Tag: motivation

behaviour changecomplexityevaluationhealth promotionpsychology

When Change Potential is Embedded in Bigger Systems


Yesterday I was part of an examination committee for a student discussing issues of health promotion, policy change and advocacy for a population that has been widely viewed as marginalized. The challenge that this student was wrestling with was balancing issues of collective and individual empowerment and where the appropriate action needs to take place (and then determining how to evaluate the impact of such action). Drawing on the work of Isaac Prilleltensky and his brilliant work on empowerment theory, the student’s project hopes to foster change that fits somewhere between the individual and community. But how to evaluate the impact?

An empowerment approach, as conceived by Prilleltensky, involves both personal and societal shifts simultaneously to be most effective. If individuals are motivated to change, yet the system is not prepared to adapt to these changes, the value of empowerment is diminished and so is the effect on society. The question shifts to looking at a place to start or determining what the is chicken and what is the egg. This question is less useful than one that considers ways to understand the embedded nature of change agents and change itself within systems shaped both by structure and time.

Barack Obama was elected in a manner that greatly changed the way we look at politics. While he made enormous strides in shaping an electorate, his success at governing has been more muted. Obama’s potential to do well in governing is embedded in the policies and practices that came before him, whether he likes it or not. This is illustrated to full comic effect in a recent Ron Howard ‘Presidential Reunion’ short on Funny or Die. George W. Bush built his policy agenda in a manner that was positioned with Bill Clinton’s, which was positioned with George H.B. Bush’s and so on. Yes, there are some clear departures based on incidents of massive, abrupt change such as September 11th attacks which led to major reactive shifts in policy like the creation of the U.S. Patriot Act , creation of new governmental bodies, and the initiation of two wars abroad. But these are the extremes. A closer look at most non-revolutionary government shifts shows that policy evolves and gets tweaked, but rarely exhibits radical change from administration to administration. Even though the rhetoric around health care reform in the U.S. has spoken of ‘radical change’, the bottom line is that no matter what policy emerges, it will bear closer resemblance to what came before than it will differ.

The embedded structure of social systems is akin to Russian Matryoshka dolls. Our ability to change hinges upon where in stack of dolls we lay and how tightly those dolls are stuck together. I would argue that Obama’s electoral success had a lot to do with a system where the fit of the dolls was loose. There was a clear process to getting nominated (e.g., primaries), but the manner by which interest gets generated and people get out to vote was loose at the time of his campaign. Obama succeeded primarily because he got people to vote who had never come out before, the population that most had given up on trying to reach. In government, the fit is much tighter. Everything has a protocol, a history, and receives an intense scrutiny in that even the smallest shift is noticed, dissected and critiqued.

That leads to a lot of information and feedback, much of it contradictory. Hence, the inertia. With more information than ever at our disposal, the risk that this inertia will persist is high. Jaron Lanier, who I wrote about in my last post, migh attribute this to ‘lock in’ : the dominant way of doing things. Obama succeed because he found a new model of campaigning, captured nicely in three recent books (Harfoush / Plouffe / Sabato). We don’t yet have a new way of governing.

From an evaluation perspective it becomes critical that we understand both these structures and the fit between these variables, or the degree to which the dominant design or ‘lock in’ plays in mediating the impact of change if we are to understand the impact that our efforts to create change are having.

The student who just defended her comprehensive exam, her challenge in using health promotion to instill change will depend on how locked in our society is in its attitudes towards vulnerable populations and the fit between the individual and community with regards to empowerment. I hope, like Obama campaigning in 2008, that fit is loose.

design thinkingpsychologyscience & technologysocial mediasocial systems

Creating Sticky Networks


Networking is as big of a buzzword as you can find these days for good reasons: networks solve a lot of problems by connecting people together and leveraging the knowledge of many for social benefit (and sometimes not). Simply put: networks allow us to do more.

But more can also be a problem.

It is not just that there is a lot of information out there, which creates its own set of problems, its that there is also so much to DO with this information. With all of the data streaming at us from social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, LinkedIn, Ning, and the myriad other ways in which social media allows us to connect it is hard to stay on top of it all. Even with good filters, the wealth of information available on even very narrow topics can be remarkable. I find this creates a temptation to try and get to it all. How often have you heard people lament about not being able to catch up on all of their blogs, tweets, magazine articles and beyond — let alone your conversations with friends, colleagues and loved ones?

While sociologist Mark Granovetter’s concept of the ‘strength of weak ties’ has been promoted vigorously in the social sciences and business to justify the potential for social networking, the value of the concept has some clear limitations that often get dismissed in the hype. One of the risks is that the time and energy it takes to invest in social networks broadly can take you away from creating strong ties. Think of how we socialized a generation ago: we had a close set of friends and family and associates, a few pen and phone pals, and some who we saw at occasional events like family reunions and conferences. Now, we “see” them daily, maybe hourly. That creates a lot of encounters, but at a superficial level for the most part.

While this is good for some things, particularly like getting simple messages out quickly, it is a problem for dealing with complex information or messages with multiple layers and potential meanings. Those require a little depth of contact that many networking tools or “networking events” don’t encourage.For those kinds of complex problems, we need tighter bonds and more meaning-making opportunities in our networks.

Mario Luis Small from the University of Chicago has explored the role of social networks and how they benefit those with little social capital. His recent book, Unanticipated Gains: Orgins of network inequality in everyday life, looked in depth at how social capital could be grown with a community of low-income, New York City mothers:

Social capital theorists have shown that some people do better than others in part because they enjoy larger, more supportive, or otherwise more useful networks. But why do some people have better networks than others? Unanticipated Gains argues that the answer lies less in people’s deliberate “networking” than in the institutional conditions of the churches, colleges, firms, gyms, childcare centers, schools, and other organizations in which they happen to participate routinely. The book illustrates and develops this argument by exploring the experiences of New York City mothers whose children were enrolled in childcare centers.

Unanticipated Gains examines why scores of these mothers, after enrolling their children in centers, dramatically expanded both the size and usefulness of their personal networks, often in ways they did not expect. Whether, how, and how much the mothers’ networks were altered—and how useful these networks were—depended on the apparently trivial but remarkably consequential practices and regulations of the centers, from the structure of their PTOs, to the regularity of their fieldtrips to amusement parks and zoos, to their ostensibly innocuous rules regarding pick-up and drop-off times.

Relying on scores of in-depth interviews with mothers, quantitative data on both mothers and centers, and detailed case studies of other routine organizations (from beauty salons and bath houses to colleges and churches), Unanticiapted Gains shows that how much people gain from their connections depends substantially on institutional conditions they often do not control, and through everyday process they may not even be aware of. (Original post here)

Although Small was not intending to write about what makes a network ‘sticky’, to use Gabriel Szulanski‘s term, he winds up with a set of recommendations that do just that. Indeed, Small’s suggestions – create intimate, cooperative, active,  stable, yet flexible and adaptive networks — make networks sticky (and resilient) while mitigating the effects of creating widening gaps between the well-connected and capital-rich and the rest.

Small suggests that there are 7 ingredients that help dampen harmful, unintended consequences of networks:

1.      Create frequent opportunities for interaction;

2.      Ensure frequent and regular interactions between agents;

3.      Interactions must be long lasting and exist beyond simple, quick exchanges;

4.      Interactions are minimally competitive;

5.      Interactions are maximally cooperative;

6.      Intrinsic motivation consistent with that of the organizations or networks drive interactions and encourage engagement over time;

7.      Extrinsic motivators must also be present to support the maintenance of ties over time.

Perhaps it is time to consider employing some design thinking towards creating stickier, rather than bigger or broader networks.

For more reading on the phenomenon of “stickiness”, consider the following:

Szulanski, G. (2000). The Process of Knowledge Transfer: A Diachronic Analysis of Stickiness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Szulanski, G. (2003). Sticky knowledge: Barriers to knowing in the firm. London: Sage.

Szulanski, G., & Jensen, R. (2004). Overcoming stickiness: An empirical investigation of the role of the template in the replication of organizational routines. Managerial and Decision Economics, 25(67), 347-363.


The Genius of Seth Godin

In his new book, Linchpin, businessman, marketer, blogger, auteur Seth Godin asks the question: Are you indispensible?

Seth, if you don’t know, is a genius. On the first page of Lynchpin he describes what a genius is:

“If a genius is someone with exceptional abilities and the insightto find the not so obvious solution to a problem, you don’t need to win a Nobel Prize to be one. A genius looks at something that others are stuck on and gets the world unstuck”

By that account, Seth is a certifiable genius.

This blog is about making sense of a complex world and Seth is one of those people that does that, paradoxically, by making things simple. Paradox is a hallmark feature of complexity and one of the reasons why the world is so often puzzling to us. Efforts to quell terrorism lead to more terrorism, exercises in control lead to greater instability (for more examples see another great book by Joshua Cooper Ramo) — that sort of stuff.

Seth is a straight-talker without being arrogant or simplistic. He his assertive without being aggressive. He challenges, while supports and understands. He is a rare being and one that I think deserves a blog post and some promotion.

Some examples? In his book “The Dip” he makes the case for quitting. We often hear that quitters never win and winners never quit, yet Seth shows how that’s not the case. It’s thoughtful and strategic quitting that counts.

In his recent interview on CBC’s Spark, Seth courageous says: “If you can’t get over your fear of the stuff that’s working, then I think you need to give up and do something else” . Few people are willing to say this stuff, but its true. We often fear success, because we’re not supported in doing something that doesn’t fit the system of production created for us in work, school and society from the 20th century onward.

Another great interview from Seth (also on Spark) is available here .

Lastly, I want to say that Seth is one who not only speaks but he acts. He invited a couple thousand of his blog readers to get a free copy of Linchpin in exchange for a donation to the Accumen Fund, which aims to transform the lives of people in poverty worldwide, particularly in Africa. I took up this offer. Seth believes that the world works best when we’re able to tap into our natural motive for generosity and to further back that up, he sent me a SECOND book for free to give to someone else. I’ve done one, well five, better in return. I chose to purchase a five copies of the book for each of the members of my research team; a talented group who form a wonderful linchpin for the future of health promotion and social innovation.

I’ve endorsed a product like this because I think it has a message that is necessary in a complex world of rapid change, where making sense is hard and often confusing. But in an age of uncertainty, stress and the collapse of many of our institutions due to rapid change, Seth provides inspiration, guidance and clear-headed thinking in a way that few others have. If I can offer one thing to Seth in small payback for his inspiration in me, the least I can do is write about him and encourage you to follow his lead and, in doing so, follow you own.

The book can be bought online below or from your local independent bookseller:

Amazon (Canada)

Amazon (United States)

Chapters/Indigo (Canada)

Barnes&Noble (United States)

Borders (United States)