Tag: Seth Godin

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Developmental Evaluation’s Traps


Developmental evaluation holds promise for product and service designers looking to understand the process, outcomes, and strategies of innovation and link them to effects. It’s the great promise of DE that is also the reason to be most wary of it and beware the traps that are set for those unaware.  

Developmental evaluation (DE), when used to support innovation, is about weaving design with data and strategy. It’s about taking a systematic, structured approach to paying attention to what you’re doing, what is being produced (and how), and anchoring it to why you’re doing it by using monitoring and evaluation data. DE helps to identify potentially promising practices or products and guide the strategic decision-making process that comes with innovation. When embedded within a design process, DE provides evidence to support the innovation process from ideation through to business model execution and product delivery.

This evidence might include the kind of information that helps an organization know when to scale up effort, change direction (“pivot”), or abandon a strategy altogether.

Powerful stuff.

Except, it can also be a trap.

It’s a Trap!

Star Wars fans will recognize the phrase “It’s a Trap!” as one of special — and much parodied — significance. Much like the Rebel fleet’s jeopardized quest to destroy the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, embarking on a DE is no easy or simple task.

DE was developed by Michael Quinn Patton and others working in the social innovation sector in response to the needs of programs operating in areas of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in helping them function better within this environment through evaluation. This meant providing the kind of useful data that recognized the context, allowed for strategic decision making with rigorous evaluation and not using tools that are ill-suited for complexity to simply do the ‘wrong thing righter‘.

The following are some of ‘traps’ that I’ve seen organizations fall into when approaching DE. A parallel set of posts exploring the practicalities of these traps are going up on the Cense site along with tips and tools to use to avoid and navigate them.

A trap is something that is usually camouflaged and employs some type of lure to draw people into it. It is, by its nature, deceptive and intended to ensnare those that come into it. By knowing what the traps are and what to look for, you might just avoid falling into them.

A different approach, same resourcing

A major trap is going into a DE is thinking that it is just another type of evaluation and thus requires the same resources as one might put toward a standard evaluation. Wrong.

DE most often requires more resources to design and manage than a standard program evaluation for many reasons. One the most important is that DE is about evaluation + strategy + design (the emphasis is on the ‘+’s). In a DE budget, one needs to account for the fact that three activities that were normally treated separately are now coming together. It may not mean that the costs are necessarily more (they often are), but that the work required will span multiple budget lines.

This also means that operationally one cannot simply have an evaluator, a strategist, and a program designer work separately. There must be some collaboration and time spent interacting for DE to be useful. That requires coordination costs.

Another big issue is that DE data can be ‘fuzzy’ or ambiguous — even if collected with a strong design and method — because the innovation activity usually has to be contextualized. Further complicating things is that the DE datastream is bidirectional. DE data comes from the program products and process as well as the strategic decision-making and design choices. This mutually influencing process generates more data, but also requires sensemaking to sort through and understand what the data means in the context of its use.

The biggest resource that gets missed? Time. This means not giving enough time to have the conversations about the data to make sense of its meaning. Setting aside regular time at intervals appropriate to the problem context is a must and too often organizations don’t budget this in.

The second? Focus. While a DE approach can capture an enormous wealth of data about the process, outcomes, strategic choices, and design innovations there is a need to temper the amount collected. More is not always better. More can be a sign of a lack of focus and lead organizations to collect data for data’s sake, not for a strategic purpose. If you don’t have a strategic intent, more data isn’t going to help.

The pivot problem

The term pivot comes from the Lean Startup approach and is found in Agile and other product development systems that rely on short-burst, iterative cycles with accompanying feedback. A pivot is a change of direction based on feedback. Collect the data, see the results, and if the results don’t yield what you want, make a change and adapt. Sounds good, right?

It is, except when the results aren’t well-grounded in data. DE has given cover to organizations for making arbitrary decisions based on the idea of pivoting when they really haven’t executed well or given things enough time to determine if a change of direction is warranted. I once heard the explanation given by an educator about how his team was so good at pivoting their strategy for how they were training their clients and students. They were taking a developmental approach to the course (because it was on complexity and social innovation). Yet, I knew that the team — a group of highly skilled educators — hadn’t spent nearly enough time coordinating and planning the course.

There are times when a presenter is putting things last minute into a presentation to capitalize on something that emerged from the situation to add to the quality of the presentation and then there is someone who has not put the time and thought into what they are doing and rushing at the last minute. One is about a pivot to contribute to excellence, the other is not executing properly. The trap is confusing the two.

Fearing success

“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” – Seth Godin

A truly successful innovation changes things — mindsets, workflows, systems, and outcomes. Innovation affects the things it touches in ways that might not be foreseen. It also means recognizing that things will have to change in order to accommodate the success of whatever innovation you develop. But change can be hard to adjust to even when it is what you wanted.

It’s a strange truth that many non-profits are designed to put themselves out of business. If there were no more political injustices or human rights violations around the world there would be no Amnesty International. The World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace wouldn’t exist if the natural world were deemed safe and protected. Conversely, there are no prominent NGO’s developed to eradicate polio anymore because pretty much have….or did we?

Self-sabotage exists for many reasons including a discomfort with change (staying the same is easier than changing), preservation of status, and a variety of inter-personal, relational reasons as psychologist Ellen Hendrikson explains.

Seth Godin suggests you need to find something else if you’re afraid of success and that might work. I’d prefer that organizations do the kind of innovation therapy with themselves, engage in organizational mindfulness, and do the emotional, strategic, and reflective work to ensure they are prepared for success — as well as failure, which is a big part of the innovation journey.

DE is a strong tool for capturing success (in whatever form that takes) within the complexity of a situation and the trap is when the focus is on too many parts or ones that aren’t providing useful information. It’s not always possible to know this at the start, but there are things that can be done to hone things over time. As the saying goes: when everything is in focus, nothing is in focus.

Keeping the parking brake on

And you may win this war that’s coming
But would you tolerate the peace? – “This War” by Sting

You can’t drive far or well with your parking brake on. However, if innovation is meant to change the systems. You can’t keep the same thinking and structures in place and still expect to move forward. Developmental evaluation is not just for understanding your product or service, it’s also meant to inform the ways in which that entire process influences your organization. They are symbiotic: one affects the other.

Just as we might fear success, we may also not prepare (or tolerate) it when it comes. Success with one goal means having to set new goals. It changes the goal posts. It also means that one needs to reframe what success means going ahead. Sports teams face this problem in reframing their mission after winning a championship. The same thing is true for organizations.

This is why building a culture of innovation is so important with DE embedded within that culture. Innovation can’t be considered a ‘one-off’, rather it needs to be part of the fabric of the organization. If you set yourself up for change, real change, as a developmental organization, you’re more likely to be ready for the peace after the war is over as the lyric above asks.

Sealing the trap door

Learning — which is at the heart of DE — fails in bad systems. Preventing the traps discussed above requires building a developmental mindset within an organization along with doing a DE. Without the mindset, its unlikely anyone will avoid falling through the traps described above. Change your mind, and you can change the world.

It’s a reminder of the needs to put in the work to make change real and that DE is not just plug-and-play. To quote Martin Luther King Jr:

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”


For more on how Developmental Evaluation can help you to innovate, contact Cense Ltd and let them show you what’s possible.  

Image credit: Author

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No Contest: The Cost of Crowd-based Social Innovation

The madness of crowds (sourcing)?

The madness of crowds (sourcing)?

Contests are seen by many in the social sector as a way to engage audiences and generate new thinking about important issues, yet in generating all of these contributions from the crowd are we undermining the very aims of work in social innovation when the fruits of these ideas largely remain to rot on the vine and what is the true cost of harvesting them? 

Kevin Starr, writing on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, recently pointed to the many ways in which well-meaning contests for public engagement in social innovation ideas undermine their very goals. After watching many a contest come and go I felt he was channeling my inner curmudgeon:

After years of watching and participating in this stuff, I’ve concluded that it does more harm than good—and by “this stuff” I mean the whole contest/challenge/prize/award industry. Yes, this lumps together way too many disparate things; yes, there are exceptions to everything I say here; and yes, it deserves a more nuanced discussion. That’s all true, but on the whole, I think we could dump it all and not miss a thing.

His reasoning is four-fold:

  1.  It wastes huge amounts of time.
  2.  There is way too much emphasis on ideation* and not nearly enough on implementation.
  3. It gets too much wrong and too little right.
  4. It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem.

Starr makes reference to a scenario posed by futurist Thomas Frey who comments on the false wisdom of crowds by considering the idiocy of having crowds vote on how to fly a plane as it was en route as a way of democratizing the experience of flight.

Crowds and their crowds

Crowd-based anything seems to be popular. With the rise of behavioural economics, social network influence maps, and the popularity of crowd-enabled funding projects proliferating there is much to be found for those looks at how the ‘wisdom of crowds’ . The popularity of opinion-based journalism reveals that you need not have to know much about anything you’re talking about, just having an opinion matters. Indeed, we are asking people for their opinion on things they know nothing about, yet are making enormous decisions based on feedback.

This is not about experts vs novices, it’s about knowing when expertise or more information is needed and when new, fresh thinking is necessary. The two aren’t always incompatible, but there is a place for knowing what information to trust, when and where. The madness of crowd enthusiasm has lost this subtlety.

In the case of contests, Kevin Starr remarks:

The current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing innovation reflects this fallacy that ideas are somehow in short supply. I’ve watched many capable professionals struggle to find implementation support for doable—even proven—real-world ideas, and it is galling to watch all the hoopla around well-intentioned ideas that are doomed to fail. Most crowdsourced ideas prove unworkable, but even if good ones emerge, there is no implementation fairy out there, no army of social entrepreneurs eager to execute on someone else’s idea. Much of what captures media attention and public awareness barely rises above the level of entertainment if judged by its potential to drive real impact.

There is this common notion that ideas will change the world. That’s nonsense.

Doing something with a good idea is what changes the world. It’s what Seth Godin and Scott Belsky and his group at 99u have been pushing: it’s making ideas happen that counts most. The world has never been changed by inventions that were left solely in people’s minds. Putting ideas out into the world also allows for their critique and other types of innovation through additive elements, iteration and prototyping.

Ideas themselves are plentiful, easy to cultivate and a seed, not a tree.

As the late George Carlin put so well (as he often does):

Ideas? I have plenty of amazing ideas! I have lots of ideas. Trouble is, most of them suck

There is a crowd of cheerleaders that presume crowdsourcing ideas or problem-solving will work for almost anything and that is a myth. Much of the data on effective crowd-based decision-making points to very specific circumstances and where there is an ability to average decisions. Thus predictions of movement or assessment of quantity or dichotomous outcomes are all good areas for crowdsourcing. But what has happened is that this effective use of crowds to make sense of large phenomena has been over-extracted to areas it is less adept at dealing with. There are also processes that facilitate effective ways to engage crowds to get better data.

Contests play into this mindset when they seek the ‘best idea’ from many on issues where very often people are ill-informed about the scope of the projects.

Systems thinking about impact

Some might argue that enlisting many people’s involvement in a topic is still good value because it gets people thinking about an issue. This might be true for some things, but does that thinking produce any change in something else? Starr points to another recent work by the Knight Foundation that looks at the energy that went into its contests and the wider impact that it saw when it stepped back at looked at the contests winners and losers in its totality.

The Knight Foundation recently released a thoughtful, well-publicized report on its experience running a dozen or so open contests. These are well-run contests, but the report states that there have been 25,000 entries overall, with only 400 winners. That means there have been 24,600 losers. Let’s say that, on average, entrants spent 10 hours working on their entries—that’s 246,000 hours wasted, or 120 people working full-time for a year. Other contests generate worse numbers. I’ve spoken with capable organization leaders who’ve spent 40-plus hours on entries for these things, and too often they find out later that the eligibility criteria were misleading anyway. They are the last people whose time we should waste.

Putting aside the motivation for giving to a prize, the bigger issue is what these prizes cost the social benefit sector by drawing out so much energy that ends up stored in one place, for one purpose and likely never for use again. Unlike academic science grants — which introduce their own system of waste, but generally have calls every year that allow people to rework failed project proposals — there is often a one-shot opportunity with these contests that mean creating large amounts of content from scratch to meet the idiosyncratic circumstances of the contest. Starr adds:

And it’s exploitive. For social sector organizations, money is the oxygen they need to stay alive, so leaders have to chase prizes just like they do other, more sensible sources of funding. Some in the industry justify this as a useful learning process. It’s not. Few competitions (with some notable exceptions) provide even the most rudimentary feedback. Too many of these contests and prizes seem like they are more about the givers than the getters anyway.

If we are looking at creating impact perhaps we need more systems thinking and design thinking about what it is we are intending to produce and how we can better design our initiatives to produce them. Otherwise, we’ll create much creative noise, very little innovation signal while reducing the impact of the system as a whole in the process.

* Starr uses the word ‘innovation’ in the original text, however my definition of innovation is one that necessitates implementation — you must actually do something different than before to innovate, not just have a good idea. It requires some rearrangement of the social and technological relationships to the product or service being designed.


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.

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Social Marketing, Marketers and Responsibility

Set Godin

Seth Godin, a business and marketing thought-leader and someone I’ve written on before, posed the question on his blog: Are marketer’s responsible for what they promote?

« The power of buttons and being normal

Are you responsible for what you market?

Let’s assert that marketing works.

If it works, then, are you responsible for what happens after that?

If you market cigarettes aggressively, are you responsible for people dying of lung cancer?

I think there are two ways to go here:

1. You’re not responsible. The marketer is like a lawyer representing the obviously guilty client. Everyone is entitled to a lawyer, and it’s up to the jury to decide. The lawyer’s job is to do the best she can, not to decide on the outcome. Market the best you can and let buyers take responsibility.

2. You are responsible. Your insight and effort cause people to change, and without you, that change would never happen.

My take: if you’re not proud of it, don’t sell it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, social marketing in the health sector (not including the ‘miracle cure’ hawkers) tends towards promoting “healthful” things. Yet, even these supposedly healthful activities such as donating to a particular cause, paying attention to certain lines of evidence, or attending certain educational events have unintended consequences. Donations to one charity means that money isn’t going to others. Adhering to certain protocols and procedures means disregarding or not paying attention to others. While choosing to attend certain events takes you away from other activities you could pursue (like your email back at the office, meetings with colleagues, time with family, or attending other events).

While the above example of cigarettes might lead us to an obvious answer to Seth’s question, what about what happens in our knowledge translation activities on the side of health? Do we stop to consider the unintended consequences of our actions, even if they are well intentioned? Systems thinking is one of the tools to help us through this, particularly systems dynamic modeling. On an individual level, contemplative inquiry is another strategy.

In both cases, we need time, care, attention and the capacity to bring this knowledge to light.

One example is with the Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change theory. When I started getting into the health field Stages of Change was just gaining popularity. A search of PubMed finds nearly 1000 published articles using variants on the Stage of Change concept. In a nutshell, this theory suggests we work our way up to change by planning over time towards a change. Local, provincial/state, and national programs throughout the world have taken this approach to organizing their activities. For a while it seemed that the only way to get funded was to have some accounting of stage.

The problem was, Stage of Change does a lousy job of predicting change in certain behaviours. Robert West and others looked at the evidence and found that in many cases, Stages of Change did a terrible job of predicting whether people would change their behaviour or not, particularly in the realm of addictions. Smokers or problem drinkers might stop “cold turkey” without any advance planning, which isn’t well accounted for by the model.

Yet, the model, so ingrained in the psyche of many health promotion planners and educators, continues to be used widely, blinding us to other options. The unintended consequences of this is that we are often unable (unwilling?) to consider that other models might work. Or, that the models we have don’t work as well as we’d hoped and that maybe we need new ones. By not only putting these ideas out there, but actively promoting them, we are marketing not only products, but ways of thinking about problems and it is here that we get into trouble.

Pride in what you do might avoid the problem’s that Seth Godin in talking about, but when it obscures our vision from considering other options, it might be time to do less social marketing and more social systems thinking.

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Knowledge Translation or Just Better Marketing?

How Much Marketing Can We Take?

This week at the CoNEKTR Lunch and Learn at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the focus of discussion was on knowledge translation and the theme I discussed in a previous post. It was a lively discussion and one that emphasized the limits that one hour and many great minds presents for exploring a big topic like KT.

The discussion around the room focused on the challenges of taking what it is we know and transforming it into practice, policy and research innovations that work in the everyday. While the subtext of the presentation was initially focused on systems issues, building on Russell Ackoff‘s phrase about “doing the wrong things righter”, the bulk of the conversation was on whether or not we are dealing with issues that have to do with marketing and simply being better at it.

That is, if health sciences just got better at packaging the materials they produce, delivering them more effectively (or more often) and doing so by understanding the user better, things would get done. One could view this argument as proof positive that as a field, we are so wedded to the idea of shoveling content that we no longer see that this is just doing different versions of the same thing over again. But a closer look suggests that social marketing might provide us with a middle ground between the largely content-driven approach that dominates the literature (which suggests that if we just package the best content better, people will listen to what we say because it is, after all, the best content) and a systems change approach that looks at redesigning the way we interact with knowledge and produce it in the first place.

A finer look at marketing suggests that there is something different from the traditional view. A marketing perspective is less concerned with the quality of the product (i.e., content) and more about process of how to get this content to people and get them to use it. The crassest example of this can be seen in episodes of Mad Men and how they brazenly craft messages around toxic substances like cigarettes to seduce people, fictional representations of the very real world work of the tobacco industry does to reach youth , racial minorities and women alike. But unlike the callous marketers who don’t care about their audience’s health, health professionals very much do. And so do some marketers.

By focusing on the process of getting information to the intended audience, a marketing perspective gets closer to the spirit of what knowledge translation is intended by some definitions. What it fails to do is question or even challenge the underlying structures that create the barriers to knowledge application in the first place. Emphasis on clever, creative means of getting around these barriers is a start, but just a start. The supposition here is that people are simply distracted or busy and that they are not able to attend to the messages around them due to volume. This has some merit. As anyone active in social media use, spent time in front the TV, visited a “free” website, or having visited public places like Times Square (pictured) can attest, the volume of information we get exposed to on a daily basis is enormous. It sounds good, but as any marketer can tell you, today’s effective and innovative strategy is tomorrow’s overused, ignored delivery system. Once widely adopted, a marketing strategy often loses its lustre and something new must replace it, which is why marketing is such a dynamic field.

A systems-oriented approach is also dynamic, but one that aims to transform the structure of the relationships and processes within the system rather than work around the existing ones.

Perhaps the question is less about whether social marketing is knowledge translation, but whether social marketing is enough given the information climate most health professionals and consumers exist.


Indispensibility and Organizational Change

Seth Godin‘s recent book throws out the challenge to its readers to be indispensable in the jobs that they do. This is a tall order for most, but Godin points to ways of thinking, approaching problems and examples of how even the most mundane, mechanical jobs can be more when we bring the best of ourselves to what we do each day — no matter what the job is. He wants us all to reclaim our genius. The message is an unusual one in that it applies very well to individuals — you and me — but is a lot harder to apply at the organizational level. This is an important issue for those wanting to create better, healthier systems and it is here that the role of individual and system can get confounded.

Mike Myatt, from Blogging Innovation, wrote a critique of the indispensibility position in terms of its implications for organizations. His post, a fair and appreciative one regarding Seth’s position in many areas, is nonetheless critical of the idea of fostering indispensibility in firms:

A well managed company does not allow itself to become dependent upon the performance of any single individual. Those individuals who attempt to hoard knowledge, relationships, or resources to attain job security should not to be valued or viewed as indispensable, but should be admonished as ineffective and deemed a liability. Corporate talent that cannot be shared, duplicated, distributed, or leveraged is not nearly as valuable as talent that can.

It is here that I first disagree. Godin is not advocating for valuing the hoarder, rather he is suggesting the opposite: unparalleled sharing and generosity. Someone who hoards will not advance system change: period. Systems rely on exchange of information and intense conservation of knowledge or information reduces the response capacity of a system (which could be an organization). An organization that relies on a hoarder for survival hasn’t been paying attention or created processes of openness that allow information to move through the system. If you have a hoarder, one needs to ask: how did we create an organization that enabled that person to become so important? How can we transform it so that person’s unique talents can come out and that knowledge that is sharable and distributed gets to whomever it needs to when its needed?

I would like to address two of Myatt’s issues:

Myatt goes on:

In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who sets out to make themselves indispensable would be the one committing career suicide for two reasons:

  1. Anyone who is “perceived” as indispensable in their current role completely eliminates any possibility of promotion
  2. Any good leadership team who finds themselves dependant upon a linchpin will immediately move to mitigate the risk of finding themselves in such an untenable position

Regarding point 1: What would one promote themselves to? This pokes a hole at the dominant model of organizational development that suggests that promotions work vertically (including the entire thinking about why we need directions to move, embedded in the term “promotion”). When you’re the best salesperson on a team doing something you love and are good at and you get a “promotion” does it mean pulling you off the sales team into a management position, which may rely on a completely different skill and mindset? Does this really make sense?

Regarding point 2: If you have a real linchpin, your task is creating a dynamic, exciting environment to let them do their thing well. After all, they are linchpins precisely because they are good at what they do. You’re always in an “untenable position” of not being able to replace them because they are, by definition, unreplaceable. Do you have a work culture that brings in unique talent and nurtures it to allow it to succeed or do you try to create positions that are defined by a set of duties that can be done by anyone?

Myatt’s argument is counter to what Linchpin is all about in its approach. If you create standards and clearly defined roles and evaluate solely based on those standards, which is the position that is being argued from, you will suffer under a linchpin promotion strategy.

Maybe. At least, your business model will suffer.

But that misses the bigger point: Why build an organization around such a model to begin with? Maybe the system needs to change as much as the individuals within it. Maybe then, a linchpin promotion strategy doesn’t look so strange or problematic.

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Complexity, Innovation and Fear


“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” – Seth Godin

Seth, who I’ve been celebrating this week, had it right. Many of us fear the stuff that works, because in a complex world, innovation is what often works to solve problems instead of the same way we’ve always done things. In a period of accelerated change, information abundance and overload, and hyperconnectedness, the fear that one is losing their place is palpable when you speak to those over the age of 40, and many below that age.

Harold Kushner has written much on the concept of fear and the ways it influences our lives. In a recent talk in Toronto, Rabbi Kurshner told the audience a story about how his young nephew taught him how to access a computer file and the implications for an age where the young mentor the old and how the older people in society feel left behind by technology. Being left behind, ignored, or rejected is a primal driver of fear. Another sage (albeit a ficitional one) said it best:

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering — Yoda

Indeed, what Kushner was speaking about was how fear leads to anger and hate and the suffering that it causes. My colleague Izzeldin Abuelaish, his work, charity and campaign is all about removing fear and promoting understanding for peace. In an interview with TVO he spoke to this issue how the fear and hate associated with a complex issue like the Middle East relations cannot be made to interfere with our fundamental knowledge of what it means to be human. And being human is increasingly complex.

The Middle East, new technology, and a rapidly changing society all reflect a more complex world. Complexity, by its very nature, produces unpredictability and instability. Yet it is in complexity, the boundaries between systems and ideas, and channeling diversity that we innovate. Innovation, by definition, is doing something new to produce value. New means challenging the status quo by default. Resistance to ‘new’ is so easy to see everywhere and the lesson of Darwin and paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey taught us is that a failure to adapt results in extinction. So if we do the math, complexity leads to fear and fear prevents innovation and that leads to extinction.

It is why people like Seth Godin write “Linchpin” and speak on standing out as the means of survival. It’s why Peter Diamandis had such trouble raising the funds to support the X-Prize from organizations, yet found dozens of teams interested in competing for it(a great set of stories about the Prize and innovation are included in his talk on TVO’s: Big Ideas). In both cases, the audience is the individual and small teams or tribes as Seth Godin puts it.

From this it seems that there are a few courses of action that won’t ignore complexity (contributing to what management theorist and systems thinker Russell Ackoff described as ‘doing the wrong thing righter’ ), help spur innovation, reduce fear and hate as a result.

I suggest five things:

1. Teach systems thinking and complexity science in schools, the community, in the media. By understanding how things come together, the unintended consequences and opportunities that emerge from systems, the complexity is reduced or at least made less mysterious in a manner that invokes fear.

2. Provide people with opportunities to develop the analytical skills to make sense of complexity. John Mighton’s work at JUMP Math is a great example. He teaches people to enjoy mathematics and how to learn about it and use it everyday. Math and number fear is (in my opinion) one of the most significant barriers to people understanding complexity. If you fear numbers, you’ll hate math and statistics, and you’ll not want to learn about things like stochasticity (randomness) and risk.

3. This includes working together — experts and non-experts alike — to create the tools necessary to anticipate change. Having a sense of what might reasonably happen (using the aforementioned skills) reduces anxiety. As Kushner recalls, people who are about to die don’t fear death, they lament the life they didn’t live because of fear of the unknown.

4. Nurture individuals and teams because those are where real relationships form. Networking large organizations is fine, but it is in building relationships between people and the small tribes they form that will create the trust and goodwill to allow people to be open and transparent. And this transparency and openness reduces fear.

5. Encourage people to use – and learn from — tools that help people form relationships, maintain them. Social media tools that can’t break are ones that allow people to try and fail and learn. Without a culture that supports relationships and encourage wild attempts that might fail, innovation is unlikely to follow or be sustained.

Anything missing from this? Anything off the mark?

Don’t let fear dissuade you from innovating and making this better and different.