Doing new things to create social value means going into the great unknown, yet our fear of being lost need not prevent us from innovating, wisely and sustainably. Instead of being lost alone, we can be lost together.
I’ve heard it all so many times before
It’s all a dream to me now
A dream to me now
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together
– Blue Rodeo (Lost Together)
Humans have real problems with uncertainty. Risk mitigation is an enormous field of work within business, government and politics and permeates decision making in our organizations. It’s partly this reason that our politicians too often speak so cryptically to the point of basically uttering nonsense – because they want to avoid the risk of saying something that will hurt them. The alternative perhaps is to spout so much untruth that it no longer matters what you say, because others will create messages about you.
Thankfully, we are still — and hopefully into the future — in a world where most of what organizations do is considered and evaluated with some care to the truth. ‘Truth’ or facts are much easier to deal with in those systems where we can generate the kind of evidence that enable us to make clear decisions based on replicable, verifiable and defensible research. Ordered systems where there is a cause-and-effect relationship that is (usually) clear, consistent and observable are those where we can design interventions to mitigate risk with confidence.
There are four approaches to risk mitigation.
- Risk Acceptance involves awareness of what risks are present within the system and establishing strategy and an organizational culture where the nature, type and potential consequences of risks are (largely) known, accepted and lived with.
- Risk Avoidance takes the opposite approach and seeks to steer operations away from activities where risk is limited.
- Risk Limitation seeks to curtail and mitigate the effects of risk where possible and often involves contingency planning and balancing activities with higher levels of uncertainty with areas of greater confidence and certainty.
- Risk Transference involves finding ways to offload risk to a third party. An example can be found in many partnerships between organizations of different sizes or types where one is able to absorb certain risks while others cannot for various reasons and the activities allow for one partner to take lead on an activity that isn’t feasible for another to do so.
Within social innovation — those activities involving public engagement, new thinking and social benefit — there are few opportunities for #2, plenty for #1 and #3 and a growing number for #4.
Risk is a core part of innovation. To innovate requires risking time, energy, focus and other resources toward the attempt at something new to produce a valued alternative to the status quo. For many human service organizations and funders, these resources are so thinly spread and small in abundance that the idea of considering risk seems like a risk itself. Yet, the real problem comes in assuming that one can choose whether or not to engage risk. Unless you’re operating in a closed system that has relatively few changing elements to it, you’re exposed to risk by virtue of being in the system. To draw on one of my favourite quotes from the author Guiseppe di Lampedusa:
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
So even keeping things away from risk involves risk because if the world around you is changing the system changes with it and so, too does your position in it. If this makes you feel lost, you’re not alone. Many organizations (individuals, too) are struggling with figuring out where they fit in the world. If you want evidence of this consider the growing calls for skilled knowledge workers at the same time we are seeing a crisis among those with a PhD — those with the most knowledge (of certain sorts) — in the job market.
Community of flashlights
There is a parable of the drunkard who loses his keys on his way home at night and searches for them under the streetlight not because that’s where he lost them, but because it’s easier to see that spurred something called the Streetlight Effect. It’s about the tendency to draw on what we know and what we have at our disposal to frame problems and seek to solve them, even if they are the wrong tools — a form of observation bias in psychology. Streetlights are anchored, stable means of illuminating a street within a certain range – a risk zone, perhaps — but remain incomplete solutions.
Flashlights on the other hands have the same limitations (a beam of light), are less powerful, but are adaptive. You can port a flashlight or torch and aim it to where you want the light to shine. They are not as powerful as a streetlight in terms of luminosity, but are far more nimble. However, if you bring more than one flashlight together, all of a sudden the power of the light is extended. This is the principle behind many of the commercial LED systems that are in use. Small numbers of lights brought together, each using low energy, but collectively providing a powerful, adaptive lighting system
This same principle can apply to organizations seeking to make change. Like an LED flashlight, they need a housing to hold and focus the lights. This can be in the form of a backbone organization such as those advocated in collective impact strategies. It can also be a set of principles or simple rules that provide a set of guides for organizations operating independently to follow, which will stimulate a consistent pattern of activity when applied, allowing similar, focused action on the same target at a distance.
This latter approach differs from collective impact, which is a top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously and is a good means of focusing on larger, macro issues such as poverty reduction, climate change and city-building. It is an approach that holds potential for working within these larger issues on smaller, more dynamic ones such as neighbourhood building, conservation actions within a specific region, and workplace health promotion. In both cases the light analogy can hold and they need not be done exclusive of one another.
Let there be light
A flashlight initiative requires a lot of things coming together. It can be led by individuals making connections between others, brokering relationships and building community. It requires a vision that others can buy into and an understanding of the system (it’s level of complexity, structure and history). This understanding is what serves as the foundation for the determination of the ‘rules’ of the system, those touch points, attractors, leverage points and areas of push and pull that engage energy within a system (stay tuned to a future post for more detailed examples).
Much of the open-source movement is based on this model. This is about creating that housing for ideas to build and form freely, but with constraints. It’s a model that can work when collective impact is at a scale too large for an organization (or individual) to adequately envision contribution, but an alternative to going alone or relying only on the streetlight to find your way.
You might be lost, but with a flashlight you’ll be lost together and may just find your way.
Image credits: Author (Cameron Norman)
As cities and regions worldwide celebrate Pride the role of diversity, understanding and unity has been brought to mind just as it has contemplating the British public’s choice to leave the EU with Brexit. Both events offer lessons in dealing with complexity and why diversity isn’t about either/or, but more both and neither and that we might learn something not just from the English, but their gardens, too.
It’s a tad ironic that London has been celebrating its Pride festival this past week, a time when respect and celebration of diversity as well as unification of humanity was top-of-mind while the country voted to undo many of the policies that fostered political and economic union and could likely reduce cultural diversity with Europe. But these kind of ironies are not quirky, but real manifestations of what can happen when we reduce complexity into binaries.
This kind of simplistic, reductionist thinking approach can have enormously harmful and disrupting effects that ripple throughout a system as we are seeing with what’s happened so far in the United Kingdom, Europe and the world in the past week.
Complexity abhors dichotomies
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t
The above quote (which has many variations, including one attributed to author Tom Robbins that I like) makes light of the problem of lumping the complex mass of humanity into two simple categories. It abstracts variation to such a level that it becomes nearly meaningless. The Brexit vote is similar. Both are lessons in complexity lived in the world because they reflect a nuanced, mutli-faceted set of issues that are reduced into binary options that are clustered together.
It is no surprise that, in the days following the Brexit vote in the UK, that there is much talk of a divided, rather than a united kingdom.
Diversity is difficult to deal with and is often left unaddressed as a result. The benefits to having diversity expressed and channeled within a complex system are many and articulated in research and practice contexts across sectors and include protection from disruption, better quality information, a richer array of strategic options and, in social contexts, a more inclusive social community.
The risks are many, too, but different in their nature. Diversity can produce tension which can be used for creative purposes, liberation, insight as well as confusion and conflict, simultaneously. This as a lot do with humans uneasy relationship with change. For some, change is easier to deal with by avoiding it — which is what many in the Leave camp thought they could do by voting the way they did. The darker side of the Leave campaign featured change as an image of non-white immigrant/refugees flooding into Britain, presumably to stoke those uncomfortable with (or outwardly hostile) to others to fear the change that could come from staying in the European Union.
Staying the same requires change
The author Guiseppe de Lampedussa once wrote about the need to change even when desiring to keep things as they are, because even if we seek stability, everything around us is changing and thus the system (or systems) we are embedded in are in flux. That need to change to stay the same was something that many UK citizens voiced. What was to change and what was to stay the same was not something that could be captured by a “Leave” or “Remain” statement, yet that is what they were given.
It should come to no surprise that, when presented with a stark choice on a complex matter, that there would be deep dissatisfaction with the result no matter what happened. We are seeing the fallout from the vote in the myriad factions and splintering of both of the main political parties — Conservative and Labour — and a House of Commons that is now filled with rebellion. Is the UK better off? So far, no way.
This is not necessarily because of the Leave vote, but because of what has come from the entire process of mis-handling the campaigns and the lack of plan for moving forward (by both camps). Further complicating matters is that the very EU that Britain has voted to leave is now not the same place as it was when the Brexit vote was held just five days ago. It’s also faced with rising voices for reform and potential separation votes from other member states who saw their causes bolstered or hindered because of the UK referendum. This is complexity in action.
Tending the garden of complex systems
The English know more about complexity than they might realize. An English garden is an example of complexity in action and how it relates to the balance of order, disorder and unordered systems. A look at a typical English garden will find areas of managed beauty, wildness, and chaos all within metres of one another.
What also makes a garden work is that it requires the right balance of effort, adaptive action, planning and compensating as well as the ability to let go all at the same time. Gardening requires constant attention to the weather, seasons, the mix of diversity within the system, the boundaries of the system itself (lest weeds or other species seek to invade from outside the garden or plants migrate out to a neighbours place) and how one works with all of it in real time.
Social systems are the same way. They need to be paid attention to and acted upon strategically, in their own time and way. This is why annual strategic planning retreats can be so poorly received. We take an organization with all it’s complexity and decide that once per year we’ll sit down and reflect on things and plan for the future. Complexity-informed planning requires a level of organizational mindfulness that engages the planning process dynamically and may involve the kind of full-scale, organization-wide strategy sessions more frequently or with specific groups than is normally done. Rather than use what is really arbitrary timelines — seen in annual retreats, 5-year plans and so forth — the organization takes a developmental approach, like a gardener, and tends to the organizations’ strategic needs in rhythms that fit the ecosystem in which it finds itself.
This kind of work requires: 1) viewing yourself as part of a system, 2) engaging in regular, sustained planning efforts that have 3) alignment with a developmental evaluation process that continually monitors and engages data collection to support strategic decision-making as part of 4) a structured, regular process of sensemaking so that an organization can see what is happening and make sense of it in real-time, not retrospectively because one can only act in the present, not the future or past.
Just as a garden doesn’t reduce complexity by either being on or off, neither should our social or political systems. Until we start realizing this and acting on it — by design — at the senior strategic level of an organization, community or nation, we may see Brexit-like conditions fostered in places well beyond the white cliffs of Dover into governments and organizations globally.
Photo Credits: The London Eye Lit Up for Pride London by David Jones and Hidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor Garden by David Catchpole both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks to the Davids for sharing their work.
The quest for excellence within social programs relies on knowing what excellence means and how programs compare against others. Benchmarks can enable us to compare one program to another if we have quality comparators and an evaluation culture to generate them – something we currently lack.
A benchmark is something used by surveyors to provide a means of holding a levelling rod to determine some consistency in elevation measurement of a particular place that could be compared over time. A benchmark represents a fixed point for measurement to allow comparisons over time.
The term benchmark is often used in evaluation as a means of providing comparison between programs or practices, often taking one well-understood and high performing program as the ‘benchmark’ to which others are compared. Benchmarks in evaluation can be the standard to which other measures compare.
In a 2010 article for the World Bank (PDF), evaluators Azevedo, Newman and Pungilupp, articulate the value of benchmarking and provide examples for how it contributes to the understanding of both absolute and relative performance of development programs. Writing about the need for benchmarking, the authors conclude:
In most benchmarking exercises, it is useful to consider not only the nature of the changes in the indicator of interest but also the level. Focusing only on the relative performance in the change can cause the researcher to be overly optimistic. A district, state or country may be advancing comparatively rapidly, but it may have very far to go. Focusing only on the relative performance on the level can cause the researcher to be overly pessimistic, as it may not be sufficiently sensitive to pick up recent changes in efforts to improve.
Compared to what?
One of the challenges with benchmarking exercises is finding a comparator. This is easier for programs operating with relatively simple program systems and structures and less so for more complex ones. For example, in the service sector wait times are a common benchmark. In the province of Ontario in Canada, the government provides regularly updated wait times for Emergency Room visits via a website. In the case of healthcare, benchmarks are used in multiple ways. There is a target that is used as the benchmark, although, depending on the condition, this target might be on a combination of aspiration, evidence, as well as what the health system believes is reasonable, what the public demands (or expects) and what the hospital desires.
Part of the problem with benchmarks set in this manner is that they are easy to manipulate and thus raise the question of whether they are true benchmarks in the first place or just goals.
If I want to set a personal benchmark for good dietary behaviour of eating three meals a day, I might find myself performing exceptionally well as I’ve managed to do this nearly every day within the last three months. If the benchmark is consuming 2790 calories as is recommended for someone of my age, sex, activity levels, fitness goals and such that’s different. Add on that, within that range of calories, the aim is to have about 50% of those come from carbohydrates, 30% from fat and 20% from protein, and we a very different set of issues to consider when contemplating how performance relates to a standard.
One reason we can benchmark diet targets is that the data set we have to set that benchmark is enormous. Tools like MyFitnessPal and others operate to use benchmarks to provide personal data to its users to allow them to do fitness tracking using these exact benchmarks that are gleaned from having 10’s of thousands of users and hundreds of scientific articles and reports on diet and exercise from the past 50 years. From this it’s possible to generate reasonably appropriate recommendations for a specific age group and sex.
These benchmarks are also possible because we have internationally standardized the term calorie. We have further internationally recognized, but slightly less precise, measures for what it means to be a certain age and sex. Activity level gets a little more fuzzy, but we still have benchmarks for it. As the cluster of activities that define fitness and diet goals get clustered together we start to realize that it is a jumble of highly precise and somewhat loosely defined benchmarks.
The bigger challenge comes when we don’t have a scientifically validated standard or even a clear sense of what is being compared and that is what we have with social innovation.
Creating an evaluation culture within social innovation
Social innovation has a variety of definitions, however the common thread of these is that its about a social program aimed at address social problems using ideas, tools, policies and practices that differ from the status quo. Given the complexity of the environments that many social programs are operating, it’s safe to assume that social innovation** is happening all over the world because the contexts are so varied. The irony is that many in this sector are not learning from one another as much as they could, further complicating any initiative to build benchmarks for social programs.
Some groups like the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) are trying to change that. However, they and others like them, face an uphill battle. Part of the reason is that social innovation has not established a culture of evaluation within it. There remains little in the way of common language, frameworks, or spaces to share and distribute knowledge about programs — both in description and evaluation — in a manner that is transparent and accessible to others.
Competition for funding, the desire to paint programs in a positive light, lack of expertise, not enough resources available for dissemination and translation, absence of a dedicated space for sharing results, and distrust or isolation from academia among certain sectors are some reasons that might contribute to this. For example, the Stanford Social Innovation Review is among the few venues dedicated to scholarship in social innovation aimed at a wide audience. It’s also a venue focused largely on international development and what I might call ‘big’ social innovation: the kind of works that attract large philanthropic resources. There’s lot of other types of social innovation and they don’t all fit into the model that SSIR promotes.
From my experiences, many small organizations or initiatives struggle to fund evaluation efforts sufficiently, let alone the dissemination of the work once it’s finished. Without good quality evaluations and the means to share their results — whether or not they cast a program in positive light or not — it’s difficult to build a culture where the sector can learn from one another. Without a culture of evaluation, we also don’t get the volume of data and access to comparators — appropriate comparators, not just the only things we can find — to develop true, useful benchmarks.
Culture’s feast on strategy
Building on the adage attributed to Peter Drucker that culture eats strategy for breakfast (or lunch) it might be time that we use that feasting to generate some energy for change. If the strategy is to be more evidence based, to learn more about what is happening in the social sector, and to compare across programs to aid that learning there needs to be a culture shift.
This requires some acknowledgement that evaluation, a disciplined means of providing structured feedback and monitoring of programs, is not something adjunct to social innovation, but a key part of it. This is not just in the sense that evaluation provides some of the raw materials (data) to make informed choices that can shape strategy, but that it is as much a part of the raw material for social change as enthusiasm, creativity, focus, and dissatisfaction with the status quo on any particular condition.
We are seeing a culture of shared ownership and collective impact forming, now it’s time to take that further and shape a culture of evaluation that builds on this so we can truly start sharing, building capacity and developing the real benchmarks to show how well social innovation is performing. In doing so, we make social innovation more respectable, more transparent, more comparable and more impactful.
Only by knowing what we are doing and have done can we really sense just how far we can go.
** For this article, I’m using the term social innovation broadly, which might encompass many types of social service programs, government or policy initiatives, and social entrepreneurship ventures that might not always be considered social innovation.
About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and works at assisting organizations and networks in supporting learning and innovation in human services through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking. He is based in Toronto, Canada.
Systems thinking is a class of theories, models and methods for understanding human and non-human interactions as seen as wholes instead of parts. This focus on interconnections and relationships is precisely what makes it challenging for many when it comes to systemically considering what systems thinking is all about and the implications of this are many. This post provides an introduction to certain ideas in systems thinking and points to what makes it different than other non-systems thinking approaches to understanding something.
Perhaps the most popular aphorism about systems thinking is the statement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, something borrowed from Gestalt Psychology. That statement is intended to reflect system thinking’s principal focus on the system itself rather than on the actors and actions within it.
It’s a subtle difference, but a meaningful one. For example, psychology might look at why individuals make choices and act and what implications come from those actions. Systems thinking seeks to look at the combined interaction of these interactions as a unified whole.
Fundamental to this way of seeing things is the concept of boundaries. Boundaries are essentially where the differences that make a difference lie. In a closed system, everything that makes a difference is clearly contained and observed within a relatively solid set of boundary conditions. Mechanical systems often function this way, making them simple or complicated in that they have the potential to be understood clearly in terms of causal connections and relations. These systems are more amenable to things like “best practices” where we can reasonably expect similar outcomes from consistent actions.
This kind of systems thinking is not as useful when applied to human systems, because they are mostly characterized as open systems. Open systems are those where the boundaries require some form of negotiation and may actually be in flux.
A general shorthand rule for setting boundaries in this kind of environment is this:
If you find yourself lost over and again in trying to understand where the influences and relationships within the system are, then you’ve probably bound your system too loosely. If you are finding too many influences laying outside of your boundaries, you’ve probably bound it too tightly.
Perspective: Where you sit
Systems are all about where you sit in relation to them. For instance, let’s take the example of family and some of the boundary questions one might ask in understanding this social entity as a system.
- Firstly, who is family? You could define family as blood relationships. But is that immediate blood relations? For example, If parents and children count, then how do we consider grandparents who are the parents of the parents? Do they count as family when you bound the system? Do great grandparents? Should we use genes and, if so, what level of genetic similarity do we share? Are we all family?
- Can family be defined socially? For example, if people become family by marriage and that marriage breaks down, does it influence the family system as you define it? What if that marriage ends via someone passing away? What if they are not married at all, but common law?
- What about the roles that people play? Does an “Uncle” or “Aunt” who are close, intimate friends of the family, but not of blood ties still get included in the family? How about a trusted lifelong neighbour who has been a part of someone’s life the entire time, but was never genealogically connected to anyone?
- Can our neighbourhood be part of the family?
One can make a case for any of these conditions. In defining a system there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to do it, just perspectives that are more or less useful and more or less attentive to specific details.
The answers to the questions about boundaries also depend on what the purpose of the system is in the first place. Purpose is the means by which we determine the differences and how they make a difference. You can imagine that one could potentially answer “yes” to almost every one of the questions asked above depending on where someone sits in the system and what kind of purpose they see in that system.
Part of thinking systemically about systems is defining the purpose of the system and ascertaining a perspective. That means being strategic about what you wish your systems thinking to support. It is here that much of the use of systems thinking I’ve witnessed breaks down. Organizations seeking to employ systems thinking often jump in without doing the pre-work needed to ground their perspective into some sense of purpose and perspective. This requires a mindful, honest accounting of the perspectives being brought into the discussion and connecting those to the strategic intent of your enterprise.
Being mindful of what one values, what one seeks to accomplish, and what kind of activities your organization engages in (or wants to engage in), and where the reach of your organization extends is a key starting position to thinking more systemically about systems.
Who would have thought that failure would be held up as something to be desired just a few years ago? Yet, it is one thing to extol the virtues of failure in words, it is quite another to create systems that support failure in action and if the latter doesn’t follow the former, failure will truly live up to its name among the innovation trends of the 21st century.
Ten years ago if someone would have said that failure would be a hot term in 2014 I would have thought that person wasn’t in their right mind, but here we are seeing failure held up as an almost noble act with conferences, books and praise being heaped on those who fail. Failure is now the innovator’s not-so-secret tool for success. As I’ve written before, failure is being treated in a fetishistic manner as this new way to unlock creativity and innovation when what it might be is simply a means reducing people’s anxieties.
Saying it’s OK to fail and actually creating an environment where failure is accepted as a reasonable — maybe even expected — outcome is something altogether different. Take strategic planning. Ever see a strategic plan that includes failure in it? Have you ever seen an organization claim that it will do less of things, fail more often, and learn more through “not-achieving” rather than succeeding?? Probably not.
How often has a performance review for an individual or organization included learning (which is often related to failure) as a meaningful outcome? By this I refer to the kind of learning that comes from experience, from reflective practice, from the journey back and forth through confusion and clarity and from the experimentation of trying and both failing and succeeding. It’s been very rare that I’ve seen that in either corporate or non-profit spaces, at least in any codified form.
But as Peter Drucker once argued: what gets measured, get’s managed.
If we don’t measure failure, we don’t manage for it and nor do our teams include failure as part of their core sets of expectations, activities and outcomes and our plans or aspirations.
Failure, mindfulness and judgement
In 2010 post in Harvard Business Review, Larry Prusak commented on the phenomenon of measurement and noted that judgement — something that comes from experience that includes failure — is commonly missing from our assessments of performance of individuals and organizations alike. Judgement is made based on good information and knowledge, but also experience in using it in practice, reminding me of a quote a wise elder told me:
Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.
One of the persistent Gladwellian myths* out there is that of the 10,000 hours rule that suggests if we put that amount of time into something we’re likely to achieve a high level of expertise. This is true only if most of those 10,000 hours were mindful, deliberate ones devoted to the task at hand and involve learning from the successes, failures, processes and outcomes associated with those tasks. That last part about mindful, reflective attention or deliberate practice as the original research calls it (as so many Gladwellian myths suffer from) is left off of most discussions on the subject.
To learn from experience one has to pay attention to what one is doing, what one is thinking while doing it, and assessing the impact (evaluation) of that action once whatever is done is done. For organizations, this requires alignment between what people do and what they intend to do, requiring that mindful evaluation and monitoring be linked to strategy.
If we follow this lead where it takes us is placing failure near the centre of our strategy. How comfortable are you with doing that in your organization?
A failure of failure
Failure is among the most emotionally loaded words in the English language. While I often joke that the term evaluation is the longest four-letter word in the dictionary, failure is not far off. The problem with failure, as noted in an earlier post, is that we’ve been taught that failure is to be avoided and the opposite of success, which is viewed in positive terms.
Yet, there is another reason to question the utility of failure and that is also related to the term success. In the innovation space, what does success mean? This is not a trivial question because if one asks bold questions to seek novel solutions it is very likely that we don’t know what success actually looks like except in its most general sense.
A reading of case studies from Amazon to Apple and Acumen to Ashoka finds that their success looks different than the originators intended. Sometimes this success is far better and more powerful and sometimes its just different, but in all cases the path was littered with lessons and few failures. They succeeded because they learned, not because they failed.
Why? Because those involved in creating these ‘failures’ were paying attention, used the experience as feedback and integrated that into the next stage of development. With each stage comes more lessons and new challenges and thus, failure is only so if there is no learning and reflection. This is not something that can be wished for; it must be built into the organization.
So what to do?
- Build in the learning capacity for your organization by making learning a priority and creating the time, space and organizational support for getting feedback to support learning. Devoting a small chunk of time to every major meeting to reflecting back what you’re learning is a great way to start.
- Get the right feedback. Developmental evaluation is an approach that can aid organizations working in the innovation space to be mindful.
- Ask lots of questions of yourself, your stakeholders, what you do and the systems you’re in.
- Learn how to design for your particular program context based on feedback coming from the question asking and answering. Design is about experimenting without the expectation of immediate success.
- Develop safe-fail experiments that allow you to try novel approaches in a context that is of relatively low risk to the entire organization.
There are many ways to do this and systems that can support you in truly building the learning capacity of your organization to be better at innovating while changing the relationship you have with ‘failure’.
For more information about how to do this, CENSE Research + Design offers consultation and training to get organizations up to speed on designing for social innovation.
* Refers to ideas popularized by journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell that are based on the scientific research of professionals and distilled into accessible forms for mass market reading that become popular and well-known through further social discussion in forms that over-simplify and even distort the original scientific findings. It’s a social version of the “telephone game“. The 10,000 hour ‘rule’ was taken from original research by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues on deliberate practice and is often discussed in the context of professional (often medical) training, where the original research was focused. This distortion is not something Gladwell intends, rather becomes an artifact of having ideas told over and again between people who may have never seen the original work or even Gladwell’s, but take ideas that become rooted in popular culture. A look at citations on failure and innovation finds that the term deliberate practice is rarely, if ever, used in the discussion of the “10,000 rule”.
Beautiful answers require beautiful (and better) questions and Warren Berger’s new book looks at this very phenomenon of inquiry and asks: What does it mean to ask better questions and what does that mean for the answers we seek and receive?
Warren Berger recently published A More Beautiful Question, a book looking at something we take for granted and yet is the foundational building block for all great designs and innovations: the question.
Perhaps more specifically, Berger is looking at hundreds of questions as he delves into the process of questioning, the kind of questions that lead to provocative and insightful answers, and the habits of good questioning that make for sustained innovation over time. Berger is well suited to this inquiry having penned the book Glimmer, which profiled designer Bruce Mau and explored the concept of design thinking in great detail.
Asking good questions is perhaps the (often unstated, missed and neglected) foundation of what design thinking is all about and seeing that design is the foundation of innovation it therefore means that questioning is at that foundation, too. This is important stuff.
Finding the right problem by asking better questions
A look at any bookstore, blog roll, or journal dealing with the topic of innovation and you’ll inevitably find the word “creativity” used a lot. Creativity — the act and process of creating things — is highly correlated with the questions that spur the creation in the first place. Education professor J.W. Getzels did some of the earliest research on creativity and questioning (which is interestly absent from Berger’s book) and found that those who took more time to find the best problem to solve – and thus, asked better and deeper questions of their world and subject matter — came up with more creative ideas than those who dove quickly into solving the problem as they initially saw it.
The simple take-away is:
At the root of an answer is a question – J.W. Getzels
The better the question, the better the answer.
In complexity terms, the questions asked often create the path dependencies that entrench practices that come after it. So by asking better or ‘more beautiful’ questions and giving that attention we are not only doing ourselves a service, but are acting more ethical as well. This ethical foundation is what underlies mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat Zinn has written extensively on the importance of grounding oneself to ask better questions of the world, something that I’ve done through CENSE Research + Design in developing a mindful organization model.
In his 2004 presidential address to the Canadian Psychological Association Pat O’Neill looked at how sub-fields like community psychology changed the nature of how many “problems” in psychology were framed at the outset. Issues like poverty, drug addiction and unemployment were often (and still are in many domains) framed as personal, moral failings or just bad choices. By asking different questions of these problems, community psychologists were able to see how social policies, neighbourhood structures, social networks, and historical social exclusion — all systems issues — factor in to frame and constrain individual’s choices and risk behaviours. Suddenly, what had been framed as a personal problem, became a shared one that we all had at least some stake in.
It is this thinking that has led to greater awareness of how social change is inextricably linked to systems change and why we need to understand systems at the individual, organizational, community and societal level if we wish to address many of our social problems. Asking systems questions is asking different, sometimes more beautiful questions that get at the root of problems and inspire social innovation.
Finding the beautiful question
In his book, Berger finds that those best equipped to solve or at least address these big wicked questions in business, philanthropy and social innovation are those that ask ‘beautiful questions’ and do it often. Berger cites studies that have shown a clear relationship between success in leadership and a propensity to ask good questions. Asking good questions however takes time and the willingness to take time to question, think and question some more is another stand-out feature of these successful leaders.
It is why good questioning is also a leadership issue. Effective leaders often take the time needed to fully process the most important decisions to form what Gary Hamel and C.K. Pralahad refer to as strategic intent. Psychologist Daniel Goleman recently summarized the research linking mindfulness to focus and leadership, showing how leaders are able to better focus on what they do by being mindful. This mindful attention clears away much of the cognitive clutter to enable better question finding and asking.
Berger shows that finding the question requires some persistence. Good questioners are able to live with not having an answer or even the right question for a while. They have great patience. That ability to stand back and think, see, reflect and think some more while prototyping questions is what separates those who ask the better questions from those who don’t.
Creative collisions also helps. By mixing up ideas and connections with others, good questioners give themselves the raw material to work with. However, many of the best questioners that Berger spoke to also advocated for the need for some solitude and time to process these ideas and questions on their own. This mix of collaboration, collision, and independence is a key factor in developing the beautiful idea.
Designing better question-making
What jumped out at me in this book was how little support most organizations offer themselves for asking better, beautiful questions. Berger noted that the need for ‘serial mastery’ and constant learning is a staple of the new work environment, which should lend itself to question asking. However, if organizations are unwilling or unable to provide time for reflection, training, knowledge integration and ongoing discovery through better questions how likely is it that the workforce is going to respond to this need for new skills?
Are organizations willing to invest in a culture of inquiry? Are organizations able to make the leap from knowing things to asking things? How many public sector, non-profit, social and health service organizations (let alone industry groups) would be willing to follow companies like Google who create space — literally and figuratively — for questioning? These are some of the questions I asked myself as I read Berger’s book.
These are design questions. Berger notes how Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were both Montessori school graduates. The Montessori system of education is based on question asking and Google is run as an organization largely framed around questions (and queries as noted by the very notion of “googling” something). Google has been designed to support better questions in its literal architecture of its software, its hardware, its office space, and the ‘20 per cent time‘ they offer employees to explore questions they have and projects that are of personal importance to them.
True to the idea of questions being worthy of paying attention to, Warren Berger’s book is filled with them including some answers. I liked the book and believe that he has tapped into something very big. Whether or not organizations and leaders will be inspired to ask better questions from this or simply try to find better answers in the processes they have is perhaps the big question next.
On a related note, March 14th has been dubbed Question Day by Berger and his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, a non-profit organization that provides support for teachers and students to ask better questions in school as a foundation for a lifetime of learning.
Berger, W. (2009). Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada.
Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Chand, I., & Runco, M. A. (1993). Problem finding skills as components in the creative process. Personality and Individual Differences, 14(1), 155–162.
Getzels, J. W. (1979). Problem Finding: a Theoretical Note. Cognitive Science, 3(2), 167–172. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0302_4
Getzels, J. W. (1980). Problem Finding and Human Thought. The Educational Forum, 44(2), 243–244.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.
O’Neill, P. (2005). The ethics of problem definition. Canadian Psychology, 46(13-22).
Photo credit: Why? by Whitespeed via DeviantArt
Concepts like design thinking and developmental evaluation are best used when they help ask big questions before seeking answers. How we frame the problem is much more important than the solution we generate, but that way of thinking means going into an area that is much talked about and rarely delivered on: strategy.
Many companies and human service organizations are getting desperate for solutions to the vexing problems they face. However, it may be that the organizations are as stuck finding solutions because they are tackling the wrong problem.
Problem framing is among the most critical, yet often overlooked, steps in design and innovation and often leads to more solutions that fail than those that succeed. Asking better questions is a start and developing a strategy from that is where to go next.
The big idea is your problem, making it real is the strategy to solving it.
What is the big idea?
Herbert Simon wrote about problem forming, framing and solving as the central tenets of design. Albert Einstein, another Nobel laureate, was famously (mis?)quoted as saying this about the discovery process:
If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.
Like so many of these ‘famous’ quotes, its origins are murky and the (hypothesized) original is much less poetic, but the spirit of the phrase is that problem finding and forming is enormously important for innovation. Case studies from design missions, innovation labs, and my own personal experience suggest that this ratio of 55 and 5 in resourcing is probably not far off from the truth.
Problem forming is also tied to a greater sense of mission, which is where a lot of organizations get it wrong. A clear, appropriately scoped mission provides the boundaries for creativity to flourish and innovation efforts to focus. Steve Jobs charged Apple with the mission of developing tools to enable people to create. That may have started with computers, but it soon grew to software with features that were design-forward and attractive, and then mobile devices and the ecosystems that powered them. When viewed from the mission of enabling creativity, the move to being a music and bookseller isn’t a leap from Apple’s roots as a maker of desktop computers.
Where are you going?
Strategy is about saying what you don’t do as much as it is about saying what you do. It also means saying what you do clearly and meaning it. Both of these have enormous implications for what a program focuses on and what feedback systems they develop to help them innovate and guide their strategy moving forward.
A good, simple resource on strategy is Howell J. Maltham Jr‘s recent book I Have a Strategy, No You Don’t. In the book the author illustrates the many ways in which we claim strategy when really it’s a wish. Malthan asserts that a strategy has:
- A purpose
- A plan
- A sequence of actions or tactics
- A distinct, measurable goal
However, most importantly according to Maltham is that this all needs a narrative – the story of what you do and how you do it. Too often we see the absence of narrative or a lack of connection to any of the four components above. Apple has famously developed a strong narrative for how it operates and realizes it mission.
Maltham’s four-point description of strategy works when you are dealing with simple and maybe slightly complicated systems; those with some measure of predictability and control. It doesn’t work well for complexity, which is where many human services are either immersed or shifting to. For that, we need some form of adaptive strategy that provides guidance, but also works with, rather than against complexity. Yet, it still requires a narrative.
Strategy for complex times
Like the above cartoon from Tom Fishburne, the tactics should not precede the strategy. It’s interesting to see how often the term tactic and strategy get confused and conflated. It’s easy to see why. Tactics are tangible. They — like 90% of meetings, answering email and phone messages — offer the illusion of productivity and impact. Getting hundreds or thousands of likes, followers, and re-tweets is a proxy for impact for a lot of people.
But if you’re looking to make real change, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re doing stuff, but rather whether you’re moving stuff.
It’s why adaptive strategy is difficult, because it means moving your ideas, your thinking, your relationships and your operations to constantly re-calibrate your focus. Just like looking at birds through binoculars or watching a football game from the stands, you need to constantly adjust your focus to maintain engagement. The same thing happens with strategy.
At the same time, difficult shouldn’t be the reason not to do something.
This is the new thinking that is needed to innovate and that is why many organizations seek to do the wrong thing righter by doubling down on trendiness to appear innovative without thinking deeply about what the big idea is and how it is supposed to become real. Whether static or adaptive, the narrative will tie that together. So what is your organization’s story and do you know how to tell it?
Blackberry, once the ‘must have’ device is no longer so and may no longer even exist. Looking back on how the mighty device maker stumbled the failure is attributed to what was done and not done, but I would argue it is more about what was unseen and not thought. Ignorance of the past, present and future is what swarmed them and a lack of developmental design in their culture.
Today’s Globe and Mail features the above-pictured story about how and why Blackberry lost out to Apple’s iOS iPhone and Google’s Android powered phones due in large part to their focus on their stellar enterprise security system and failing to consider what would happen when competitors yielded ‘good enough’ models. It’s a tale years in telling and what may be the beginning of the end of the once globally dominant Canadian tech leader.
Those I’ve known who’ve worked for Blackberry describe a culture devoted to engineering excellence above all, which emphasized technical superiority and attention to the technology over the users of that technology. Perhaps if more of those engineers got out a more beyond their own circles they might have noticed a few things:
- Facebook, Twitter and social media sites that all seemed fun at first were quickly becoming more than just pastimes, they were being used as communications tools for everything from family and friends to work;
- Cameras were being used to capture photos and videos, share them and edit them (like Instagram and now Vine) for purposes beyond social, but also to take photos of PowerPoint presentations at events, brainstorming whiteboards and prototypes;
- The rich media experience provided through other devices meant that the keyboards were less important — typing faster and easier was being weighed against screen dimensions for videos, photos and interactive content;
- Workers were passionate enough about these new tools that they would bear the cost of their own phone to use these tools and carry two devices than just rely on a Blackberry if they were required to have one.
I saw this phenomena all over the place. Embedded in this pattern were some assumptions:
- Email was the most important form of productivity. (This might also include learning);
- Email was fun;
- Email got people communicating
Few people I know like email anymore. We tolerate it. Almost no one who is in the work world gets too few emails. Email is a useful and highly embedded form of communication; so much so as to nearly be a form of dominant design in our business communications.
What a little anthropological research on RIM’s part would have produced is some insights into how people communicate. Yes, email is the most pronounced electronic method of communication for business, but it doesn’t excite people like a video does or engage conversation like Twitter can or enable re-connection to close peers or family like LinkedIn and Facebook do. These are all platforms that were lesser served by the Blackberry model. What that means is that email is vulnerable to those things that attract people.
In complexity terms rich media is an attractor; it organizes patterns of activity around it that stimulate creativity in the system. This meant that a lot of positive energy was being directed into these new means of engagement over others and that when given the opportunity to choose and use a device that supported this engagement better people (and eventually the firms they worked for) began to opt for them over Blackberry.
Developmental design is a process of incorporating the tenets of design thinking with developmental evaluation, strategic foresight, business model innovation and contemplative inquiry. It means constantly evaluating, assessing, designing and re-designing your product offerings as things change and developing a constant attentive focus on where you are, where you came from and the weak and strong signals that indicate shifts in a culture.
This is a new way of doing innovation development, evaluation and strategy, but it is the necessary ingredient in a space where there is high levels of complexity, rapid churn in the system, and high demand for action. Increasingly, this is no longer just the domain of high tech, but banking, retail, healthcare, education and nearly every system that is operating in multi-jurisdictional environments. When we (the customer, patients, students…) were very much the same, we could treat our system simply. Now the ‘we’ is different and the systems are complex.
Developmental design is the praxis of innovation.
What would Steve Jobs do?
It is interesting to note that today is the day the bio-pic on Steve Jobs is released into theatres. Jobs knew developmental design even if he never named it as such. He famously ‘got out’ in his own, unique way. He went for walking meetings rather than sat in boardrooms. He watched what people did and channeled his own passion for creating things into a company culture that was designed to create things to help people create things. To that end, he was among the most outstanding innovators of the last 50 years.
Yet, Jobs and his team were good at paying attention to where things had gone (the computer), where they were (increasing bandwidth capability and demand with the Internet), and where they were going (decentralized production). Thus we had a number-crunching machine turned it into a suite for personal creativity (Mac), which spawned a music player (iPod) and online store (iTunes), which led to a multimedia communications handset (iPhone), which inspired a handheld tablet (iPad).
Apple is the most valued tech company in the world because of that vision, one that has been questioned in light of Jobs’ passing on and new leadership in place at the company.
Blackberry is not unique. The leaderboard in consumer mobile technology has changed from Motorola to Nokia to RIM (Blackberry) to Apple to Samsung (Android) in less than 15 years. That is enormous churn in a sector that touches over three quarters of the world’s population directly (more than toilets). While perhaps an extreme case, it is becoming a model to pay attention to for other industries on different scales.
Ask yourself: Are you Blackberry today or Apple yesterday?
If you apply developmental design to your work, you’ll have your answer.
I recently spoke at an interactive workshop presentation at the 2013 Ontario Public Health Convention (TOPHC) looking at social media use in public health and the strategies available for evaluating those strategies in practice. The talk was focused on the tools, methods and approaches and the inherent challenges in dealing with a dynamic social communication environment.
Here are the slides from that presentation.
Image: Shutterstock (used under licence)
Wicked problems are receiving a lot of attention these days giving much excitement to systems thinkers and designers alike. Yet what these problems mean for planning and understanding social programs and policies is not clear and may be even more wicked that it first appears.
I was excited to learn that Jon Kolko and his creative band of learners at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D) are coming out with a book on wicked problems. As one who studies and helps others to intervene in addressing such problems, this was like being a Star Trek fan learning that Leonard Nimoy was coming to speak at the Trekkie convention in my hometown. It is refreshing to see that the concept of the wicked problem is gaining traction beyond the small band of scholars and practitioners working at the intersection of complexity, systems and design thinking (which, admittedly is where many AC4D folk inhabit, but hopefully their audience will not).
But it’s not just one book. We are seeing transformations in education and science — with calls for a ‘new breed of scientist’ being created at places like Massey University in New Zealand — or spread through the news or business stories in various forms.
The concept of the wicked problem was originally posed by management science scholar and systems thinker C. West Churchman with planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. The Wikipedia entry on wicked problems provides some examples of what these things are:
Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior is likely to be a wicked problem. Therefore, many standard examples of wicked problems come from the areas of public planning and policy. These include global climate change, natural hazards, healthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug trafficking, homeland security, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy and waste.
In recent years, problems in many areas have been identified as exhibiting elements of wickedness – examples range from aspects of design decision making and knowledge management to business strategy.
As our social lives become more interconnected through the Internet, globalization, and mass migration, the complexity of the situations we find ourselves in grows. More of anything in diverse forms interacting together is likely to create complexity as new properties emerge and those properties change the trajectory of actions and reactions of the parts dynamically.
As one who is interested in wicked problems and works with people to address them, I should be thrilled to see the term used so widely. I am, but cautiously so. There is a risk that in the enthusiasm to embrace the lexicon of complexity that the meaning gets lost, which is what one gets from the hype cycle (See below).
The hype cycle is described as phenomonena initiated by a technology (or idea) and, once caught on, spikes the expectations beyond reason leading to discouragement, mass abandonment of the idea, and then — hopefully — a return to a level of reasonable return.
While the “cycle” (it is not a cycle) has limitations, the analogy here is well suited to fads of various types and the rapid ascension of the concept “wicked problem” in past years is indicative of a trend. Below are two representations of the amount of citations of the work “wicked problem” and “wicked problems” from Google’s Ngram service:
It appears that wicked problems (plural) are increasing and reference to a single problem is staying the same.
Regardless, an upward trend is evident. What it means is another matter…
If wicked problems are becoming talked about more often and by more people, it is appropriate to ask what kind of impact that this new thinking will have on not only the way the problems are posed, but how people seek to address them.
To that end, it is worth envisioning the future with caution. One of the reasons for this is that wicked problems are often not wholly wicked in their composition or the strategy required to address the problem — which ironically makes these types of problems even more wicked.
This has to do with the interconnected, multidimensional, and embedded nature of the problems themselves which contain within them many interconnected non-wicked problems. I’ve started to see difficulties with organizations developing strategy that fails to consider this. It is, as I’ve discussed before, an artefact of either-or thinking. Tackling the kind of wicked problems like poverty, chronic disease, and global finance require a meta-level strategy that recognizes, shapes and adapts to complexity, while accounting for micro-level issues that are indeed, very linear and simple.
Finding, training and retaining the right talent to work with diverse communities on problems that are poorly supported or funded from many sources is wicked. The human resource needs for payroll, supply management, and field support might be much less so. Yet, both are joined-up and require strategies that can extend beyond traditional management and strategy, but also embrace some of the very ‘best practices’ that seem at the outset to be antithetical to complexity.
Just as I shake my head in frustration at seeing complexity dealt with using amplified linear strategies that ‘do the wrong things righter‘, I have surprised myself by how much I’ve been twitching at hearing recent converts to systems thinking rail against the traditional ways of planning as if anything other than seeing problems as complex would be wrong.
At issue is that wicked problems are made more so by having both complex and non-complex elements working together, requiring a level of strategy development that is far more sophisticated than many first thought. Even a review of the better management texts using complexity give short shrift to the relationship between the complex, the simple and the complicated working simultaneously in environments and how we plan for that. The Cynefin Framework provides a start, but just a start.
Until we recognize this complexity — no pun intended — in the way we plan, there is great risk of replicating the hype cycle when our sole use complexity-based models yield poor results of a different nature than the poor results we are seeing from traditional linear, reductionist thinking models applied to many of the problems we deem as wicked today.
Picture credits: A Close Up on Knotted Rope by Sundariel used under Creative Commons License from DeviantArt