Monday, February 9, 2009
In a world in which most of our systems, from food to education to health to commerce, are either under significant pressure (buy any peanut butter lately?) or have broken down altogether (how’s your mortgage application coming along?) there is a lot of emphasis on getting to the “right solution”.
But while we may not know what all the solutions are, we’d submit that we collectively do know how to build the right solutions, and that the process knowledge is at least as important as the solutions themselves, because it’s replicable.
The partners at Collective Invention have worked together a long time, though our collaborations have taken different forms over the years. Arnold and I met as co-founders of The Idea Factory, now a Singapore-based company started here in San Francisco in 1997; it was here that we hosted Clark’s UC Berkeley design students and recruited Fiona to build our ethnographic research practice. Meanwhile, other longtime professional friendships, such as those with Jamais Cascio and Adam Kahane, grew out of our all having had the good fortune to work at Global Business Network (GBN) in the mid 1990’s.
The fact that we have collaborated in widely varied settings over time has helped us collectively to reflect on our work, and as part of Collective Invention’s mission we’d like to share some of our working hypotheses about the practices and principles that support innovation in the social sectors. I invite you to add your own thinking to the mix, and meet others with similar preoccupations, by getting involved in the practices and principles group on the Innovation for the Common Good discussion forum.
First of all, we define collective invention as diverse problem-solvers engaging productively together to generate breakthrough solutions. It’s what the X-Prize seeks to incent through offering prizes: “radical breakthroughs to benefit humanity.” And it’s what we seek to do with reliable processes for collaborative innovation. That’s a powerful combination: it will take both funding and technical support to blast open the problems we face and build new solutions together.
Clark, in his earlier blog post, has begun to lay out some parameters for design thinking. Our experience tells us that there are additional principles that provide the underpinning for collective invention in the social sectors:
Innovation for the common good demands focused cooperation between policy-makers, funders, researchers, leaders, and facilitators. The sheer scale of social problems, and the potential for doing harm through ill-conceived projects, requires the influence of policy-makers, the human-centered focus of qualitative research, the energy of venture funding, the topview of enlightened leadership and the process know-how of program facilitation. None of these factors on its own will catalyze real breakthroughs in healthcare, education or sustainable development, but together we can remake the landscape.
Confident leadership creates the conditions in which risk and error actually result in better solutions. Risk, error and deviation from the norm are pre-conditions for innovation, and leadership must advocate for them. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, says “especially in the scientific community, people are stuck in how they approach problems. The day before something is a breakthrough it was a crazy idea. If it wasn’t crazy yesterday, it isn’t a breakthrough today. And breakthrough ideas can sometimes be embarrassing if they don’t immediately lead to results.” Perhaps even more around pressing social problems than in the private sector, where innovation practices have been cultivated, leadership must model tolerance for and yes, even advocate for risk, error and deviation from the norm.
Good process generates a productive rhythm between collective intelligence and individual creativity. While experience is the only path to mastery here, there are ways to know when a team needs to be hived off or opened up; when an individual problem-solver needs to work independently and when s/he is ready for new perspectives; when and how to crowdsource and when and how to make meaning from the resulting data. Maybe this is, in part, what Daniel Pink means when he talks about symphony as a skill for this conceptual age.
Innovative teams are cognitively diverse. While it is easier to point to and to accomplish other forms of diversity—geographic, religious, gender, ethnic—when we are building breakthrough solutions what we most care about is cognitive diversity: differing mental models and problem-solving habits. A hypothesis: collective invention requires the ability to identify these differences, recruit participants accordingly, and to provide teams the tools to exploit cognitive diversity.
Mindful organizations, groups and teams are sensitive to their environments. A creative group is mindful of detail and adaptive to changes in the world around them. Collective mindfulness is about the ability to scan for signs of change and monitor particular signals at the same time.
The opportunity of our age is to use both silicon-based and social technologies to illuminate new possibilities. We have the technical know-how to surface and share data from virtually any source. Combined with process knowledge born out of design and organizational development, this gives us the capacity to invent, explore and rework solutions at a scale and speed never before possible. This opens up the potential for new forms of collaboration between technologists, designers and laypeople with shared investments in social innovation.