more.

True learning innovation will come from being wide-eyed about what we mean by learning, what we seek to achieve through it and creating the developmental thinking around what it means to bring them together rather than subscribing to legends or quick-fixes that simply don’t work.


* Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberative practice (PDF), which shows that attentive, intentional learning over time is a key determinant in high performing individuals. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers highlights this work in detail and has led to the popularization of what has been colloquially referred to as ‘The 10,000 hour rule’, which reflects the approximate number of hours of deliberative practice required to gain expert-level skill and knowledge in a field.

**Many of Ferris’ claims from learning languages in a few weeks to mastering other subjects are unverified.

Image Credit: The Time Keeper /El guardián del tiempo by Jesus Solano via Flickr used under Creative Commons License. Thanks Jesus for sharing your wonderful art with the world through Creative Commons.




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. 



behaviour changecomplexityeducation & learningpsychologysystems science

Asking Better and More Beautiful Questions


Beautiful answers require beautiful (and better) questions and Warren Berger’s new book looks at this very phenomenon of inquiry and asks: What does it mean to ask better questions and what does that mean for the answers we seek and receive?  

Warren Berger recently published  A More Beautiful Question, a book looking at something we take for granted and yet is the foundational building block for all great designs and innovations: the question.

Perhaps more specifically, Berger is looking at hundreds of questions as he delves into the process of questioning, the kind of questions that lead to provocative and insightful answers, and the habits of good questioning that make for sustained innovation over time.  Berger is well suited to this inquiry having penned the book Glimmer, which profiled designer Bruce Mau and explored the concept of design thinking in great detail.

Asking good questions is perhaps the (often unstated, missed and neglected) foundation of what design thinking is all about and seeing that design is the foundation of innovation it therefore means that questioning is at that foundation, too. This is important stuff.

Finding the right problem by asking better questions

A look at any bookstore, blog roll, or journal dealing with the topic of innovation and you’ll inevitably find the word “creativity” used a lot. Creativity — the act and process of creating things — is highly correlated with the questions that spur the creation in the first place. Education professor J.W. Getzels did some of the earliest research on creativity and questioning (which is interestly absent from Berger’s book) and found that those who took more time to find the best problem to solve – and thus, asked better and deeper questions of their world and subject matter — came up with more creative ideas than those who dove quickly into solving the problem as they initially saw it.

The simple take-away is: 

At the root of an answer is a question – J.W. Getzels

The better the question, the better the answer.

In complexity terms, the questions asked often create the path dependencies that entrench practices that come after it. So by asking better or ‘more beautiful’ questions and giving that attention we are not only doing ourselves a service, but are acting more ethical as well. This ethical foundation is what underlies mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat Zinn has written extensively on the importance of grounding oneself to ask better questions of the world, something that I’ve done through CENSE Research + Design in developing a mindful organization model.

In his 2004 presidential address to the Canadian Psychological Association Pat O’Neill looked at how sub-fields like community psychology changed the nature of how many “problems” in psychology were framed at the outset. Issues like poverty, drug addiction and unemployment were often (and still are in many domains) framed as personal, moral failings or just bad choices. By asking different questions of these problems, community psychologists were able to see how social policies, neighbourhood structures, social networks, and historical social exclusion — all systems issues — factor in to frame and constrain individual’s choices and risk behaviours. Suddenly, what had been framed as a personal problem, became a shared one that we all had at least some stake in.

It is this thinking that has led to greater awareness of how social change is inextricably linked to systems change and why we need to understand systems at the individual, organizational, community and societal level if we wish to address many of our social problems. Asking systems questions is asking different, sometimes more beautiful questions that get at the root of problems and inspire social innovation.

Finding the beautiful question

In his book, Berger finds that those best equipped to solve or at least address these big wicked questions in business, philanthropy and social innovation are those that ask ‘beautiful questions’ and do it often. Berger cites studies that have shown a clear relationship between success in leadership and a propensity to ask good questions. Asking good questions however takes time and the willingness to take time to question, think and question some more is another stand-out feature of these successful leaders.

It is why good questioning is also a leadership issue. Effective leaders often take the time needed to fully process the most important decisions to form what Gary Hamel and C.K. Pralahad refer to as strategic intent. Psychologist Daniel Goleman recently summarized the research linking mindfulness to focus and leadership, showing how leaders are able to better focus on what they do by being mindful. This mindful attention clears away much of the cognitive clutter to enable better question finding and asking.

Berger shows that finding the question requires some persistence. Good questioners are able to live with not having an answer or even the right question for a while. They have great patience. That ability to stand back and think, see, reflect and think some more while prototyping questions is what separates those who ask the better questions from those who don’t.

Creative collisions also helps. By mixing up ideas and connections with others, good questioners give themselves the raw material to work with. However, many of the best questioners that Berger spoke to also advocated for the need for some solitude and time to process these ideas and questions on their own. This mix of collaboration, collision, and independence is a key factor in developing the beautiful idea.

Designing better question-making

What jumped out at me in this book was how little support most organizations offer themselves for asking better, beautiful questions. Berger noted that the need for ‘serial mastery’ and constant learning is a staple of the new work environment, which should lend itself to question asking. However, if organizations are unwilling or unable to provide time for reflection, training, knowledge integration and ongoing discovery through better questions how likely is it that the workforce is going to respond to this need for new skills?

Are organizations willing to invest in a culture of inquiry? Are organizations able to make the leap from knowing things to asking things? How many public sector, non-profit, social and health service organizations (let alone industry groups) would be willing to follow companies like Google who create space — literally and figuratively — for questioning? These are some of the questions I asked myself as I read Berger’s book.

These are design questions. Berger notes how Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were both Montessori school graduates. The Montessori system of education is based on question asking and Google is run as an organization largely framed around questions (and queries as noted by the very notion of “googling” something). Google has been designed to support better questions in its literal architecture of its software, its hardware, its office space, and the ‘20 per cent time‘ they offer employees to explore questions they have and projects that are of personal importance to them.

True to the idea of questions being worthy of paying attention to, Warren Berger’s book is filled with them including some answers. I liked the book and believe that he has tapped into something very big. Whether or not organizations and leaders will be inspired to ask better questions from this or simply try to find better answers in the processes they have is perhaps the big question next.

On a related note, March 14th has been dubbed Question Day by Berger and his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, a non-profit organization that provides support for teachers and students to ask better questions in school as a foundation for a lifetime of learning. 


Berger, W. (2009). Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada.

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Chand, I., & Runco, M. A. (1993). Problem finding skills as components in the creative process. Personality and Individual Differences, 14(1), 155–162.

Getzels, J. W. (1979). Problem Finding: a Theoretical Note. Cognitive Science, 3(2), 167–172. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0302_4

Getzels, J. W. (1980). Problem Finding and Human Thought. The Educational Forum, 44(2), 243–244.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.

O’Neill, P. (2005). The ethics of problem definition. Canadian Psychology, 46(13-22).

Photo credit: Why? by Whitespeed via DeviantArt

art & designdesign thinkingfood systemssocial systemssystems thinking

“If You Build It..”: A Reflection on A Social Innovation Story

If You Build it is documentary about a social innovation project aimed at cultivating design skills with youth to tackle education and social issues in a economically challenged community in North Carolina. The well-intentioned, well-developed story is not unfamiliar to those interested in social innovation, but while inspiring to some these stories mask bigger questions about the viability, opportunity and underlying systems issues that factor into the true impact of these initiatives. (Note: Spoiler alert > this essay will discuss the film and plotlines, yet hopefully won’t dissuade you from seeing a good film). 

Last week I had the opportunity to see Patrick Creadon‘s terrific new documentary “If You Build It” at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto as part of the monthly Doc Soup screening series. It was a great night of film, discussion and popcorn that inspired more than just commentary about the film, but the larger story of social innovation that the film contributes to.

If You Build It is the story of the Project H studio that was developed in in Bertie County (click here for a film outline) and run for two years by Emily Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller. To learn more about the start of the story and the philosophy behind Project H, Emily’s TED talk is worth the watch:

It’s largely a good-news kind of story of how design can make a difference to the lives of young people and potentially do good for a community at the same time. While it made for a great doc and some inspiring moments, the film prompted thoughts about what goes on beyond the narrative posed by the characters, the community and those seeking to innovate through design and education.

Going beyond the story

Stories are often so enjoyable because they can be told in multiple ways with emphasis placed on different aspects of the plot, the characters and the outcomes. For this reason, they are both engaging and limiting as tools for making decisions and assessing impact of social interventions. It’s why ‘success stories’ are problematic when left on their own.

One of the notable points that was raised in the film is that the cost of the program was $150,000 (US), which was down from the original budget of $230,000 because Emily and Matthew (and later on, a close friend who helped out in the final few months) all didn’t take a salary. This was funded off of grants. Three trained designers and builders worked to teach students, build a farmers market, and administer the program for no cost at all.

The film mentions that the main characters — Matthew and Emily — live off credit, savings and grants (presumably additional ones?) to live off of. While this level of commitment to the idea of the Bertie County project is admirable, it’s also not a model that many can follow. Without knowing anything about their family support, savings or debt levels, the idea of coming out of school and working for free for two years is out of reach of most young, qualified designers of any discipline. It also — as we see in the film — not helpful to the larger cause as it allows Bertie County yo abdicates responsibility for the project and lessens their sense of ownership over the outcomes.

One segment of If You Build It looks back on Matthew’s earlier efforts to apply what he learned at school to provide a home for a family in Detroit, free of charge in 2007. Matthew built it himself and gave it to a family with the sole condition that they pay the utilities and electricity bills, which amounted to less than this family was paying in just rent at the time. That part of the story ends when Matthew returns to the home a few years later to find the entire inside gutted and deserted long after having to evict that original family 9 months after they took possession when they failed to pay even a single bill as agreed.

From Bertie County to Detroit and back

The Detroit housing experience is a sad story and there is a lot of context we don’t get in the film, but two lessons taught from that experience are repeated  in the story in Bertie County. In both cases, we see something offered that wasn’t necessarily asked for, with no up-front commitment of investment and the influence that the larger system has on the outcomes.

In Detroit, a family was offered a house, yet they were transplanted into a neighbourhood that is (like many in Detroit) sparsely populated, depressed, and without much infrastructure to enable a family to make the house a home easily. Detroit is still largely a city devoted to the automobile and there are wide swaths of the city where there is one usable home on every three or four lots. It’s hard to conceive of that as a neighbourhood. Images like the one taken below are still common in many parts of the city even though it is going through a notable re-energizing shift.

Rebirth of Detroit

Rebirth of Detroit

In the case of Bertie County, the same pattern repeats in a different form. The school district gets an entire program for free even to the point of refusing to pay for salaries for the staff (Emily and Matthew) over two years, after the initial year ended with the building of a brand-new farmers market pavillion that was fully funded by Project H and its grants.

The hypothesis ventured by Patrick Creadon when he spoke to the Doc Soup audience in Toronto was that there was some resentment at the project (having been initiated by a change-pushing school superintendent who was let go at the film’s start and was the one who brought Emily and Matthew to the community) and by some entrenched beliefs about education and the way things were done in that community.

Systems + Change = Systems Change (?)

There is a remarkably romantic view of how change happens in social systems. Bertie County received a great deal without providing much in the way of support. While the Studio H project had some community cheerleaders like the mayor and a few citizens, it appeared from the film that the community – and school board — was largely disengaged from the activities at Studio H. This invokes memories of Hart’s Ladder of Participation, (PDF) which is applied to youth, but works for communities, too. When there is a failure to truly collaborate, the ownership of the problem and solution are not shared.

At no time in the film do you get a sense of a shared ownership of the problem and solution between Studio H, the school board, and the community. While the ideas were rooted in design research, the community wasn’t invested — literally — in solving their problems (through design, at least). It represents a falsehood of design research that says you can understand a community’s needs and address it successfully through simple observation, interviews and data gathering.

Real, deep research is hard. It requires understanding not just the manifestations of the system, but the system itself.

Systems Iceberg

Systems Iceberg

Very often that kind of analysis is missing from these kinds of stories, which make for great film and books, but not for long-term success.

In a complex system, meaning and knowledge is gained through interactions, thus we need stories and data that reflect what kind of interactions take place and under what conditions. Looking at the systems iceberg model above, the tendency is to focus on the events (the Studio H’s), but often we need to look at the structures beneath.

To be sure, there is a lot to learn from Studio H now and from the story presented in If You Build It. The lesson is in the prototyping: Emily and Matthew provide a prototype that shows us it can be done and what kind of things we can learn from it. The mistake is trying to replicate Studio H as it is represented in the film, rather than seeing it as a prototype.

In the post-event Q & A with the audience, a well-intentioned gentleman working with school-building in Afghanistan asked Patrick Creadon how or whether he could get Emily and Matthew to come there and help (with pay) and Creadon rightly answered that there are Emilys and Matthews all over the place and that they are worth connecting to.

Creadon is half right. There are talented, enthusiastic people out there who can learn from the experience of the Studio H team, but probably far fewer who have the means to assume the risk that Emily and Matthew did. Those are the small details that separate out a good story from a sustainable, systemic intervention that really innovates in a way that changes the system. But its a start.

If You Build It is in theatres across North America.

complexityeducation & learningemergenceevaluationsystems thinking

Developmental Evaluation and Mindfulness

Mindfulness in Motion

Mindfulness in Motion?

Developmental evaluation is focused on real-time decision making for programs operating in complex, changing conditions, which can tax the attentional capacity of program staff and evaluators. Organizational mindfulness is a means of paying attention to what matters and building the capacity across the organization to better filter signals from noise.

Mindfulness is a means of introducing quiet to noisy environments; the kind that are often the focus of developmental evaluations. Like the image above, mindfulness involves remaining calm and centered while everything else is growing, crumbling and (perhaps) disembodied from all that is around it.

Mindfulness in Organizations and Evaluation

Mindfulness is the disciplined practice of paying attention. Bishop and colleagues (2004 – PDF), working in the clinical context, developed a two-component definition of mindfulness that focuses on 1) self-regulation of attention that is maintained on the immediate experience to enable pattern recognition (enhanced metacognition) and 2) an orientation to experience that is committed to and maintains an attitude of curiosity and openness to the present moment.

Mindfulness does not exist independent of the past, rather it takes account of present actions in light of a path to the current context. As simple as it may sound, mindfulness is anything but easy, especially in complex settings with high levels of information sources. What this means for developmental evaluation is that there needs to be a method of capturing data relevant to the present moment, a sensemaking capacity to understand how that data fits within the overall context and system of the program, and a strategy for provoking curiosity about the data to shape innovation. Without attention, sensemaking or interest in exploring the data to innovate there is little likelihood that there will be much change, which is what design (the next step in DE) is all about.

Organizational mindfulness is a quality of social innovation that situates the organization’s activities within a larger strategic frame that developmental evaluation supports. A mindful organization is grounded in a set of beliefs that guide its actions as lived through practice. Without some guiding, grounded models for action an organization can go anywhere and the data collected from a developmental evaluation has little context as nearly anything can develop from that data, yet organizations don’t want anything. They want the solutions that are best optimized for the current context.

Mindfulness for Innovation in Systems

Karl Weick has observed that high-reliability organizations are the way they are because of a mindful orientation. Weick and Karen Sutcliffe explored the concept of organizational mindfulness in greater detail and made the connection to systems thinking, by emphasizing how a mindful orientation opens up the perceptual capabilities of an organization to see their systems differently. They describe a mindful orientation as one that redirects attention from the expected to the unexpected, challenges what is comfortable, consistent, desired and agreed to the areas that challenge all of that.

Weick and Sutcliffe suggest that organizational mindfulness has five core dimensions:

  1. Reluctance to simplify
  2. Sensitivity to operations
  3. Commitment to resilience
  4. Deference to expertise
  5. Preoccupation with failure

Ray, Baker and Plowman (2011) looked at how these qualities were represented in U.S. business schools, finding that there was some evidence for their existence. However, this mindful orientation is still something novel and its overlap with innovation output, unverified. (This is also true for developmental evaluation itself with few published studies illustrating that the fundamentals of developmental evaluation are applied). Vogus and Sutcliffe (2012) took this further and encouraged more research and development in this area in part because of the lack of detailed study of how it works in practice, partly due to an absence of organizational commitment to discovery and change instead of just existing modes of thinking. 

Among the principal reasons for a lack of evidence is that organizational mindfulness requires a substantive re-orientation towards developmental processes that include both evaluation and design. For all of the talk about learning organizations in industry, health, education and social services we see relatively few concrete examples of it in action. A mistake that many evaluators and program planners make is the assumption that the foundations for learning, attention and strategy are all in place before launching a developmental evaluation, which is very often not the case. Just as we do evaluability assessments to see if a program is ready for an evaluation we may wish to consider organizational mindfulness assessments to explore how ready an organization is to engage in a true developmental evaluation. 

Cultivating curiosity

What Weick and Sutcliffe’s five-factor model on organizational mindfulness misses is the second part of the definition of mindfulness introduced at the beginning of this post; the part about curiosity. And while Weick and Sutcliffe speak about the challenging of assumptions in organizational mindfulness, these challenges aren’t well reflected in the model.

Curiosity is a fundamental quality of mindfulness that is often overlooked (not just in organizational contexts). Arthur Zajonc, a physicist, educator and President of the Mind and Life Institute, writes and speaks about contemplative inquiry as a process of employing mindfulness for discovery about the world around us.Zajonc is a scientist and is motivated partly by a love and curiosity of both the inner and outer worlds we inhabit. His mindset — reflective of contemplative inquiry itself — is about an open and focused attention simultaneously.

Openness to new information and experience is one part, while the focus comes from experience and the need to draw in information to clarify intention and actions is the second. These are the same kind of patterns of movement that we see in complex systems (see the stitch image below) and is captured in the sensing-divergent-convergent model of design that is evident in the CENSE Research + Design Innovation arrow model below that.

Stitch of Complexity

Stitch of Complexity

CENSE Corkscrew Innovation Discovery Arrow

CENSE Corkscrew Innovation Discovery Arrow

By being better attuned to the systems (big and small) around us and curiously asking questions about it, we may find that the assumptions we hold are untrue or incomplete. By contemplating fully the moment-by-moment experience of our systems, patterns emerge that are often too weak to notice, but that may drive behaviour in a complex system. This emergence of weak signals is often what shifts systems.

Sensemaking, which we discussed in a previous post in this series, is a means of taking this information and using it to understand the system and the implications of these signals.

For organizations and evaluators the next step is determining whether or not they are willing (and capable) of doing something with the findings from this discovery and learning from a developmental evaluation, which will be covered in the next post in this series that looks at design.


References and Further Reading: 

Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., & Carlson, L. (2004). Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(N3), 230–241.

Ray, J. L., Baker, L. T., & Plowman, D. A. (2011). Organizational mindfulness in business schools. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10(2), 188–203.

Vogus, T. J., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2012). Organizational Mindfulness and Mindful Organizing : A Reconciliation and Path Forward. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(4), 722–735.

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., Obstfeld, D., & Wieck, K. E. (1999). Organizing for high reliability: processes of collective mindfulness. In R. S. Sutton & B. M. Staw (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior (Vol. 1, pp. 81–123). Stanford, CA: Jai Press.

Weick, K.E. & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2007). Managing the unexpected. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Zajonc, A. (2009). Meditation as contemplative inquiry: When knowing becomes love. Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.