Tag: marketing

behaviour changebusinesspublic healthsocial mediasystems science

Genetic engineering for your brand

shutterstock_551281720.jpg

DNA doesn’t predetermine our future as biological beings, but it does powerfully influence it. Some have applied the concept of ‘DNA’ to a company or organization, in the same way, it’s applied to biological organisms. Firms like PWC have been at the forefront of this approach, developing organizational DNA assessments and outlining the principles that shape the DNA of an organization. A good brand is an identity that you communicate with yourself and the world around you. A healthy brand is built on healthy DNA.

Tech entrepreneur and writer Om Malik sees DNA as being comprised of those people that form the organization:

DNA contains the genetic instructions used to build out the cells that make up an organism. I have often argued that companies are very much like living organisms, comprised of the people who work there. What companies make, how they sell and how they invent are merely an outcome of the people who work there. They define the company.

The analogy between the DNA of a company as being that of those who make it up is apt because, as he points out, organizations reflect the values, habits, mindsets, and focus of those who run them. For that reason, understanding your organizations’ DNA structure might be critical to shaping the corporate direction, brand and promoting any type of change, as we see from the case of Facebook.

DNA dilemma: The case of Facebook

Facebook is under fire these days. To anyone paying enough attention to the social media giant the issue with Facebook isn’t that it’s happening now, but why it hasn’t happened sooner? Back when the site was first opened up to allow non-university students to have accounts (signaling what would become the global brand it is today) privacy was a big concern. I still recall listening to a Facebook VP interviewed on a popular tech podcast who basically sloughed off any concerns the interviewer had about privacy saying the usual “we take this seriously” stuff but offering no example of how that was true just as the world was about to jump on the platform. I’ve heard that same kind of interview repeated dozens of times since the mid-2000’s, including just nine months before Mark Zuckerberg’s recent ‘mea culpa’ tour.

Facebook has never been one to show much (real) attention to privacy because its business model is all about ensuring that users’ are as open as possible to collect as much data as possible from them to sell as many services to them, through them, about them, and for others to manipulate. The Cambridge Analytica story simply exposed what’s been happening for years to the world.

Anyone who’s tried to change their privacy settings knows that you need more than a Ph.D. to navigate them* and, even then, you’re unlikely to be successful. Just look at the case of Bobbi Duncan and Katie McCormick who were outed as gay to their families through Facebook even though they had locked down their own individual privacy settings. This is all part of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the folks at Facebook refer to as “connecting the social graph.”

The corporate biology of addiction

In a prescient post, Om Malik wrote about Facebook’s addiction to its business model based on sharing, openness, and exploitation of its users’ information mere weeks before the Cambridge Analytica story came out.

Facebook’s DNA is that of a social platform addicted to growth and engagement. At its very core, every policy, every decision, every strategy is based on growth (at any cost) and engagement (at any cost). More growth and more engagement means more data — which means the company can make more advertising dollars, which gives it a nosebleed valuation on the stock market, which in turn allows it to remain competitive and stay ahead of its rivals.

Whether he knew it or not, Malik was describing an epigenetic model of addiction. Much emerging research on addiction has pointed to a relationship between genes and addictive behaviour. This is a two-way street where genes influence behaviour and behaviour influences a person’s genes (something called epigenetics). The more Facebook seeks to connect through its model, the more it reinforces the behaviour, the more it feels a ‘need’ to do it and therefore repeats it.

In systems terms, this is called a reinforcing loop and is part of a larger field of systems science called systems dynamics. Systems dynamics have been applied to public health and show how we can get caught in traps and the means we use to get out of them.  By applying an addiction model and system dynamics to the organization, we might better understand how some organizations change and how some don’t.

Innovation therapy

The first step toward any behaviour change for an addiction is to recognize the addiction in the first place. Without acknowledgment of a problem, there can’t be much in the way of self-support. This acknowledgment has to be authentic, which is why there is still reason to question whether Facebook will change.

There are many paths to addiction treatment, but the lessons from treating some of the most pernicious behaviours like cigarette smoking and alcohol suggest that it is likely to succeed when a series of small, continuous, persistent changes are made and done so in a supportive environment. One needs to learn from each step taken (i.e., evaluate progress and outcomes from each step), to integrate that learning, and continue through the inevitable cycling through stages (non-linear change) that sometimes involves moving backward or not knowing where along the change journey you are.

Having regulations or external pressures to change can help, but too much can paralyze action and stymie creativity. And while being motivated to change is important, sometimes it helps to just take action and let the motivation follow.

If this sounds a lot like the process of innovation, you’re right.

Principled for change

Inspiring change in an organization, particularly one where there is a clear addiction to a business model (a way of doing things, seeing things, and acting) requires the kind of therapy that we might see in addiction support programs. Like those programs, there isn’t one way to do it, but there are principles that are common. These include:

  1. Recognize the emotional triggers involved. Most people suffering from addictions can rationalize the reasons to change, but the emotional reasons are a lot harder. Fear, attraction, and the risk of doing things differently can bubble up when you least expect it. You need to understand these triggers, deal with the emotional aspects of them — the baggage we all bring.
  2. Change your mindset. Successful innovation involves a change of practice and a change of mindset. The innovator’s mindset goes from a linear focus on problems, success, and failure to a non-linear focus on opportunities, learning, and developmental design.  This allows you to spot the reinforcing looping behaviour and addiction pathways as well as what other pathways are open to you.
  3. Create better systems, not just different behaviour. Complex systems have path-dependencies — those ruts that shape our actions, often unconsciously and out of habit. Consider ways you organize yourself, your organization’s jobs and roles, the income streams, the system of rewards and recognitions, the feedback and learning you engage with, and composition of your team.  This rethinking and reorganization are what changes DNA, otherwise, it will continue to express itself through your organization in the same way.
  4. Make change visible. Use evaluation as a means to document what you do and what it produces and continue to structure your work to serve the learning from this. Inertia comes from having no direction and nothing to work toward. We are beings geared towards constant motion and making things — it’s what makes us human. Make a change, by design. Make it visible through evaluation and visual thinking – including the ups, downs, sideways. A journey involves knowing where you are — even if that’s lost — and where you’re going (even if that changes).

Change is far more difficult than people often think. Change initiatives that are rooted solely in motivation are unlikely to produce anything sustainable. You need to get to the root, the DNA, of your organization and build the infrastructure around it to enable it to do the work with you, not against you. That, in Facebook terms, is something your brand and its champions will truly ‘Like’.

 

* Seriously. I have a Ph.D. and am reasonably tech literate and have sat down with others with similar educational backgrounds — Ph.D.’s, masters degrees, tech startup founders — and we collectively still couldn’t figure out the privacy settings as a group.

References: For those interested in system dynamics or causal loop modeling, check out this great primer from Nate Osgood at the University of Saskatchewan. His work is top-notch. Daniel Kim has also written some excellent, useful, and practical stuff on applying system dynamics to a variety of issues.

Image credit: Shutterstock used under 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.

businessinnovationsocial media

The Business Model of Social Media: Who Owns the Presses?

What power do citizens of these communities have?

When Karl Marx asked: Who owns the presses? he was referring to the ability of wealthy private individuals to control the means of knowledge production and dissemination and thus, influence society as capital owners, not as citizens. The unequal voice of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat was what gave them undue social power. But what happens when the owners and generators of wealth (knowledge, information) shift and the result is a community that relies on the medium of production without the control of it?

Owning the presses

Social media presents something quite unusual when it comes to the traditional views of ownership and wealth creation. It also upends the traditional perspectives of journalism and marketing, where the content is co-created and edited, emergent and distributed through a mesh of networks, uncontrolled. It is a new space for which traditional models of ownership, rights, responsibilities, and governance are all joined up in something that is similar enough to have familiarity, yet different enough to be alien at the same time. It’s not a wicked problem, but it does contain some problem wickedness.

With social media, the messages are that of the users, arguably creating the most democratic (or at least free) environments for communication. Although hosts such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have occasionally squelched certain users’ voices for reasons of legality, politics or questionable fit with their “community values”, most of what happens on these platforms is up to its users. That is what makes social media as powerful as it is. Social media is nothing without its users’ content.

My definition of social media is:

Social media is any networked electronic media that derives its principal value from user participation

Yet, this does not render Marx’s question about press ownership irrelevant when updated to today, rather it changes the answer.

It’s paradoxical in that the very market forces of competition that can seed innovation and the mechanisms provided by venture capital and capitalist investment is the reason we have the social media platforms we do, yet the manner in which it is governed is much like that of socialism at best, communism at worst. Investment of private financial capital has helped raise the profile and capability of social media companies to leverage social capital. It is why open source, community-owned or shared tools like Diaspora* or Identi.ca have come nowhere close to replacing Facebook and Twitter respectively. The free market creates the tools, yet  it is not the free market that sustains the community created by those tools, nor can it fully account for how to grow the capability of those tools.

It is also because these companies operate within markets rather than as national projects, that they can disseminate globally with relative ease. Thanks to this dissemination, citizens living in oppressive media environments can reach out and connect with those outside of such spaces allowing things like the Arab Spring and increased freedoms in Myanmar to emerge with greater outside support than had these tools not been available.

The cost of free

While social media has done much to enhance democracy movements, human rights watches, and access to information, there is a slight problem . The most widespread social networks are all free to use, which means that they need to generate revenue from sources other than user fees, which usually means advertising. And advertising means clutter, clutter leads to confusion and that turns people away (witness the loss of viewership from TV at a time when perhaps the highest quality productions are being aired ). But unlike television, there is a social cost to free with social media. Human capital in the order of millions of hours of time and a similar amount in dollars is spent creating the very content that allows social media to survive and thrive.

With the relaunching of MySpace we are reminded of how far social media platforms can go up and down. Just a few years ago, MySpace was the darling of social media with millions of users and lots of press. Hundreds of thousands of hours of individuals’ time went into making and maintaining MySpace pages, resources that are now, ironically (given Justin Timberlake’s involvement in the platform) Dead and Gone.

It can be argued that similar deep investments of time in building and maintaining Facebook pages, timelines, and Tweet projects exist. What if these go away?

Or what if they become unusable? Anyone who has spent time on Facebook (which is a few hundred million people strong) has seen the steady creep of unsolicited content emerging in their news feed. This includes notices about pages you may like, game invitations, increased posts from companies or services you chose to “like” and more. Facebook needs revenue to justify its initial valuation and a big focus now is on the mobile experience where an increasing amount of its traffic is now generated from. The problem is that mobile ads are even more distracting than those on other systems because of the smaller screen size and different interface. It is difficult enough to surf the content on a laptop, let alone a handheld device. If you think your desktop version of Facebook is cluttered, imagine what the mobile version of that could look like?

Facebook is rapidly becoming a ‘necessary evil’ for me and others like me. I have few other means of communicating with certain people other than Facebook. This should be a good thing for Mark Zuckerberg and company, right? Maybe not. For some, there is little joy in using Facebook anymore as it gets swarmed with messages and the endless quest for likes and attention from those who are not even your friends. The result is that more people in my circles are reducing their use of Facebook or breaking from it altogether largely because it holds far less esteem than other brands such as Apple or Google. There is a brand cost to Facebook’s decisions.

The brand is not the only thing that costs; there are hidden social costs as well. Among those vying for likes and attention are charities, non-profit, health and social service groups who have opted to spend precious resources on building up profiles on social media, curating content and relying on platforms like Facebook and Twitter for building their brand, relationships or using it as part of their internal and external communications. They are doing this because that is where the most people are and they feel the pressure to go where those numbers are, even if they are fickle (see MySpace).

Should we care?

The business model of social

One answer is: it doesn’t matter. Social media companies are businesses and it is their prerogative to make money. However, there are real social costs associated with this drive for profit in the social mediasphere. If people start fleeing Facebook or can’t manage Twitter because of restrictions or choices made based on that company’s market optimization plan (e.g., advertising, relaxed privacy etc..), then the social capital created through those services decreases, requiring the increase in new social and financial capital to support something else. For those that sought to dive into social media this means retraining staff, retooling media platforms, redesigning messages, and in some cases rebranding entirely to suit the next big thing. This costs real money.

While it is bad enough that individuals lose their social investment, this has bigger implications for health care and protection providers, charitable organizations, social service groups and alike others who all rely partly on social media for communications and relationship development. A recent paper in the Journal of Medical Internet Research looked at the factors influencing social media adoption among physicians. In that study 58% of physicians surveyed said that social media enabled them to look after patients more effectively, and 60% said it improved the quality of the patient encounter. It has taken a long time to get health care professionals on board, but the stability and relative ubiquity of platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have made investment in social media a safer bet.

Sure, media changes and evolves, but what we are seeing with social media today (particularly the largest players) is something never seen before. There is a global scale that has fundamentally altered the communications landscape. Facebook and Twitter are not just tools, they are platforms not unlike email and that makes them different.

Virtually every successful social media platform has started out as free, uncluttered and focused on building a user base. And every one of those faces the question: what is the business model? Advertising will only go so far and the efforts to engage in ‘promoted’ anything (tweets, videos etc..) can run the risk of turning a medium based on authenticity into something much less so.

What alternatives? More questions.

We face a situation where the very entrepreneurial spirit and funding through capitalism has produced a somewhat self-governed media system run by workers who produce the knowledge, which is like socialism. All ‘ism’s’ aside for the moment, there is benefit to having conversations about the ownership and control of the social media presses in an era where the media is more than just the messages and  now integral to many of the operations and livelihoods of organizations and individuals who do not work for social media. There is a disjuncture between ownership, the means of production, the workers, and the product that doesn’t fit any previous model posed by Marx, Adam Smith or anyone.

Unlike the coal miner and their families that lose when the mine shuts down, there is some foresight available to them knowing that they are in a particular industry. For social media users, their communications are just part of their life not a part of their industry.Put another way, consider email. Right now, if your email service is failing you or fails as a business you have the ability to get a new one without disrupting your experience of and access to the medium itself. Gmail, Yahoo! or any corporate mailserver will generally produce the same thing even if the interface and management of that experience varies. We don’t have real alternative to Facebook or Twitter right now. When over a billion people use these services it is time to ask: should we? Can we? Is that a good idea?

Is social media getting to be an ‘essential service’?

Does social media belong in the commons? If so, will that inhibit the necessary innovation sparks that led to the development of the current tools in the first place? Who would manage it?

If these went away, what would replace it? Or will we see a bubble and lose so much trust in a collapse that these tools fail to regain interest?

Should we pay for social media in exchange for better usability and less clutter? Will anyone who had it for free do this? And who is left out of those social worlds if they can’t pay? Right now social media’s great asset is that anyone can join and join to anyone else who allows it. Nationalism, politics, financial means, sex, race, gender all don’t matter in terms of fundamental access, but that could change.

Would my Twittersphere be less if only people like me were on it? What kinds of conversations wouldn’t take place?

If we all provide the content and labour, should we have a say in who owns (or runs) the presses in a world of social media?

What would Marx and Adam Smith think of all of this? Maybe if they were here today they could Tweet a debate on it.

behaviour changecomplexitymarketingsystems thinking

Marketing Metaphors of Meaning in Complexity

Karl Heyden Eine interessante Geschichte

Metaphors and storytelling are ways to navigate through complex, inter-related ideas in a way that brings coherence and delight to them in narrative form. Stories are not just for children, but a serious tool for bringing complexity to life, making it accessible and usable to a world that can benefit from learning more about it.

Have you ever found yourself curled up in bed with a book that you can’t put down or found yourself up much later than you’d planned because of a TV program or movie you got caught up in? Ever have the same experience with a piece of academic writing? How about a technical report? I’ll bet the answer is yes to the former examples more than the latter (if there is a yes at all to the second two). Books — mostly, but not always, fiction books — magazine and newspaper, articles, poems and even blog posts thrive on a narrative that takes you a journey even if you don’t know the destination. That narrative, if its engaging, has consistency, a tone, a flow and a ‘texture’ that makes it enriching. It is perhaps the reason why so much scholarly writing is so dull: the texture is rather dry and lacks appeal.

Not all scientific articles require such appeal. Indeed, the standardized methods of reporting experiments can be very useful in interpreting results and deriving meaning from complicated interactions. Yet, this application of the standard model of writing from science to other areas is perhaps taking scholarly work to places it didn’t need to go. Or perhaps it is preventing us from going places we need to go.

In terms of complexity, one of those places it needs to go is into widespread discourse on public policy, health promotion, and social program planning. Storytelling and metaphors are one vehicle.

Making metaphors and embodied cognition

A recent Scientific American blog post by explored the role of metaphors in some depth, bringing attention to some of the early work of psycholinguist pioneers George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky in looking at the role of embodied cognition, a concept where a metaphor actually gets integrated into the body (literally or figuratively). In the column Samuel McNerny looks at the history of the idea and the use of metaphor, drawing on interviews, literature and recent research.

As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

Metaphors like “warming up” are therefore representations of real phenomena that become figurative in certain scenarios. McNerny adds:

The last few years have seen many complementary studies, all of which are grounded in primary experiences:

• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward whilethinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead

• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft

• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.

• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity

The challenge for complexity in social life is coming up with the right metaphor and finding one that is embodied within the systems we seek to influence.

Telling systems stories

One of the best examples of the use of storytelling and metaphors to explain complexity comes from Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge with his humourous, insightful look at order and the art of organizing a children’s party.

What Snowden does is anchor something new (complexity) in a familiar frame of reference (a children’s party). While this is not something that directly translates to how we operate social organizations such as “warming up” does to explain relations between people, it offers something close.

Anchoring the novel in the familiar. Childhood is the one universal we adults all share. Travel the globe and watch children interact and you’ll see patterns repeated everywhere. Emotion is another universal: joy, fear, anger, contentment, curiosity, and such are all platforms that can be used to create and share stories about our world. For those of us working in communities, we need to understand what universals exist in those realms. This means paying deep attention to the systems we are a part of.

In short: systems thinkers may need to be participant observers to the systems they wish to influence and learn about the big and small things that drive them.

As systems are large, complicated and complex, it is unreasonable and perhaps impossible to know everything necessary to successfully navigate through it and maneuver the leverage points necessary to create responsible, sustained systems change. To do so, we need to enlist others and that means getting complexity into the minds of many operating in the system and not just a few ‘systems thinkers’.

We need to get better at telling stories and marketing metaphors of meaning.

Learning storytelling from marketers

Marketing is largely about identity and stories about identity. Marketers want to influence what you do (choose, use, purchase, etc..) and how you experience what you do when you do it. To do this, they know the importance of design and the stories to accompany that design. Design, when done well, is partly about creating empathy with those who are to benefit from the products of design and the best products out there are ones that apply empathy and guide behaviour at the same time. Steve Jobs and his design team led by Jonathan Ive were (are) famous for doing this at Apple.

In an earlier post I mentioned the work of Rory Sutherland and his discussion of tobacco use as an illustration of the ways in which failing to empathize with a product user’s life can change the impact of policies and programs aimed to improve it. The case (made in the video below) is that there are some real, tangible benefits to smoking that get ignored when we aim to snuff it out (bad pun intended). For public health to enhance its effectiveness, we need to pay attention to these benefits and find ways for people to derive them in healthier contexts.

But listen to what Sutherland says not only here, but in another of his TED talks he points to ways in which small changes can have enormous consequences if done in a systems-forward manner (my term, not his).

What Sutherland does is not just provide good ideas, but tells good stories. Like Dave Snowden, he captures our interest and makes us want to think about concepts like behavioural economics and marketing just as Snowden inspires thinking about the differences between order and chaos.

Not all of us can be great storytellers or funnymen (and women), but we need to take this seriously if we wish to use complexity and systems thinking to advance change in our world purposefully, because massive change is happening whether we want it or not. The key is whether we will be telling stories in the future of how we helped shepherd change that helped us be more resilient and thrive or let these forces shape us in ways that caused unnecessary problems. It is, as Bruce Mau said, not about the world of design, but the design of the world.

complexitysystems sciencesystems thinking

Complexity and the Senseless Marketing of the Future

Logarithmic spiral

Futurists take what we know now and project into the future ideas about things will be like years from today using the models that have worked consistently up to now. Those models applied to human systems are changing quickly making marketing the future based on them senseless and potentially dangerous.

Earlier this past week a post on FastCoExist caught my attention and brought to mind why I have such an uneasy relationship with futurists and futures as a field. The post, 8 Ways the World Will Change in 2052, is look at the next 40 years written by Jorgen Randers, a professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School and written with all the confident swagger that typifies futurists making statements about what is to come. After all, it’s hard to draw an audience (and the benefits that comes with that) when you don’t have a confident answer on your subject matter — even if that answer is wrong. In this latest post in the series on marketing complexity I look at futurists and their predictions and what it could mean for making sense of the threats and opportunities we will face in the years to come.

The Mathematical Problem of Futures and Complexity

The FastCoExist article paints a picture of a world that looks a lot like the one we have today, just with some shifts in economic and social structures. It suggests that much will remain the same even though a few key things will change, but our general relations will remain constant. It is that consistency that raises my concerns about futurist thinking (not all, to be sure) and its use of the data today to make predictions tomorrow. There is an assumption of linearity that weaves its way through the narratives spun by futurists that do not fit with how complex systems behave, nor does it account for the network effects created by interconnected systems.

Where I live now (Toronto), we have seen an almost uninterrupted heat wave for more than three weeks and that is forecast to continue for the week to come. This is the hottest year in recorded history (video), and as this short news clip shows the implications are many. At our current level of focus the implications may seem slight: changing growing conditions for gardens, better cottage swimming weather, brown lawns etc.. But at another scale and perspective, the interconnections between these things will start to reveal themselves if the pattern continues.

It is here where I see futurists getting it wrong as their predicts rest on largely linear trajectories of change and scientific knowledge that uses linear models to create predictions. The mistake is taking linear phenomenon and grafting that knowledge on to complex cases, while another mistake is taking science that works for static things and applying it to dynamic objects.

Complexity often produces change curves that follow a Pareto distribution, which is a way of accounting for things like ‘tipping points’, and is rarely linear in its effects for long periods of time. As the news report mentions, Toronto has an average temperature of 3.5 degrees higher than normal in a single year. It could be an aberration, but when we see record-breaking temperatures for years on end that looks like a pattern forming.

Climate change is not just about things getting warmer, cooler, wetter or dryer. From a human standpoint, how we adapt to these changes is what counts and in a networked world is that adaptations happen simultaneously and in a dynamic, interconnected manner. That means that many things change at the same time and that the relationship between dynamic objects means that the overall quantity and rate of change in the system is likely to be logarithmic (exponential) not additive.

Reframing change models: the language of complex systems.

If we are to create models that are more useful to us, we need to develop them with complexity in mind, think in systems and act as designers. To do this requires a change in the thinking models we use and the ways we communicate these models to the wider world. Yet, it isn’t as alien as it seems; we do it all the time with ourselves in explaining our social lives.

  • A child goes from being peaceful and quiet to a tantrum in a matter of seconds.
  • A calm, composed individual bursts into tears at a seemingly random event.
  • A polite, warm conversation quickly turns cold at the slightest mention of a particular phenomenon

In many of these cases the ’cause’ might not be obvious. An example I use with my students is this:

Imagine a couple in their bedroom and one partner sees a wayward sock that has been left on floor and gets intensely angry at the other partner upon discovery of the sock. Why? Is is that the sock on the floor is so problematic that it reduces an otherwise peaceful environment into a space of conflict? Is the sock really that bad? Or is the sock a catalyst for something else? Does it represent something (or many things) that are embodied in the sock being left carelessly on the floor? Does the sock serve as a vessel for accumulated grievances and stressors only loosely related to its position on the floor?

This example of the sock illustrates how a Pareto distribution of social tensions in a relationship could be expressed. It points to how the most ‘obvious’ linear answer might not always be the case even if initial appearance suggest a relationship.

Explaining the reasons for problems opens a door to solving them. But we can do more.

The power of weak signals

The way to interject into a complex system is not to pay attention to everything all of the time, but to small things that show patterns. Eric Berlow has a remarkable 3 minute TED talk that illustrates how signals can be extracted from networks to reveal simplicity in complexity. A 2008 paper in the journal Physical Review shows the ways in which weak signals can be detected by reducing the overall volume of information or nodes in a network.

But what to pay attention to? This is where mindful evaluation and attention comes in. Mindfulness is not just a way to connect to one’s inner life, but also the outer world around us. A mindful approach to monitoring and evaluation means watching what happens around us and positioning tools, metrics and data gathering processes to give us the necessary feedback on our systems around us. To take the example of the couple’s conflict over the sock, paying attention within the relationship to minor conflicts, areas of tention, and moments of release earlier could have diffused energy enough to mean the sock was just a sock.

In social systems, this means paying attention to areas of intersection where natural tensions occur due to difference. These differences could be perspective, attitude, knowledge, beliefs or capabilities. These points of intersection are often where novelty emerges and innovation takes place, but they are also where deeper problems can begin. Constant, evolving and dynamic methods of data collection that recognizes change in non-linear and linear forms is more likely to enable the sorts of weak signal detection that can help us see the future more clearly.

That can help us make sense of future possibilities, rather than make empty predictions that guide what we do now at the expense of paying attention to what might come (and what is really happening).

businessinnovationpsychology

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.

complexitysystems thinking

Marketing the Narrative of Complexity

Sunset 2007-1Complexity, by its very nature, is not a simple concept to communicate, yet it is increasingly becoming one that will define our times and may be the key to ensuring human survival and wellbeing in the years to come. If society is to respond to complex challenges the meaning of complexity needs to be communicated to the world in a manner that is understandable to a wide audience. This is the first in a series of posts that are looking at the concept of complexity and the challenges and opportunities with marketing it to the world.

Across North America this week the temperatures are vastly exceeding normal levels into ranges more akin to places like India or East Africa. The climate is changing and regardless of what the causes are the complexities that this introduces require changes in our thinking and actions or human health and wellbeing will be at risk. To follow Einstein’s famous quote:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

Many U.S. States are suffering hurricane-like after-effects from a Derecho that hit last week, knocking out power at a time when temperatures are into the high 90’s and low 100’s. Derechos are rapid moving hot air systems that are difficult to predict and can only be anticipated under certain conditions. The heat wave combined with the lack of air conditioning and supplies left 13 dead, maybe more. The heat wave is continuing and is expected to last throughout the weekend.

But this post is not really about the weather, but the challenges with complexity that it represents and how we need to be better understanding what complexity is and how to work with it if we are to survive and thrive in the years to come.

Blog interrupted

It’s ironic that this post was delayed by blackout. I live in Toronto, Canada and we have a remarkably stable power supply, yet last night and through this morning I was without power  due to suspected overheated circuits attributed to high air conditioning use, shutting down my Internet and everything else with it. In many parts of the world, this kind of blackout is commonplace and a fact of daily living, but not here…yet. This fortuitous bit of timing illustrates the fragility of many of our systems given the reliance on power to fuel much of what we do (e.g., cooking, food storage, Internet, traffic signals, lighting, etc..).

Virtually all of the infrastructure of modern life (here and increasingly globally) is tied to electricity. If you’re interested in imagining what would happen if it all shuts off, I’d highly recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman uses a complexity scientist and futurists’ tool called a thought experiment to craft a book about what New York City would look like if humans suddenly disappeared. The book illustrates how nature might take over, how the underground subways would flood and collapse because of the millions of litres of water needed to be pumped out of it each day, and how certain human-built structures would decay over time (some far faster than we might hope).

Thought experiments take data from things that have happened already, theories, and conjecture and project scenarios into the future based on the amalgam of these. It provides some grounded means of anticipating possible futures to guide present action.

From present delays to future/tense

The Guardian asked a number of scientists working on climate about whether this current spate of extreme weather events is attributable to global warming. The scientists offered a range of answers that (not surprisingly) lacked a definitive statement around cause-and-effect, yet the comments hint at a deep concern. These anomalous conditions are starting to move further towards the end of the normal curve, meaning that they are becoming less statistically plausible to be caused by chance. What this means for the weather, for climate, for our economies is not known; all we have is thought experiments and scenarios. But the future is coming and we may want to be prepared by helping create one we want, not just one we get.

Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the data to confirm that global warming is happening or determine that we are contributing to it and to what degree. This is not just a weather issue; the same situation is playing itself out with issues worldwide ranging from healthcare funding to immigration policies and migration patterns. Interconnected, interdependent and diverse agents and information forms are interacting to create, emergent patterns of activity.

It is for this reason that weather patterns — despite being one of the most monitored and studied phenomenon — can’t be accurately predicted outside of a few hours in advance, if at all. There is too much information coming together between air flows, humidity, land forms, physical structure and human intervention (e.g., airplane contrails) interacting simultaneously in a dynamic manner to create a reliable model of the data. David Orrell’s book Apollo’s Arrow is a terrific read if you want to understand complexity in relation to weather (and more) or see his talk at TEDX on YouTube.

Two’s company, three’s complexity (and other analogies)

The above heading is taken from a title of another book on complexity and tries to simply point to how adding just a little bit of information (another person to a conversation perhaps) can radically alter the experience from being simple or complicated to complex. Just thinking about planning a night out with two people vs. three and you’ll know a little of what this means.

Analogies and metaphors are ways in which complexity scholars commonly seek to convey how the differences in conditions represent varying states of order. Brenda Zimmerman and others write about putting a rocket to the moon as being complicated and raising a child as being complex. One of my favourites is Dave Snowden‘s video on How to Organize a Children’s Party. One of the reasons we resort to analogies is that we need a narrative that fits with their experience. All of us were children and some of us have had them as parents so we can relate to Zimmerman and Snowden’s ideas because we’ve experienced it firsthand.

We haven’t experienced anything like what is anticipated from global warming. In the Americas, parts of Europe and Asia we are enormously fortunate to have entire generations that don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, have no healthcare, be without electricity, or have no access to safe water and proper sanitations. Stories about children’s parties might not bring these scenarios home. It is why Weisman’s book is so clever: it makes a plausible scenario fiction.

Science fact as science fiction

The role of fiction might be the key to opening the marketing vault to complexity. Scott Smith and others have been exploring how the use of science fiction helped pave the way for some of today’s modern technologies and innovations. By weaving together fantasy narratives and imaginations on the future, technologists have managed to re-create these tools for current life. Witness the Tricorder Project that seeks to develop the same multifunction health and information tool used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.

We are making headway with complex information as witnessed by the popularity of infographics and data visualizations. But there is much more to be done.

Complex problems require complex solutions. Artists, designers, scientists, marketers, journalists and anyone who can communicate well can play a role. Making complexity something that people not only know about, but want to know about is the task at hand. In doing so, we may find people reaching for and advocating for complex solutions rather than stop-gap, band-aid ones like buying a car with better fuel economy as the main strategy to combat carbon emissions.

It’s been done before. Marshall McLuhan wrote about esoteric, yet remarkably insightful and complex topics and became a household name in part to his appearance in Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall. Our media landscape is far more complex now (no pun intended) to think that a single appearance of any complexity superstar (if one existed) would change public perception of the topic in the same way that McLuhan’s did for his theories on media. Yet, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth might have done more to get people talking about the environment than anything. And while Gore is not known for his witty storytelling, his slide show did a good job.

To begin our journey of marketing complexity we need to come up with our stories so that we can tell ones that are pleasant, rather than the ones that are less so. And if you want one that fits this latter category, I strongly recommend reading Gwynn Dyer’s chilling Climate Wars. Instead, let’s get closer to living what Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler write about in Abundance.

The future is ours to write.

For more books and resources on complexity, check out the library page on Censemaking.