Tag: leadership

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.




behaviour changeeducation & learninginnovation

Isolation: The New Innovator’s Dilemma

It's can be a long, lonely climb

It’s can be a long, lonely climb

 Innovators transform the world around them in big and small ways and while a successful effort can be lauded by pundits, politicians and the public there is a long road to making change happen. That road is also a lonely one and doing things different means more than just innovating and experiencing what it means to be resilient firsthand. 

Clayton Christensen’s seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma has been one of the leading sources of thinking-inspriation in business and social innovation. The book reflects the challenges with those seeking to introduce new ideas, products or services into established markets (or ecosystems) in the aim of addressing both people’s present and future needs.

These innovators — change-makers — risk disrupting the very markets they seek to influence bringing uncertainty for everyone. What innovators bet on is that the changes they introduce will have wide-ranging, positive benefits even if they don’t fully know what those are before setting out. Not surprisingly, these efforts are not always welcome at first and the road toward understanding and acceptance is a long one.

Innovation means doing something new and while we like to talk about new, many don’t actually like doing ‘new’ because that means questioning and changing things. Indeed, change — profound change — in thinking is often vigorously opposed as Albert Einstein pointed out in a quote that is paraphrased as:

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds

This opposition is a challenge for anyone, but the long slog towards innovation is not only hard on the spirit, it is often a lonely path.

The lonely lives of leaders

To innovate means to lead through ideas and products. We live in a society that admires and elevates the innovators. No better or perhaps inspiring example is the 1997 advertisement from Apple as part of the Think Different campaign in the 1990’s.

What is missing from the platitudes, plaudits and celebrations is the quiet, often lonely, life away from the attention that successful innovations bring (nevermind those that are not deemed successful). To innovate is to lead and to lead is often to be lonely by definition because there are few leading and more following. This leadership by thought or action is often what makes leaders appear creative, innovative and — as Seth Godin affectionately calls being weird. A study discussed in the Harvard Business Review and dissected in Forbes pointed to high rates of loneliness among those at the CEO level, which is among those who “made it”. Consider those who haven’t yet “made it”, who haven’t had their idea “succeed” or take off and it might feel even more lonely.

At a recent workshop I conducted a participant expressed publicly a sense of gratitude for simply having the opportunity to connect with others who were simply open to seeing the world in the same way that they were. In hosting a learning workshop for social innovators a positive byproduct was that attendees who might have been isolated in their activities and thinking in one context could come together in another.

Innovation, because it is new, means that innovators have few peers available to directly commiserate with and may need to find ways to connect on idea, method, philosophy or role, but rarely something direct. That requires extra work in the search and more effort to connect in the finding, which takes time and energy — two things innovators are often short of.

But that doesn’t diminish the value and importance of time and energy and directing it towards efforts to reduce isolation.

Creating deep community

Paul Born, Director of the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, recently published a book on creating deep community connections as a necessary means of fostering transformative change. Born offers four pillars to a deepening community are:  1) sharing stories, 2) taking the time to enjoy one another, 3) taking care of one another, and 4) working together towards a bigger social goal.

While there is little to argue with here, these pillars rest on the ability to locate, co-locate and create the space to share, enjoy, care and collaborate in the first place. For many innovators this is the hardest part. Where do we find the others like ourselves and how do begin to frame this journey?

There is a reason that innovators have flocked to tools like the Business Model Canvas and the Lean Startup method to help people define, refine and develop their products and mission. It’s easy to point to firms like Apple as examples of clear-focused innovators now, but 20 or 30 years ago it wasn’t so clear. Apple’s overall mission and vision are easy to see lived out in hindsight, not at the beginning. A read of Steve Jobs’ biography illustrates how often his way of approaching the world clashed with nearly everyone and everything and how difficult life was for him.

But Steve Jobs happened to be challenging the world in a place that would come to be known as Silicon Valley. For the last thirty years the San Francisco bay area has been a spark for creative thinking and innovation, one of many hotbeds of business and cultural transformation that Richard Florida documented as home of the Creative Class(es). But not all innovation takes place in these centres and even within such centres it might be hard to connect when an idea is ill-formed or new. We lose out when innovation is only done in certain places by certain people.

(Social) innovators are part of a diffuse and sometimes lost tribe.

Troubled language

If you look at the language that we frame innovation we reveal many of the problems with not only our ideas, but what we do with them. As mentioned in previous posts, we privilege terms like creativity, but often ignore craft. We aspire to be learners, but often don’t like real learning. We tout the role of failure in design and innovation, yet our overloaded cultural baggage attached to the term prevents us from really failing (or asking such tepid questions we don’t really stretch ourselves).

Having access to social media and electronic communities offer a lot and something we didn’t have before, but its very difficult to forge strong, connective bonds mediated through a technological interface. Technology is good at initiating superficial connections or maintaining deeper connections, but not so good at creating deep connections. Those deeper connections as Paul Born points out are the things that sustain us and allow us to do our best work.

The dilemma is how to allocate time and resources in cultivating uniqueness, depth and connecting to similar innovators when that pool is small or integrating more with those in the convention system. Of course innovators need to relate to both groups at some level because an innovation doesn’t grow if we only connect to ‘true believers’, but at different stages it matters how we’re allocating our time, energy and enthusiasm particularly along that journey up Mt. Isolation.


There is no ready answer for this problem. Indeed, the lonely path to being different, weird or constructively challenge the harmful or less effective parts of the status quo may be one of the most wicked ones innovators face.

For those interested in social innovation there are a few examples for those who want to find peers and connect:

  • The Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement (mentioned earlier) has different communities of practice focused on various aspects of community building and social innovation. They host events and have created a vibrant community of learners and action-oriented professionals across Canada and the United States;
  • LinkedIn has a number of topical groups that have evolved on a variety of social and innovation topics that include local, global and topical foci;
  • The Social Innovation Generation Group convenes formal and informal events connecting those working in the social innovation space in the Greater Toronto Area and across Canada;
  • Meetups are self-organized gatherings on virtually every topic under the sun in communities across the globe. Check out and see if there is something near you;
  • In Toronto and New York City, the Centre for Social Innovation is a part co-working space, social action community, and venture incubation support group that connects and enlivens the work that social innovators do. They have many events (many are free and low cost) organized by their members that seek to bring people together and offer skill development. If you’re in Ottawa, check out The Hub. In Calgary? Check out EpicYYC ;  In Vancouver, visit the great folk at the HiVE. Throughout the United States Impact Hub spaces offer innovators options to work and connect and in Cambridge, MA there is the amazing Cambridge Innovation Centre for innovation more broadly. MaRS in Toronto offers another option.
  • Lastly, CENSE Research + Design hosts a series of webinars and free and paid workshops to create capacity for social innovation. For more information visit: www.cense.ca/learning .


Born, P. (2014). Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (p. 216). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd. ed., p. 218). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Wheatley, M. (2007). Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (p. 300). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Wheatley, M. (2010). Perseverance (p. 168). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Photo: Mt. Isolation This Way on Flickr by Tim Sackton used under Creative Commons License. (Thanks for the great shot Tim and making it available for others to use!)

behaviour changecomplexitysystems thinking

The Resilient Tribe: Designing Leadership For Complexity

Accept Conditions or Change Them

Accept Conditions or Change Them

Individuals, organizations and networks are living with unprecedented social complexity requiring more attention than ever on fostering resiliency at all levels to not only thrive, but survive. Not all of these levels are equal and where we choose to focus our energies makes an enormous difference for whether we design change intentionally (lead) or have the system drive what we do (follow).

In dealing with complexity we are presented with two polar positions: let the system drive us passively and adapt or seek to influence system and adapt. Either way, we need to adapt even if our intention is to maintain things as they are, invoking the quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

Where we choose to focus our energy in building adaptive capacity matters a great deal. Given competing priorities and limited resources the question raised is whether we are better at increasing individual resilience or something at an organizational level?

The answer means getting taking a third option that means going tribal and focusing on leadership.

Tribal wisdom

We are still tribal beings – by blood, geography and psychology. We connect. Christine Comaford has explored the neuroscientific connections with tribal behaviour and teams and believes we are partly wired to live as tribes through a neurological priming in the brain for three things:

1. Safety

2. Belonging

3. Mattering

Safety is the most obvious for if we are not safe not much else matters. Yet we also long to belong and it matters than we matter. It’s not clear from the research what kind of connection we need to have, but there is the brain’s desire to experience connection and know that what we are doing makes some kind of impact.

Seth Godin has also written on the topic of tribes and makes a powerful case for the importance of finding, building and connecting to tribes if we are to have impact on the world.

Leaders lead when they take position, when they connect to their tribes, and when they help the tribe connect to itself

Understanding complexity is a critical skill for leaders of these new tribes. If we are intentionally engage complexity rather than dismiss it, leaders must have some sense of how it operates in order to take the positions necessary to lead.

The leadership imperative

Why leadership? Leadership bridges individual action with group-level engagement for one can’t lead if no one is following. It also allows for maximum leverage that crosses the widest surface area within a system.

Efforts to promote individual resilience are useful for individuals, however that can be a fix that fails when viewed in the context of social innovation and change. A highly resilient, adaptive person working within a stagnant or harmful system will eventually leave it and seek other options. This could mean losing key staff, partners and the knowledge and skills that come with it. By being resilient, these individuals will have the perceptual skills to see a toxic environment for what it is, recognize its limitations, and after failed attempts to change it will leave.

On the other hand, promoting organizational resilience is a far more powerful leverage point. Creating capacity within and across an organization for spotting trends, identifying weak and strong signals, doing the appropriate sensemaking, and adapting is something that benefits the whole, not just the parts. The problem with focusing exclusively on organizational resilience is that it takes considerable time and energy to do this in organizations not prepared to see complexity. Operating effectively with complexity requires new mindsets, skillsets and toolsets that can be organized through systems thinking and developmental design, but it takes some time to build.

Leadership is something that bridges the two. Appropriate leadership skills and practice builds resilience in the leader and the followers. It also is something that can be widely dispersed and serve the purpose of building resilience within the entire organization if everyone is viewed as a potential leader.

From hero to host

The traditional model of leadership (as least as experienced in Western countries) is that of the hero. Some of the qualities of this heroic leader include:

  • Having the most knowledge, experience and insight into the problems at hand
  • Telling people what to do and how to do it
  • Concentration of power and the licence to use it as needed
  • Leads through direction, not engagement
  • Control is paramount

These might have been useful in linear, command-driven organizations in the past, but they are not useful any more for anything to do with complexity. Meg Wheatley has written extensively on this and pointed to the folly of this traditional model. One of the best analogies she’s used is describing the leader as a host (.pdf) . What a host does is facilitate interaction between people and be mindful (my word) to the group’s direction, intention and process. While individuals attend to the specific needs and tasks before them, the leader in complex environments attends to the dynamics and systems in which these interactions take place. Resilience is fostered when many people — not just ‘the person in charge’ develop these skills, widening the base of influence within a system as more actors are paying attention to the dynamics taking place and fostering mindful, attentive emergence of beneficial outcomes.

Heather Gold sometimes refers to this mindful attention to group process as tummeling. Great hosts are good tummelers and good tummelers are great leaders within complexity. Tummeling is akin to the modulation that takes place at a party where a host is constantly looking to see how the guests are doing, if the music is right, the food is fresh, and drinks are filled. The CoNEKTR model, a complexity oriented design methodology, uses this same approach to lead a group through a design thinking process of innovation. In each of these examples, leading is done as a means of bridging individuals and the groups they are a part of, connecting the tribe together and building resilience in the process.

Some further reading: 

Norman, C. D., Charnaw-Burger, J., Yip, A. L., Saad, S., & Lombardo, C. (2010). Designing health innovation networks using complexity science and systems thinking: the CoNEKTR model. Journal of Evaluation in Cinical Practice, 16(5), 1016–1023.

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Wheatley, M. J. (2012). So Far From Home. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298–318.

Photo credit: Cameron Norman

complexityinnovationpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

Kindness Confusion in Collaboration and Co-creation

Hidden Love?

Hidden Love?

An emerging look at evolutionary behaviour is suggesting that we are better suited for survival by working together than in competition. This cooperation imperative has been called “survival of the kindness” which risks lumping affective social generosity and goodwill with effectiveness and desirability and, in doing so, risks the entire enterprise of collaboration-based efforts. 

A recent article in Mindfulness Magazine* profiled work of behavioural scientists who’ve looked at the evolutionary patterns of humans throughout the ages and see convincing evidence that the ‘survival of the fittest’ metaphorical explanation for human development is misleading at best or even outwardly wrong altogether. We are socially better off working together than competing.

What I found disconcerting was the term Survival of the Kindest which has been used multiple times in Mindful in its early issues.  As attractive as this idea is, it a lens. In the photo above love is visible if you look for it. Indeed the lens is literally focusing on what the photographer wants you to see – love. That we see love through the trees (and in our work) is notable, but it doesn’t mean that collaboration and co-operation is necessarily a loving act. In the case of the picture, it draws our attention past the man sleeping on the street with his cardboard donation placemat lying beside him.

And that might be the problem. Framing co-work as necessarily imbued with a set of qualities like kindness or love may mean we miss seeing the forest, the trees or the people sleeping beneath them.

Why might this idea of linking the two together so emphatically be problematic? After all, who doesn’t want a little more love in their life?

Cruelty of kindness

There are many utilitarian reasons to cooperate, co-create and work with others, which has a lot to do with the kind of problems we face. Collaboration requires co-labour — working together. For complex (sometimes wicked) problems that is usually necessary. For complicated problems (or very large ones like healthcare [PDF] ) that is also usually required. But for simple problems and small ones — of which we encounter in abundance every day and are often embedded within larger, complex ones — working alone might be sufficient and efficient.

Working together requires a set of skills that are often assumed, but not rarely paired up. Working together requires different motivational structures, leadership and coordination efforts than working independently. These are not better or worse, just different.

Coupling kindness with the ‘co’s’ of working together — cooperation, collaboration and co-creation — takes a human experience of generosity and imposes it on our work situations**. Certain contemplative traditions emphasize the role in kindness, generosity and love in all things and that embracing kindness in our daily lives we are enabling greater equanimity with our world around us. But to equate one with the other is to betray another saying from the Buddhist tradition:

Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself

Thus, do not confuse bringing kindness to co-work with cooperation, collaboration or co-creation itself.

Another issue is the ‘est‘ part of the term survival of the kindest. By placing kindness on some form of evaluative gradient where one is either more or less kind we impose a very specific set of cultural parameters around our work. Who is the kindest in the bunch? Assuming we had some tool to measure kindness (which I don’t know exists) are we really comfortable rating and ranking people’s ability to be kind in their work? Should we reward the kindest of the bunch? What does it mean if we are not the kindest?

You can see where this might go.

Working smarter is kind

Min Basadur and his colleagues have been studying work preferences for over 20 years doing research on how people work together. His Basadur profile (below) is based on rigorous psychometric tested data and allows teams to see what kind of preferences their members have for certain types of work. These are preferences only, not value or competence judgements and amenable to change over time. It can be a tool to validate the way we like to work and help us guide how we work with others as well as potentially identify what parts of the problem finding, framing and solving process so important to design and complexity that we might be best suited for.

For example, some are more amenable to generating ideas, while others are more comfortable organizing them or putting together plans of action that are useful to those who are ready to act. While everyone draws on each quadrant in their life, there are spaces where they feel more at home and what the Basadur profile does is help us identify those so we can use our talents well and provide guidance on areas we might wish to develop. I’ve used the Basadur profile with my own work, my academic learning and with clients to helpful effect in spotting problems. Like anything that can ‘type’ people it needs to be used with care and like the Buddhist quote above, it is important to remember that this is pointing to something (work preference) as opposed to being those things.

The Basadur Profile

The Basadur Profile

Just as the Basadur profile shows preferences for certain type of work there are also aptitudes for certain kinds of work that leverage these preferences, for leadership, and for social engagement. Some are better working in groups and some just prefer it.

Collaboration and it’s co-siblings are frequently touted as desirable, positive qualities, yet like many forms of work it is the context in which they are used that matters as much as whether they are used. Certain problems — as mentioned above — are more likely to need co-work to address, but not all. Perhaps more importantly, not all facets of problem solving require co-labour; some may simply require coordination.

The personality of creative work

Co-work makes many assumptions about people’s work preferences and capabilities that are often untested. It also places certain implicit value judgements on personality type. In her popular TED talk and book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain speaks to the often hidden, but large segment of our population of people who draw energy from contemplation, solitary work, or reduced social engagement rather than other people.  As she points out, there are myths and prejudices placed on those who don’t want the attention or are quiet rather than boisterous in this age of social broadcasting. That has enormous potential implications for our work and quietly excludes those who don’t fit the profile of the innovator, the leader, the ideator or whatever archetype we hold in our cultural minds.

Just as the knee-jerk reaction of many in the social innovation community to bringing things to scale, so too is our push to collaborate and co-create everything all the time. And like scaling, there are well-intentioned motives behind this push. Working together brings in many voices to the problem and appears not to exclude people, however if those people we bring in are not as comfortable (indeed, dislike or feel uncomfortable with) working closely together or not skilled at doing so (it is a skill regardless of your personality) we are creating a new set of inequities in the process of trying to fix others.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t work together; indeed, many of the problems we face demand it. Rather, it’s worth being creative and reflective about what that means in practice and explore ways to work together closely and also apart in a coordinated manner.

How do we honestly, genuinely, and appropriately engage the voices we need and recognize their work styles, personalities, and preferences in a manner that supports the best co-creative aspects rather than imposing a work-together-at-all-cost approach that can sometimes come through in our rhetoric? How can we foster kindness in what we do organically rather than impose it as a value on our work and recognize that co-work is simply working together, not good or bad or kind or unkind?

In being clear about our intentions and how we create the conditions for us to all meaningfully contribute to social transformation efforts in our own way will be more effective in the long run. By allowing all parts of the system — the big and boisterous, the collaborative, the quiet, the solitary — to come together in ways that fit how we actually work and how we like to work we are much more likely to bring about the innovation and systems change we seek.

* link is to supporting ‘extra’s’ not the original article, which is available only through subscription.

**  By work I am referring to any activity that requires some effort to accomplish and not necessarily paid employment

Photo: Cameron Norman

Link: Basadur profile

businesscomplexitydesign thinkingevaluationinnovation

Developmental Design and The Innovator’s Mindset

Blackberry Swarmed By Ignorance

Blackberry Swarmed By Ignorance

Blackberry, once the ‘must have’ device is no longer so and may no longer even exist. Looking back on how the mighty device maker stumbled the failure is attributed to what was done and not done, but I would argue it is more about what was unseen and not thought. Ignorance of the past, present and future is what swarmed them and a lack of developmental design in their culture.

Today’s Globe and Mail features the above-pictured story about how and why Blackberry lost out to Apple’s iOS iPhone and Google’s Android powered phones due in large part to their focus on their stellar enterprise security system and failing to consider what would happen when competitors yielded ‘good enough’ models.  It’s a tale years in telling and what may be the beginning of the end of the once globally dominant Canadian tech leader.

Getting out

Those I’ve known who’ve worked for Blackberry describe a culture devoted to engineering excellence above all, which emphasized technical superiority and attention to the technology over the users of that technology. Perhaps if more of those engineers got out a more beyond their own circles they might have noticed a few things:

  1. Facebook, Twitter and social media sites that all seemed fun at first were quickly becoming more than just pastimes, they were being used as communications tools for everything from family and friends to work;
  2. Cameras were being used to capture photos and videos, share them and edit them (like Instagram and now Vine) for purposes beyond social, but also to take photos of PowerPoint presentations at events, brainstorming whiteboards and prototypes;
  3. The rich media experience provided through other devices meant that the keyboards were less important — typing faster and easier was being weighed against screen dimensions for videos, photos and interactive content;
  4. Workers were passionate enough about these new tools that they would bear the cost of their own phone to use these tools and carry two devices than just rely on a Blackberry if they were required to have one.

I saw this phenomena all over the place. Embedded in this pattern were some assumptions:

  1. Email was the most important form of productivity. (This might also include learning);
  2. Email was fun;
  3. Email got people communicating

Few people I know like email anymore. We tolerate it. Almost no one who is in the work world gets too few emails. Email is a useful and highly embedded form of communication; so much so as to nearly be a form of dominant design in our business communications.

What a little anthropological research on RIM’s part would have produced is some insights into how people communicate. Yes, email is the most pronounced electronic method of communication for business, but it doesn’t excite people like a video does or engage conversation like Twitter can or enable re-connection to close peers or family like LinkedIn and Facebook do. These are all platforms that were lesser served by the Blackberry model. What that means is that email is vulnerable to those things that attract people.

In complexity terms rich media is an attractor; it organizes patterns of activity around it that stimulate creativity in the system. This meant that a lot of positive energy was being directed into these new means of engagement over others and that when given the opportunity to choose and use a device that supported this engagement better people (and eventually the firms they worked for) began to opt for them over Blackberry.

Ongoing innovation

Developmental design is a process of incorporating the tenets of design thinking with developmental evaluation, strategic foresightbusiness model innovation and contemplative inquiry. It means constantly evaluating, assessing, designing and re-designing your product offerings as things change and developing a constant attentive focus on where you are, where you came from and the weak and strong signals that indicate shifts in a culture.

This is a new way of doing innovation development, evaluation and strategy, but it is the necessary ingredient in a space where there is high levels of complexity, rapid churn in the system, and high demand for action. Increasingly, this is no longer just the domain of high tech, but banking, retail, healthcare, education and nearly every system that is operating in multi-jurisdictional environments. When we (the customer, patients, students…) were very much the same, we could treat our system simply. Now the ‘we’ is different and the systems are complex.

Developmental design is the praxis of innovation.

What would Steve Jobs do?

It is interesting to note that today is the day the bio-pic on Steve Jobs is released into theatres. Jobs knew developmental design even if he never named it as such. He famously ‘got out’ in his own, unique way. He went for walking meetings rather than sat in boardrooms. He watched what people did and channeled his own passion for creating things into a company culture that was designed to create things to help people create things. To that end, he was among the most outstanding innovators of the last 50 years.

Yet, Jobs and his team were good at paying attention to where things had gone (the computer), where they were (increasing bandwidth capability and demand with the Internet), and where they were going (decentralized production). Thus we had a number-crunching machine turned it into a suite for personal creativity (Mac), which spawned a music player (iPod) and online store (iTunes), which led to a multimedia communications handset (iPhone), which inspired a handheld tablet (iPad).

Apple is the most valued tech company in the world because of that vision, one that has been questioned in light of Jobs’ passing on and new leadership in place at the company.

Blackberry is not unique. The leaderboard in consumer mobile technology has changed from Motorola to Nokia to RIM (Blackberry) to Apple to Samsung (Android) in less than 15 years. That is enormous churn in a sector that touches over three quarters of the world’s population directly (more than toilets). While perhaps an extreme case, it is becoming a model to pay attention to for other industries on different scales.

Ask yourself: Are you Blackberry today or Apple yesterday?

If you apply developmental design to your work, you’ll have your answer.


The Complex Consequences of Simple and Easy

PS2-complex In this second post on marketing complexity I look at how the allure of simple and easy lulls us into seeing past complexity and focusing on the least powerful forces that impact sustained change and meaningful innovation.

H.L. Mencken’s oft quoted phrase (including on this blog) about simple answers being wrong lest we commit to doing the wrong things righter (as Russell Ackoff said) . Simplicity however, is seductive,”neat”, “clean” and wrong when it comes to addressing complex problems. Such problems require complex responses and such responses are hard to market to a public used to the neat and clean. To take a look at how this happens it’s first worth contemplating ways we get people to buy into the simple, wrong ideas in the first place.

Going past the guru

We’ve all seen the gurus and maybe have a few of their books on our shelves. They can make us feel good as they feel our pain and propose 3, 5, 7, 10, 101 simple, easy steps to success. Lists are everywhere packed with gems toting advice on how we can be better, live better, perform better and beyond. The track record of success for these books is mixed in their impact on human action, but they might make people feel better about themselves. Mitch Joel over at Six Pixels of Separation / Twist Image even noted how this desire for inspiration in simple motivational messagin has found its way increasingly into the world of Facebook.

“If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else.” – Marvin Gaye. I just saw an image on Facebook of this quote. It’s not the first time. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a veritable onslaught of motivation and personal development quotes that are embedded in images (with varying degrees of artistic quality). Some of them are profound and powerful and some of them are quirky and cheesy. My added interest in this trend is the request to share, comment and spread them.

They are everywhere and I’ve shared some of them on Facebook and Twitter, too. But the sheer volume of these messages ironically might be their undoing in effect. It is as if the world is fine and we’re OK and life really is simple at its core. This, like many profundities in this world, is both the truth and a lie. Being true to yourself and aware is incredibly powerful, but it alone doesn’t change our collective wellbeing unless most of us do it together. For that, we need to do the work outside ourselves and within simultaneously. These messages imply change is simple (and sometimes easy), but the mistake is in thinking changing your world is changing the world at the same time.

Aspiring for change and doing the work to get it

This is both a marketing and unmarketing problem. Simple sells. It’s easy to Tweet and relatively simple to package. It’s also easy to mislead people into a sense of false progress and inspiring guruship with those who are the prophets or thought leaders behind this simplistic thinking. The next step is taking the meaning in these messages of hope and inspiration and connecting them to something beyond ourselves into something larger. It also means wishing for better, thinking healthier and acting on these in the world requires work. A lot of work… and that is unsexy and complicated.

Seth Godin is one who I find to be an ‘unsexy’ (with apologies to Seth, this is about his ideas not him) truth-telling antidote to the guru. His messages about success are both inspirational and aspirational, but always gilded with a message that the path is complex: it is about discovering our art, committing to it, sharing it with the world, and keeping at it over the bumps (work hard) while knowing when or if to quit.

In an age where there is a quick fix, discovering one’s art no matter what it is and living life through it not something that has a recipe attached to it. It requires we pay attention to ourselves (and our world) and our deepest needs, but also the patterns forming around us. Yet, with so much information swirling around us, we run into a problem of a widening signal to noise ratio. In marketing every message we send has to get through the din created by all the other marketing messages on every medium or device, all the other correspondence, the social media channels, the billboards, the books and pamphlets and on-the-field paint that bombards us with signals that are largely about creating an image of cause and effect.

Simple (but not obvious) rules

So how to get through it? One of the ways we naturally navigate through complexity is the use of heuristics (PDF book link). Heuristics are guidelines* that serve as simple rules to follow, providing a start point in the complex environment from which to act on. A tongue-in-cheek hueristic is to follow someone when in doubt, building on Douglas Adams’ line in The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy:

Follow that car, it looks like it knows where it’s going.

But this can fail us in complex environments and sometimes simple ones. Our preoccupation with leadership, success, and champions can be leading us on the wrong path. In a post earlier today, Annie Murphy Paul provoked some thinking about what it means to be #1 in a particular field and how it may be wiser to learn from #2 if we are seeking to emulate success in our work. Paul recognizes that success sometimes involves good fortune that cannot be planned, yet that there is research that suggests those not considered the guru might be worth paying attention to if we relax our gaze. She writes:

Tellingly, the most genuinely useful innovations tend to emerge from companies’ on-the-ground responses to economic and social challenges — not from business advice books. So concluded researchers Danny Miller and Jon Hartwick in an article in the Harvard Business Review, for which they tracked the coverage of business trends in academic, professional, business and trade publications over a 17-year period. Evanescent fads, they found, are usually simple, one-size-fits-all solutions promoted by charismatic “gurus.” Approaches with real staying power are more complex and multifaceted, and demand deep organizational changes.

Gurus, reputation and the failure of filters

One of the ways around this is to create filters based on reputation, which is at the core of social network research. However, it also falls into the trap mentioned by Murphy as attracting followers to the wrong gurus. Gurus can also be in the form of institutions. Another post by Mark Carrigan on the London School of Economics Impact of Social Sciences blog about how high impact journals also carry with them a sense of cultural power that off-loads much of the critical thinking to academic reputation. Drawing on the parallels with the art world, he points to the issue of time:

The obscenely wealthy but time-poor rely on such brands to guarantee the virtues of the art they invest in, assuaging the insecurities about their purchases which are only sustained because “they are not willing to spend the time required to educate themselves to the point of overcoming insecurity”.

We do this in scholarly work all the time and, I believe, even more so as the number of academic sources rise and our filters get filled. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, we are becoming overwhelmed by information and filter failure, short on time, and struggling to make sense of the complexity around us partly as a result of all of this. As complexity grows, the patterns of action become harder to see.

Carrigan challenges us to imagine what might happen if one of these patterns — prestige title — was removed:

Is it the case that within the academic world, inclusion in a prestigious journal becomes a substitute for, and certainly is a reinforcement of, intellectual judgement? As a thought-experiment: how would academic life differ if these status hierarchies weren’t available to help us navigate the knowledge system? How would we respond? I suspect that activities which are already everyday features of the academic world (particularly dialogue and debate within communities of practice) would take on a newfound importance. What else would be different?

For any marketing of complexity to work, the risk in creating a false guru is high, but so too is the risk of installing overly simplistic filters (reputation-heavy promotion). In both cases we need to address complexity with a complex response and doing so with one that doesn’t exacerbate the problem by adding too much extraneous information to our media ecology, getting us back into trouble elsewhere. This is pointing to problems, however there are possible ways to address them. In an upcoming post, I’ll explore what some of these are.

* I purposefully did not use the common term “rule of thumb” on account of its contested origin and overuse.

complexitydesign thinkingemergenceinnovation

Wet and Dry Design for Social Innovation

Wet and Dry Social Innovation Design – Like Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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