Prompt #3: There's a lot of talk about spread and scale. We think it's about spreading processes, not scaling products. So what does that mean?
(Note: This is our third attempt at debate writing. Where Anna, Jesper, and I each have 45 minutes to respond to a provocative question we grapple with in our day-to-day work. Have a read @ Attempt #1 and Attempt #2).
Sarah's Opening Statement:
Spread and scale. Most of us 'social innovator' types use these words. Arguing to funders that investing in innovation methods - be it ethnography, co-design, or prototyping - will be efficient. Because you can figure out what works at a small-scale, and then spread what emerges at a large-scale. Question is: what should we be spreading if we're wanting to prompt systemic change? Should we be spreading the product - the new app, the new service, the new network? Or should we be spreading the underlying principles and process?
I believe it's the principles & process that prompts change. But, this is a step away from work I did as Co-Lead of the Radical Redesign Team in Australia or as Project Lead at Participle. Where we looked to grow & profit from the solutions we ourselves created. Loops, Family by Family, Weavers, Care Reflect. That meant productizing the solutions. Creating an identity and a brand; specifying each interaction in a blueprint (think: how-to manual); and ultimately creating a new organizational infrastructure with staff to do 'sales' and 'delivery'. But, had we sold the process, what would we have codified?
That's what we're asking right now @ InWithForward as we start work in Burnaby, British Columbia. Where success for us isn't one scaled solution. But multiple prototypes taken forward by local teams - with lots of folks (inside and outside of public systems) mobilized, trained, and taking ownership over explicit and shared outcomes. It's more in the spirit of 'Collective Impact' than 'Lean Start-up' - although there's plenty to learn & apply from the latter.
So, what will be actually making? And, what will be selling? Products are so much more concrete. When you go to a bakery, you buy the nice looking cupcakes. With the chocolate frosting. If we're not selling the cupcakes, then, are we selling the instructional recipe to make the cupcake? Are we selling the cupcake making tools - the icing pipettes, the baking tins? Are we selling the baking school experience - unfolding in the pastry chef’s context? Or are we selling the cooking TV show - for DIY learning in your own context?
The challenge, of course, in selling the recipe is that you can follow all of the steps, and still get a pretty lousy result. You might not have any prior reference points. So when the cupcakes aren't rising, you don't know what to do. And if you're missing an ingredient, you can't easily adapt. You don't realize you can make buttermilk with two squeezes of lemon in a cup of whole milk. You see, key to making things good, is tacit know-how. It's that extra sense of how to tweak as you go along to get a good result. That’s darn hard to communicate in a stand-alone recipe. You’re much more likely to learn that through watching your grandmother, through practice, through trying lots of different recipes and seeing what works and what doesn't for yourself.
Selling tools is fraught with similar difficulties. I can sell you the baking tins. But that won't help you figure out what to fill the baking tins with. And you can easily put the baking tins to a different usage. That's not necessarily a problem - if you're able to make something yummy using the tins. But if I'm trying to prompt intentional social change, then peddling the implements, probably won't get me to coherent implementation. And it definitely won’t get me towards fidelity. When we do one-off workshops and create methods card sets, we're really in the tool business.
Then there's the baking school experience. So in-context project based learning. With the right instruction in baking chemistry, exposure to different baking methods, guidance and a lot of feedback, you could learn to be a pretty competent cupcake baker. But this is time intensive. How much learning do you need to be competent, versus be good? And how do we actually design our processes in such a way that more and more people can be immersed in the doing? So that it's not just tight project teams - from social labs - doing all the work? Plus, how do we find and up-skill the instructors? The key to teaching baking is actually having made a lot of cupcakes yourself, and being able to extrapolate transferrable concepts. But who in our field has actually made a lot of what we're talking about? The rhetoric often feels ahead of the practice.
Finally, there's what I'll call the Jamie Oliver approach. Developing a mix of inspirational and learning content - so a TV show which exposes you to new kinds of cupcakes and to somebody else's tacit knowledge. Along with a magazine with stories, and embedded recipes. As well as product partnerships - so 'quality approved' tools to use in your home contexts.
How could we create a similar mix of content to bring more and more people into our processes? Indeed, what’s so compelling about Jamie Oliver is that he’s managed to build a movement alongside a set of products. And he operates at differing levels of fidelity. Go to his restaurants, and get the full Jamie Oliver quality-approved experience. Use his books and tools, get a taste of the Jamie Oliver experience, and add your own spin. Of course, whether you go to his restaurant or do-it-yourself at home, key to a good experience is a shared idea of what constitutes a good outcome: is it taste, health, speed, value, novelty, or some combination?
The ability to spread the process rather than the product is key in much government planning. Notions of ‘blueprint’, ‘manual’ or ‘best practice’ have done much damage in mismanaging the expectations to what could actually be expected of the ‘solutions’ that are supposed to create change in public systems and services. A common and reoccurring question amongst decision makers and civil servants is: why are there so few solutions that actually scale?
This is seen as a huge problem - mainly when seen in economic terms. But also in relation to the role of the public sector more generally. Many civil servants see their role as one of standardization and replication. “We can’t let 1000 flowers blossom” is a common phrase. Instead, there is a desire to find the ‘best practice,’ to analyse every aspect of it, and then to scale it - as a product that is able to change its contextual environment. In practice, this logic is reversed when dealing with social change.
Sarah is pointing our attention to the notion of ‘tacit knowledge.’ This is important. In particular when working in contexts where the dominant epistemological position is based on one of its counterparts: rationalized, stable knowledge.
In MindLab, we are currently assisting the Ministry of Employment to implement some ambitious reforms focusing on, among many other things, reinventing the role of social worker. The Ministry realises that in order to create better outcomes for vulnerable citizens of society, they must let the social worker work more flexibly with the citizen to explore and learn what kind of activities, interactions, and service offers will make sense in the given context. The political intention is that the case worker has to be allowed to break free from the current rigid management systems and trust her or his own professional judgment. So that they can support the citizen in creating a better life for herself - a better life that includes a productive work life.
In other words, the reforms are deliberately attempting to localize employment services. Ways of dealing with citizens should inherently be local, contextual, and based on a specific professional expertise applied in the particular situation. In this sense, this process entails a kind of centralized decentralization where ‘solutions’ constantly have to be discovered in particular contexts. As an intent, this is very much in line with what social workers have wanted for years.
Surprisingly, as the implementation process of the reform unfolds, social workers are increasingly calling for ‘tools’, ‘methods’ or even ‘manuals’ to work in this new way. As they are ‘set free’ in their professional work, they are actually asking for more restrictions. This partly highlights the significance of this kind of change in the employment system. Where meeting specified targets, exercising certain procedures, and managing a portfolio of cases was (and still is) the norm. But it also reveals the challenge of spreading or scaling the process. The problem of intangibility is not only apparent on the level of policymaking, but is also something that is experienced on the ground. It creates a significant paradox of wanting a more open process when exercising your role as a social worker, whilst wanting assurance that what you are doing is actually ‘the right way’ of dealing with the citizen in the particular situation.
This brings me to talk about outcomes. It seems to me that any talk about either product or process does not make sense unless it is contextualized in relation to the outcomes that they are creating. So when attempting to make processes visible - in this case the challenge for social workers to learn what is good when dealing with vulnerable citizens - it is essential that in order to really understand the process, it needs to be part of a narrative that ties it to the outcomes that are expected. So while the process may include various possible recipes, tools, principles or methodologies that should be applied accordingly in the local context, the risk of spreading or scaling the process lies, among many things, when it becomes detached from a conversation about what is actually to be considered as a good outcome.
In the program “La Transfo” of la 27e Région, one of the main difficulties was precisely that there were different outcomes expected, without any hierarchy between them. Was a ‘good’ outcome to train and empower a core team of civil servants? Was it to create a new service embedded within the regional administration, who was then in charge of spreading this approach at the end of our program? Was it changed mindsets and ‘aaah’ moments amongst a large number of civil servants and elected representatives? Was it radical changes in one or several specific policies, with a visible impact on citizens’ lives?
As long as we didn’t prioritise what the main outcome was, the process stayed really opaque, even for regular participants of the program. If the beauty and value of our jobs resides in the way we are browsing together, we needed, at one point of the process, to clarify the direction we were taking: in the case of “La Transfo,” we chose in the middle of the program to prioritise the creation a new service and a trained team that could continue the work of transformation after the end of the program. This decision make the process more understandable for everybody.
We spoke about the outcomes, and about the process… but we should also be careful to look at the entry point: if the whole process of training and empowerment requires contact with tacit know-how, we have to make understandable and pretty clear the way to enter the process and connect with this tacit know-how.
This implies intelligent viral communication to those who are interested, appealing entry-level experiences, and clear instructions about how to engage. In fact, after two years of programs, only a small part of civil servants of the regional administration were aware that “La Transfo” was taking place in their building or even in their service directory. How many times did we hear, “If I knew, I would have come earlier…”.
And for those who were aware of our existence, we found they were often reluctant to come and try, precisely because some people don’t like and feel threatened by what they cannot easily understand. Even for those following our program regularly, the information about next appointments & workshops sometimes came too late for them to re-organise their calendar. This experience points out the fact that our inter-disciplinary and highly-trained team of designers and sociologists have their own timelines and way of working (e.g - they like working under pressure) which can sometimes be incompatible with the time of civil servants. It also points out we paid too little attention to investing in the whole space of the building, to going to meet the different services, and to communicating what was happening.
We’ve certainty found that a good process - that is, a process that will create a good solution to one problem at one moment of time in one particular place - cannot be defined and generalised as easily as a cupcake recipe. However, that shouldn’t keep us from clarifying where we are going so people don’t get lost. And we should be careful to indicate the pathway and make it desirable enough for people to walk with us until they reach the “aaah” point. That’s the point where there is no way back because your mindset is too transformed to return to the routine.