Tag: social change

strategic foresight

Foresight, Growth and the J-shaped Curve

The business of futures is to see what possibilities lay ahead to better anticipate how to meet them when or if they become reality. When this story line follows a linear path this is a lot easier; when it follows a more complex path reality can bite.

Foresight models look at trends and curves in trajectories of things including those that might disrupt the status quo. Using tools and frameworks (PDF), foresight professionals and futurists seek to better understand the contributors (drivers) and patterns associated with decisions, activities, and circumstances to anticipate what might come and better prepare for it (strategic foresight). Foresight is being used in fields ranging from natural resource management to energy policy to healthcare planning.

A rational look at foresight finds many reasons to embrace it for an organization. Who wouldn’t want to have a better sense of what is coming and prepare for it? The problem foresight poses is that it can lead people to look for the right things in the wrong way and that has everything to do with our human tendencies to see narrative arcs in the stories we tell ourselves instead of seeing either exponential or j-shaped curves.

Both of these models for data have enormous consequences for how we understand some of our greatest challenges as humans and as organizations as we shall see.

Exponential complication

A linear distribution or data structure is what humans see most easily. It’s the maintenance of a status quo, gradual change, or the progressive rise and fall of something over time. It’s what we see when we see in most trends and patterns. This perspective has the tendency to view much of the system in which this change takes place as relatively stable.

Stability is largely a matter of perspective. Everything is in motion to some degree; its the rate of change that we notice. In linear systems, that rate of change is relatively consistent or at a pace we understand while exponential change (or growth curves) are more challenging to see — and potentially more dangerous as the video below illustrates.

Al Bartlett’s lecture and other notes provide just one example exponential growth and how our perception is challenged by these kind of data structures in the world and the systemic effects they can bring.

Without an understanding of the growth dynamics associated with a particular phenomenon, we are at risk of grossing under-estimating the potential implications of what might happen. In these cases we need fixes, but not just any fixes as we shall see.

Deceptive Fixes

Another type of curve that can distort foresight models is the ‘j-shaped curve’. This curve describes situations where there is a long-term trend that is briefly countered in the short-term. An example is the case of alcohol consumption and health. There is evidence that alcohol consumption (e.g., a glass of wine or beer) can have a beneficial effect on a person’s health (at the population level, individual results might vary significantly). However, beyond that certain amount — that varies by person — and alcohol becomes toxic and can substantially contribute to a variety of health problems, injuries, and premature death. The j-shaped curve forms from data showing a mild reduction in health risks associated with modest alcohol intake as illustrated below.

For alcohol use, a single drink can lower your mortality risk before the risk starts rising again. Contrast this against cigarette use where a linear pattern of risk is seen: the more you smoke at any level, the higher your risk. Both patterns have linearity to them, but one is far more deceptive in it’s short and long-term implications.

Where this can fool foresight researchers is that there may be a trend that is showing a certain set of properties assumed to be on the trajectory like that on the left hand side of the graph when it is really similar to the right. Depending on the time horizon you use to inform your decisions based on this data the implications could be markedly different and potentially catastrophic.

Our fixes or strategies to anticipate change based on the wrong model could actually serve to amplify the very problem we sought to solve. A possible example of this is the move to ban single-use plastic bags. While the evidence of the environmental impact of plastic is considerable, a shift from plastic bags has its own negative implications, including the increased manufacturing of (with resulting waste and potential increased consumerism from) reusable tote bags or the increased use of forest products to support paper bag production.

The loss of plastic shopping bags which are often re-used (despite being called single-use) as garbage liners is now resulting in more purchases of plastic-intensive garbage bags. If the systemic implications are not considered in the design of such policies, these well-meaning fixes can profoundly fail. What is needed is a change in the way we consume, store, and buy goods, not just carry them home.

Systems change changes systems

The idea that you could be surrounded by literally thousands of people, connected to most of the planet through a device that fits in the palm of your hand, and still experience profound loneliness would once be considered the most profound oxymoron to anyone born before 1980.

Yet, here we are in a state where the very fixes for connection are failing us. The benefits of social media, social connection, artificial intelligence, and new production methods (e.g. 3D printing) are now starting to show some negative effects on our social and economic systems. Are these linear progressions of technological advancement that are simply generating a few of the inevitable bumps along the way? Are they exponential trends about to explode and profoundly transform the way we live? Or are these j-shaped curved trends that once provided us the benefits of finding connection in the modern world only to entrench our social systems into being online, not off?

We are creating systems that are changing themselves and having profound effects on the fundamentals around us. Retail conveniences created by online shopping means changing the relationship we have with our local merchants and that changes their viability. Handheld computers like an iPhone are engineered to hold our attention; what happens when we stop paying attention to the world around us?

These are systems questions and ones that foresight — when applied well — holds some promise in allowing us to anticipate and maybe deal with before its too late.

We can’t see these things coming if we hold models of the future that are based on a linear framing of what is happening now and what is to come. We also can’t adapt if we assume that even non-linear change will take place and persist within the same system it started in. Systems change changes systems.

Data models are fundamental to foresight and understanding them is the key to knowing whether your ahead of the curve, behind the curve, or sitting in the middle of the letter J.

Photo Credits: Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash and Cameron Norman

psychologysystems thinking

Smart goals or better systems?


If you’re working toward some sort of collective goals — as an organization, network or even as an individual — you’ve most likely been asked to use SMART goal setting to frame your task. While SMART is a popular tool for management consultants and scholars, does it make sense when you’re looking to make inroads on complex, unique or highly volatile problems or is the answer in the systems we create to advance goals in the first place?  

Goal setting is nearly everywhere.

Globally we had the UN-backed Millennium Development Goals and now have the Sustainable Development Goals and a look at the missions and visions of most corporations, non-profits, government departments and universities and you will see language that is framed in terms of goals, either explicitly or implicitly.

A goal for this purposes is:

goal |ɡōl| noun:  the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result the destination of a journey

Goal setting is the process of determining what it is that you seek to achieve and usually combined with mapping some form of strategy to achieve the goal. Goals can be challenging on their own when a single person is determining what it is that they want, need or feel compelled to do, even more so when aggregated to the level of the organization or a network.

How do you keep people focused on the same thing?

A look at the literature finds a visible presence of one approach: setting SMART goals. SMART goals reflect an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely in some examples). The origin of SMART has been traced back to an article in the 1981 issue of the AMA’s journal Management Review by George Doran (PDF). In that piece, Doran comments how unpleasant it is to set objectives and that this is one of the reasons organizations resist it. Yet, in an age where accountability is held in high regard the role of the goal is not only strategic, but operationally critical to attracting and maintaining resources.

SMART goals are part of a larger process called performance management, which is a means by enhancing collective focus and alignment of individuals within an organization . Dartmouth College has a clearly articulated explanation of how goals are framed within the context of performance management:

” Performance goals enable employees to plan and organize their work in accordance with achieving predetermined results or outcomes. By setting and completing effective performance goals, employees are better able to:

  • Develop job knowledge and skills that help them thrive in their work, take on additional responsibilities, or pursue their career aspirations;
  • Support or advance the organization’s vision, mission, values, principles, strategies, and goals;
  • Collaborate with their colleagues with greater transparency and mutual understanding;
  • Plan and implement successful projects and initiatives; and
  • Remain resilient when roadblocks arise and learn from these setbacks.”

Heading somewhere, destination unknown

Evaluation professionals and managers alike love SMART goals and performance measurement. What’s not to like about something that specifically outlines what is to be done in detail, the date its required by, and in a manner that is achievable? It’s like checking off all the boxes in your management performance chart all at once! Alas, the problems with this approach are many.

Specific is pretty safe, so we won’t touch that. It’s good to know what you’re trying to achieve.

But what about measurable? This is what evaluators love, but what does it mean in practice? Metrics and measures reflect a certain type of evaluative approach and require the kind of questions, data collection tools and data to work effectively. If the problem being addressed isn’t something that lends itself to quantification using measures or data that can easily define a part of an issue, then measurement becomes inconclusive at best, useless at worst.

What if you don’t know what is achievable? This might be because you’ve never tried something before or maybe the problem set has never existed before now.

How do you know what realistic is? This is tricky because, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

This issue of reasonableness is an important one because innovation, adaptation and discovery are not able reason, but aspiration and hope. Were it for reasonableness, we might have never achieved much of what we’ve set out to accomplish in terms of being innovative, adaptive or creative.

Reasonableness is also the most dangerous for those seeking to make real change and do true innovation. Innovation is not often reasonable, nor are the asks ‘reasonable.’ Most social transformations were not because of reasonable. Women’s rights to vote  or The rights of African Americans to be recognized and treated as human beings in the United States are but two examples from the 20th century that are able lack of ‘reasonableness’.

Lastly, what if you have no idea what the timeline for success is? If you’ve not tackled this before, are working on a dynamic problem, or have uncertain or unstable resources it might be impossible to say how long something will take to solve.

Rethinking goals and their evaluation

One of the better discussions on goals, goal setting and the hard truths associated with what it means to pursue a goal is from James Clear, who draws on some of the research on strategy and decision making to build his list of recommendations. Clear’s summary pulls together a variety of findings that show how individuals construct goals and seek to achieve them and the results suggest that the problem is less about the strategy used to reach a goal, but more on the goals themselves.

What is most relevant for organizations is the concept of ‘rudders and oars‘, which is about creating systems and processes for action and less on the goal itself. In complex systems, our ability to exercise control is highly variable and constrained and goals provide an illusory sense that we have control. So either we fail to achieve our goals or we set goals that we can achieve, which may not be the most important thing we aim for. We essentially rig our system to achieve something that might be achievable, but utterly not important.

Drawing on this work, we are left to re-think goals and commit to the following:

  1. Commit to a process, not a goal
  2. Release the need for immediate results
  3. Build feedback loops
  4. Build better systems, not better goals

To realize this requires an adaptive approach to strategy and evaluation where the two go hand-in-hand and are used systemically. It means pushing aside and rejecting more traditional performance measurement models for individuals and organizations and developing more fine-tuned, custom evaluative approaches that link data to decisions and decisions to actions in an ongoing manner.

It means thinking in systems, about systems and designing for ways to do both on an ongoing, not episodic manner.

The irony is, by minimizing or rejecting the use of goals, you might better achieve a goal of a more impactful, innovative, responsive and creative organization with a real mission for positive change.



Image credit: Author


behaviour changecomplexitypublic healthsocial innovation

Confusing change-making with actual change


Change-making is the process of transformation and not to be confused with the transformed outcome that results from such a process. We confuse the two at our peril.

“We are changing the world” is a rallying cry from many individuals and organizations working in social innovation and entrepreneurship which is both a truth and untruth at the same time. Saying you’re changing the world is far easier than actually doing it. One is dramatic — the kind that make for great reality TV as we’ll discuss — and the other is rather dull, plodding and incremental. But it may be the latter that really wins the day.

Organizations like Ashoka (and others) promote themselves as a change-maker organization authoring blogs titled “everything you need to know about change-making”. That kind of language, while attractive and potentially inspiring to diverse audiences, points to a mindset that views social change in relatively simple, linear terms. This line of thinking suggests change is about having the right knowledge and the right plan and the ability to pull it together and execute.

This is a mindset that highlights great people and great acts supported by great plans and processes. I’m not here to dismiss the work that groups like Ashoka do, but to ask questions about whether the recipe approach is all that’s needed. Is it really that simple?

Lies like: “It’s calories in, calories out”

Too often social change is viewed with the same flawed perspective that weight loss is. Just stop eating so much food (and the right stuff) and exercise and you’ll be fine — calories in and out as the quote suggests — and you’re fine. The reality is, it isn’t that simple.

A heartbreaking and enlightening piece in the New York Times profiled the lives and struggles of past winners of the reality show The Biggest Loser (in parallel with a new study released on this group of people (PDF)) that showed that all but one of the contestants regained weight after the show as illustrated below:

BiggestLoser 2016-05-03 09.17.10

The original study, published in the journal Obesity, considers the role of metabolic adaptation that takes place with the authors suggesting that a person’s metabolism makes a proportional response to compensate for the wide fluctuations in weight to return contestants to their original pre-show weight.

Consider that during the show these contestants were constantly monitored, given world-class nutritional and exercise supports, had tens of thousands of people cheering them on and also had a cash prize to vie for. This was as good as it was going to get for anyone wanting to lose weight shy of surgical options (which have their own problems).

Besides being disheartening to everyone who is struggling with obesity, the paper illuminates the inner workings of our body and reveals it to be a complex adaptive system rather than the simple one that we commonly envision when embarking on a new diet or fitness regime. Might social change be the same?

We can do more and we often do

I’m fond of saying that we often do less than we think and more than we know.

That means we tend to expect that our intentions and efforts to make change produce the results that we seek directly and because of our involvement. In short, we treat social change as a straightforward process. While that is sometimes true, rare is it that programs aiming at social change coming close to achieving their stated systems goals (“changing the world”) or anything close to it.

This is likely the case for a number of reasons:

  • Funders often require clear goals and targets for programs in advance and fund based on promises to achieve these results;
  • These kind of results are also the ones that are attractive to outside audiences such as donors, partners, academics, and the public at large (X problem solved! Y number of people served! Z thousand actions taken!), but may not fully articulate the depth and context to which such actions produce real change;
  • Promising results to stakeholders and funders suggests that a program is operating in a simple or complicated system, rather than a complex one (which is rarely, if ever the case with social change);
  • Because program teams know these promised outcomes don’t fit with their system they cherry-pick the simplest measures that might be achievable, but may also be the least meaningful in terms of social change.
  • Programs will often further choose to emphasize those areas within the complex system that have embedded ordered (or simple) systems in them to show effect, rather than look at the bigger aims.

The process of change that comes from healthy change-making can be transformative for the change-maker themselves, yet not yield much in the way of tangible outcomes related to the initial charge. The reasons likely have to do with the compensatory behaviours of the system — akin to social metabolic adaptation — subduing the efforts we make and the initial gains we might experience.

Yet, we do more at the same time. Danny Cahill, one of the contestants profiled in the story for the New York Times, spoke about how the lesson learned from his post-show weight gain was that the original weight gain wasn’t his fault in the first place

“That shame that was on my shoulders went off”

What he’s doing is adapting his plan, his goals and working differently to rethink what he can do, what’s possible and what is yet to be discovered. This is the approach that we take when we use developmental evaluation; we adapt, evolve and re-design based on the evidence while continually exploring ways to get to where we want to go.

A marathon, not a sprint, in a laboratory

The Biggest Loser is a sprint: all of the change work compressed into a short period of time. It’s a lab experiment, but as we know what happens in a laboratory doesn’t always translate directly into the world outside its walls because the constraints have changed. As the show’s attending physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga, told the New York Times:

“Unfortunately, many contestants are unable to find or afford adequate ongoing support with exercise doctors, psychologists, sleep specialists, and trainers — and that’s something we all need to work hard to change”

This quote illustrates the fallacy of real-world change initiatives and exposes some of the problems we see with many of the organizations who claim to have the knowledge about how to change the world. Have these organizations or funders gone back to see what they’ve done or what’s left after all the initial funding and resources were pulled? This is not just a public, private or non-profit problem: it’s everywhere.

I have a colleague who spent much time working with someone who “was hired to clean up the messes that [large, internationally recognized social change & design firm] left behind” because the original, press-grabbing solution actually failed in the long run. And the failure wasn’t in the lack of success, but the lack of learning because that firm and the funders were off to another project. Without building local capacity for change and a sustained, long-term marathon mindset (vs. the sprint) we are setting ourselves up for failure. Without that mindset, lack of success may truly be a failure because there is no capacity to learn and act based on that learning. Otherwise, the learning is just a part of an experimental approach consistent with an innovation laboratory. The latter is a positive, the former, not so much.

Part of the laboratory approach to change is that labs — real research labs — focus on radical, expansive, long-term and persistent incrementalism. Now that might sound dull and unsexy (which is why few seem to follow it in the social innovation lab space), but it’s how change — big change — happens. The key is not in thinking small, but thinking long-term by linking small changes together persistently. To illustrate, consider the weight gain conundrum as posed by obesity researcher Dr. Michael Rosenbaum in speaking to the Times:

“We eat about 900,000 to a million calories a year, and burn them all except those annoying 3,000 to 5,000 calories that result in an average annual weight gain of about one to two pounds,” he said. “These very small differences between intake and output average out to only about 10 to 20 calories per day — less than one Starburst candy — but the cumulative consequences over time can be devastating.”

Building a marathon laboratory

Marathoners are guided by a strange combination of urgency, persistence and patience. When you run 26 miles (42 km) there’s no sprinting if you want to finish the same day you started. The urgency is what pushes runners to give just a little more at specific times to improve their standing and win. Persistence is the repetition of a small number of key things (simple rules in a complex system) that keep the gains coming and the adaptations consistent. Patience is knowing that there are few radical changes that will positively impact the race, just a lot of modifications and hard work over time.

Real laboratories seek to learn a lot, simply and consistently and apply the lessons from one experiment to the next to extend knowledge, confirm findings, and explore new territory.

Marathons aren’t as fun to watch as the 100m sprint in competitive athletics and lab work is far less sexy than the mythical ‘eureka’ moments of ‘discovery’ that get promoted, but that’s what changes the world. The key is to build organizations that support this. It means recognizing learning and that it comes from poor outcomes as well as positive ones. It encourages asking questions, being persistent and not resting on laurels. It also means avoiding getting drawn into being ‘sexy’ and ‘newsworthy’ and instead focusing on the small, but important things that make the news possible in the first place.

Doing that might not be as sweet as a Starburst candy, but it might avoid us having to eat it.




innovationsocial innovation

The Finger Pointing to the Moon



In social innovation we are at risk of confusing our stories of success for real, genuine impact. Without theories, implementation science or evaluation we risk aspiring to travel to the moon, yet leaving our rockets stuck on the launchpad.  

There is a Buddhist expression that goes like this:

Be careful not to confuse the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. *

It’s a wonderful phrase that is playful and yet rich in many meanings. Among the most poignant of these meanings is related to the confusion between representation and reality, something we are starting to see exemplified in the world of social innovation and its related fields like design and systems thinking.

On July 13, 2014 the earth experienced a “supermoon” (captured in the above photograph), named because of its close passage to earth. While it may have seemed also close enough to touch, it was still a distance unfathomable to nearly everyone except a handful on this planet. There was a lot of fingers pointed to the moon that night.

While the moon has held fascination for humans for millennia, it’s also worth drawing our attention to the pointing fingers, too.

Pointing fingers

How often do you hear “we are doing amazing stuff“when hearing about leaders describe their social innovations in the community, universities, government, business or partnerships between them? Thankfully, it’s probably a lot more than ever because the world needs good, quality innovative thinking and action. Indeed, judging from the rhetoric at conferences and events and published literature in the academic literature and popular press it seems we are becoming more innovative all the time.

We are changing the world.

…Except, that is a largely useless statement on its own, even if well meaning.

Without documentation of what this “amazing stuff” looks like, a theory or logic explaining how those activities are connected to an outcome and an observed link between it all (i.e., evaluation) there really is no evidence that the world is changed – or at least changed in a manner that is better than had we done something else or nothing at all. That is the tricky part about working with complex systems, particularly large ones. How the world is changed is subtitle of the the book by Brenda Zimmerman, Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton on complexity and evaluation in social change, Getting to Maybe. It is because change requires theory, strategic implementation and evaluation that these three leaders in such topics came together to discuss what can be called social innovation. They introduce theory, strategy and evaluation ideas in the book and — while the book has remained a popular text — I rarely see them referred to in serious conversations about social innovation.

Unfortunately, concrete discussion of these three areas — theory, strategic implementation, and evaluation — is largely absent from the dialogue on social innovation. No more was this evident than in the social innovation week events held across Canada in May and June of this year as part of a series of gatherings between practitioners, researchers and policy makers from all kinds of different sectors and disciplines. The events brought together some of the leading thinkers, funders, institutes and social labs from around the world and was as close to the “social innovation olympics” as one could get. The stories told were inspirational, the diversity in the programming was wide, and the ideas shared were creative and interesting.

And yet, many of those I spoke to (including myself) were left with the question: What do I do with any of this? Without something specific to anchor to that question remained unanswered.

Lots of love, not enough (research) power

As often happens, these gatherings serve more as a rallying cry for those working in a sector — something that is quite important on its own as a critical support mechanism — but less about challenging ourselves. As Geoff Mulgan from Nesta noted in the closing keynote to the Social Frontiers event in Vancouver (and riffing off Adam Kahane’s notion of power and love as a vehicle for social transformation), the week featured a lot of love and not so much expression of power (as in critique).

Reflecting on the social innovation events I’ve attended, the books and articles I’ve read, and the conversations I’ve had in the first six months of 2014 it seems evident that the love is being felt by many, but that it is woefully under-powered (pun intended). The social innovation week events just clustered a lot of this conversation in one week, but it’s a sign of a larger trend that emphasizes storytelling independent of the kind of details that one might find at an academic event. Stories can inspire (love), but they rarely guide (power). Adam Kahane is right: we need both to be successful.

The good news is that we are doing love very well and that’s a great start. However, we need to start thinking about the power part of that equation.

There is a dearth of quality research in the field of social innovation and relatively little in the way of concrete theory or documented practice to guide anyone new to this area of work. Yes, there are many stories, but these offer little beyond inspiration to follow. It’s time to add some guidance and a space for critique to the larger narrative in which these stories are told.

Repeating patterns

What often comes from the Q & A sessions following a presentation of a social innovation initiative are the same answers as ‘lessons learned’:

  • Partnerships and trust are key
  • This is very hard work and its all very complex
  • Relationships are important
  • Get buy-in from stakeholders and bring people together to discuss the issues
  • It always takes longer than you think to do things
  • It’s hard to get and maintain resources

I can’t think of a single presentation over the past six months where these weren’t presented as  ‘take-home messages’.

Yet, none of these answers explain what was done in tangible terms, how well it was done, what alternatives exist (if any), what was the rationale for the program and any research/evidence/theory that underpins that logic, and what unintended consequences have emerged from these initiatives and what evaluated outcomes they had besides numbers of participants/events/dollars moved.

We cannot move forward beyond love if we don’t find some way to power-up our work.

Theories of change: The fingers and the moons

Perhaps the best place to start to remedy this problem of detail is developing a theory of change for social innovation**.

Indeed, the emergence of discourse on theory of change in worlds of social enterprise, innovation and services in recent years has been refreshing. A theory of change is pretty much what it sounds like: a set of interconnected propositions that link ideas to outcomes and the processes that exist between them all. A theory of change answers the question: Why should this idea/program/policy produce (specific) changes?

The strengths of the theory of change movement (as one might call it) is that it is inspiring social innovators to think critically about the logic in their programs at a human scale. More flexible than a program logic model and more detailed than a simple hypothesis, a theory of change can guide strategy and evaluation simultaneously and works well with other social innovation-friendly concepts like developmental evaluation and design.

The weaknesses in the movement is that many theories of change fail to consider what has already been developed. There is an enormous amount of conceptual and empirical work done on behaviour change theories at the individual, organization, community and systems level that can inform a theory of change. Disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political theory, geography and planning, business and organizational behaviour, evolutionary biology and others all have well-researched and developed theories to explain changes in activity. Too often, I see theories developed without knowledge or consideration of such established theories. This is not to say that one must rely on past work (particularly in the innovation space where examples might be few in number), but if a theory is solid and has evidence behind it then it is worth considering. Not all theories are created equal.

It is time for social innovation to start raising the bar for itself and the world it seeks to change. It is time to start advancing theories, strategic implementation and evaluation practice and research so that the social innovation events of the future foster real power for change and not just inspiration and love.


* one of the more cited translated versions of this phrase has been attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh who suggests the Buddha remarked: “just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

** This actually means many theories of change. A theory of change is program-specific and might be identical to another program and built upon the same foundations as others, but just as a program logic model is unique to each program, so too is a theory of change.

Photo credit: SuperLuna with different filters by Paolo Francolini used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkinginnovationsocial systems

Mythmaking about speed and scale in social innovation

Temples to the Gods of Scale?

Temples to the Gods of Scale?

Yes, but does it scale? – Question asked at nearly every presentation on a social innovation ever made*

It is maddening to see wheels get reinvented and something that is so impactful in one setting never seen outside of that context.  At a time of widespread austerity, global resource constraints, and pressing social problems it is tempting to seek answers that will get us to the biggest, boldest, most ambitious solutions the fastest.

I like to consider myself a patient person, but there are times when I want, need and demand speed. More than most** I get agitated at bureaucratic delays — the kind that draw things out for no reason other than the system it operates in is inefficient, demotivating, disorganized, too large for the scale of action, under-resourced, incompetent or some combination of them all. I’ve seen too much energy dissipated waiting for some metaphorical Godot to arrive. However, there is a difference waiting 8 weeks to get simple paperwork processed that probably takes 20 minutes of staff time and taking the time to do something thoughtfully and appropriately. In this post we look at the thinking behind this need for speed and scale.

And like many of the best intentions, these demands could be paving a road to places we don’t want to go.

Scaling social innovation

The social innovation literature suggests a near fetish for speed and scale (just do a search).

Writing on the McKinsey on Society blog, Steve Davis of PATH writes:

Unless a program can be replicated and sustained on a large scale, it will not be transformational. Identifying and scaling our best solutions has become the sector’s most important challenge. To meet that challenge, we can no longer evaluate programs simply based on how well they’ve performed in a given locality. Instead, we need to factor in their potential to achieve scale. We need to channel resources to the solutions that can produce the most good for the most people. As Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has pointed out, “Solutions to many of the world’s most difficult social problems don’t need to be invented, they need only to be found, funded, and scaled.” ***

Davis goes on to suggest that scaling can be achieved through four solutions: 1) technology innovation, 2) geopolitical shifts such as the movements in the BRIC nations, 3) cross-sector collaboration, and 4) knowledge sharing. Davis’ argument suggests that if we just shared what we knew, collaborated, used technology and connected to BRIC we’d better achieve the vision of scaling social innovation. Given the age of networked and social media, crowdsourced knowledge and funding platforms and global travel and markets it seems this strategy is already in place. It also supposes a global cultural hegemony that first assumes BRIC is a unified culture and secondly that it’s in sync with the rest of the world. These are widely false.

It may also be worth considering the phrase often attributed to Peter Drucker:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

Designing for scale

In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jenna Cullinane speaks to need to design innovations to work at scale from the beginning, rather than taking something small and building up. Looking at education, Cullinane writes:

Unfortunately, our pursuit of scale rarely has a clear road map—more often, it feels like a search for gold at the end of the rainbow. Scholar Archibald Cochrane wryly observed that scaling innovations was like working in a crematorium: So much goes in, and so very little comes out.

Scaling up a promising innovation is difficult under any circumstances. In higher education, it is especially challenging because of decentralized decision-making, antiquated incentive systems, and increasingly unpredictable funding challenges.

Given these inherent complications, it’s arguable that the basic premise of “scaling up”—that one starts with small pilot projects, and then grows the numbers of colleges or individuals served—is untenable. An alternative might be to work at scale.

Drawing on her work with New Mathways Project, a developmental mathematics education project based in Texas, Cullinane suggests three ‘big ideas’ for scaling social innovations:

  1. Design the innovation for scale. Drawing on examples from Thomas Edison and the invention of the modern electric light bulb, an example is provided for how the light bulb was designed explicitly to be used as widely as possible from its beginning, which is what helped it to be adopted so quickly.
  2. Design the initiative for scale. By engaging the intended scaled-up users and partners in the project at the pilot stage, the potential adoption and likelihood of designing the scale right is increased.
  3. Seek permission to scale. Those at all levels of the system need to see the innovation as advantageous and desirable from the beginning and consent at the start of the process rather than imposing top-down approaches.

Another approach is that favoured by Frances Westley, who argues that often social innovations need to scale out before scaling up. Writing with Nino Antadze (PDF), they look at the pathways for scaling that have shown promise. While they acknowledge the promise of scale, the complexity inherent in much of the environments in which social innovations seek to operate or influence requires a scaling process that is much less simplistic than first appears:

Action and impact in complex processes are not governed by straightforward cause-and effect relationships. A good idea, the resources to develop it, leadership capacity, and drive – all  must be combined with opportunity, which can be recognized and seized but not directly  controlled (Westley et al., 2006). Moreover, as the innovation changes and evolves through its  development, other kinds of opportunity become necessary (Bacon et al., 2008). Durability,  scale, and impact depend not only on the degree of engagement with the broader social context but upon engagement of a different kind. – Westley & Antadze -The Innovation Journal (italics in original)

What might that engagement look like and is that the same as scaling up?

Speeding into myth

I recently wrote about similar dominant ideologies in the area of design and how the dominant discourse is on rapid prototyping and how speed is not always linked to better products. What is important is taking the necessary time — whatever that time is — to make the appropriate decisions about the benefits and consequences associated with any designed product. Failure to do so could yield unintended consequences that are harmful.

Like with scale, the idea of speed is not inherently bad if well-considered. Who would not want to share the benefits of something effective with as many as possible as quickly as we can? However, the ethics of scaling social interventions depends on our ability to assess the potential impacts of our design prior to scaling. The three point approach suggested by Jenna Cullinane is one way to go about scaling up, however it seems that approach is impractical for exceptionally large, complex environments — those that Steve Davis writes about and perhaps even the kind of settings Frances Westley set her paper against.

But behind the discussion of scale is a set of assumptions that challenges us to ask a bigger question about why we push to scale so much in the first place and why it spoken about as a necessary feature of a successful social innovation. Consultant and social innovation scholar Peter Block, speaking to a webinar audience in March on stewardship, went so far as to say:

“Taking innovations to scale as being necessary is part of a patriarchal, over-rated myth” – Peter Block

Patriarchy and scale: Questioning our ambition

Small is not sexy. It is hard to market. It is nearly impossible to become a big name, make lots of money, get invited to be a keynote speaker, and sell books when you operate at a local level. These outward, extroverted qualities are often associated with patriarchal values. The sheer flippancy of the way the question posed at the start of this post is asked at gatherings of social innovators illustrates how poorly considered it is and how embedded patriarchal values are within the social innovation sector (like many others).

Just as we ask “can it scale?” could we ask of a social innovation, we could equally contemplate the question: “how can we make the impact deeper?”

Or “how can the impact linger, longer?”

Or “what is needed to nurture this innovation so that it meets the needs of all its intended to influence in its current design, equitably?”

Or “why might this intervention be inappropriate to take beyond its current context?”

These questions are not sexy, but are as valid as scale. Perhaps we need to consider why we go so quickly to scale and speed when we critically assess a social innovation. Instead of it being a ‘pat’ or standard question, why might we not ask any or all of these of everything we do?

The naivete behind the notion that we can quickly import innovations from contexts like North America (specifically, Canada and the United States) or parts of Europe and transplant them easily into Africa, India or China is striking. Too little do we imagine the opposite happening, even though there is some promise in certain innovations transporting from developing economies back to fully developed ones. Our desire for global impact is vastly out of sync with our knowledge of global influences and what actually causes change, what the outcomes are, and how they manifest over time.

A simple look at the Arab Spring movement and what it has (and hasn’t) achieved and what it hasn’t suggests there are few easy social / innovation imports that globally work at scale.

Canadian singer-songwriter Matthew Good‘s song 21st Century Living captures this quest for bigger, better ambition  by asking about the costs of ambition****. Is bigger, better?

Some further questions to consider are:

  • What does it really mean to scale?
  • What is the appropriate speed at which a scaled intervention should develop?
  • Do you know the system dynamics of the culture and economy of both settings you wish to scale in before you start building up?
  • Do you have permission?
  • Is the quest to scale driven by the genuine needs and interests of others or yours?
  • How can we recognize and celebrate social innovations that scale small and large with equal verve?
  • Can a program be transformational (as Steve Davis asks for) at a small scale?

Lastly: are we building temples to ourselves or the gods or to those we claim to serve (and is one leading us to ruins?)

Are we building temples to Gods or ruins for people?

Are we building temples to Gods or ruins for people?

* I wish this was some joke, but I can’t think of the last time I was at a presentation on a social innovation topic or program where this wasn’t asked or part of the presentation itself.

** – seriously. You want to see me go off on a rant, just talk to me about the way our health and education systems transform mundane, simple procedures into an epic, confused, incomplete and inspiration-suppressing mess by burying well-intentioned, energetic people in senseless and unnecessary paperwork.

*** – See more at: http://voices.mckinseyonsociety.com/social-innovation-a-matter-of-scale/#sthash.3t8kiII3.dpuf

**** – For a unique experience of this song play it (from the album Avalanche) while watching this found footage video art piece which was set to it.

complexitydesign thinkingevaluation

The PR Problem for Design, Evaluation,and Complexity

I (heart) PR

Complex concepts like evaluation, design and even complexity itself provide insight, strategies and applications that provide usable solutions to real-world problems, but also suffer from widespread misunderstandings, confusion and even derision. If they are to take hold beyond their initial communities of interest, they need to address their PR problem head on. 

This past week was Design Week in Toronto. As one works extensively with design concepts and even has a health promotion-focused design studio, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking that this would be a big week for someone like me who lives and works in the city.  Well, it came and went and I didn’t attend a single thing. The reason was partly due to timing and my schedule, but largely because the focus of the week was not really on design writ large, but rather interior design. Sure, there were a few events that focused on social issues (what I am interested in) like the Design With Dialogue session on Designing a Future for our Future, but mostly it was focused on one area of a large field.

And thus, interior design was left to represent all of design.

So why does this matter? It matters a lot because when people hear the term design, most of what was presented this week fits with that perception. The problem is that design is so much more than that. It is about making things, creative thinking and problem tackling (design thinking), social innovation, and responsive planning for complex situations. Architects, business leaders, military strategists, social service agencies and health promoters all engage in design. Indeed, Herbert Simon‘s oft-quoted and often contested definition fits nicely here:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones

If one accepts that we are all designers and all of what we create and use for change is design, than a week devoted to the topic should offer much more than innovative concepts in furniture or flooring. Yet, this high-concept style showcase is what most people think about when they first hear design. Give people a choice between a Philippe Stark Juicy Salif citrus juicer and creating a trades-based, social change curriculum for low-income kids such as the work by Emily Pilloton as the example of design and they will probably guess think Stark over Pilloton, when both are equally valid examples.

Evaluation (another area I focus my work on) is equally fraught with perception problems. If you want to raise someone’s blood pressure or heart rate, tell them that either they or their work will be the focus of an evaluation. Evaluation may be the longest four-letter word in the English language. Yet, tell someone that you have a strategy that can enable people to learn about what they do, its impact, and provide intelligence on ways to improve, adapt and outperform their competitors and you’ll find an inspired audience for evaluation services.

Lastly, complexity presents the same challenge. It’s very name — complexity — can make people shy away from it. As humans, we crave the simple in most things as it is easier to understand, manage and control. Complexity offers none of these things and, if anything, reveals how little control we have. Entire fields of inquiry have been established around complexity science and its related theories and practices. Complexity can help us make sense of why things don’t work as we think they ought to and allow us to better navigate through unpredictable terrain with greater resilience than if we tried to tackle such problems as if they were linear in their cause and consequence.

In all of these cases — design, evaluation and complexity — there exists a PR problem. The advantages that they pose are tremendous, yet these concepts are frequently misunderstood, dismissed, or inappropriately used . When this happens, it creates even greater distance between the potential benefits these concepts offer and their real-world application.

This distance is partly an artefact of poorly articulated definitions and examples, but also by design (no pun intended). There are those who relish having these concepts appear opaque to those outside of their social cluster. Thus, we have the ‘superstar designer’ who seeks to create products and personas that are built upon their rarity, rather than accessibility. There are evaluators who exploit the fear that people have of evaluation and lack the understanding of the methods and practices of evaluation (vs concepts like research or innovation consulting) to gain contracts and social influence within their field. Complexity, with its foundations in physics and systems biology, can appear to the layperson as otherworldly, making its practitioners and scientists seem all the more powerful and smart. These tactics benefit a small ‘elite'(?) number of professionals, while robbing a far larger audience of the potential benefits.

In 1969, then president of the American Psychological Association, George Miller, implored members to “give psychology away“. His message was that psychology was too important to be left just to the professional, graduate-trained practitioners to use. If psychology was to confer social benefits, it was necessary to ensure that everyone had access to it — it’s theories, methods, models and treatments. It is perhaps no surprise that psychology remains one of the most popular undergraduate degree programs in the arts and social sciences and the focus of television shows, magazines and and an array of services. Miller was commenting on the need to change a field that he perceived was becoming elitist and not serving the needs of society.

The same might be true of design, evaluation and complexity if we let it. It’s not a surprise that these three concepts are intimately tied together, as those training to apply design thinking and strategic foresight learn. Perhaps its time to start giving these ideas away, but to do so we first need to rehab their image and apply some design thinking and brand development strategy to all three ideas. As practitioners in any or all of these fields, giving away what we do by educating, reinforcing, and ensuring that the work we do is of the highest quality is a way to lead by example. None of us is likely to change things by ourselves, but together we can do wonders.

For those interested in evaluation, I suggest catching up on the AEA365 blog sponsored by the American Evaluation Association, where evaluation bloggers and practitioners share ideas about how to practice evaluation, but also how to communicate it to others. For those interested in design, I would encourage you to look at places like the Design Thinkers LinkedIn group, where practitioners from around the world discuss innovations and way to promote and apply design thinking. A similar group, and opportunity, exists with the Systems Thinking LinkedIn group or by joining the Plexus Institute, which does considerable work to promote complexity and systems thinking in North America.

Photo: I (Heart) PR by The Silfwer used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr.

behaviour changedesign thinkinghealth promotionsystems thinking

Design for Social Norms or Social Change?

Social change or social norm?

Designing for how people live is part of good design practice, but what about designing for the way people could be? What does it mean to design for social norms and what role does design have in changing them?

Media scholar and youth researcher danah boyd recently wrote on the need for designers to consider social norms as part of their media creations. The post received a lot of attention in the mediasphere and came on the heels of another interesting post by Keith Sawyer on Chinese social norms and the Tiger Mom phenomenon (that I also wrote on a while back). Returning to boyd’s argument, she makes the case that designers don’t dictate the behaviour of people in the systems they create, the people tthemselves do:

Social norms aren’t designed into the system. They don’t emerge by telling people how they should behave. And they don’t necessarily follow market logic. Social norms emerge as people – dare we say “users” – work out how a technology makes sense and fits into their lives. Social norms take hold as people bring their own personal values and beliefs to a system and help frame how future users can understand the system. And just as “first impressions matter” for social interactions, I cannot underestimate the importance of early adopters. Early adopters configure the technology in critical ways and they play a central role in shaping the social norms that surround a particular system.

What boyd is arguing (using my words and concepts from complexity science) is that emergence and path dependency shape design’s manifestation in the social realm. In technology-oriented systems, the ‘early adopters’ are the ones who set the stage for how the next wave of users interact with the system and boyd points to examples from Friendster about how attempts to control its community helped drive people away from the site (ultimately leading to its demise).

People don’t like to be configured. They don’t like to be forcibly told how they should use a service. They don’t want to be told to behave like the designers intended them to be. Heavy-handed policies don’t make for good behavior; they make for pissed off users.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t design to encourage certain behaviors. Of course you should. The whole point of design is to help create an environment where people engage in the most fruitful and healthy way possible. But designing a system to encourage the growth of healthy social norms is fundamentally different than coming in and forcefully telling people how they must behave. No one likes being spanked, especially not a crowd of opinionated adults.

The focus here is more on social media and online spaces, but the argument could be made for the same thing in social design. But unlike information technology, which favours a very particular group of people, social design has the potential to intentionally engage specific populations. Using boyd’s argument, one might assert that much of the technology we use from Foursquare to Instagram to the iPhone itself is shaped by the under-40 set of educated, middle class, largely white male hipster knowledge workers as they are typically the earliest visible adopters for such technologies (even if that is changing) .

In this model those with the most power, privilege and social capital at the outset greatly determine what comes next. This might be OK for technology, but is highly problematic for social justice and social inequities. A health promoting social design has the potential to change this by seeding that early adoption cycle with different people with potentially different values to shape outcomes not defined by a narrow set of social groups.

Keith Sawyer’s article points to the social norming around Chinese parenting (as defined through Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom) and how it clashes with a particular type of parenting model that dominates in the United States and our ideas of creativity. In describing his reaction to a recent review of Chua’s book and its contents, Sawyer points to the unease it creates in him when comparing norms and what it means for creativity and innovation:

I ought to be lined up with all of the horrified American parents who hate this book. But I just can’t side with them on this one. Creativity is hard work, and you don’t get creativity without paying your dues. No one magically learns how to play piano or violin (I’m reminded of the old joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet.”) And as Amy Chua points out, there’s nothing like the joy that comes from being able to do something well, knowing that you earned it with hours, months, and years of hard work. As a child, I took piano lessons for eight years, and now thirty years later it’s a major source of joy in my life.

Chua’s parenting is an issue because it doesn’t fit with the dominant social norms, just as the self-esteem-at-all-cost approach that Sawyer rightly exposes as problematic in its own right would be in China.

These are designed systems. Just as we create path dependencies for one set of values, so too can we do the same for others and with other people. The focus on the outcomes of systems rather than their design is problematic if we want change. Starting with design and values at the outset, being conscious of who we invite in and how we engage them and by remaining contemplative about how these systems unfold and the emergent patterns that shape them, designers of all stripes may be better positioned to create social change rather than just for social norms.