• On the misuse of user satisfaction surveys in social services

    User satisfaction surveys are perhaps the most problematic tool used by social service agencies to assess performance. Not only is self-reporting notoriously unreliable, especially when proxies are involved (families, circles or staff responding on behalf of users), but it can make service users complicit in validating services that are not helping them and that may even be doing them harm.

    1. Satisfaction is not an indicator of efficacy even though it is often confused as such by service delivery organizations, funders and accrediting bodies. Personal satisfaction tells us about someone’s feelings and impressions, it does not tell us about what actually happened. The taste of a thing is very different than its nutritional value.

    Worse, setting satisfaction metrics as effectiveness targets in outcomes reports is a category mistake because our perceptions are likely to differ from reality. To equate them is like saying we can advance scientific knowledge if we can increase people’s perceptions that they have it. In fact, it is quite possible for people to receive a very poor service and yet rate it very highly.

    2. Service recipients’ exposure to other services, or to different categories and types of services, or to a range of interactions and outcomes, may be limited. Without this wider exposure in which to ground feedback, levels of satisfaction becomes less helpful/informative because service users have not had an opportunity to develop and refine their expectations. We may feel good that someone who has been in our services for a long time rates them highly, but would they still do so if they had sampled others sorts of services? Without that exposure, satisfaction surveys can become fishbowl applause, supplying services with a false sense of desirability.

    3. Social service organizations often emphasize safety, sanctuary and satisfaction over catalyzing personal growth and social transformation. When that happens, they can create contexts that are caring, fun and social, but that don’t actually launch people into good lives. Instead, they can foster regression, complacency and ongoing dependence. High satisfaction with those services should not be taken as an affirmation, but as an admonition that we are not fulfilling our ultimate mission to help people live fuller and better lives. Satisfaction can be inimical to good outcomes. Consider, for example, Fenton’s study around paying doctors according to levels of patient satisfaction: it resulted in higher health care costs, because doctors were more likely to prescribe tests and treatments to satisfy patient expectations, and much higher mortality rates, because they were less likely to challenge patients around unhealthy habits.

    User satisfaction surveys have a place in social services to the extent that they provide us with information around how users are experiencing our services. But too often the preponderance of “outputs” reporting and absence of good outcomes data means satisfaction surveys become substitutes for quality. We think that if those receiving services are satisfied with what we think is important, and if they would recommend us to others, we must be doing good work. That is a fallacious conclusion. More importantly, from an ethical perspective, we run the risk of enlisting the voices of service recipients to validate services that ought not to be validated.

  • Problematizing Scale in the Social sector (Part 3): Process v. Products

    This is the last, I think, in a series that critiques our preoccupation with scale, especially within the social sector. It’s not that scaling is a bad thing, it’s just not nearly as simply as it’s being portrayed. In this last piece, we argue that because the social sector is deeply relational, the conditions under which solutions emerge are as much part of the intervention as the solution itself, and that this is what gives it legitimacy. Further, in those rare instances where charities and non-profits do engage in rigorous social R&D, the result may not themselves be scalable because the specific contexts of the work are unique. More importantly, there are qualitatively distinct characteristics of human-centered design and co-creation that resist scaling, especially when compared to traditional top-down pilot programs that are wholly baked within the system and don’t involve users until it comes time for program enrolment.

    Some of these characteristics are as follows:

    1. Relational legitimacy. Contextual research, especially deep immersive methods such as ethnography or cultural anthropology, are deeply curious epistemic dispositions that build rapport and credibility between local representatives of “the system” and user groups. The representatives are not problem-solving, counselling, or imposing a professional narrative; they are paying attention. When people spend time with users groups in their everydayness, across programs, contexts and time, the stiff conventional roles are discarded and authentic connection and relationships emerge. These relationships, rooted in vulnerability, goodwill and trust, are the cornerstone to whatever solution emerges.
    1. Method as Intervention. Human-centered design and co-creation are exceptional examples of promoting self-determination and person-centeredness because they invite user groups to articulate the problems and to shape the solutions. This invitation, this empowering of an often oppressed and disempowered population group, is itself a powerful intervention. It is part of the final product and yet cannot be scaled when the solution is exported to other jurisdictions.
    1. Ownership. These methods create a sense of local ownership because stakeholders have participated in the solution from the very beginning. It is a community solution, one wherein professionals may have played a role but they are not the sole owners. The moment the system undertakes to scale a solution that has been birthed under such conditions, it presumes the conceit of ownership and users in new jurisdictions are again relegated to the role of helpees who can enroll if they qualify. Unless there is some sort of adaptation methodology that allows for a transfer of ownership, the solution will belong to the system, not a community of stakeholders.

    When a solution is grown in a local context and then scaled to a different one, there is a presumption that the solution is discretely bound such that it can be extracted and replicated without any loss of fidelity. This is rarely the case in social services.

    For starters, the new context is probably anything but receptive; it could even be toxic to the solution. Organizations, their employees and user groups will likely experience any new program or service, even ones that are not particularly innovative, as an imposition from without—as yet another example of those with institutional power blundering into regional complexities. The prevalence of wariness and mistrust between most governments and service organizations, and between organizations and user groups, can salt the soil against any program replication–especially if it signals a future trend preferred by decision-makers, or if it is associated with having to give something up/closing other programs.

    More importantly, the originating conditions involved methods, competencies and relationships that are essential to solutions taking root. Unless the new jurisdiction has these characteristics, it is unreasonable to think that any scaled solutions can be adopted, adapted and continuously iterated. Instead, as suggested in a previous post, the solution will be “frozen” in some form that won’t be particularly well adapted to local conditions, and which, when introduced, will exacerbate misgivings around agendas and applicability.

    The social sector is heavily relational. Irrespective of the expert knowledge, competencies and credentials that are brought to bear, such characteristics are virtually always mediated by relationships. Too often, these relationships are saddled by dynamics that are not particularly constructive—where power accrues to the professional, deficit lenses prevail, and the relational binaries are restricted to humiliating ones of helpers:helpees.

    Involving user groups in defining the problems and outcomes, and developing solutions and testing them, changes power dynamics and relationships. It becomes an integral part of the intervention. In those rare instances where co-creation does occur, we cannot assume that the solution that emerges can be disentangled from its origin, from the relationships and processes that gave it birth, and embedded in new sociopolitical and relational contexts.

  • Inviting Arts & Humanities into Social Services

    This piece of writing was first produced for the Centre for Welfare Reform on August 23, 2017. I am republishing here as I am hoping to advance this topic in a series of experiments and writing over the next while.

    From June 12-14th 2017, we spent time with Exeko, an organization in Montreal that uses the arts and philosophy to advance social change. Sounds esoteric and highbrow – but it wasn’t. It was the opposite of that. It was about reclaiming our collective humanity, and with it, recovering a more productive ground to our work. Too often, the social services sector gets stuck on basic needs – food, shelter, clothing. Safety. Getting By. Coping. Our craft has been about supplying that stability.

    But somewhere, we lost sight of the deeper things.

    Beauty. Meaning. Hope. Mystery. Love. 

    We forgot that these things are perhaps more basic.

    Without them, we cannot live.

    Without them, the other things merely prolong our deaths.

    The arts and philosophy are ways we have always tried to uncover, recover, create and cultivate meaning. Perhaps it is time to bring them into our everyday practice. To see if we can blend it into our professional codes and training, our protocols and strategies. This shift is about asking whether we might do more than feed and clothe the body, but whether we might also feed the soul, nourish the imagination, strengthen the spirit, and engage the intellect. This shift recognises that the levers of change lie less in things, and more in how we see our world and ourselves.

     June 12th

    At the Museum of Vancouver, and against the beautiful backdrop of an ocean inlet and the North Shore Mountains, about 100 people gathered to hear how the arts and humanities might assist them with the change they want to see in the world.

    A couple things stood out from this presentation.

    First, the notions of intellectual marginalization and intellectual emancipation. The former is about how our assumptions around people’s intellect inhibit us from having important conversations with them. This includes not inviting them to participate in problem-solving and idea generation, even when the subject-matter is about them. We assume that “proper” reflection and analysis is beyond their grasp, and we dismiss their sensibilities, wisdom and experience as flawed, or not material, or not relevant. In this way we condemn them to powerlessness. And, in our conceit, we don’t invite critical perspectives to help us understand and navigate complexity.

    Intellectual emancipation occurs when one is able to overcome the things that are holding one intellectually captive. This recognises the essential role that thought and imagination plays in dislodging the yoke of oppression–to understand the shape of the barriers within ourselves and within the world, and to cast our vision past them. It enables us to discern the gaps between what is and what could be, and to become active agents of change. There can be no overcoming or self-overcoming if we are unable to problematize our circumstances nor imagine our possibilities.

    When one is intellectually marginalised and treated as intellectually inferior, it is impossible for intellectual emancipation to occur. One is not invited to criticize, construct or negotiate our institutional norms and social conventions. When we assume the intellectual inferiority of the people we serve, we strip them of voice. Of power. Of their futures. In this way we diminish ourselves as “oppressors,” and we diminish the greatness in “other” and the world.

    Second, the notion of the presumption of intelligence. This is not a philosophical or scientific proposition; it is an ethical posture. It is a conviction that (1) all intelligences and perspectives matter and are needed to co-create a better world and (2) emancipation is the moral rejoinder to oppression and (3) treating others as intellectual equals–that is, as persons whose perspectives, sensibilities, and experiences are just as relevant (and irrelevant) as others–expands the possibilities of self and world, which is morally preferable to restricting them.

    Where notions of intellectual inferiority are imputed, intellectual marginalization prevails, and possibility is severely constricted. The Pygmalion effect means that people internalise and perform the perceptions we have of them. When we treat people as inferior, which is how perception is manifested, they come to embody those preconceptions and the possibilities for themselves and their role in the world are greatly attenuated. When we treat people as equals, their possibilities greatly expand. One disposition shrinks opportunity, one opens it up. What does our duty require of us?

    Sure, someone could always ask:

    “suppose there were ways to definitively measure all aspects of intelligence? Wouldn’t we then have to concede that some intelligences are superior or inferior to others? In such a case, wouldn’t we need to dispense with the presumption of intelligence and realign our attitude to recognize the fact that some people might be less intelligent than others?”

    The answer is: “I don’t care” (regarding perfect scientific measurement) and “no” (regarding the attitude adjustment). It doesn’t matter.

    The deficiency that matters is around inclusion, not intelligence. It is a choice whether to organize the world along superior and inferior lines, or among lines of equality. When we choose the latter, we grow possibility, inclusion and the foundations of a democratic society. When we legitimize marginalization as a natural and logical state of affairs, we dehumanize and disempower others, and our society is the poorer for it.

     June 13th

    With this as background, what are the implications for the disability sector? With some leaders and thinkers from disability organizations, we parsed through what the implications of this might be for us.

    The first observation is that this notion of shifting practice so that we can more intentionally address deeper needs such as meaning, beauty and hope, is neither a criticism of what we do, nor a replacement for it. It is completely complementary. Our work until now has been important work. Critical work. At the same time, the focus of the social services sector on basic needs has created the gap that small organizations like Exeko are trying to address. Can we create a model in BC that infuses arts and philosophy into our everyday practice so that we are addressing both basic needs and the deeper ones?

    Once upon a time, our organizations were among the champions of change. We stood with families to close the institutions and turn social conventions and expectations on their heads. Can we do it again? And what would our role be?

    Certainly, it is not our role to intellectually emancipate others–that is an absurd pretension. We can only emancipate ourselves. However, we do have a role in constructing the conditions under which people can have opportunities to pursue self-overcoming and empowerment, to pursue beauty and meaning. But what is that role? Is it just about getting out of the way? A resourcing role? A credo? Pressing for systemic shifts in practices or assumptions?

    Every locality is different–each has it’s own history, it’s own collection of people, assumptions, values, protocols, norms, culture, etc. This is, in effect, is its terroir. What is the terroir of British Columbia, and the disability sector more specifically, that will allow experimentations to fill the gaps in our present system? Our intent is not to simply import Exeko’s approaches and to transplant them into our local context. The context is so different, they may not take. Rather, we should be thinking about what would make sense in BC and what would be more readily nourished, adopted and/or spread. What is the soil of our system, and what can be more readily grown in it?

    In Exeko’s context, it made sense for them to become event-peddlers. They were not delivering services, rather, they were showing up in the contexts of services and prompting completely different conversations. They opened up space to talk about things like story, music, and justice–not accidentally, or on the fly, but with forethought and intent. They brought in subject-experts to participate. Over time, attendance grew, self-expression grew, everyday conversations changed, culture changed. People changed. This should not be surprising. While the meeting of basic needs keep us alive and safe, it is the confrontation with beauty, meaning and love that summons us to our lives. That instructs us in our own value and worth. That urges us to wrest back control from the people and things that are stealing our futures.

    Can we introduce something like this into the context of our services, though preferably not as a traditional sort of program or curriculum. Can professional staff, rather than observing these conversations, convene them? Can the people we serve convene them? Can we fill the gap with something different than what usually fills gaps in our professional systems? For example, do we need to assign a trickster role within our organizations (a character in aboriginal mythology that disrupts norms and conventions and prompts change)?

    And where better to begin than with the language of “disability” which captures and ensnares people, which makes them, represents them, and situates them in a specific sociocultural context? Language is powerful; it is a power that the ancient spell-casters intuited. Today, within the disability context, it is our social, academic and professional Institutions that cast the spells of making and unmaking. Is it time to invite our poets, musicians, story-tellers and philosophers to make the incantations? To teach people with disabilities to become their own spell-casters? Is it time to be enchanted by new meanings? What if we invited them to reflect with the people we serve on language and identity and to create new meanings, new inflections, richer nuances? There is much ado on identity and representation politics within the academic literature and popular media, but persons with intellectual disabilities are severely underrepresented in those arenas. Do we bring arts and philosophy to bear, first, on language and identity? Self-discovery, excavation and creation?

    Lastly, we will need to keep evaluation in mind–it’s a tricky thing. How do we measure culture shift? Social transformation? Emancipation and opportunity? Are there ways to get at flourishing and happiness (yes, though they may be onerous). That said, what matters to whom, and how we count it, is often about power and politics. Can we see evaluation less as a funder-driven requirement, and more of a means of enquiry that helps us to detect patterns around shifts in identity, emotions and wellbeing? And over time? Can we avoid the philosophical debate between positivism v constructivism (and the rabbit hole of what is knowable and how), and take a pragmatic position that focuses simply on learning and growth in individuals?

    So, what next? 

    It seems that we are agreed that it is time to address deeper needs, and that to do so, we will want to draw from the wisdom of the arts and the humanities. Do we begin with a creed? An invitation? Another conversation? Or do we each undertake to try something ourselves or within our organizations, something that adds light to our path?

    While the existential imperative to live fully must not be held hostage to a planning process, but must be answered daily, the more that we can plan and strategize together, the better hope we have of being able to create abundant conditions for human flourishing.


  • Searching for Chaos in the Chaordic Design Process

    “Chaordic” is a term coined by Dee Hock to refer to the state of optimal equilibrium between chaos and order. Too much disorder (lack of rules, policies, procedures, etc.), and employees don’t know what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to go about doing it. Too much structure, on the other hand, produces a rigidity that stifles creativity and initiative. Both are demoralizing for employees. Both squander talent and opportunity.

    Hock recommends a “chaordic design” process that will establish this equilibrium and that will result in fostering a dynamic and thriving organizational ecosystem. That process goes like this:

    1. Everyone getting crystal clear about the purposes of the organization
    2. Establishing principles that will support those purposes, and which provide a framework for decision-making
    3. Identifying the participants/stakeholders who should be considered as a result of those purposes and principles.
    4. Determining and establishing the organizational concept [or structure and functions] that will best deliver on the purposes and principles.
    5. Establishing a constitution that embodies all of the above and which details everyone’s rights and duties and the nature of the relationship between participants.
    6. Develop the suite of practices to achieve the purposes of the organization.

    Because everyone is participating in these exercises, and because they occur over long and/or intense stretches of time, Hock believes that they will produce a sense of internal coherence and trust that will produce the right environment for both cooperation and competition, for following the rules and exercising creativity and initiative.

    In this blog I argue that the chaordic design process is really just a recommendation for an optimal ordering process. It does not contain any mechanism to sustain the tension between order and disorder over time, nor is there any test to know when that equilibrium has been lost, nor is there any corrective process for re-establishing that lost equilibrium.

    1. Both the purpose and principles are processes that bind employees into a unified and coherent direction. The principles are the criteria against which decisions are framed and action is judged. But principles are curious things. When they are highly entrenched it is less about coherence and more about conformance. And it is a more insidious kind of conformance than conformance to practice. Breaches to principles or values are far more serious because it is a threat against the purposes and collective meaning of the tribe. They are characterized less as performance errors and more as ethical shortcomings. They invite judgment and censure. Employees who question principles or who don’t observe them can become ostracized, stripped of career advancement opportunities, and/or terminated. This only drives deeper cultural conformance. It does not supply a space for plurality or eclecticism, and it does not legitimate the existence of constructive tensions.

    When principles are mostly dormant and are not enforced, it may be because the organization recognizes complexity. Of the hundreds of principles and values that may be called upon to support “purpose,” it is unrealistic to think only a handful are sufficient, or that the decisions being made across the organization are not informed by myriad principles and values. The insistence of conformance to a handful of principles is also dangerous because it can legitimize a particular ideology or the appropriateness of ideological entrenchment.

    In establishing a binding sense of purposes/principles, chaordic design provides for potent coherency and order, but it does not create conditions to nurture their opposites. Should there be a principle around questioning principles? Around drawing from other values or principles when the purpose calls for it? Or, when there are higher purposes that are greater than an organization’s purpose? Are the principles something to inform thinking or are they absolute? Should there be routines to regularly challenge/question them? Are there additional principles that should be swapped in or trialed? How do we know when the purpose or principles have become too dogmatic and restrictive? What do we do then? It can’t be simply about establishing a new set of principles or we are just making an adjustment to the ordering process.

    1. The constitution, organizational concepts and practices help to order operational processes in order to deliver on the purpose. They are about adding “the right kinds” of structure—policies, processes, functions, etc., that will serve the purpose pronounced by the collective. None of these processes introduce any inherently destabilizing mechanisms or functions; they are all about consolidation. In time, as it goes with organizations, there will be accretions of structure—more policies, more procedures, more roles, more codification of how the parts relate, more practice definition, etc.

    The natural predilection of systems is towards order. Policies get written and amended, they don’t get unwritten. We add to our processes and procedures, we don’t eliminate them. We introduce more and more training regimens, communication protocols, and labour rules. Getting better is about getting clearer; it’s about consistent practice. It’s about saying more, not keeping quiet. Whatever the stated purpose and principles of organizations, the systems that underpin them have tacit values around predictability, consistency and control, and this is what they are driven to achieve. How else can the purpose be consistently and excellently achieved?

    There is nothing intrinsic to Chaordic Design that answers this tendency. It speaks more to what sort of ordering process will give an organization a great start, but it fails to recognize the forces and currents that drive increasing order in systems, and it does not recommend measures to countervail them.

    I like to use the analogy of an empty room to signify a start-up organization or project. The tendency is to fill it with functioning furniture (mission, purpose, values/principles, roles, policies, procedures, practices, etc.). Once you begin, three things happen: (1) the furniture has a rebound effect on setting the possibilities and culture of the space, (2) the furniture determines what other furniture is needed/missing—logical concomitants that reinforce the shape the organization or program will take, (3) the furniture keeps coming until the room gets too cluttered to move. I suspect this trend is unavoidable, but chaordic design does not slow the trend of cluttering the room, it doesn’t introduce random furniture that can provide creative tensions, it doesn’t recommend culling of the clutter that accumulates, and it doesn’t throw a switch that tells us the room is a disgrace and it’s time to start over in a new one.

    It is interesting that to be human is to experience oneself as a contradiction. These contradictions lie at the heart of religions and the humanities. We are free and not free, divine and fallen, body and soul, animal and moral beings, etc. We have conflicting needs, desires and beliefs. The lack of a sense of a coherent self results in anxiety. How shall we act under such circumstances? Yet while these tensions are features of being human, we do not tolerate them in our human systems. They are emphatically resolved or ignored. This is probably why we see pendulum shifts in organizations, sectors and industries—because we cannot occupy the space in between. The trick, the greatest trick of all, will be legitimating angst in organizations. It will be about:

    • learning to erect enough structure, but not too much
    • providing the necessary clarity, but leaving behind the necessary ambiguity
    • everyone being a little unhappy and uncomfortable, but understanding why
    • managing through a combination of standards and curious conversations
    • having guides to one’s job but not instruction manuals
    • preserving the balance between techne and experiment.

    Unfortunately, while “chaord” is a useful metaphor with which to think about organizational dynamics, and while it recognizes the need to sustain the tension between order and disorder, “chaordic design” does not supply that equilibrium. It doesn’t confront the ordering forces at work within human organizations and it doesn’t know how to guard against them. While ad hoc solutions may be proffered by some of the more thoughtful practitioners, they are not integral to the process.

  • Problematizing Scale in the Social Sector (Part 2): Different Economies

    Social innovation discourse has a persistent intoxication with big, scalable ideas. But in our mind, social innovation has patterned itself after idealized private sector models without critical discernment about what might be applicable and what might not. One cannot simply supplant “financial return on investment” with “social return for investment” and then run a social proposition through the same private sector mechanisms. The ecosystem is different. The ends are different. The market is different. While the private sector provides reference points with which to think about social innovation strategies, they ought not to be applied wholesale.

    For starters, the validation of goods and services in the free market lies in the demand for them. The more a service is purchased, and the more purchases are sustained over time, the more that service is validated. In the social economy, because the government is the customer and not the end user, there are different market implications and effects:

    1. The needs of service recipients do not completely align with those of governments’ and service providers, and yet those receiving services are excluded from the transaction. This bizarre omission in the demand and supply chain presents a material aberration from what occurs in the free market economy. The intended customer—those accessing services—are disempowered rather than empowered, and the experience is often one of humiliation as there is no reciprocal exchange of something of value.
    1. It becomes trivial to say that services are validated because there is a paying customer (government). A social return on investment is different than a financial one and consists of different validation criteria. What are the outcomes? What is the impact? And yet, program evaluation is notoriously inadequate. The things that usually get counted are things that don’t really get at effectiveness or impact at all—things like satisfaction surveys, number of hours of service, number of consumer touch points with a service, etc. Outputs and efficiencies tend to be the measurements of social service systems, while a better life is the hope of users. It is no wonder that existing solutions don’t respond to user needs and yet still persist.
    1. The urgency of the problem is confused with a demand for existing services. It is a confusion that occurs frequently in the minds of service providers and funders. The desperate need for solutions, even when paired with capital flow, is not a validation of the solutions already in place.
    1. Demand is artificial because end users are driven to only a handful of solutions (versus nothing at all). The volume of people in services produces a false sense of service validation—something that is only exacerbated and exaggerated when there are waitlists.
    1. An extensive and uninterrupted flow of capital into the social sector diminishes the imperative to innovate—especially when an ecosystem is developed and consolidated around this capital flow (policy, procurement, delivery, accountability, messaging, etc.). What is the urgency to innovate when the taps are always on? During periods of budgetary contractions, agencies tend to apply political pressure to get funds to preserve the status quo, rather than re-imagining solutions. Concerns over system sustainability begin with the assumption that the system is working; it just lacks sufficient funding. Rarely, if ever, is the generative question asked: “ought the current system be sustained?”

    The absence of a social R&D function means that the imperative to innovate is unlikely to come from within. Irrespective of where that imperative comes from, there is little or no in-house competency to deliver it. These are key reasons why there are so many static programs and services within the social sector.

    These conditions in the social economy can make the scaling of solutions particularly hazardous. This is because they are more likely to be adapted to the needs of existing institutions and their interconnected systems, which will all have a role in shaping them, rather than to end-users. They are more likely to be appropriated and adapted to the very system(s) they are supposedly disrupting.

    Further, when a solution is scaled-out, it needs to be codified for the purposes of replication—purposes, policies, procedures, employee roles and training, and so on. This codification only hastens it along the conservation continuum and, without any capacity or competency within the host organization to meaningfully iterate, evaluate or embed innovative solutions, it will quickly come to resemble the sorts of familiar offerings we see in our social institutions—offerings that are rigid, unresponsive and requiring reform. Scaled solutions in the social services are at risk of ossifying quickly, which means they will more quickly become part of the problem rather than being part of the solution.

    Unless an organization is prepared to firewall the new solution and develop a secondary operating culture and system (organizational policies, processes and roles)—one that is designed to specifically support and iterate the new solution—then it is likely to be ground down within the machine of the system until it resembles every other sort of program or service. Creating that secondary operating system is a Herculean task because not only do organizations have an imperative to achieve consistency and continuity, but they exist within a giant ecosystem where funders, regulators, licensors, labour and accreditors are invested in achieving some form of collective stasis or equilibrium, to become collectively coordinated and coherent. Attempts to shake up the status quo bump up against countless systems and sub-systems such that, after decades of consolidation, there is very little room left to support genuine creativity or novelty. It is in this context that we are contemplating scale. It should be no surprise that those who try to be creative within complicated systems typically must do so “under the radar,” because it requires non-compliance with one or more sets of rules.

    In sum, the conditions that legitimate scale in the free market economy may not be in force in the social economy, and the conditions in which scale is achieved in the social economy may actually neutralize the effectiveness of the solution.

  • Expanding Conceptions of Scale in the Social Sector (Part 1)

    The social innovation community is entranced by scale. Foundations, incubators, accelerators, governments, social investors and thought leaders are consistently driving expectations that new solutions should be designed and supported to achieve scale. Proposed solutions that promise spread are more likely to be preferred by funders than those that don’t.

    Currently, there are three types of scaling movements that tend to dominate the literature: scaling-up, scaling-out, and scaling-deep.

    1. Scaling-up consists of shifting the laws and policies of systems in order to either remove oppressive precepts, or to introduce game-changing rules that will bring social benefit to large numbers of people.
    2. Scaling-out is about growing or replicating a solution to other geographic areas, including lateral scaling to new target populations.
    3. Scaling-deep involves activations intended to promote transformation at the sociocultural level of individuals, organizations or communities.

    Scaling-up and out are often confused and the terms used interchangeably, probably because they are fundamentally about spreading or growing solutions in order to bring social benefit to as many people as possible; they are about numbers. Whereas these forms of scale dominate the social innovation literature, little is comparatively said about scaling-deep. Scaling-deep recognizes that there is power in transforming culture. It acknowledges that interventions at the level of meaning and culture can prove powerful axes for levering change. Sadly, there are relatively few solutions that are attempted in this space and even fewer of which are understood by funders or investors.

    We argue that:

    1. These three conceptual models of scale are not exhaustive and that there are additional ways to think about scale: scree-scaling and the scaling of conditions (versus solutions),
    2. The normative privileging of solutions that can scale out or up is short-sighted and can actually impede impact.

    We propose that if we are to use the language of scale—and we think it is a legitimate way to think about social impact—we add two other critical forms of scale:

    1. Scree-scaling. This conception of scale is less about growing and spreading single solutions and more about legitimizing and cultivating many “small” ones. It represents the view that system change is less likely to occur as a result of a few big ideas than by the accumulation of many little ones. The proliferation of local solutions not only results in more relevant services that are more likely to achieve results, but they supply the larger system with a pluralistic menu of creative approaches and they put pressure on that system to be able to sustain and support them. They also begin to shift cultural norms and expectations because there are a lot more agents driving new visions, rather a handful of visions being introduced and/or imposed by a few.

    The expectation that a worthwhile solution ought to be spreadable or replicable beyond the proximal area and conditions that gave birth to it is simply wrong. Yes, we should glean what we can from small solutions in order to share and disseminate creative approaches to complex challenges and, when we can, accomplish scale with some of them. But the signature of a worthy idea is not necessarily that it is scalable. Not every private business is scalable nor is it desirable to scale every business. The backbone of national economies is small businesses, not giant corporations, and the seduction of the growth model is as problematic in the social sector as it is within the private sector.

    A preoccupation with populating the innovation landscape with scalable ideas is actually inimical to achieving the deeper system change because (1) it limits creativity to ideas that work across multiple geographies, conditions and populations—a far more restrictive criterion than one that invites ideas to proliferate in diverse local contexts; (2) given the complexity and diversity of human beings and the social landscapes they inhabit, we see the need for pluralistic solutions, not homogenous ones that need to be retrofitted to different contexts; (3) emphasizing and supporting only scalable solutions deprives social change of the power of small solutions to have a cumulative effect; (4) the more system change or improved outcomes rests in the hands of a few, the less likely it is to occur; the more everyone can play a role, irrespective of the size or scope of their solution, the more we will see the change we are after. A sociocultural landslide is not about the few boulders loosened down a gorge, it is about the millions of stones that sweep down like a tide and transfigure the landscape. In the end, as compelling and inspirational as single, scaled solutions can be, it’s not just about the few—it’s about the many.

    1. Scaling initial conditions. Within the private sector there are a range of public and private mechanisms to support and scale innovation—access to capital, data, talent and connectivity (knowledge dissemination and networking). None of this infrastructure exists within the social sector, or at least, not in any sort of coherent way. If we want to see a verdant proliferation of solutions, and if we want to see them succeed, we need to attend to the ground that gives birth to them and that nourishes them.

    Program grants for innovation are limited are unsuitable for many reasons, not the least of which is that they invest in projects and not infrastructure. Applications ask for solutions that are ready to be delivered, but innovation emerges out of a social R&D engine that begins with questions (What is the problem? What assumptions, values, conditions and practices are sustaining it? What ideas might work? What interactions can we test?). Applications typically require respondents to identify multi-year activities, objectives and outcomes; social R&D is about making frequent pivots based on ongoing insights.

    Worse, there is an assumption that organizations have the capacity to deliver innovation, as though running a new program or pilot is the equivalent of engaging in innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth. With few exceptions, we would argue that the public sector, non-profits and charities lack the culture, competencies, capacities and resources to engage in meaningful social R&D. As such, the ambition for innovation is severely hampered.

    Social service organizations are not designed to develop novel solutions, nor to embed these solutions into their organizations and to continuously iterate them. Were a novel solution to emerge, it would be operationalized within a bureaucratic ethos that cannot help but neutralize what makes it unique. A truly novel idea will cut against the grain of most every function within an organization—human resources, risk management, communications, finance, philosophy and values, etc. It will chafe fiercely, and complicated systems have an internal imperative to achieve internal coherency and consistency. The cultures and competencies required for delivery are simply not the same as those required for development.

    What passes for innovation within the social services sector tend to be “small-i,” incremental innovations that occur within a well-established paradigm. It is unreasonable to expect innovation to occur when there is no discernable social R&D infrastructure and when those proposing solutions are managers steeped in the service paradigm. Where consultancies do enter the picture, they tend to produce small, project-based solutions, but do not influence or contribute to organizational capacity for ongoing social R&D.

    If we want to see more innovative solutions, we need to scale the conditions that produce and nourish them. It’s not about a few good ideas that somehow make it; it’s about tending the ground that could produce a bounty. By building a social R&D infrastructure within the public/social sector, we nourish the conditions from which many innovations can grow and find purchase.

  • An Exquisite Contempt

    One day the gods were filled with ennui and so they peered into the lives of creation, as they often did, in order to make sport. One spotted Job, filled with goodness and verve and hope, and said “I will have his life. Within a month, he will be so wrought with despair that he will exchange his future for a mouthful of dirt. Who says that I will not make it so?”

    “And if you lose, then what will you do for Job? Will you let him sip from your own cup and call him ‘brother’?” asked one, who felt less a duty to creation than a desire to humiliate the other.

    “I will! I will become his patron and give him tenfold happiness to wash away the misery I inflict. I will jealously guard him and his felicity until he dies an old man!”

    Satisfied, the gods made their wagers, cups of amber juice in hand, and settled down to watch.

    The divine antagonist scattered every adversity into the path of poor Job until one day he finally dropped to his knees and dreamed only of the knife and forgetfulness. But a sweet and nameless spirit peeled back the invisible curtain that concealed the gods so that Job could see their arrogance and comprehend the audacious wager.

    Seeing the specter, Job fell procumbent on the ground and wept. Bitterness grew in him, not because he was the plaything of the gods, but because purpose had been stripped from him. “Very well,” he said to himself. “If my life is to be amusement for the gods, I will be unlike any quarry they have ever baited.” Thus saying, he fashioned a new purpose from his attenuated heart and resolved to live.

    And to wait.

    He waited until the gods concluded the game and settled their wagers. He waited until he was invited to their table and a cup was pressed into his hands by a god. He waited until a wreath was placed upon his brow and he was honoured as lesser sibling to the gods. He waited until warmth and happiness suffused his flesh and a smile sank into his soul. He waited until they bid him a good life and dismissed him with beauty, bliss and fortune draped upon his shoulder.

    Then he drew his knife and flicked it across a vein so that his blood spilled out and collected in a pool at their feet. The gods leapt back from him in consternation.

    “What have you done, foolish man? The game is finished and the gifts are bestowed!”

    But Job only nodded and smiled before slipping into the black.

    A great stillness settled on the earth, thick with distress and perplexity. But then the moment passed, the gods returned to their divine perches, the insects began their buzzing, and the earth refused to swallow the blood.

  • Against the Primacy of Morals

    Nietszche recommended a genealogy of morals that was rooted in the psychosocial. There used to be just the strong and the weak, he argued—those who reached, experienced, and took great strides in the world, versus those who retreated, shrank back, and were fearful. The former were life-affirming; the latter negated life by refusing to fully engage in it. Eventually, resentment was born in the weak because when the strong took steps in the world, they intruded on world of the weak. The eagles ate the young lambs. And so, the weak, the sheep, eventually invented the word “evil” and assigned it to those displaying characteristics of strength and nobility, and then reflexively called themselves good. Blessed were the meek, the mild. Cursed were the proud, the merry or the wild (the ones that could not be corralled by duty or social constraints). And so morality was born out of bitterness, out of a profound pettiness.  And it operates to harness greatness of spirit, to turn will against itself through conscience, to domesticate the nobility of being. It is the circus bear. It is the lion that performs tricks. That is what morality has done to us, this ideology of the weak.

    I love the cleverness of this idea, but I don’t agree with it. Here is another approach:

    I am told that some ancient cultures believed that at night the gods threw a blanket over the earth and the stars were pinpricks behind which heaven could be glimpsed. Today, we believe the stars are isolated balls of burning gas. As such, they are not portals of heaven. They do not represent the continuity of the eternal, the transcendent.

    Consider the moments of experience to be like stars within these different paradigms. There are two ways we can think of them, either as singular events (an aesthetic lens) or expressions of the transcendent (a moral lens).

    Suppose I experience a moment of love, or joy, or hope. The moral view cannot contemplate these as singular, isolated events, but only as linked to axioms that transcend our experience. They are expressions of the universal. They are temporal manifestations of eternal principles. They exist in our experience only because there is an enduring foundation that supports them.

    The accent falls on the heavens, then, not upon the pinpricks of light. We can accept the passing nature of meaning in such moments because we believe they continue to abide beyond our experience of them.

    We believe, too, that we can invoke them through dogma and duty. We invent obligation, commitment, promise, and duty because the transcendent is the guarantor, not the moments.  In this way we aspire to manufacture a continuity of moments, to shrink the emptiness between them. Our gaze encompasses the something behind the moment, the something better, something truer, something deeper.

    Now we are gods, with power over the universal, over heaven. By performing our duty, by complying with the rules, by invoking and imposing dogma, we either (1) sustain the form of love (or whatever value) in the darkness between our experiences, or (2) we summon it from its glory and are washed anew in its light.

    The good and sublime underwrite our experiences, assuring us there is a world of meaning even when it doesn’t erupt in subsequent moments. Even in the darkness between such moments. And so we can create social institutions and mandate them to last, just as love lasts. We make promises and ask for promises because moral duty requires continuity, just as the heaven after which they are fashioned has continuity.

    Meaning. Purpose. Love—isolated stars cannot sustain these things, but heaven can.



    Moral imperatives are the imprints left of meaning, the derivatives of meaning, not the heralds of it. They are the smoke, not the fire. What burns bright and hot is not the eternal but the sheer beauty of the fleeting. The fragile. The temporary. They do not reflect some universal “thing” etched in the invisible foundations of experience.

    Instead, the journey into infinitude is not a horizontal one, but a vertical one. It is about plumbing the impossible depths of moments. It is indwelling this “now” and submerging oneself in its winter or its summer. Each moment implies a universe, a past and a future, our no longer being possible. Each moment is suffused with beauty before cascading into oblivion, into forgetfulness. This is the narrative of our lives, and it is impossibly deep and inexpressibly beautiful.

    Moral imperatives, on the other hand, are the engineered scaffolds upon which we hang our longing. Too often they require contortions of spirit, demanding that we comport ourselves to that which cannot be experienced. We must supplant immanence with transcendence, the transient with the eternal, and see ourselves in the mirrors of perfection.

    Of this particular beauty or that, there is only contempt, for no particular beauty remains. And if all things fade, how can it birth meaning?

    Precisely, I think, because it fades.

  • What matters is

    I am weary, she wrote, in an open letter in a purple sky. With coniferous pens and craggy ink. With a thick blue brush and creatures that bled the borders.

    I am weary, she murmured, in chirrups and soft-bellied grunts. In staccato on a canopy of green and in grating shale.

    I am weary and alone.

  • On Epistemic Humility

    There are so many frameworks and meta-frameworks that discuss what we know and why we know it (epistemology)—they are usually extraordinary assemblies of language and intellect.

    But at the heart of epistemology lies an assumption that there is a relationship between what we know and what rational beings do, such that the former should guide the latter. We don’t want knowledge for its own sake; we want it because it will guide us in our actions. It will help us to make decisions, whether practical ones, like whether to carry an umbrella, or social ones, such as whether a friend will prove reliable, or public ones, such as policy decisions to remediate poverty, or ethical or spiritual ones, such as “how shall I live?” Knowledge is the hymnbook for rational beings, even if the songs are relativistic or nihilistic.

    This is important because it means that there is an implicit imperative to conform our actions to whatever we believe to be true. Knowledge is not just a tool, it is the golden calf that summons us to coherent action. We invest authority into the artifacts of our knowledge, the workings of our intellect. They are our guides; they tell us how we should act. If we do not comply with what we know or believe to be true, do we not become fools or hypocrites? Do we not experience dissonance, anxiety, and the need for repair? In this way axiology insinuates itself into epistemology and give birth to ideology.

    What is ideology, after all, but bloated epistemology? Bloated claims about what is known and bloated demands of compliance? Ideology is a kind of cancerous epistemology—a swelling of claims that crowd out others, and a swelling of expectations around compliance. It becomes worse when we make values or norms the objects of knowledge. In this way, the “right-thinking” of epistemology is merely the cub we feed while ideology is the feral beast that grows to devour us.

    But perhaps there is something we can do to curb the growth of ideology. Advancing knowledge seems to be about convincing people to see the world as one does. Rather than saying: do you see the world as I see it?, we say: do you see the world rightly, as I do? In this way, trading in knowledge is different from trading in art. With the latter, we indulge anxiety and uncertainty. With the former, we annihilate them in our arrogance and insist upon using our own intellectual currency.

    What would happen if we began at a different starting point? What if we adopted an attitude of epistemic humility, an attitude that acknowledged that there are good reasons to think a great many different things, even if we don’t personally find the reasons or conclusions compelling. Maybe we don’t have the necessary experiences or skills or imagination or embodiment to understand them. This isn’t an argument for relativism or quietism. It doesn’t end the conversation; it actually makes one possible. It means that at the conclusion of a satisfactory or unsatisfactory conversation, both interlocutors shrug their shoulders and say “who knows what is really the case, but this is what I am going to personally believe for now. I may be wrong. I probably am. But then, we are probably both wrong.”

    In the same way that curiosity is the antidote to judgment, humility inoculates us from ideology. If one remains open to being wrong, to being fallible, if one remains curious about the many ways of thinking and knowing and being in the world, one can practice epistemology without being conscripted into ideology. A little humility acknowledges that we are all puttering about in the dark. We are fumblers. We are all trying to find a basis to personal action because the stakes are so high. We are trying to figure out how our world works because we have an unquenchable curiosity. Because our lives matter.

    Epistemic humility invites us to explore any question and to forward any claim we like, so long as it is an offering, a personal gesture, and not a demand. A humble epistemology is about the joy of inquiry, not inquisition. It is about the solidarity of imperfection and longing that lies beneath the asking.