Overcoming the System Immune Response to Innovation

Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.

Howard Aiken

Great ideas always appear so self-evident in hindsight. But as Aiken’s quote above attests to, we don’t always know a good thing when we see it, and the more original the thinking, the more difficult it is to grasp. For a truly innovative idea to gain traction, a whole host of supportive mechanisms need to be in place around it. When they aren’t there, the idea withers on the vine. Last month, the RSA published a fascinating report, From Design Thinking to Systems Change: How to invest in innovation for social impact, that offers a useful model for overcoming some of these challenges. Rather than discussing the design process in isolation, the authors build a comprehensive picture of the process in its entirety, including the forces that resist change (the ‘system immune response’) and useful counter-strategies. I read it with museum learning programming in mind. It’s one thing to dream up exciting new approaches to audience engagement, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever see the light of day, so how can we get more of our ideas off the table and in front of audiences?

The report starts with a brief summary of design thinking and how it has been applied to social challenges: ‘solutions are developed, prototyped and tested using iterative, ‘safe-fail’ experiments to gain rapid feedback… it is a method that helps to uncover a problem by using a collaborative and iterative approach, and then reengaging in divergent and convergent thinking to arrive at a solution’. (p.7) The Design Council’s ‘double diamond’ is used to illustrate this – the two diamonds are placed side-by-side and the process is conducted from left to right, like reading text. As the sides of the diamond broaden out, the required thinking is divergent – open, copious, exploratory, and without judgement. As the sides of the diamond narrow back down to a point, the thinking mode shifts to convergence – decisions are made, some ideas are rejected, and a course of action is mapped. The first diamond is to ‘discover and define’ (ie. figure out what the problem is that you want to solve); the second diamond is to ‘develop and deliver’ (ie. generate and test ideas, and move towards a solution). A small note of caution: this is the tidy, diagrammatic version of the process – the reality is less straight-forward. When avenues of exploration turn out to be cul-de-sacs, it’s necessary to loop back to earlier stages in the process, sometimes repeatedly, and try again.

The next step, in the traditional story, is that the solution (be it a product, service or programme) is rolled out, scaled up, and – hey presto! – system change. No such luck I’m afraid. In a wonderful sequence of diagrams, the report presents the idealised step-change process, and then inserts a massive wall between the ideas bit and the successfully-rolled-out bit. This wall can be made up of any of the following: competing incentives; regulatory frameworks; procurement; market readiness; media backlash; and/or cultural norms (insert your own as specific to your context). Judging by the diagram, it is made out of the same material as Wonder Woman’s bracelets, deflecting ideas left, right and centre with a ping and a spark.

This is where systems thinking comes in, defined by Peter Senge as ‘a context for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots’. (p.11) The creativity and imagination that are brought to bear when solving a specific problem via the design process are also required to influence the systems that will allow new solutions to flourish. Different systems create different barriers, so it is important to know what kind of problem needs to be overcome, and then plan accordingly. The Cynefin Sense-Making Framework, for example, lists four types of problems (considerably fewer than Jay-Z’s 99): simple, complex, complicated and chaotic. Problems can also be thought of as tame or wicked, technical or adaptive; each of which also requires a different response. As you can imagine, it would be easy to get bogged down in all this detail. The authors warn, ‘thinking systematically about problems requires that at a certain point the boundaries of a problem are set. Without boundaries, a systems mindset is at risk of analysis paralysis – where systems maps create overly complicated analyses of problems, which produce so much data it is impossible to act’. (p.16)

The report summarises that the best way to break through the wall is to ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’:

Acting entrepreneurially isn’t just about spotting the best opportunity for change. It is also about maximising the possibility for an innovation to navigate through barriers to change and make an impact at scale. This requires a hacker mentality. Hacking the systems means finding the counterpoints to the barriers to change and creating ways to circumvent them. … The particular action will depend on context, but the entrepreneurial actor is defined more than anything by an attitude that constantly asks, ‘what can I do now to create a better possibility of success further down the line?’ In a fashion similar to the approach taken by market innovators to create demand, socially-oriented innovators should plough every furrow to generate adoption and social impact. (p.18)

Entrepreneurial hacks overcome the barriers AFTER the design process has been conducted, but there is one final, (albeit preliminary) step to consider – the missing first diamond, a shadowy figure that appears before the double diamond (so many diamonds…). This is where problem analysis sits, and the design process is placed in its broader context from the outset. By defining the problem (ie. barrier to system change), determining the problem type, and conducting problem analysis (so many problems….), a stronger, more robust project brief can be written. In a nutshell, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Consequently, tactics for understanding and circumventing barriers are integrated from the outset, increasingly the likelihood of eventual success. RSA’s approach won’t do the work for you, but it does provide some very helpful navigational tools.

IMAGE SOURCE: http://www.cbr.com/wonder-woman-film-lynda-carter-cameo/


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