It’s Hard.  

this essay is cross-posted at dellarucker.com

That’s about the most obvious, trite, *duh*  thing you can write about trying to be a change-maker. 

 

And yet sometimes that’s about all that can be said.

 

----

I think most people who touch entrepreneurship anymore know that people who start or make something are more prone to depression and anxiety than the general public.  We’ve known that since Brad Feld came clean on his battles, since Wired and Fast Company started picking up those kinds of stories, since Kate Spade left her daughter behind.  

 

And that was kind of Captain Obvious, to be honest.  People who want to make things different but get blocked by (at minimum) the inertia of the present, people who envision a world that could be but isn’t here yet….

It’s no surprise these are the people who get frustrated.  Who get discouraged. Whose sometimes struggle to keep any determination going (or, sometimes, get out of bed).  And who sometimes get tired of fighting those battles.

 

All that does is make it not surprising, unremarkable.  

 

It doesn’t make it suck any less.  

 

___

 

I can gauge my own mental health by the number of times I think a specific, very clearly articulated phase in the course of the day.  It’s one of the most clearly-in-words things I hear inside my own head:

 

I wish I had my mother. 

It’s kind of a dumb statement.  My mother has been dead for over 10 years, and while she was sweet, and kind, and an excellent parent, she wouldn’t get what I’m going through when it’s tough.  She would have sympathized, and she could kick butt when it came to silentl worrying. But advice? Guidance? Help? Not so much.  

 

I think I want the idea of a mom more than my actual mom.  Why?

 

One of the reasons that researchers have identified for why depression is so common among entrepreneurs is isolation. I don’t mean the live in a hut in the wilderness kind of isolation.  Most of us know that it’s perfectly possible to feel alone in the middle of a whole swarm of people (check in with your nearest 14-year old if you’ve forgotten about that).

I think entrepreneurs and change-makers of all types experience a special kind of isolation that’s probably closer to that awkward-middle-school experience than most of us want to admit.  We know we’re weirdos. We sacrifice hobbies, social lives, friendships to this thing we’re chasing. We don’t even always know we’re doing that. Sometimes they seem to just quietly slip away. 

And families, spouses, children, lovers, don’t fill that. Sometimes what we’re doing threatens them or the life they want.  So you can be in the middle of a lot of people, and still feel...very, very, alone.

---

I don't have a clean answer for that today.  I think it comes with the territory. In an odd way, I suppose we can be encouraged by the fact that we're not alone in this. 

*insert weirdo secret handshake of your choice*

Safety

this essay is cross-posted from dellarucker.com

As humans, we seek safety.  That is part of what makes change, change-making and change leading so incredibly hard.  Even when we know that we need to go in a different direction, we have a fight against ourselves on our hands.

 

Fear of being wrong

Fear of making a mistake

Fear of being rejected and cut off from other people that we need to be able to depend on.

 

We see this in our homes, when we need to confront a spouse or roommate and we get that knotty feeling in our stomach before we walk in.  We see this in our practice of pulling several family members together to hold an intervention when someone has to be confronted about a destructive behavior.

 

It’s not weakness.  It’s self-preservation as a physically weak and socially dependent species.  

 

Too often, we tell people that we want them to take some risks, to work in a different way, to take initiative - and we’re doing that in the context of a culture, a community, often the very place, where people have told them to sit down and do what they’re told.  For years.  

 

Is it any wonder so few people rise to that challenge that we’ve issued?

 

They know it’s not safe.  As much as they may want to, they know it’s not safe. 

 

This may be part of why we struggle so much to get women, people of color and other underrepresented people engaged in start-ups and other areas of innovation.  If you already feel that you face a higher level of risk, would it seem prudent to sign up for more?

 

Creating new impact, working in new ways, adapting to the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s economy, requires more than exhortations.  

 

It requires creating the systems, the standards, and the culture that we all need to feel as safe as possible -- to believe, foremost, that we will not be rejected or ostracized for risking to fail.  

We can do that. We’ve done it before. But we can’t ignore our need for safety - and support for courage - now.

The systems we need to reinforce our new ways of working.

Originally posted at dellarucker.com.

We want to trust in our good intentions-- to say that because we want to break old habits, to work in a new way that matches the emerging world, we'll be able to do it. Since we ourselves are on board, we reason, the challenges are going to come from external forces, not inside.

 

We're wrong.

 

We're wired for consistency, for pattern recognition responses, for reactions that don't use up our brain energy by always creating something new.

 

So when we do want to create something new, we actually have to work against our own brain's deep urge to go back to the familiar ways. And sometimes we go back to those while still thinking we're doing something new.  

 

Tribes and early civilizations needed certain behaviors from their members, so they created myths and stories, and later rules and regulations and social standards, that placed a structure, a system, around those expectations. Relying on good intentions wasn't enough. A thriving human community required a social system that added an external pressure to the internal desire to be approved and included.

 

We're not different. The only thing that has really changed is that we don't have hundreds or thousands of years to work out these systems anymore. That's why, no matter your business, your organization, or your intent for yourself, one of the most important things you can do is set up the systems around you to help those good intentions become more than intentions.

 

That might sound like diet and exercise advice (not bad in itself).  But it's also advice for the ways we conduct ourselves in our work, especially in our work with other people.  If we truly see the necessity of moving from red ocean to blue ocean thinking, if we believe that it's our responsibility to help people around us grow into our potential, or if we know that we have to reinvent some element of our organization's approach to its work, then we cannot rely on the kinds of good intentions and assumptions that we often lean on to guide how we interact with others. 

We have to put systems in place  -- conscious, intentional systems -- to help us deal with one of the biggest challenges to our growth and improvement:

Ourselves

 

 

#growth #business #community #systems #organization #management

 

 

Building or Growing?

Are we building the things we care about, or are we growing them?

 

Originally posted at dellarucker.com.

Building something means that you control where the pieces go and what pieces you use and how they fit together. Building requires a lead decision-maker, someone or a small group of someones who have final say over which parts go where. A designer, an architect, a developer, a founder - if you envision the thing and then play a central role in bringing it to reality, you are the Builder.

Building something means that you are responsible for making something that is inherently fragile. The thing you are building may end up massive, and complex, and maybe even impressive, but it can all collapse with one seemingly minor break in the wrong place. And when that minor break in the wrong place happens on a dam or a bridge or a skyscraper, we get an immediate, awful, heartbreaking, terrible demonstration of how fragile the things we build can actually be.

Things that grow can do something that things we build can't:

they can come back.  They can regenerate.  They can heal.  Not always (the potted dill plant I just threw out testifies against making that an absolute) but much, much more often than things we build.

The difference between growing and building is in the mindset: it's all about control. A builder makes it her responsibility to make the built thing right-- to design, tweak, force all of the pieces to fit where she wants them and do what she wants them to do.

A grower knows that he can't make the tree or the field or the cow or the forest do exactly what he wants it to do. He can only give it the best chance he can of succeeding, and stick close to it, ready to adjust the conditions that impact the growing thing as much as he can to give it the greatest odds of succeeding.

---

When we envision and create businesses and organizations, we want in our guts to Build them.

To make them they way we want them to be.

To put the pieces together exactly the way we want.

To control them.

Two problems:

  • Once we let them out of out heads, we de facto give up a big piece of our control. It's not just ours anymore, perfect and safe in the china cabinet of our minds.

 

  • That means that maintaining a level of that control requires that we have to work extra hard once it's Out. We insist. We fight. We argue. We demand. And sometimes, in the process of doing that, we end up doing deep damage to the structure we are trying to build.

 

  • At the end of the day, the thing we Build is always primed to break. We might not see where the weak spot is, or what blow from what angle will bring the whole thing down. We might not see it because we don't know where to look, or what to look for. Or we might not want to see the way in which our creation may be reduced to trash.

____

About 6 years ago, I published a book directed at change- makers in local communities- planners, economic development people, nonprofit managers and the like.

In one of the pieces in that book, I said that our normal practice was to managing our communities as though we were running a machine-- put stuff in this end, twiddle the controls, get good schools or new business or happy residents out the other end. And what I said was that instead we ought to think about our work as managing an ecosystem, like a field or a forest. For all the reasons I said above.

What I didn't appreciate back then was how hard, how incredibly hard, it is for us to give up that control -- even that damaging, hurtful, fragile control-- and learn to work in a new way. To learn to enable things to Grow by changing how we work, changing them in ways that fly against our expectations, our assumptions, our deeply learned behaviors, our reward systems and our fears. And how that's not just in the public sector, where I spent the first half of my career, but in businesses large and small as well.

But in a time where those assumptions are either falling apart or facing overthrow, we have to figure out how to change our mindsets and the systems that keep us trying to Build.

Because when we think we can Build it, we're often fooling ourselves. Organizations that actually work have to be able to Grow.

New Book Just Out -- Everybody Innovates Here: Accelerating Innovation and Entrepreneurship Across your Entire Community

We’re delighted to announce the release of Everybody Innovates Here: Accelerating Innovation and Entrepreneurship Across Your Entire Community.  

Here's a taste of what it's about:

We’ve seldom needed innovation as much as we do now, and we’ve never needed it to happen faster. We’re on the edge of a new era, and we have massive local and global challenges that will not wait for us to incrementally figure it out.

But the programs and systems that we use to try to jump-start innovation seldom live up to their billing. And in the meantime, entrepreneurship declines, inovation flounders, and the needs pile up.

Why isn’t this working?

And how do we get to the transformative innovation that we need?

Everybody Innovates Here unpacks the challenges facing the innovation and entrepreneurship landscape today, measuring its results and its shortcomings against the demands that are coming from the future of work, businesses and communities. Against the backdrop of epochal change and fundamental human priorities, Everybody Innovates Here outlines new strategies for innovation through intentional inclusion, acceleration and transformation.

Everybody Innovates Here  is available now in print,  Kindle, Kindle Print, EPub, and PDF formats.  Bulk orders coming soon.

Find out more about other Wise Fool Press publications 

Announcing the 2019 Econogy ToolBox

Innovation is hard, and creating the kind of innovation we all need today requires an entirely new approach.

Econogy and our partners have been developing a suite of groundbreaking, paradigm-shaking methods for transforming your business or community’s efforts from stagnant to accelerating. Whether you run a university department, a nonprofit, a city commission or a growing business, Econogy can help you transform your efforts in ways you might never discover otherwise.

We’re delighted to share with you our 2019 ToolKit - brief explorations of all the ways that we can leverage unexpected innovators, and help you make your most important goals happen.

Click here for the Toolkit, or send us an email at connect@econogy.co to get your own copy.

We need inclusion-powered problem-solving -- ASAP

This reflection is an expansion on a theme from the upcoming book, Everybody Innovates Here, coming at the end of January.  To read more excerpts and get news about its launch, check out econogy.co/blog


Human diversity and inclusion are two of the most powerful tools we have to solve the tough problems that have been eluding us -- for the simple reason that no one person can have all the information and experiences and insights within her or himself alone to crack through the barriers that have been blocking us.  Whether social, political, environmental… we are in desperate need of paradigm changes, and we know from history that paradigm changes don’t come from the insiders.

But our skill sets for capitalizing on diversity and inclusion are among our worst, overall.  We do a terrible job of using those benefits. Our deep-seated assumptions about who has relevant knowledge and who doesn’t, whose voice should be heard and whose should be held in a box labelled “input or “research, “ who should make the decisions and who should accept them and go along with them….

Our assumptions are outdated. They have been wrecked by poor use. They lack  legitimacy in a world that senses, that knows, that there is a big something missing.  

But we don’t have the skills and the language and the systems to pull that something missing out into the open.  

So the block continues to grow, and the problems continue to fester, across nearly every aspect of the modern world.  


  • Corporations seeking big breakthroughs find very few of them, despite millions of dollars and hours spent chasing them.  

  • Small businesses and entrepreneurs flounder in mental isolation, spending precious years on solutions that don’t accurately fit the kind of  problems that matter.

  • Nonprofits and other organizations that are trying to solve tough problems cannot get past twiddling at the edges, or they limit their impact to one small corner of the world and fail to spread to the extent of the actual need.

  • And governments, everyone’s favorite whipping post, struggle to provide what they need to provide in a poisoned environment, in part of their own making.

In a world that has so many unmet, acute, urgent needs - needs that solving would unlock real value -- why aren’t we doing it?

Some pundits may pin it on human self-centeredness, or Machiavellian political urges, or the fact that new ideas are just hard.  But we’ve done hard and noble and groundbreaking things before.  We’re doing them now -- just not enough and not fast enough.

The root source of our current blocks isn’t technical - we have technologies that our grandparents could not have imagined.  It’s not strictly political - governments have driven great strides in human health and well being in the past 200 years. And it’s not that people have somehow fundamentally shifted from effective to floundering: despite the hand wringing in the daily news, we know that there’s nothing new under the sun in human behavior and morals.  Across the millennia to today, what we’re seeing is mostly variations on a theme.

The core difference now is that the issues that bedevil us lie beyond the scope of what we could address with our Industrial Era tools -- specialization, hierarchy, efficiency, professionalism. The biggest issues facing us cross a range of scientific or technical bailiwicks, demonstrating the most need at the intersections of the topics that we have carefully divided from each other by degrees and professional memberships.  

And increasingly, the division between the human mind and heart -- the emphasis on rational solutions over intuition, intellectual solutions over the human need for solidarity and stability, analytical and design-informed methods of problem-solving -- all of these create magma domes under our collective rational exteriors.  Those divisions threaten, they sow fear, they further block real solutions, they twist decision-making and solution-doing in ways that can undercut more than they solve.

The core challenge in front of us in the new economic/social/cultural era that is dawning is to take apart our no-longer-necessary blocks and learn to harness human creativity, human learning, and the full range of human insight in ways that we have not before.  This means that our basic methods for how we do the work of advancing humanity is going to have to become very different, just as the skills we used to harvest rye in the 1600s bore little resemblance to the Ford assembly line of the 1910s. That’s the kind of profound everything-change we’re going to have to undergo.   

But we don’t have a few hundred years to fight through the transition this time.  Between global warming and global urbanization and a host of other significant challenges, our window for a successful transition is a whole, whole lot shorter.  


I don’t know how to solve those global challenges, but I have learned that the best way to find genuinely new solutions is most clearly seen at the opposite end of the scale from the global: in groups of people who bring the most diverse possible range of skills, experiences, outlooks and perspectives to work together in in true collaboration - I often say co-creation.  These are the kinds of teams that find, understand and figure out how to use the treasures in the spaces in between our individual domains.

But we don’t do that by the seat of the pants. We aren’t genetically wired or culturally acclimated to work with people who are different from us.  Both our in-bred defensive mechanisms and our cultural learning actually pushes, hard, against that kind of openness. We came up as tribal people, after all, and Us vs. Them lies deep in our psyches.  

But us vs them looks pretty likely to take us all out, if we don’t learn to work around it.

We’ve done this before - agriculture, formal education, social niceties, riding a bicycle, all required us to work around our urges and assumptions and long-learned behaviors from earlier eras. And often those long-learned behaviors had to do with fear of others.  We can certainly do it again.

But co-creation with diverse people is a learned skill, not an innate talent. If we truly intend to capitalize on our potential, to find the solutions to the tough problems, we can’t keep doing it the same way.  We need to build, learn, teach and use new ways of working together. And we have to replace our old methods with the systems, the processes, the paradigms that reinforce this new approach. And that’s not just an exercise for the classroom, or the corporate office, or for the city council chambers.  It’s in all of them, across all of them.

We can do this.  But we have to start.  As soon as we can..



Understanding the Innovation Infrastructure: the Pumps

This article is a draft excerpt from the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here: Developing a higher-impact, more sustainable, more effective system to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship. Click Here to learn more about the book and sign up for updates.

Few things bedevil a writer more than trying to make sense of a multi-dimensional topic in the linear world of words and sentences. You have to start somewhere, but that somewhere is necessarily going to be incomplete-- a partial sketch that leaves out, for the moment, crucial information.  This is the challenge of starting a description of Innovation Infrastructure with the kinds of discrete programs and buildings and the like that they include.

While this is the right place to start, if for no other reason than these are the things you can Google, focusing on the parts means that we momentarily ignore the connections.  Those will be the topic of the next chapter, but even with that they are easy to overlook, because we cannot see them. We have to make a conscious effort to hold onto the understanding that these elements  do not, or at least should not, function in isolation.

I’m calling them, collectively, Pumps for that reason: in many kinds of infrastructure, the Pumps make the system work - they literally provide the force that moves the contents to where they need to be. But if the pumps aren’t connected to the rest of the system correctly, then they have little benefit. Perhaps the spill their contents all over, or perhaps they damage the rest of the system.

As we noted in the last chapter, Innovation Infrastructure includes a wide variety of organizations, activities and places  -- and the language we use to talk about them usually isn’t standardized. So it makes sense to start by establishing some standardized language.  We’ll be using these terms to describe the different kinds of Pumps in the Innovation Infrastructure:

  • Programs

  • Places

  • Nerve Centers

  • Districts

  • Ecosystems

As you will see, some individual efforts will fall into more than one of these categories.  A Place may host a Program, or the Program can be delivered across an Ecosystem. A District might have several Nerve Centers, and some Nerve Centers may offer their own Programs.  

We will find  less value in trying to wedge a specific organization’s work into one of these categories than there in in using this structure to understand how various activities might fit into the larger system.  As I found when I confronted my own mental barriers in trying to figure out how to do things differently in Econogy’s early days, we need structures to help us think, but if we start treating them as rigid absolutes, we become blocked from important parts of what we should be learning.    

Here’s the terms we will be using:

Programs are specific activities or closely related groups of activities that are administered as a set and are designed to meet a specific objective.  A Program may be ongoing (like SCORE counseling) or it may be time limited (like a 9-week accelerator program). A Program can be offered by one organization or by several. A Program’s use does not depend on a specific physical place (even if it is conveniently hosted by one, it could be done somewhere else),  The tools of a Program usually involve curricula, workbooks or binders, lectures, group discussions, and meetings.

Places are physical locations whose purpose is to house innovators and supply some of the physical needs unique to their ability to innovate.  Co-working spaces and makerspaces are typical Places, although some large corporations may also have Places intended to foster innovation (Procter & Gamble, for example, has maintained a handful of off-site spaces for various innovation teams in Downtown Cincinnati over the past 10 years.)  Places usually involve unusual or “creative” spaces, varieties of seating arrangements, white boards, and doors or dividers.

Nerve Centers  are people or organizations that perform a traffic directing or switching function: they help potential innovators or other participants find the right place to plug in among the variety of Programs and Places available.  Nerve Centers do not own or control the larger system, but they are responsible for maintaining a comprehensive understanding of the larger system’s offerings (such as Programs and Places), as well as its needs -- ideally, it will use its broader awareness to prod Programs and Places into addressing new needs that the Nerve Center has encountered.  Nerve Centers may be designated as part of a system-building effort, or they may evolve into the role as the need for it arises.

Nerve Centers begin the process of transforming a collection of Places and Programs into a functioning system that can accelerate innovation beyond what an individual initiative can do.  They create this opportunity by enabling participants to readily find what they need -- an often-overlooked function that can make the difference between a functioning system and a collection of tussling, half-fledged attempts.

Districts are physical places -- ranging from a building to several city blocks --  where physical design, economic activity, government involvement and culture are oriented to facilitating innovation.  Districts may be master-planned or evolve organically, but they generally include

  • A variety of Places and Programs intended to foster innovation,

  • Spaces for businesses of varying sizes and growth,

  • Public spaces and amenities designed to encourage interpersonal interaction, and

  • Support activities such as restaurants, apartments and mailing services.

Coordination or collaboration among District elements may occur through some formal processes, but Districts’ implicit theory of how innovation will happen often relies on collisions and agglomeration effects as their primary methods. That is, they operate on the assumption that, by putting innovators in physical proximity and giving them places in which they can mix, innovation will occur organically as a result.

Issues of building and land use control, public policy objectives, public investment, private sector development and corporate support may have a significant role in how a District is initially formed and developed.  Unlike other Pumps, Districts necessitate a relatively substantial real estate investment, both to house the District’s activities in close proximity and to demonstrate the kind of “buzz” needed to attract participants.  This investment is often a mix of private and public funds and often results in a combination of adaptive reuse of existing buildings, new building construction, and physical infrastructure like sidewalks and transit stops.

Ecosystems are connected groups of all of the above elements.  Many ecosystems are defined in terms of a geographic area, but those areas are larger than Districts and their identity is not typically tied to a physical place (It’s not unusual for an Ecosystem to cover several counties).  Ecosystems may focus on specific subsets of innovation, such as sustainable food production or disadvantaged entrepreneurs, but they may also be broadly defined.

Ecosystems rely heavily on their ability to communicate with and coordinate wide-flung collections of Programs and Places, and even Nerve Centers and Districts, and they tend to use facilitative methods to coordinate participants and align activities in service of ecosystem - wide goals.  


Obviously, all of these Pumps play important roles in the infrastructure.  Programs increase the odds that an innovator knows how to keep herself afloat -- most focus on business management and growth skills, which aren’t many innovators’ forte.  And Programs give some entrepreneurs the hope that they’re not insane to be trying this (despite the messages she may be getting from her grandmother or her cousin).

Places give the innovator a physical connection to others pursuing the same ambitions, and he may find that he experiences a few lucky collisions while he parks his laptop at the table or waits to use the CNC machine.  

In communities where the Innovation Infrastructure is starting to mature, Nerve Centers become crucial to helping the innovator land in the right place and get access to the right help quickly. Otherwise confusion and mixed messaging may lead the potential participant to waste her limited time and money in the wrong place.

For work that benefits from close coordination, Districts can play a crucial role in easing an innovator’s way, as physical access and knowledge demonstrate how closely they are still tied to each other.  And Districts attract other innovators, drawn to the energy that a good district projects. Finally, Ecosystems place all of these within a larger context, facilitating for each innovator a reach and access that extends beyond any city block, making them part of a massive economic movement.  

Most Innovation Infrastructures start with a Program, maybe a Place, and add a few more of these before the more complex structures take shape.  Like physical infrastructure, innovation systems have a habit of evolving piecemeal, over time -- someone notes a need, someone creates a new Pump.  At first, that one Pump might do enough. But as the number or people increases and the complexity of their needs grows, those individual systems pretty quickly become overwhelmed, like when increased development forces houses that used wells to hook up to a new water line.    

Here’s an important point:  the household in that example had the option of hooking up to that water line because, maybe many years before, a team of planners thinking about how the area might change in the future anticipated that this area might need a water line.  Based on that plan, the engineers calculated the amount of water it should carry and designed the system of pipes, valves, joints, pumps and more required to deliver that water reliably from its source to this house.

The water pipes didn’t just appear there, and the Pumps don’t often grow their own connections.  Someone envisioned and laid out what was needed for the whole system to work.

That’s our big challenge. But before we get there, let’s take a look at how the Pumps ultimately become able to do what we need them to -- by connecting via the Pipes.





Innovation Systems: what we're learned

This article is a draft excerpt from the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here: Developing a higher-impact, more sustainable, more effective system to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship. Click Here to learn more about the book and sign up for updates.


For my Econogy co-founder, Owen, and I, the purpose of Econogy has been to accelerate innovation for  the places and people we care most about. That includes universities and neighborhoods, businesses and nonprofits, wealthy and disadvantaged, students and seniors.  We focused our first two years on building a new machinery of innovation: a system for unlocking the capabilities and lack of barriers that one overlooked source of innovation -- young adults -- bring to problem-solving.  

We found that a support structure that combined diverse teams, clear processes, and high-stakes stretch challenges resulted in practical but innovative solutions to problems that had no cookie-cutter answers.  From both a business and a human development standpoint, the results were better than (I, at least) anticipated.

We tried the same methods with adults of varying ages faced with creating strategy for their community’s future, and we had similar results.  

Consistently, people outperform our expectations when we place around them a structure that enables them to solve problems collaboratively and constructively.  And innovation research has found the same:

  • Diverse teams consistently make better decisions, potentially because they “alter the behavior of a group's social majority in ways that lead to improved and more accurate group thinking.”

  • When teams use explicit structured processes to evaluate choices and make decisions, they are more likely to succeed -- and when leaders assume that the team will take care of itself, the team is more likely to fail.

  • Creating useful solutions to problems that do not have direct precedents require a fundamentally different approach than simply tweaking things that have been done before.  And being too familiar with the things that have been done before can be like a pair of blinders, making it impossible to see feasible alternatives that fall outside your expectations.

These experiences gave us proof of concept on something bigger: we had a small but accumulating body of evidence about how we could enable people to accelerate innovation.  


For someone who had spent over 20 years trying to improve problem-solving in communities as a downtown revitalization, urban planning and economic development specialist, this was the kind of insight I’d been looking for.  You see, I’d become trapped by my conventional understanding of how economies and teams work, too.

Before co-founding Econogy, I had written a lot of lines in a lot of blogs and articles and books about how local economies needed to change, and how the ways we were pushing that to happen weren’t working.  I had spent hundreds of hours with tech startups, mom and pop shops, universities, microentrepreneurs, and the organizations that try to take care of them. And I knew we needed something different.

But I didn’t know what.  

After two years of working out the mechanisms for supporting diverse team innovation, and combining that with decades of experience with economic and community support organizations, we think that most cities need empowered innovation districts to accelerate innovation across the complete economic  and community spectrum.  

There’s a lot of different kinds of organizations in this process, and they go by different names in different places.  So for sake of simplicity, we’re going to call all of these organizations Innovation Systems.

An Innovation System, as we are describing it, is a program, a place or a group of programs and places that play a role in generating more economic activity from the people who are in a community.  These might include anything from a tech accelerator to a regional rural entrepreneurship collaborative, from a university advanced manufacturing initiative to a class for African-American urban residents.  

That’s a radical statement, in case you didn’t notice.  Historically, we have carefully parsed these segments apart -- tech programs over here, Main Street business owners over here.  We differentiate them based on how much money they might make, where their clients live, where they will have their shop, whether we designate them as having a “social impact,” and more.  And yes, they will have certain needs that are specific to their unique situation.

What we find over and over is this:  Innovators and entrepreneurs are often more similar than different. They all need help innovating.  They all need help getting out of their own paradigm.  And they can all learn from each other.  

(And yes, innovation and entrepreneurship are not exactly the same thing.  We’re more interested in this book in innovation on the whole, but systems designed to foster entrepreneurship are a large part of the existing infrastructure many potential innovators have to work with.  More on that in an upcoming chapter.)

More, better, faster innovation: Excerpt from Everybody Innovates Here

This article is a draft excerpt from the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here: Developing a higher-impact, more sustainable, more effective system to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship. Click Here to learn more about the book and sign up for updates.

—-

In 2013, I wrote a book called The Local Economy Revolution that described how conventional economic development and urban planning methods were failing to create the kind of communities we need in the emerging era.  In 2015, I wrote a book called Crowdsourcing Wisdom that addressed one of the core failings I had identified: a systematic failure to meaningfully involve everyone in a community in making decisions about their communities’ futures.

In 2016, I put two more partially- completed books on hold to work on a start up.  My distraction didn't come from an app or a shop:

It came from the opportunity to build groundbreaking new systems that could enable the change I'd been grasping for.

Over the past 2 years, I've seen close-up what systems for accelerated innovation can do. I've watched people who haven't yet finished college equip a business to raise millions in investment. I've seen 60-year-old founders’ eyes open wide when they’re shown a solution they had never considered -- by a team whose average age is 24.  I've watched an overlooked neighborhood discover its hidden assets and find its authentic voice.

And we've worked with innovators across the spectrum, across silos and across the country to learn more about new ways of working and doing, better and faster.  

What we have learned at Econogy is:

  • We need much more innovation, from the grassroots to the corporate, and from the social to the technical. And we need that innovation to get out of the local test, the pilot stage, much faster and better than its often does.

  • We need, as a culture, to get much better at innovation if we want to have half a chance of meeting the stunning array of challenges in front of us.

  • We have been leaving innovation too much to chance for something that we need so much. We've relied on magical thinking, unquestioned rules of thumb and feel-good anecdotes, and we've gotten haphazard results, at best, as a result -- haphazard results that waste much of our best assets.  

This book captures what innovation districts, startup ecosystems and other parts of this emerging sector need to do differently if we are all to build the world that we need in the emerging era.  We need

  • more innovators,

  • more completely and fully diverse innovators,

  • more intentional innovation growth,

  • more intentional connectivity

  • more intentional interlacing between corporate, institution, starters and non-profits, and

  • more intentional effort to not only start more, but enable every start to reach its full capacity, locally or globally.

We’re glad you’re along for the journey.  


The Future of Work and Business: seeing past the haze

Anticipating what the future will look like has seldom been harder to do, and more important all at the same time. In an era of unrelenting change and few certainties, trying to predict what next year holds might actually be harder than predicting the longer term. The foreground, contrary to our usual assumptions, becomes hazier and harder to differentiate than the future.

Stowe Boyd of Workfutures hit this issue at the beginning of January, and in the process he put his fingers on a few of the most crucial elements of that longer-term view - the elements that we here often describe as keys to a Future-Ready Workforce (and that I describe in the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here) as the characteristics of the Fusion Economy).

Making these kinds of changes in the fundamentals of how we work isn’t easy - it requires us to challenge our assumptions constantly, to adapt, to grow in ways that we never thought we would have to grow. And that means that our personal short term, and that of our businesses, become messy and confused and contradictory as well.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear what the business (and person) of the future has to be able to do, and our key challenge at the moment is to get there.

Here is how Stowe describes this emerging paradigm shift {the bullets below are directly quoted from this piece):

  • Human-centered not role-centered. We lose a great deal when we limit people to only thinking about or acting on a limited set of activities in business. A machine press operator can have a brilliant insight that saves the copy millions, and a field sales lead can come back from a meeting with a customer suggestion for a breakthrough new product. But not if they are punished for stepping outside the painted lines on the floor. People can be larger than their job descriptions, if we let them.

  • Open not closed models of thinking and operations. This means a 'yes, and’ mindset, where we consider alternatives rather than rejecting them because they are novel. This means activity rooting out systemic anti-creative and anti-curiosity patterns in business dogma. It means embracing Von Foester’s Empirical Imperative: Always act to increase the set of possibilities.

  • Fast-and-loose not slow-and-tight operations. Agile, flexible, and adaptive methods of organizing, cooperating, and leading are needed. A less bureaucratic management style would increase innovation, and lead to building business operations around experiments rather than only well-established processes.

  • Heterarchical not hierarchical operations. The bronze age rule of kings, supposedly selected by the gods and legitimized by their personal charisma has led to terrible results, with narcissistic sociopaths all too often calling the shots. The occasional Steve Jobs or Yves Chouinard does not disprove the problems inherent to top-down-only organizations, especially in a time of great change and uncertainty. Organizational structure is another means to the ends that companies are created to effect, and serves as a powerful barrier to change when treated as sacred and inviolable.

  • Forward-focused, not tradition-bound. We need to adopt a new paradigm for business, one that explicitly breaks with a great deal of what passes for conventional wisdom, organized around new science, new forms of social connection, and leveraging the possibilities in the points made above. And science is not standing still, so we must incorporate new understanding into our work and the operations of business.

This is what we designed Econogy to build - in new professionals, in businesses and in communities. The foreground is sometimes hazier than we’d prefer, but we’re moving toward that future - faster and faster.

I hope you’ll join us.

Building Future-Ready Workers and Leaders

“Students aren’t prepared for work – and they know it,” said Brandon Busteed, Executive Director, Education & Workforce Development at Gallup. “The fact that 88% of freshmen say, ‘getting a good job’ is the reason they go to college, yet only a third strongly agree they are getting the skills and knowledge they need to succeed is a mandate to improve how institutions approach everything from their academic curriculum to advising.”


--”New Survey Reveals Crisis of Confidence in Workforce Readiness Among College Students,”   Gallup and Strada Education Network. http://www.stradaeducation.org/news/new-survey-reveals-crisis-of-confidence-in-workforce-readiness-among-college-students/

Go to College.  Get a Good Job.

That’s what we’ve been telling our children and students for years.  But more and more evidence indicates that students come out of higher education without the skills that they need to succeed in the workplace today - let alone thrive in the fluid, interdependent, unpredictable workplace they will encounter in only a few years.  

Thriving in the new workforce increasingly takes a different skill set than the ones that conventional classrooms teach.  Students brought up to meet clear grade rubrics find that the workplace measures success by an entirely different yardstick, and the school skills of memorization and reciting facts matter very little when they enter the workforce.

But the biggest challenge for many new professionals lies deeper than learned skills.  The most fast-moving, future-ready businesses need people who are not waiting for approval or permission.  They’re looking for people who can take intelligent risks and learn from failures, But if your entire upbringing has emphasized that failures lead to catastrophe (like bad grades and poor college prospects), then you may not know how to take risks - or how to come back from failures.

To build future-ready businesses, we need future-ready workers and leaders.  And to get there, we need them to learn more than what they are learning in conventional classrooms.  

Econogy helps tomorrow’s professionals, leaders and workers develop those crucial skills.  Our student consultants, student-run business managers and more gain firsthand experience in applying what they have learned to real-world business applications.  But perhaps more importantly, they develop the skills that they will need. They learn to collaborate with others, to make decisions, to take risks and learn from mistakes.  And they gain the confidence that they will need to do this when the stakes are high.


After Experts: Breaking out of our boxes

A couple of days ago I wrote here about how the “expert-ness” that often defines us in our mid-career and later years can actually work against us in developing solutions to tough new problems. So much of the world has changed around us, but our deeply-held (and maybe even invisible to us) assumptions...haven’t.  We find ourselves, as I’ve written elsewhere about myself, in a box. Even if we know the box is around us and that it’s limiting us, we don’t have the right tools to get out of it. ,

Too often, though, we conclude that it’s better off to stay in that box than to try to find our way out.  In the box may be limiting, but we know what it is. Out is scary.

My mother was a secretary in her young adult life.  Her particular talent was for taking shorthand - the note-taking method that allowed a pre-computer secretary to write down a dictated letter or memo almost verbatim while the boss talked. She left work to have a family, but by the time the family paint factory folded in the 1980s, and she needed to work, computers had made her shorthand obsolete.  She never learned to use a computer. She claimed she was scared of them. She chose to cut herself off from new opportunities rather than look outside the box into which she had folded herself. But she still took beautiful shorthand.

We like our feeling of competency, even when our competency may have lost its value.  As an adult, finding ourselves in a place where we don’t feel fully competent can be unsettling, fearful. Avoided.  Over the course of maturing, we got used to the idea that being competent was the adult solid status.

We forgot that when we’re not competent, that’s when we learn. And grow.  

My mother didn’t break out of her box, but we have little choice in the matter. Our world and careers and workplaces are changing too fast now to tolerate our ossified expertise for long.  But we usually need help getting out of those boxes -- most of us didn’t bring the tools to get out with us before that box got built around us.

How can we create work environments that equip us with the tools to get out of our boxes -- for ourselves and for others?  

  • We need to know that growing is valuable, and that we are still valuable while growing.  We need to deeply internalize that growing requires places where we are not competent and not comfortable, and that going through those phases is not a sign of a problem, but a necessary component of remaining relevant.  

  • We need to learn the skills and methods of breaking own assumptions. It’s a logical process. There are ways to do it systematically.  We don’t have to make it up as we go by the seat of our pants.

  • We need to practice those skills. Exploring new ideas or approaches is not part of most adults”routine experience. When we don’t get practice on that with small things, we don’t know how to use those skills and methods when we need them.  Watching a kid play soccer who missed the drills on passing will make that self evident.

Being ready for an unpredictable future requires a new stance, one that most of us weren’t taught.  We have to remain aware, on our toes, ready to move in a new direction. In some ways, that's working against our wiring - we’re taught to value Experts.  But as thoughtful people who are serious about making a meaningful impact on the world around us, it’s also what we are uniquely suited to do.


Becoming Future Ready when you have a past


When you have more than a few years under your belt in your career, it’s comforting to think, or at least to tell yourself, that you have this down pat. That you know, definitively, how to do the work, deliver the solutions, that your profession requires. That you’ve got the answers.  You’re the Expert.

The problem for most of us is that our expert-ness was developed in, and set up around, a world that looks less and less like the one that we’re actually living in. We not only work differently, but we think and decide and communicate in ways that we would not have imagined when we started our careers 10 or 20 or 40 years ago.  

That’s not just a problem for people whose skills revolved around WordPerfect or COBOL. It’s a problem for mature professionals of every stripe, because the deepest change isn’t in technology, it’s in the fundamental assumptions underpinning our work.

Here’s an example of those fundamental underpinnings: in my profession as an urban planner, we were taught to base land use plans (the documents that guide zoning decisions and where to build roads and the like) on a linear extrapolation of a community’s historic growth.  If a typical suburban town’s population had grown an average of 2% per year for the last 15 years, you would project its population in 20 years as having grown by 2%, compounded annually. Pretty simple spreadsheet math.

That all worked reasonably well if you assume that the basic structures of life and community in 20 years will be about the same as it had been in the past 10.  But what if

  • Gas prices triple?

  • Fast internet makes online shopping easier than going to a store?

  • Catastrophic floods happen more often?

  • Newer generations don’t want the kind of housing you have, and the next town over has more of what they want?

We didn’t anticipate these kinds of changes, certainly not in any kind of systematic, rigorous manner.  We didn’t challenge our own assumptions, or those of the elected officials and citizens we were working with.  We assumed that the future would look basically like a variation of the past. Especially when that past had been good to us, ourselves.  

From where I sit, it’s clear that responsibility for tax crunches, acres of vacant retail, bitter gentrification fights, massive inequity and increasing costs of environmental catastrophes lay in part at the feet of “experienced” planners like me.  We didn’t pay enough attention to how the future might be different from the past. We didn’t consider the implications of changes that were already rumbling. And we deferred to the people who insisted on a stable future model, and didn’t always hear the people who raised concerns.  We didn’t make our plans to account for uncertainty, flexibility, unanticipated consequences. We didn’t design for resilience, environmental or social.

I’m as guilty of that as anyone.  

The only difference between making these mistakes in urban planning and doing that in your business is that planners can see the impacts of the choices we helped form all around us.  We work in one of the most complex fields you can imagine - the ecosystem of people.   And we’re often not the only decision maker, and usually not in ourselves the most powerful one. But we only have to drive down a street with an objective eye to see the impacts of the decisions we helped create.

Your profession is much the same.  You have assumptions about how the world is supposed to work.  You know what the past looked like, and it’s easy and comfortable to assume that the future will look like a version of the same.  

Sometimes that means that we look at changes unfolding around us and we don’t actually see them for what they are.  Sometimes that means that we insist that those changes don’t impact us and our field of work. Sometimes that means that we don’t know what to do with the new things, even when we understand their potential implications, and we shy away,  Better the devil you know, as my mother said.

In a moment in time where the future doesn’t look much like the past, “expertness” can be a liability, a millstone around our neck.  It can prevent us from finding the right solution.

And experts in any field I have seen aren’t good at giving non-experts a meaningful voice in the process.  Experts look down on the non-experts, dismiss their concerns, relegate their input to “user insight” or “feedback.”

But it’s becoming clear that this isn’t going to work for much longer.  Deference to an expert looks more and more like an outdated Victorian norm, like wearing a bustle.  

One of the core values emerging in the Fusion Age economy is that power becomes decentralized because of exploded information and communication access.  When high school students learn how to conduct a political campaign through Google, when two men in rural India can use a smart phone to become a media presence,  when new products can be funded in ten dollar increments by people across the world, then experts are no longer the gatekeepers of information, or processes, or solutions.    

We talk about disruption in industries a lot in these early years of the new era.  We watch media, retail, manufacturing, politics undergo upheavals. Blue chip icons lose their central position, new players proliferate, changes in basic operations send shock waves through the lives and employment of thousands.  

Our areas of expertise are probably among the next in line.  

Innovation gurus like to tell professionals and companies to “disrupt themselves.”  And they may show us new ways to use Post-It notes and whiteboards. But what they really need to teach us, all of us, can be summed up very simply:

  • Our expertise can be our biggest enemy, because it can shape our direction without us knowing it through the unexamined assumptions we have developed.  We need to learn to see those assumptions, even when they’re hiding in the back of our heads, and learn to question them. All the time.


  • Our best hope of breaking the hold that our expertise has on us comes from working with as many and as varied non-experts as we can get.  And “working with” means working with-- not listening and then discarding, not relegating to the corner, but putting them at the center of the process.  


  • That does NOT, however, mean that we just do whatever they say.  In the Fusion Era, the knowledge and insight that we used to call expertise has a critically important role: we become the facilitators of these new solutions.  We former experts are the ones responsible for asking the right questions, guiding the conversations, making sure participants have the best available information. We have to use our knowledge and depth to call attention to the risks that unintended consequences pose.  And most importantly, it is our job to shepherd the participants to the best solution that we can develop, together.


Disrupting ourselves like this is hard work.  It requires a putting-aside, not only of ego and sense of our own importance, but also of much of our deep-rooted assumptions about how we should work.  It’s shockingly, unnervingly easy to shift into the old mode of speech or behavior, even when we think in our heads that we are operating in the new model.  I’ve done that more times than I care to admit.

We have to learn this new approach like we learned any new skill, back in the days when we were learning new skills all the time: by careful practice, by intentional repetition.  Despite what some of us were taught, it turns out that we are perfectly capable of learning new skills -- we just need to do the practice that allows our brains to rewire.

And if you don’t want to?  I understand and I sympathize, but let’s be practical: we’re not going to have much choice.  Unless we’re ready to hang it up now, the Fusion Age isn’t going to wait for us to get comfortable.   


Design solutions for better Innovation Infrastructure and Innovation Districts

In the book that I am finishing up, tentatively titled Everybody Innovates Here, I am asserting a new vision for innovation in the dawning era, what I have taken to calling the Fusion Age.  My premise in the book is that, given what we need to do to thrive in this emerging economy, our scattershot efforts to build systems to support or enable innovation are not adequate to the challenge ahead of us.  And I lay out as clearly as I can what a better system would look like.

This piece may or may not make it into the book - struggling a little with structure and flow,

which is a pretty common problem.  But sometimes the cuttings have value, too.  

The premise here is: How should the physical spaces in which we innovate be designed differently?  “Physical spaces,” in this case, run the gamut, from co-working offices to innovation districts.  The book gives definitions of each of these, identifies the roles that they can and should play in the larger innovation ecosystem, and analyzes where the ways we currently use these spaces, and programs, fall down.  

So whether you are developing a single coworking space or a multi-block innovation district, what design elements will help it accelerate innovation?  

  • Maximize flexibility, for now and for the future. The fact of the matter is that at this point in history, we don’t know a lot about what the future of work, innovation and entrepreneurship will entail.  Just in the past few years, we have largely eliminated the need for internet cables, HDMI cords, desktop monitors, storage space for binders and books, and many other elements that were necessary even in the early internet stages of business. Some features, like wet labs or commercial kitchens, require equipment and plumbing that needs to be installed in a fairly permanent manner, but how do we anticipate the businesses, coordination practices, technology, etc. that we will need to accommodate  within our district in ten or 15 years? Some architects are already building with modular elements, convertible furniture, multi-use surfaces and other elements. Do more of that.

  • Emphasize small spaces. Years ago, a member of a start-up accelerator told me that the organizers of his program intentionally designed the space so that each team, each fledgling company, had slightly less space than they would prefer.  That caused some stress, but it also led to a sense of interdependence - crucial for new innovators to understand so that they continue to break free of the Lonely Genius mindset.  

  • Enable creative thought with private spaces.  Creativity and innovation necessitate both social interaction and private reflection and processing. Most accelerators and co-working spaces and the like provide huddle rooms and little closets for private phone calls, but these are hardly spaces designed for deep thought.  Many innovators would probably benefit from a convenient space that allows them to step away from the intense interpersonal world for some private thinking. A walking trail, a meditation space, even no more than a designated quiet room could provide a great benefit, especially for innovators who are introverted or, like many who experience Asperger’s syndrome, find constant interpersonal interaction stressful and exhausting.

  • Provide and value protected spaces. Every innovation organization says that they want to increase the diversity of their participants, but that requires more than just throwing them into the mix. If you are not part of the majority culture, you may live in a world of heightened insecurity.  Was that a racist slight or just an innocent joke?  Is there something in how I am asking questions that they are finding intimidating or strange, or am I over-reacting?  There’s some kind of unspoken rule about how people interact at that event, and I feel like I’m missing something important.   For many people who are not in the majority, the interaction-intensive space of an innovation community can be laden with uncertainty and exhaustion.   This is a delicate balance to strike -- no one wants people who are already conscious of their other-ness to be singled out, or treated as thought they had some kind of stigma that requires special treatment.  But it may also be important for members of a minority population to be able to convene and learn from sharing experiences with their peers, away from the actual or perceived judgement of the majority population.  Having a comfortable huddle-type room set aside, outside of the usual meeting scheduling, for anyone to use may enable people who are in minority groups develop and maintain the support networks that they need. But this space should not be glass-walled like many huddle rooms, or the participants may feel more than ever like they are under a microscope.  But don’t make it the broom closet, either.

  • Design Visitability.  If we are going to assert that the most effective innovation requires the broadest possible range of participants, then we have to make sure that our spaces throw up as few physical road blocks to particpation as possible. For a person in a motorized wheelchair, that step between the two old buildings that you combined to make your co working space may mean that they literally cannot  enter half the building. For a person with auditory sensitivity, the level of echo in your hip post-industrial conference room may mean that all of your public events are off limits. Even if few of your full-time participants have mobility or sensory or cognitive differences, keep in mind that people will come to your buildings and participate in your events on an occasional basis, and that throwing up a barrier to even the occasional visitor may mean that your participants lose an insight or an opportunity that they will not find if they only interact with people who have the same abilities as they.  Widening the scope of the innovator logically requires a visitable building.

  • Spaces that reinforce the culture and mission. Many dedicated innovation spaces include photos of participants, motivational sayings, and other elements that try to convey the possibilities of the work going on.  But these often just scratch the surface, especially if we are serious about not just doing any innovation, but doubling down on innovations that can have a significant impact on the community or the world.  What can we do with our spaces to continue to drive that sense of mission? To engage the members in exploring the horizons? What about rotating art exhibits from the local college?  Photos and stories of people who need innovations? Statistics?  Places for participants to write their goals, visions, motivations, in a place where they will see what they wrote regularly?

Designing for innovation is not about meeting a certain chic aesthetic, or creating something that supposedly screams “exciting” or “innovative!!!!!!” And can become accustomed to unusual things pretty quickly, so novelty isn't going to help the spaces facilitate meaningful innovation, especially not over the long term. But design that enables flexibility, supports the involvement of the widest possible range of people,  accounts for the varying dimensions of creativity and helps participants keep their eye on the bigger purpose of the work will create a setting that helps innovation flourish.

I don’t think that purpose-built innovation space is necessarily needed — and I’m not convinced at all that kegerators, foosball tables, bright colors and high top tables have any impact on whether meaningful innovation happens within a space or not. So much of what we associate with innovation is trappings, window dressings, designed to signal that This Place is Different without doing anything to directly accelerate humans trying to innovate. And, like so many other issues in innovation, that’s a factor of us not thinking very deeply or critically about how innovation happens, and how spaces can help or hurt those efforts. But we know enough about people - the source of innovation - to be able to do much better.

Why isn't Design Thinking enough?

toolbox-illustration_csp22301325.jpg

To continue the line of thought from yesterday’s critique of design thinking

So why do we resist more meaningful or hands-on engagement of the people for whom we are problem-solving? Why do we persist in doing it the Industrial Age way when it doesn't take much looking to see how that approach has failed? Why do we struggle to unlock the potential of community-wide innovation?

I think there's several key reasons-- both for clinging to the old models, and for making only tentative steps along the continuum:

First, security.  The security of believing that someone has the answer figured out, in hand. That someone might be ourselves, the Experts, confident in our knowledge and oblivious to our blind spots. Or it might be ourselves as the recipients of that wisdom, grateful to sit back and let someone else make the hard decisions.  

Second, learned behavior.  If we have come up in a tradition of expertise and authority (personally or professionally), then That's The Way It Should Be.  We fill the assigned role of the expert or the helpless subject. When we do that, we don't have to ask critical questions, we don’t have to make any powers that be mad, we mask our uncertainty or gut sense that we don't really know what we're doing. We fill the role we are set up to play--as the source of solutions, or the recipient of paternalistic care.

Third, uncertainty. We don't have to have much expertise to know that the more people we get involved, the messier and more unpredictable the process will be.  People, expert or layperson, can be complex, confusing, contradictory and combative. The more people, we infer, the more risk of everything going sideways.

Fourth, lack of the right process management techniques.  Just as design thinking necessitates very different skills from conventional analysis, working with a wider range of people in a more meaningful way will require new activities, steps, and a new tool kit as well.

There's no reason why we can't take the next step to more meaningful collaboration, to co-creation, just like we learned to use design thinking methods to get past the barriers embedded in our older methods. To get there, we have to see the benefits of co-creation and we have to develop a tool kit for getting there.

That’s nothing we haven’t as a culture done many times before. It's just the next step in our long evolution. But we need to get that transition in process, fast.


Design thinking: not enough?

Design Thinking is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo

https://hbr.org/2018/09/design-thinking-is-fundamentally-conservative-and-preserves-the-status-quo

Why Design Thinking works

https://hbr.org/2018/09/why-design-thinking-works


When you find two articles in one week, in the same respected publication, that make such different proclamations about the same thing, there’s something interesting going on.  

How can design thinking both deserve accolades and apparently fall short at the same time?  It’s not a case of good or bad, It’s a case of whether you are looking at it from the end of the Industrial/beginning of the Fusion era boundary, or whether you are thinking in New Economy, Fusion-era terms.   

As “Why Design Thinking Works” lays out very nicely, design thinking (and its subsidiaries, like empathy-based or human-centered design) have marked a significant move away from traditional ways in which we have solved problems for other humans.  As befitting our Enlightenment and Industrial Era teachers, our base problem solving method - in product design, urban planning, programs, you name it - has revolved around a pretty basic process:

Traditional problem solving =Identify, analyze, create and apply solution at top, apply down.

In traditional problem solving methods (think scientific method or conventional top-down management),  the entire process - from identifying the problem through rolling out the solution - is done by, or under the direct control of, a  Leader - an expert, a senior person, the boss. With the exception of any research that’s beyond one person’s capacity, the entire process springs fully-formed from the mind of one person, or a small group of like minded and like-authorized people: the Leaders, the Experts.

Part of the breakthrough of design thinking was the idea that an intellectual Leader-driven analysis doesn’t always generate the most appropriate solution, particularly when the people who need the solution are in any way different from the Leaders.  Design thinking emphasizes a deep and multi-dimensional understanding of the person for whom the solution is being deployed.

Design thinking supplements -  and sometimes replaces - the conventional abstract analytical methods with striving to empathize with the person who will use or be impacted by the solution.  What do they encounter? What do they experience that won’t show up in words or numbers?  How do they grip the device? What visual improvements will lessen the sense of stigma that’s preventing some of them from using it?

A designer coming from this tradition will use the tools of an ethnographer as much or more than an artist or a biologist.  They’ll do the same physical work as the subject. They’ll dig deep into the family and community context that shapes that experience. They’ll closely observe body language and other non-verbalized tools. They’ll process the information using methods that put insights into the lived experience at the center, even if quantitative data couldn’t measure it.  And they will share learnings and initial concepts with the people that they are designing for, repeatedly.

So,

Design thinking= Embed/empathize, synthesize (different tool set that relies on intuitive sense of resonance and pattern more than data), designers create/apply solution.

It would be hard to say that this isn’t a more humane way to solve problems.  The huge negative impacts, the unintended consequences and damage - caused by dangerous 19th-century industrial looms, 20th-century failed public policies for third world poverty, and everything in between - can trace its root back to the arrogant assumption that Leaders knew how to design the thing right, without understanding the experience of the people who would be using it.  

So Design Thinking represents a significant step toward solutions that are more likely to work for the people who most need them to work.  Design Thinking recognizes that the “experts” don’t have all the information necessary to create an optimal solution, and that lived experience, including the emotional and subjective, is important to whether a solution works or not.  If we are perceiving that the Fusion Age will require greater reliance on human creative and integrative potential, and networked rather than exclusively top-down problem-solving, then Design Thinking represents a beneficial method for unlocking more beneficial human creativity.    

But this is where the “Fundamentally Conservative and Protects the Status Quo” part comes in.

As the author of that article, Natasha Iskander, notes,

Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process. In doing so, it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty — like climate change — where doing things the way we always have done them is a sure recipe for disaster.

In other words, Dr. Iskander asserts that traditional “expert-ness,” at its core, is ill-suited to solving high-uncertainty issues -- the kinds of issues that seem to be of paramount importance, certainly in this moment at the beginning of the Fusion Era.  And that Design Thinking doesn’t do enough to change the equation. The thesis: even if you’re engaging more actively with the subjects of your design work than you would have in the Industrial Era, your status as the “expert” is blocking us off from some portion of the innovation thinking that we need.  If we are truly going to figure out solutions to our most urgent and vexing problems, we have to engage the inherent expert-ness of the people closest to the problem -- even, and perhaps especially when, our cultural knee-jerk reactions prevent us from seeing them as Experts.  

It’s an extension of the common critique levelled at Industrial Era top-down solution design: you don’t know what you don’t know, oh Expert, and you’re blocking us all from impactful solutions as a result.  

Years ago, I wrote a rather emphatic piece on how one of the paradigms of the New Urbanist planning and design movement had made colossal mistakes because he relied on his own “genius” and only grudgingly included the required public feedback in his plans. He asserted that designs would be much better if (I’m paraphrasing) the public would just get out of the way and let The Master do his work.

This passage talks in terms of real estate development, but I think those words are still relevant to Dr. Iskander’s point, and to the crucial challenge of meaningfully engaging everyone - not just our conventional Experts:

We should have learned by now that our Grand Visionary Designers are not infallible. Our landscapes are littered with Grand Visionary Architecture that was supposed to fix something, or create Something Big. And so few of those grand visions ever came out the way they were promised, or managed not to create a new set of problems....

This history is exactly why Duany is wrong about the importance of public participation.  Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns.  When residents resist a new development – even when they supposedly “don’t like change” – it doesn’t take many questions or much effort to develop a real understanding of their concerns and their point of view.

We fail consistently to realize that the locals are there every day and we are not. Local residents have a level of detail and a critical perspective that can make the difference between whether a proposed project supports the health of the community or creates a new burden….

Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know.   That is the real mark of wisdom.

If the people who live around a proposed development oppose a development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are already all around us.

So we need a new set of methods, a Design Thinking 2.0, that meaningfully engages the insights of the people who are closest to the challenge we are trying to solve, and engages them all the way through, not just at the beginning or at a few special feedback points.  

But how do we do that?  It will take new methods, new systems, that we are just starting to figure out.  More on that soon.


The industrial age and the fusion age

 

In the upcoming Everyone Innovates Here book, I found myself grappling with what to call the emerging economic/cultural/technical era that most of us feel that we are entering. I decided that the term that worked the best for me was the Fusion Age, but I only briefly unpack that in the book -- I needed to lay it out enough to make the case, but not end up down a futurism rabbit hole.  We are still squinting through the mist at this point, and I’m sure the name that the historians use won’t settle in place for a couple of decades yet.

 

But I think it’s important for all of us to be thinking hard about what seems to be coming and how that is already beginning to change how we work and communicate, and even think.  As I do spend some time on in the book, a variety of pressures are pushing us to make that transition faster than we probably would if left to our own devices.

 

Chances are you have already encountered, read about or at least sensed some of these evolutions. So here’s a Cliff Notes version of the transitions as they seem to be unfolding:

 

  • Labor-> Problem solving.  The Industrial Era depended on a plentiful supply of labor who could be trained, coerced and structured to deliver products efficiently (hence, the assembly line).  Fusion Era challenges appear to lend themselves less to the application of routine, infinitely repeatable processes, but they depend on the ability to generate creative solutions to problems.  Businesses increasing prize problem-solving and teamwork over most other skills, even though systems ranging from education to human resource management still often resemble Industrial Era counterparts.

 

  • Supply chains -> Networks.  Industrial-Era businesses typically relied on a daisy chain of suppliers -- and when possible, they directly controlled the entire chain - for example, U.S. Steel’s control over everything from the Minnesota ore fields to the ships to the steel mills.  By contrast, even our early Fusion Era businesses are counseled to focus only on their “core” business -- they rely on an extensive network of vendors, and may not even own their own office buildings.

 

  • Protocols -> Adaptive systems.  Industrial-Era businesses and organizations tended to rely on codified processes -- manuals, procedures, regulations.  Fusion Era organizations appear increasingly likely to rely on adaptive and evolving processes, such as the Holacracy method adopted by companies like Zappos that are trying to keep a competitive innovation edge in a field experiencing rapid evolution.

 

  • Defenders -> Belayers.  Much has been written about what “modern” leadership should look like, and those writings bear little resemblance to the Organization Man of the 1960s.  One way of thinking about this transition: traditional leadership derived much of its command-and-control approach from a responsibility to defend the organization from challenges, whether from outside or internal, that threatened or challenged the organization’s structure, culture, norms, etc.  Contemporary leadership approaches are focusing more and more on enabling and empowering employees -- like a belayer on a climbing team, whose job is to make certain that the climber can reach the pinnacle.

 

  • Buckets -> Currents.  Industrial-Era processes tend to group things, separate things, classify things.  Again, the traditional assembly line gives us our best mental image of that -- men in the town where I grew up spent years executing the same step in the manufacturing process, like installing a fender or cutting hot steel into specified lengths,  over and over again. Manufacturing made an early shift to the Fusion Era on this front, with team-based methods and systematized quality control becoming the norm from auto manufacturing to paper mills by the 1990s. Now most manufacturing processes have a team that follows the product through much, if not all, of the production system together.  

 

  • Sole source -> Aggregator/Curator.  In the Industrial era, most of your information came from a limited number of sources: one or two newspapers, three TV channels, perhaps a couple of magazines or the occasional club meeting presentation.  We are acutely aware at this moment as to how that has changed, as formal and informal sources across the spectrum have exploded. One of the most profound long-term implications of this appears to be the rise of the curator/aggregator function -- the vetting, packaging and presentation of sources.  On the surface, this can look like a return to the older form, but the role is significantly different, as the curator depends on its reputation for selecting correctly and does not directly control the editorial. The proliferation of professional conferences, sometimes targeting very narrow verticals, appears to speak to this emerging Fusion Age role.  

 

  • Efficient -> Resilient.  The Industrial Age, perhaps more than anything else, prized efficiency. The entire purpose of the assembly line, the paper mill, the mega-farm, the state education system, was to gain efficiencies, both in terms of speed and in terms of consistency and predictability.  But as writers such as Nassim Taleb have demonstrated, efficiency comes at a cost: the more efficient a system is, the more fragile it is. A system that is designed to optimize efficiency depends on a complex chain of elements designed to fit precisely….but if one piece fails, there is no backup.  And in a world of high unpredictability, resiliency arguably matters more than optimal efficiency.

 

I will unpack the ramifications of some of these shifts in upcoming posts.  But these shifts drive Econogy’s mission: we understand that we need new ways of working, learning and collaborating to thrive in the Fusion Era, and that is true of experienced professionals and students alike.  The sooner we learn to Create Fusion in our work and our communities, the sooner we will overcome the most stubborn of our current challenges.

How to find the Path

If everything is changing, how do we know which way to go?

If the ways we work, buy, learn, collaborate, discover, you name it, are being transformed, how do we know what our business or organization should do to succeed?

And if all of that is happening so fast that we haven’t absorbed the last thing before it’s time to move on, then how do we make the right decisions to get us to a strong long-term future?

Everything has changed.  And chances are it will change a whole lot more.

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During my years as an urban planner, I based dozens of plans on linear extrapolations. If Town X averaged 3% growth per decade over the past 30 years, then we projected future population growth as a continuation of that 3% trend. Employment changing? Households smaller? Less in-migration?

I’m ashamed to admit today, we didn’t always ask those questions. If we had, some of those towns might have had different plans.  

But businesses and organizations make the same mistake.

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Econogy Talent Group was built to accelerate sustainable change in a future that we can’t simply extrapolate.  Businesses that operate today the same way they did in 1985… are probably no longer businesses.

ETG specializes in change.  Our best work comes when there is no tried-and-true blueprint to follow, because our youth-driven Innovation Teams don’t see the barriers that more experienced people take for granted.  

One of the tools we use to help our Innovation Teams find new solutions is the Pathfinder framework.  We’ve used Pathfinder with businesses, nonprofits, and even neighborhoods. And it consistently works.

Pathfinder

  • Equips our clients with the Insight they need  -- about themselves, and about the world through which they are moving.

  • Enables them to articulate the Impact they want to make -- not just in terms of some grand ideal, but in terms of the concrete behaviors and access needed to make that Impact.

  • Identifies several alternative Pathways -- specific strategies and tactics to make that Impact happen

  • Creates a synchronized Action Plan to make it happen.  

Pathfinder helped one of our clients raise $5 million in start-up funds for an online business that was the first in its industry. Pathways helped another client identify a way to meet its Impact goals while at the same time setting it apart from the competition.  And Pathways is even helping an entire community define and claim its own identity - and leverage their strengths to attract new residents and businesses.  

You can learn more about Econogy’s Pathfinder method here. We’d love to learn about how we can help you find a Pathway to your future.