Tag: social systems

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.

behaviour changeeducation & learninghealth promotioninnovationpublic health

How Serious Are We About Learning?

How Serious Are We About Learning?

When journalist and book author Daniel Pink tweeted the above image the other day it provoked thinking about what real learning means and what it takes to achieve it. We produce enormous amounts of knowledge, yet struggle to put it into use, but we also teach much and learn little because the systems we’ve designed for education and experience don’t match our expressed interest and rhetoric around learning. 

In my graduate course on behaviour change I would ask students on the first day why they were taking the class in the first place. Aside from the few students for whom the course was required everyone else was doing it by choice because there were many others to choose from. So why would they choose this one?

The answers would vary, but inevitably I’d hear over and again that students love learning and wanted to understand more about behaviour change, because they were interested in change and some would even say they were good at it and wanted to help others do it.

These are all well-meaning and said in a spirit that I think was honest and true. Except the reality is that it is likely a big, huge lie and one that we all share in its telling.

I would counter with two things:

  1. Loving the idea of learning something new is different than actually seeking out learning opportunities and that most of us love the former, but are not so enthused about the latter;
  2. The only people who regularly welcome change are babies with soiled diapers.

To illustrate the first point I simply ask people to consider the last conference they went to where there were options on what sessions to attend. How many of the sessions did they attend that featured content that confirmed or gently extended what they already knew versus content that was new? If you’re a health promoter doing community engagement work, sessions on Bayesian modelling for epidemics might offer far more learning than a session on working with diversity in communities (particularly if that is what you already do). Even more, how often do people go to sessions from people they know or have already seen speak? Chances are, many.

One could argue that there are subtleties that a conference presentation might offer on a familiar topic that are worth attending and while I would say that has merit, most learning that has impact is uncomfortable at some level. It extends our thinking, challenges our beliefs, or re-arranges our worldview — in ways small and large.

Wanting knowledge and living learning

Many people will say “I love change”, but that is usually in the context that everyone else is changing, not them. When I was the boss and said “things must change” it was very different than when my staff or my boss would say “things must change“. As a behaviour change educator and intervener, I need to be mindful of my own ironies and resistance to change. So should we all.

The same thing goes for knowledge. Academics are famous for ending studies with “more research is needed”. We never seem to have enough knowledge. There are two problems with this idea.

The first is that, in dynamic and evolving environments, we will never have  perfect knowledge that fits like a glove, because the contexts are always novel. This isn’t to say that evidence isn’t useful, but ‘good enough’ knowledge might be a more reasonable demand than ‘best evidence’ in many of the situations where complexity is high and so is change. That’s why data gathering techniques like developmental evaluation aren’t attractive to those who need certainty.

But there is another problem with the knowledge quest and that is one of integration. In our efforts to seek more knowledge, are we integrating what we are learning from what we already have? Are we savouring the data we collect, the articles we read, the Tweets and blogs that get forwarded are way?

We quest for more, but should we quest for better?

A newly published paper synthesized research on event horizons on memory and found that shifts in activities around an event — boundaries — can prompt forgetting and recall. We remember transitions between activities, but they also prompt forgetting depending on the mindfulness associated with the act. When we are deluging ourselves with more data, more media, more everything, we are increasing the potential remember rate, but due to the volume of content, I would surmise that we are increasing the forget rate much more. Simply reflect on your high school or undergraduate education and ask yourself if you remember more than you forgot about what you learned.

We are so busy with our search for new knowledge that we interrupt opportunities to learn from what we have.

Serious learning means non-doing

Returning to the tweet from Dan Pink, it’s worthwhile considering what it means to learn and the systems we have in place to facilitate learning. The tweet links to a discussion of how German companies give their employees five days of off-site continuing education each year. This concept of Bildungsurlaub is a leave designed to allow employees to stretch their thinking and integrate something new. Not only is off-site learning important, but the time associated with integrating material is critical.

A read of the literature on innovation and research shows consistently how time off, quiet time, slow time and down time all contribute to discovery. Robert Scott Root-Bernstein’s brilliant Discovering, Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, or Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From are all books that dive deep into creative production and show that great discoveries and innovations come from having time (with limits) to integrate material to learn. Freedom to create, explore and sit and mindfully reflect are all united concepts in the pursuit of good learning. Not everything requires this, but big concepts and bold ideas do from mathematics to science to social science and philosophy.

Yet, at an organizational and systems level, where is the support for this? Even university faculty (the tenured ones at least) who have generous vacations and sabbaticals are finding themselves crunched for time between the fight for one of the ever-fewer grants, increasing numbers of students and teaching demands, and the added push to ensure knowledge is translated. The image of faculty sitting and reading and thinking is truly an imagination. Most of my colleagues in academia do little of this, because they are out of time.

In the corporate and non-profit world this is worse. Every hour and day is to be accounted for. The idea of sending people off to learn and to think seems anathema to productivity, yet research shows incredible powers associated with taking a break and doing less and not more.

Getting serious about learning

To illustrate the scope of the problem, the University of Toronto holds one of the finest academic library systems in the world and has over 11.5 million books and 5.7 million microform materials. It is one university (of many) in one city. Add in the local Toronto public library system, the network of universities and other libraries it is connected to, local and global bookstores and all the content freely available online that is not part of this system and I challenge anyone working in social innovation or public health to say with conviction that there is a lack of knowledge out there on any important topic. Yes, we don’t know it all, but we don’t do nearly enough with what we do know because there is so much.

We will not read it all nor can we hope to synthesize it all, but we can do much with what we have. Just looking at my own personal library of physical books (not including all I have in the digital realm between books and papers) it’s easy to see that I have more than enough knowledge to tackle most of what I am facing in my work. Most of us do. But do we have the wisdom to use it? Do we have the systems — organizations and personal — that allow us to take the time and soak this in, share our ideas with others, and be mindful of the world around us enough to learn, not just consume?

When we spend as much time creating those spaces, places and systems, then we can answer “yes” to the question of whether we’re serious about learning.

Enough knowledge here?

complexityeducation & learningevaluationsocial systems

Complexity and Child-Rearing: Why Amy Chua is Neither Right or Wrong


Science strives for precision and finding the right or at least the best answers to questions. The science of complexity means shifting our thinking from right answers to appropriate ones and what is best to good. The recent debate over parenting (particularly among Chinese families) illustrates how framing the issue and the outcomes makes a big difference.

Amy Chuais probably the most reviled mother in America” according to Margaret Wente writing in the Globe and Mail.  In her column, Wente is looking at the phenomenon that Chua writes about in her new book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. What has drawn such attention to Chua and her book is that she advocates for a very strict method of parenting in a manner that achieves very specific objectives with her children. The payoff? Her children are very successful. This is not a new argument, particularly when it comes to Chinese and other Asian cultural stereotypes. But like many stereotypes, they emerge from something that has a kernel of truth that gets used in ways that gets applied as a universal, rather than in context. Judging by the comments on the original Wall Street Journal story that attracted attention and the Globe and Mail’s review page, I would say that there is some truth to this stereotype and some wild overstatements as this gets applied universally to parenting.

A summary of the comments and commentary on this, crudely, fall into two camps (which, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later is ironic given how problematic the whole idea of reducing arguments into twos is, but go with me on this): 1) Amy Chua is recalling my childhood or parenting reality and its nice to hear someone acknowledge it and 2) Amy Chua is promoting harmful, inaccurate, racist stereotypes.

Child-raising is a common example of a complex system, showing how past experience is not necessarily a formula for future success. Thus, you can have the same parents, same household, even same genes (in the case of twins) and get two very different outcomes. Complex systems do not lend themselves to recipes or “best practices”. You can’t shoehorn complexity into “right” / “wrong” and either/or positions.

What is interesting about the discussion around Chua’s parenting style, which she claims reflects traditional Chinese behaviour (I am not Chinese so this is out of my realm for comment) is that the focus is on raising successful children, not necessarily happy, well-adjusted, self-determined or even creative children. And success, in the terms referred to means achieving or exceeding certain prescriptive standards for socially acceptable activities. This might mean acceptance at a prestigious school, an error-free performance, or a straight A report card. It is a rather narrowly proscribed form of achievement based upon a particular set of cultural conditions and assumptions.

One of the problems I see in this debate is that people are conflating the two types of outcomes, which is where the complexity comes in. What Chua has done is actually refer to parenting in line with a set of complicated activities and outputs, rather than part of a complex system. She has sought to reduce the complexity in the system of parenting by focusing on issues of tangible measurement and has created a familial system aimed at reducing the likelihood that these objectives will not be met. Her benchmark for success are visible outcomes, not the kind that come from growing one’s self-esteem, building true friendships, or learning to love. This isn’t to say that her children or those raised by “tiger parents” don’t have such experiences, but this isn’t what her method of parenting is focused on. And therein lies the rub and why much of the debate surrounding Chua’s book is misaligned.

If you are assessing the life of a person and their total experience as a human being, Chua’s method of parenting is quite problematic. Success in this situation has many different paths and may not even have a clear outcome. What does it really mean to be successful if love, happiness, and self-fulfilment is the outcome of interest – particularly when all of those things change and evolve over a week, a month or a lifetime? It is the kind of task that one might use developmental evaluation to assess if you were looking to determine what kind of impact a particular form of parenting has on children’s lives. Margaret Wente’s article uses some examples of “tiger parenting” outcomes with those who achieved much “success” using the benchmarks of externally validated standards and found mixed outcomes when “success” was viewed as part of a whole person. Andre Agassi grew to loathe tennis because of his experience, while Lang Lang appears to love his piano playing. Both have achieved success in some ways, but not all.

These two examples also go to show that with human systems, there is little ability to truly control the outcomes and process. Even if one can reduce outcomes to complicated or simplistic terms, those outcomes are still influenced by complex interactions. Complicated systems can be embedded within complex ones or the opposite. So no matter what kind of prescription a person uses, no matter how tight the controls are put, the influence of complexity has a way of finding itself into human affairs.

So is Amy Chua’s method of parenting successful or not, supportive or harmful, right or wrong? The answer is yes.

education & learningpsychologysocial mediasocial systems

Social Insularity and the Not-So-Wide World Web

iPhone 4 by Yutaka Tsutano (Used under Creative Commons License)

When we type ‘www’ as part of a URL, we refer to the World Wide Web, this vast expansive network of data and information that provides a universe of information possibilities and the ability to learn about almost anything from nearly any point of view.

But we don’t.

Indeed, we might just focus on some very narrow things and actually make our world, psycho-socially at least, a little smaller. Although I don’t think Marshall McLuhan had this in mind when he referred to this web as a global village.

Take today’s announcement by Apple on the state of the iPhone 4 in addressing ‘antennaegate‘. At issue is an under-performing cellphone transmission antennae in the iPhone that has caused a huge stir in the tech media world – which, if you read enough of it, assumes is important to the world at large.

One might think that this antennae problem is significant enough to derail a company like Apple and that people, outraged at what the tech pundits and media types have exposed, would abandon the newest iPhone in favour of something else. As mentioned elsewhere, the numbers, as reported in Fast Company, tell a different story:

During the presentation Apple wasn’t afraid to air some dirty laundry: Including the return rate for its premier device, the iPhone. The 3GS had a return rate of 6%, and so far the iPhone 4’s is running at 1.7%. Jobs thinks this illustrates that the end user is pretty satisfied with the phone, and that there’s no real problem with the antenna in day to day use. Ignoring the spin on this point, the fact Apple was prepared to share this internal business data at all is very unusual–and those figures will become used and referenced as new industry standards. Also unusual: Normally super-calm Steve Jobs swore on stage when answering a question about the now famous, and discredited, Bloomberg report that alleged an Apple engineer gave Jobs an early warning about the antenna. Apple is serious about defending its iPhone 4, folks.

Apple also shared one more statistic: Three million iPhone 4s have been sold in three weeks. That’s an amazing, sustained, million units a week folks. And if you think that’s just the early blush of success and excitement, then you need to remember that at the end of July 17 additional nations will start selling the iPhone 4. Which means that sales rate is going to soar past two million per week, and then stay there for a long time yet. No matter that Apple loves its customers … this is proof its customers love it right back, and aren’t worried about the antenna

Judging by the media firestorm, which included tech blogs to mainstream publications like The Economist, this is a significant issue. But to consumers, it isn’t…at least not enough to stop making the iPhone 4 the fastest selling device ever. Here, we have a very vocal, connected and articulate group of passionate media advocates in the tech world making a small issue and gigantic one. While such mis-steps are rare for Apple, it is probably fair to say that the iPhone issue was minor in real terms to the average person. The problem here, is that this highly connected group of writers seems connected to itself, and not the wider public who, by their actions, are far less concerned about this issue of the antennae.

This insularity is not just a media issue, it might be an Internet issue as a whole. In a recently published TED talk from Oxford, journalist and internet commentator Ethan Zuckerman, pointed to data that showed that people are pretty much keeping to themselves online, within some varied social boundaries. More importantly perhaps, this insularity is distorting our perception of the world we inhabit, making us think the world thinks and acts a lot like us. But as Zuckerman states:

The world is much wider than we generally perceive it to be

In the text and slideshow of his talk, Zuckerman points to the fact that Brazil has one of the highest rates of Twitter usage in the world, something of a surprise to most of us non-Brazilians. He adds:

About 170 million people visit Twitter each month, and 19m (11.2%) are Brazilian. More than one in ten Brazilian internet users visits Twitter each month, which is a higher proportion than in most nations – of the big internet using nations, the only one with a higher percent of people using the tool is Japan.There are millions of Japanese and Brazilian people on Twitter. If that seems surprising to you, it’s because most of your friends online aren’t Japanese or Brazilian. Twitter conducted a phone survey that revealed a quarter of their US users are African American… which was pretty surprising to most American users, who assumed that Twitter was just used by nerdy white guys.

What Zuckerman points out is that we’re not getting out as far as the Internet can take us because we’re choosing to socialize in places we find comfortable (my words, not his). We’re not venturing further from where we sit — physically, psycho-socially, politically or anywhere, really.

In another TED talk, psychological Jonathan Haidt spoke about the moral differences between conservatives and liberals, pointing to the same idea in politics about how much distance there is between those who might be Democrat vs. those who identify as Republican in the United States.

The social networking technologies we have right now offer the opportunities to see the world and communicate with its residents. But it is the everyday social and psychological tools that require deployment if we are to do anything more with these networks than we could have done without them. Is the Internet really creating a World Wide Web or is it more of a louder, more convenient clique at a high school party?

Perhaps Jaron Lanier is more right than we first thought.