• The Trampoline Effect

    Well, after several years of trying to innovate inside the social services (which has been both painful and exhilarating), we finally have a book that encapsulates our journey and our learning–The Trampoline Effect: Redesigning our Social Safety Net. It’s written by Sarah Schulman, principal with InwithForward, and myself. We explore why our social service systems are stuck the way they are, our efforts to dislodge them, and a series of strategies that we think could eventually tip our human systems into more humane ones. Huge shout-out to posAbilities, Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion and Kinsight, because they have been investing in us and in this work, and because they are resolved to see better outcomes for people, and because it hasn’t been an easy journey.

    Our book will be available on October 27th, 2020, but pre-orders are available now on Amazon, Indigo Chapters (just the ebook at the moment, but that should change by the 27th), Barnes and Noble, Indiebound and others. We’d love for you to pick up a copy and of course, to get in touch with us!

    As changing conversations is at the heart of the book, and we both love good conversation, we’d welcome hearing from you! I can be reached at [email protected], and Sarah at [email protected]

  • Is It Okay To Talk About Power?

    In my world of support to adults with intellectual disabilities, this gets even more complicated. People without disabilities are ultimately controlling and managing the affairs of those who have disabilities because those receiving services usually struggle to understand what’s in their own best interests, and what sorts of things/behaviours/conditions will advance it and what will harm it. The more someone in our services understands their own needs and how to meet them, whether immediate or existential, the more organizations are supposed to empower them (I was going to say, “return their power to them,” but many haven’t had much power to begin with). The less understanding there is, the more organizations hold power. It’s more complicated and nuanced than that, but that’s the essence of it.

    It’s why my hackles rise when I hear service providers talk about how persons with disabilities and their families drive their services. I have never seen it. Ever. A sprinkling (or even a majority) of representation among board or association members doesn’t translate into real power. Being survey respondents, focus group participants or advisors is not decision-making, and it pertains to only a fraction of the thousands of decisions that are made daily. If anything, such roles and tools can defend mediocrity more than drive services because “people seem satisfied” and “this is what they choose/want.”

    Power By Proxy 

    Decisions that have to do with persons with intellectual disabilities are frequently proxied to others: parents, siblings, front line workers, managers, legal representatives, etc. Even disability rights and empowerment movements, and disability pride, are fundamentally spearheaded by allies without intellectual disabilities. Because these sorts of undertakings require sophisticated political, cultural and linguistic strategies, as well as the ability to plan and resource them. From a civil rights perspective, it’s a surreal dynamic. And precious little discussion of it, which I find equally surreal. Probably because no one likes to talk about the extent of the power they actually wield.

    To make things worse, even were service delivery associations to give up power and control, they may still be on the hook for what happens. They are legally, contractually and ethically responsible for the wellbeing of those they support (and immediate needs get priority over higher-order ones). Letting others decide what is going to happen, while still being accountable for the result, is hard—especially when associations can be sued, censured, or lose funding, and employees can be disciplined and/or dismissed. Layer on top of this the fact that we are dealing with complicated systems that require consistency and predictability, that are required to submerge variability and individuality in order to universalize processes, and the culture of control that emerges permeates everything. Of course, this is a broad stroke analysis, and there are lots of exceptions and deviations, but I think this is generally right.

    So What To Do?

    First, I think we need a much more sophisticated and practical discourse around power. Both power and freedom are too often regarded solely as ends and not as means. Freedom to do what? Power for what ends? To answer that question we need a moral framework, and I am inclined towards one that posits human self-actualization as that end. Or, in Paulo Freire’s words, “the completion of being.” No one can achieve someone else’s actualization; we must each pursue our own. Without our own power, without the freedom to pursue such an end, we are prevented from achieving it. We are dehumanized. And those who hold onto that power are inhumane.

    But what happens when people face circumstances wherein their freedom and power works against their own completion? When they don’t really comprehend what constitutes self-realization or how to go about achieving it? Or when they are so wounded, or so misused, that they would choose their own ongoing annihilation or desecration? When one’s circumstances are so severe that overcoming them, and self-overcoming, seems impossible? When people are not really free at all, despite the formal ability to act? Is the imperative to ensure that they still have the power and freedom to determine their own path, or is the imperative to intervene—to take away someone’s power and/or to assert our own in order to safeguard a being that is at risk of disintegration? Because we hallow it, even when it does not, or cannot, hallow itself.

    This is a fraught question, I know, and any answer is brimming with danger.

    Legitimate Power

    That said, I think that sometimes power is legitimate and what is called for is neither social judgment nor tokenistic maneuvers, but a clear ethical framework for how power ought to be applied and when it ought to be ceded. If our work adopted a moral-existential framework which had human fulfillment as the end, and which recognized that people required their own power and freedom as a means toward that end, then we might find grounds for both exercising institutional power and to challenging it.

    Too often, the way power is wielded is oppressive, dehumanizing and humiliating. Even though it comes with offers of intervention and support, it’s not necessarily constructive. Systems can reduce people to their immediate needs and fail to see them as humans in search of purpose and fulfillment. In endless “helping” mode, organizations may fail to see what others have to offer, and where there is no reciprocity there is dependency and shame. Where interactions are transactional rather than relational, the self is debased (for everyone in those interactions). Depending on the amount of exposure to this sort of thing, people can internalize the way they are seen and treated. As Foucault showed us, when people internalize the gaze of others, when they see themselves as those with power see them, they learn to oppress themselves.

    I would argue that the problem here is less that these systems have power (they will always have some sort of power), and more about how they are using it and what results from it: are they benefiting or endangering the being of those they support? This is how we would know whether the possession or exercise of power is legitimate or illegitimate. Does it advance being or diminish it? Does it lead to purpose and agency or to stagnation and surrender? Does it expand possibilities or shrink them?

    Whether or not this sort of position resonates with others, I hope it at least gets us talking more openly and critically about power. It’s the elephant in the room, the poison in the chalice, the hot potato that no one wants to talk about. And I think it’s problematic when there is so much at stake that we can’t openly talk about, and when right-thinking or wrong-thinking seem to be our only options.

  • 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.

  • When Person-Centered Thinking/Planning Causes Harm

    What It’s Supposed to Look Like

    Person-Centered Thinking (PCT), is a professional disposition that is supposed to ensure that people with intellectual disabilities (or seniors, health patients, etc.) are meaningfully involved in their day-to-day activities and experiences. Person-Centered Planning (PCP) is more of a formal planning process in which people articulate their longer term goals, dreams and visions for their life, and where a year’s worth of activities and responsibilities are identified that will move things forward. Basically. There are probably hundreds of variations and inflections.

    The praxis is supposed to suspend the needs and interests of programs, organizations and systems in order to put the individual at the center of consideration. It means paying attention to someone’s capacities, interests, needs and particularity in order to derive goals and activities that will advance their quality of life. It’s about establishing coherence between what a person wants to do and what they are doing/how we support them.

    As such, PCP/PCT is not only about reclaiming or safeguarding one’s personal demesne from institutional encroachment (i.e. their tendency to manage the settings, activities, goals and choices normally belonging to free individuals), it’s also about mobilizing those institutional structures and resources to advance individual goals.

    What actually tends to happen…

    Historically, “person-centered” goals and activities have focused on health and behavioural objectives, skill learning (e.g. cooking, financial literacy, etc.), menu options, and a list of recreational activities available within programs. It was more often about what the system provides or feels obliged to provide, and less about what someone might personally want or need (even if they can’t articulate it).

    Anyone involved in teaching or overseeing person-centered training or plans will know that PCP/PCT is a hard thing for the sector to actually put into practice. Year after year, person-centered plans continue to express either institutional interests, such as weight loss and skills acquisition, economic goals such as money, jobs or volunteering, or recurring personal interests, such as swimming and bowling. The everyday application of person-centered thinking still ends up with people “choosing” repetitive experiences involving malls, parks, television and cafes. Good and full lives remain elusive.

    And no matter how many new tools and resources we come up with, or how much training we do, not much seems to really change. It’s not too difficult to identify some of the more obvious structural impediments to PCT/PCP, such as:

    • epistemological assumptions around capacity and potential, who has it and who doesn’t
    • axiological assumptions around what makes a legitimate actor as well as what values ought to prevail (e.g. safety and equality)
    • system engineering that strives for consistency, predictability, and universality
    • economic and resource limitations

    But the structural impediments that I want to talk about are much more imperceptible as they have to do with gaps in the very architecture of possibility. I believe the main reason why PCT/PCP fails is because it requires certain existential pillars or preconditions to be met, and those preconditions simply don’t exist.

    Pillar 1: Meaningful exposure to lots of diverse experiences

    The poverty of experience is insidious because it is largely invisible and overlooked, and because it has everything to do with what is possible for a self. The fewer experiences one has, the less able one is able to imagine different futures for oneself, the less one is able to find inspiration and motivation, the fewer opportunities to undergo growth and development, the less exposure to things that might ignite imagination and purpose.

    Experience is an essential condition for becoming who we are. Without experience, we become shadows of who we could be. If we ask people with limited experience to choose what they want, it’s no surprise that they will choose what they know, and what they know is usually incredibly limited and limiting. If we are content with that answer, we consign them to an endless repetition of empty and uninspiring experiences. We will be responsible for the disintegration of their possibilities, rather than their expansion. And we will do so with the best of intentions, contented with a false sense of moral rectitude (“that’s what they said they wanted!”).

    Not only do we impair their growth and fulfillment, we force them into adaptations needed to endure repetition, routine and emptiness. They may become aggressive, depressed, and/or socially anxious. They may become more dependent on services or medications, and more unsure of themselves.

    It’s simply not good enough to say: “they chose this goal or activity; they chose to do the same thing again.” They don’t know what else life has to offer, and it’s our duty to show them. Where it makes sense to do so, we need to figure out how to challenge, nudge, cajole or beg people to try something new. That will require lots of creativity and coaching. It will require us to think about how we plan or sequence experiences so that they are successful and interesting, and so that they will spark people’s confidence and curiosity. We’ll need to figure out how to explain what we are trying to do and show that we have faith in them. And help them to cope with experiences that don’t go well.

    Pillar 2: A sense of self and purpose

    If we do not spend time with people to first develop/understand their sense of self and purpose, their beliefs and their values, then what sense can be made of “choosing”? How can it be anything but surface-skimming? Of echoing or deferring to others rather than finding one’s own voice and speaking it?

    Too often, person-centred thinking runs on the hollow premise of preferences and likes, on what people enjoy or what they are good at, on what they think is desirable, and that is the end of it. But were that the premise for decision in our own lives, it would make us hedonistic and shallow. It would be squandering our brief lives.

    Yes, we want people to be happy, but in a deep way.

    The basis of choice is not simply about what feels good, what brings us pleasure, or what plays to our strengths. It’s not always about what makes us smile or laugh. It’s about who we are and who we want to become, and that isn’t a peachy journey. It will involve choosing things we don’t enjoy doing; sometimes entering compromise and/or conflict; exposing ourselves to pain and hurt and disappointment; reaching and failing; accepting loss and limitations as well as harvesting new possibilities. Along just such a path we discover the depths of hope and joy. We become immersed in the project of being, in personal and collective growth, in meaning. And the growing swirl of possibilities. We find ourselves, create ourselves. And lose ourselves again. It’s a heady thing.

    Having a life that matters requires that we often resist the seduction of fancy in order to cultivate substance. This is not to say that we don’t have our pleasures and escapes, but they are contextualized within a larger frame of pursuing a good life. In the absence of such a frame we become anchorless and lost, buffeted by a dizzying series of emotions, needs and drives. We forget what agency really means—the ability to shape a future for ourselves that has meaning and a purpose.

    Do we invite people with intellectual disabilities to partake of such a road? Do we enter into the muck of existential angst and becoming with them? Do we help them to build the masonry of character, conviction, and purpose from which the self achieves true presence and power? At least, to the extent that people can walk along this ro ad? If person-centred planning and thinking is not anchored in a deeper awareness and development of self, it is complicit in enfeebling it.


    The absence of the right foundations—experience and self-exploration/ identity — dramatically changes the role and effect of person-centered planning/thinking. Instead of being a tool of expansion, it becomes one of limitations; instead of empowering those we support, it confines them to endless cycles of empty pursuits.

    Our first duty is to ensure that people have exposure to a broad and robust range of experiences. This means nudging them outside of their comfort zones and challenging them to go places they haven’t gone, interact with people they don’t know, and try things they haven’t tried. Our second duty is to spend time with them to understand and advance their sense of self and identity, to the extent that we are able to do so.

    These essential conditions must be present before person-centered “anything” can take place. Only then will PCT/PCP be able to support people to be at the center of their lives and to live a life of purpose.

  • Prototyping from the Inside Out

    It’s not that I’m not a believer, it’s just that it’s hard.

    I work for a social service organization (posAbilities) that has partnered with two other organizations (Kinsight and BACI), to invest in social research and development. We call ourselves “Degrees of Change” (DoC) and hope to publish something of a declaration or manifesto this summer around the sorts of pivots we think are needed in the social services sector. We’re going to try to open up a window on our efforts and what we think we’re learning—stay tuned!

    We also have a sister organization in Ontario (West Neighbourhood House) who has been at this for as long as we have (about 4 years). And there are other organizations coming online with Grounded Space who are making similar investments in social R&D. InWithForward has been providing guidance for this work, and it has resulted in learning and results unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. We’re grateful for that. But it’s hard. Really hard. Here are just some of the pain points.

    1. Resources.

    We’re not funded for social R&D and we’re not private corporations; we’re charities. We don’t have drawers of cash, and even if we did, there would be an expectation that those monies would get spent on concrete service needs and priorities rather than on an R&D process that has no explicit outputs or outcomes. There is extraordinary pressure to address exigent needs rather than investing in processes that might shape the future.

    As you know, there is no government infrastructure for social research and development, so we have to cobble funding together however we can—grants, loans, lean administration budgets, etc. And because sustained funding isn’t a given, it adds stress because it means that everything we build feels fragile and vulnerable. It’s like we’re building sand castles as the tide comes in.

    And it’s so hard on our leadership teams. They were stretched long before social R&D happened. Their other responsibilities meant workweeks that regularly exceeded 40 hours. It’s no easy task to run programs or organizations, never mind retooling and repurposing them. Getting involved in social R&D adds 10 – 20 hours a week to schedules. It’s not sustainable, but what do you do when there is a vision and an imperative, but no funding? You do what you can.

    2. Pace.

    There are a lot of roles, processes, and structures that comprise an organization. Especially if it has been around for a while. It needs time to make things work—re-allocating resources, recruiting internal teams and freeing up some of their time, aligning incredibly busy schedules, sorting out internal and external messaging, coordinating logistics, etc. And of course, none of these pieces are static when we are iterating the R&D model itself. There is a steep learning curve for organizations and it takes time to do R&D properly.

    Organizations require at least 5-year time bites for undertaking social R&D, not 1 – 3 years. Short-term funding puts pressure on organizations to go through an intensive R&D process that chafes against multiple organizational and regulatory systems and functions. It burns people out and builds resentment. There is an urgency to produce something worthwhile before the money runs out, something that would justify the need for social R&D and associated expenditures. But it means 5 years of work gets compressed into 2 years or less.
    To compound this, the learning/iteration cycle that we do manage to eke out is too long. A single cycle of research, analysis, playback, idea generation and prototyping can take several months to over a year. That’s too way long. The cycles should be shorter and there should be more of them. But so far, it’s been hard to make that happen. The problem doesn’t lie with the method itself, but with the need to conduct it at a pace that is both effective and that is manageable by organizations. We haven’t found how to do that yet.

    3. Communication.

    Leadership and managers are accustomed to knowing what is going on in their agencies, what sort of decisions are being made, and the rationale behind them. Rapid-fire iteration means completely new directions or 180’s can occur in a relatively short period of time (hours or days). That is hard to take in high-risk, high-accountability systems. Leadership/managers feel constantly behind and may feel slighted or upset that they haven’t been part of important decisions or iterations. Or wondering why some people were somehow involved, or knew, but not others. They worry that perhaps they haven’t given their best, or been sufficiently available. If only they could keep up. They want to contribute and open doors, but they can’t flip the pages fast enough.

    Change is hard to take, especially when it is happening in one’s backyard and one doesn’t feel in control of it. “When did that happen?” “Who decided that?” “I thought we agreed/were told we were going to do ‘x’—why are we talking about ‘y’?” This is only exacerbated when research, playbacks, decisions or iterations produce a “problem” for the organization that make more work for leadership/managers and which may require them to go into damage control mode.

    Such problems are bound to occur when local and quick decisions are part of the process, versus consensus or authorization, and when the method itself is about surfacing gaps in one’s agencies, questioning conventional values, roles or practices, and when it is not a system-managed process. This sort of thing triggers an impulse to better manage R&D processes so that these problems don’t occur, so that there are clearer processes in place that will prevent their recurrence. Which, of course, is a hazardous approach. Once R&D processes become the legitimate subject of systemization, it is hard to know when to stop; there is so much clarifying, structuring, and cleaning up that could be done. But then, not being on the same page with everyone else, not knowing what changes are happening, not knowing who knows what or has been part of what decision, is hard.

    It is hard enough to explain what we are about to our internal and external stakeholders—how much more so when everything keeps changing? Things like our learning, hunches, roles, models, prototypes, narratives, etc.

    4. Culture clash.

    The cultures of social service organizations are about predictability, consistency, quality and control. The culture of social R&D is about interrogation, emergence, creativity and experiment. Social services are complicated and interconnected systems that require skilled managers, navigators and adjustors. Social R&D requires fearless questioners and makers. Social services try to avoid problems, eschewing mistakes that add more work/trouble to an already stressful environment; social R&D encourages and requires lots and lots of failure. Social services is about nurturing and supporting one another and celebrating what is done well; social R&D is about naming gaps and pain points and mobilizing against the status quo.

    The very concept of “innovation” has a structural prejudice against what exists—that it is somehow insufficient, inadequate, and needs to be improved upon and/or surpassed. There is an inherent tension between what is on offer and what is being envisioned—how this unfortunate tension is handled is critical because, done poorly, it can alienate employees and teams who are doing excellent work.

    At some point, leadership will face a threshold around their personal and professional comfort levels. How much interrogation can they tolerate? How much unpredictability? How much emergence? How much change and upset? What is required to run an organization is quite different than what is required to disrupt it.

    All to say, it ain’t easy. Even though everyone knows it’s important.

  • 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 simple as its being portrayed. In this 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[1] the result may not itself 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.

    2. Method as Intervention

    human-centered design and co-creation are exceptional examples of promoting self-determination 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.

    3. 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 resists adaptation to local conditions or ongoing development, and which, when imposed, will exacerbate misgivings regarding both the government agenda as well as the new program’s applicability.

    From scaling to co-creating

    The social sector is heavily relational. Irrespective of the expert knowledge, competencies and credentials that are brought to bear, such things 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 helpers:helpees (there is no reciprocal exchange of something of value).

    Co-creation—that is, involving user groups in both the problem and outcomes definitions, as well as solution development and implementation—disrupts a static and non-generative relationship and makes space for meaningful dialogue, learning, creativity and development. But it requires lots of work to build trust and credibility, adjust to the implications and limits of power-sharing, and to define and build new relationships. In those rare instances where co-creation does occur, we cannot assume that what emerges can be disentangled from its origin, from the relationships and processes that gave it birth, and embedded in new sociopolitical and relational contexts.

    [1] posAbilities, BACI, Kinsight, West Neighbourhood House, InWithForward

  • 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

    5.  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.

    The secondary operating system

    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 agreements 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.

  • Problematizing Scale in the Social sector (Part 1): Expanding Conceptions

    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. But, what scale are we talking about?

    Currently, there are three types of scaling movements that tend to dominate the literature: scaling-up, scaling-out, and scaling-deep. Proposed solutions that promise one or more types, are more likely to be preferred by funders than those that don’t.



    Source: Darcy Riddell and Michele-Lee Moore (2015)

    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:

    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).

    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 form of scale, Scree-scaling, and Scaling initial conditions.

    4) 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 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.

    5) 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 in 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.