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Turning Thinking Talk to Action Walk (and a Trip to the Moon)

It’s much easier to talk innovation and creativity and far harder to turn that into something transformative that has social impact. Until we start acting on our conversation and creating the systems that support it, talk will become cheaper and the costs of converting that talk into something useful may grow beyond our means.

As the number and scope of information channels available to me grows, so too does my awareness of the conversations taking place on matters of personal interest. Where I once had to scour through material to find a place where I could learn about topics that interested me, I can now point to dozens of constantly updated spaces and tools where I can learn about social innovation, design, knowledge translation, systems thinking, evaluation and beyond. But this points to a problem as I’ll discuss later.

Two of my favourite tools are both optimized for the iPad and iPhone: Zite and Feeddler Pro. Zite creates a personalized magazine for you that is updated throughout the day drawing from various sources on the web from blogs to mainstream news through to academic articles. It’s a marvellous service and it ‘learns’ as you provide feedback on the selection it gives you, introducing you to new content from new sources all the time. Feeddler is a little less sophisticated as it is a RSS reader, but it provides a steady stream of content from the sites that I already know and trust. Mainstream sites like Fast Company (and its design and innovation derivatives such as Co.Design) and social media leader Mashable combine with some of my favourite blogs from folks like Seth Godin and KT blogs at Mobilize This! and KTExchange.

Indeed, it was a post on Mobilize This! from David Phipps that happened to crystalize something that was percolating in my head about taking action related to what I was reading. The focus was on the thinking about knowledge translation vs. its application.

In that post, Phipps comments:

It must be nice to be able to think about something and never have to do it.

But then that’s the role of researchers in many fields. Researchers think about things and study things without actually doing the things they study. Then there’s the role of practitioners.  We do things without having incentives or rewards (ie the time) to sit back and think about and reflect upon what we do.

Referring to an earlier post on knowledge hypocrites, Phipps adds:

We need more mobilization of knowledge about knowledge mobilization. Researchers need to move beyond thinking about frameworks to working with practitioners who are putting those frameworks into practice. Practitioners likewise need to embed researchers in their practice.

I had found this post sandwiched between a number of other blogs or articles on innovation and creativity with similar calls to action and sometimes some tips or ‘lessons learned’. People (myself included) eat this up. Knowledge translation is a ‘sexy’ term in health sciences right now, particularly as people look to getting more bang for their research dollars. Innovation is seen as a big part of how to do it and what it is that should come from KT.

And creativity is the way to bring them both together. It makes for great reading and starts to give you the impression that you’re actually getting things done.

Get creative! Be innovative! Translate what we know into what we do! It’s just that easy…right?

As complicated as weaving these ideas together can be, they are not rocket science (even if the Apollo 13 rescue provides us of one of the best examples of them coming together, particularly when Hollywood sets it up). Yet, practically bringing action to the talk in health and human services may be a far greater challenge to address than putting humans on the moon. Indeed, it took a bold statement by President Kennedy and massive organizational commitment, research, creativity, innovation, and knowledge translation to go from rockets that could barely reach orbit to having multiple successful missions to our lunar neighbour. (For a remarkable recap of that journey I highly recommend seeing the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon).

Humans didn’t get to the moon because of one person or a small team, but organizational commitment and delivery. NASA didn’t just talk about going to the moon, write about innovation, or read creativity books — they (to draw on David Phipp’s blog) just did it.

Talking and writing about innovation is easy, doing it is hard. As Thomas Edison said:

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work

At the same time, the work needs to be done beyond a few. And the more we see something talked about, the easier it is to assume that others are doing it and that it is common practice. In the space race there was only one small community that could possibly get the job done (in the U.S. at least). If it wasn’t NASA, it wasn’t going to happen. A problem in health and human services is that most of society is implicated in the enterprise in some regard. Research comes from different disciplines (basic science to medicine to social work to education and beyond), it is practiced in health care institutions, daycares, schools, workplaces or individually at home, and it is highly contextual and oftentimes global in scope.

It’s not “Houston, we have a problem”, but the world.

This could be an advantage, but it isn’t for some reason. More knowledge, more talk about doing knowledge translation and innovation and creative work and more exposure to them all seems to be having an unclear effect. Having met many people from programs training people in design thinking and attended many an event that focused on knowledge translation I can say that there is only a modest correlation between those that study and those that do.

After nearly 20 years of scholarship and debate on knowledge translation and with tools like Twitter and YouTube and blogs we still have to ask questions (quite rightly and likely with much frustration) like this* :

We are still asking ourselves this question and will be for years to come if we don’t start walking instead of talking.

And change isn’t about convincing individuals alone to blog or Tweet, but to create that culture of innovation where we can share ideas, discuss concepts aloud and ideate together, prototype (and fail!), and experiment. It means acting on research as part of doing research and building partnerships rather than writing about them. It’s also about creating the systems that support change, not just inspiring a few individuals to do something different.

Writing about innovation is not the same as doing it. Thinking models — design thinking, systems thinking, knowledge-to-action thinking — are supposed to inspire action, not just thought.

We got the moon and back three times in the span of ten years from the call to action from President Kennedy. An entire country rallied around a very simple and challenging task of putting humans on the moon.

Could the time be now for us to do the same with social innovation and health?

* Thanks to Rob Fraser for consenting to having this tweet included in the post

** Speaking of walking the talk, it is good to be back after a few weeks’ unplanned sabbatical from CENSEmaking. More talk, and lots of walking to come. Thanks to all my readers for your continued interest.

The photo caption is Walk the Talk by Dangerous Truth used Creative Commons License from Deviant Art. Thanks Dangerous Truth!

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