To Everyone in Social Enterprise: How to Get Big Without Getting Bad

One of the memorable moments from my time mentoring at the Unreasonable Institute was in a room filled with fellows and mentors. A social innovation fellow began to trash big business as the enemy of good—blaming the corporate world as the cause of all the ills we’re working to rectify.

A mentor stopped the momentum of kvetching (spend some time in New York and you will learn Yiddish osmotically) by asking the fellow why he was at Unreasonable in the first place. “To scale my enterprise,” said the fellow. “Then what will you be when you succeed?” asked the mentor.  The fellow laughed and said, “big business.”  Precisely.

Big business has become synonymous with evil in the world: with climate change, toxic waste, factory farming, tainted food, abused workers, and rampant consumerism. But there is nothing inherently evil with “big” or with “business,” they are neutral. When we open our minds to that notion will we reach the scale we want and need in order to make our work matter.

My students at DSI surprise me at times as well, with their vehement conflation of all business into “big bad business”––an antipathy that, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, is difficult to dislodge.

They give us someone to blame, a place to vent our anger and frustration. But convenience is almost always suspect, and the truth is inevitably more complex than it first appears.

Right now, the lack of warmth or curiosity between big business and social enterprise are mutual. We don’t speak the same language and have yet to find a compelling reason to change.

Yet it is clear that our goals, and the requirements for our survival, become more mutual each day: social enterprise needs to become mainstream––to be part of the everyday, good old default global economy if it is to survive; it needs to scale radically, not incrementally. In order to make a significant impact, social enterprises, like for profit businesses, must be built to last.

Big business needs to solve the endemic problem of employee disengagement that costs them billions of dollars in lost productivity each year (by giving work more purpose, perhaps?). Only if corporations take the health of the societies they serve into account can they remain healthy themselves. and only if they find a way to profitably serve underserved societies can they continue to grow, since most of developed markets are oversaturated for just about every category.

I have lived in both worlds. I have been in the belly of the big business beast, working with many companies I admired and avoiding –– sometimes not completely and not soon enough –– those that I did not. I have worked with hundreds of social entrepreneurs all over the world to help them grow. There are intrinsic differences that may help understanding, and some shared values that may help bridge the gulf. Here’s a short list of what I’ve learned so far.

There are differences:

  1. Efficiency vs sufficiency. The goal of business is to reach its goals ––delivering quarterly earnings, getting products out the door, putting on a big show for investors or customers –– at all costs. It’s the results that matter, and if waste is created or people are overlooked in the process, that’s just the price of progress.Social enterprise is based on a very different premise: one that is more aligned with the rule of nature, which is sufficiency: using only what is necessary in the way of energy and resources to achieve a desired outcome, but no more. These are very different approaches to progress, and the implications on impact and unintended consequences are enormous. The take no prisoners business approach is more a question of habit than necessity, and there are lots of successful companies that are changing the game. But understanding the traditional mindset is key to understanding the reason we often feel we’re speaking different languages.
  2. The need to know the future before it comes: design for control vs emergence. The very nature and structure of business is designed for control, from the hierarchy of leadership and management, to the way communication is used to establish and maintain power, to marketing studies that try to understand and predict customer’s desires. Social enterprise, and design for social innovation, is more attuned to an awareness of emergence—of noticing and reacting to changes in society and the environment as they happen, and choosing the right next step accordingly.  Very big difference, and easy to see why they don’t naturally fit together.
  1. There is one measure of success, and it includes a dollar sign. Pubic businesses are trapped in the prison of needing to measure all success financially. They can’t change it no matter how hard they try. It colors everything, stifles experimentation, deadens souls.
  2. Top down, locked in corporate structures. To understand how to work with business, it’s crucial to understand the structural ecosystem. It traps everyone in an inflexible role. They can’t go around barriers if the barrier is in the form of a boss. Even CEOs are limited in the impact they can have and the freedom they have to change. The vast majority of people in business are so consumed by meetings that are scheduled for and not by them that they don’t have time to even think about solving problems in a new way, or innovating. What this means is that although many people inside corporations would like to change, they don’t know how. That’s a noble subject for social innovation.

Business has important things to teach us:

  1. Business can be thrilling in its ability to get stuff done. Compared to the social enterprise and non-profit worlds, where it can be excruciatingly difficult to move the peanut forward or make decisions or act quickly, the ability that businesses have to make decisions and mobilize people towards a common goals is both inspiring and invigorating. Clear goals, inviolate deadlines, clear responsibility and accountability are essential.
  1. Be sustainable. Money is not everything, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Don’t make a sustainable business model the last thing you think about when you’re planning your enterprise. Charity and grants or public support eat up too much of your life securing them. Build a model for your enterprise with ongoing income streams from the start.
  1. Democracy isn’t the answer to everything. While complicated org charts and calcified middle managers should be avoided at all costs, so should a lack of leadership. The thing about great leaders is that they have vision and they keep the organization focused. They make decisions, keep people inspired and engaged, and take responsibility when things go wrong so they can right them. Every organization needs strong leaders, so be one.
  1. Become a part of the mainstream economy. We will fail in creating a more just society if we are always the alternative rather than the main event.People cannot sustainably work for free or next to it because a mission is worthwhile. We have got to solve the problem of building companies that do social good and make money. A dear friend of mine says: “There is no such thing so far as either a truly sustainable company or clean money. So we start there and try to improve the situation.”

Social enterprise has a lot to teach business in return:

  1. Don’t forget why you exist. Most businesses were founded to serve a need in society. And many have succumbed to the pressures of Wall Street, crushing their soul in the process. Businesses that don’t serve a real need (not just, say, a more flavorful snack) for humanity will not survive. Revisit the fire that drove the founding of the organization and ignite it again. Everything changes when there is a north star worth following.
  1. See yourself as part of an ecosystem, not just a fierce competitor. Because you are. The people, planet and resources that you depend on for life need to be healthy, and you have a critical role to play in that.
  1. It’s ok not to have an answer to everything all the time. Nobody does, so stop pretending. Become a learning organization.
  1. Master the creative process. Forget innovation techniques, design thinking, all the fancy consultants and labs and incubators. The creative process, which is accessible to every individual and every organization is the heart of life. So much more to say here, but of course not now. Read Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance for Managers.

Most important for all of us is to try not to generalize. There are brilliant business minds entering the world of social enterprise. And there is an army of businesses working to change the way business works. The American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), founded by David Levine and Jeffrey Hollender, is a network of enlightened business leaders from every industry working to create an environment in America where businesses that want to be sustainable can thrive. The organization is working to influence policy to make it easier to be a sustainable business, they are working to make chemical policy more stringent, to protect water and other natural resources, to fight for rights for workers, for policies that mitigate against climate change,  change policies that increase access to capital for women and minority-owned businesses, GMO labeling, campaign finance reform, net neutrality, minimum wage, and in general, to make the government and citizens aware that there are businesses who want to make the world a better place.

Peter Senge said that “All boundaries are arbitrary. We create them and then ironically we find ourselves trapped within them”. That is one of the most profound insights to our modern life. We make a distinction between big business and good business that is trapping us within an arbitrary boundary of our own making.

Back to ASBC: Check them out, make some new friends, and start a conversation.




Are the Ideas You’re Prototyping the Ones You Really Need?

Originally posted on

Spoiler Alert: This post has been stripped of all jargon and confusing methodological taxonomies in order to protect its meaning. An attempt has been made to communicate at the cutting edge of common sense.

We are now aware that the world is different than it looks from the window of a high rise, that five-year plans last a year at most, that ideas are best developed in quantity then prototyped to see what works before investing in them, that everyone with responsibility to make the enterprise or product a success should be in the room to imagine it.

This is all great news. And an important evolution from the past where hierarchy, control and long range plans governed the development of new ideas. 

Directed Creativity

One thing I’ve observed is that it’s easy to become drunk with the thrill of generating ideas, with the promise that collaboration holds and the learning and precise refinement that prototyping makes possible. Sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and we can become idea-happy: just coming up with cool stuff because it’s fun to do.

And process happy, which means that it’s easy to lose direction. With multiple collaborators involved and with a multitude of ideas on the table, it takes a bit more work and a good deal of discipline to keep the ship headed where you want to go.

It is surprising how often organizations go off track, or go around in circles, repeating the same attempts to move forward. They have difficulty making what have become too many parts or components or programs or phases add up to a whole that resembles what they set out to make.

The simple logic here is one that I use to help big organizations, entrepreneurs and grad students create the conditions for maximum creativity and collaboration while still maintaining the discipline and momentum to get where you’re trying to go.

  1. Define a north star. Keep it on the wall or on your forehead.

What is the highest order definition of where you want to go with your enterprise. This does not mean “to end poverty in the world,” “to fix food systems,” “to end injustice” or anything else that is noble but too big and abstract to act upon. Nor is it “to launch a successful product,” “to plan a kick ass marketing campaign,” “to bring communities together” or anything else that is tactical and does not include the outcome you want to achieve by doing any of those things.

“With multiple collaborators involved and with a multitude of ideas on the table, it takes discipline to keep the ship headed where you want to go.”

The north star has to be specific enough to act upon and measure whether or not you’re getting there, big enough to hold the a purpose that will excite you (and all those you count on to be in it with you) for a long time. For example: “We will be the first company to make buying green products the new normal.”

  1. Identify the conditions that need to exist in order for you to reach that north star.

What needs to be true? What needs to have changed? What needs to exist that doesn’t now? Who needs to be involved? This takes some thinking but is worth it.


For example:

  1. We have to be big enough to create a tipping point in the (name a geographic or other boundary).
  2. We have offer products at a price that everyone can afford.
  3. Our offerings have to be broad enough to cover all categories of need.
  4. What do you need to do or make in order for those conditions to exist?

What products, plans, actions will you take to achieve those conditions? This could include a product, a marketing plan, a new state of mind for your customers, a new organization for your company. For example: What are the specific items and actions it will take to meet the conditions above?

  1. What are the criteria for the things you’ll make or do in order for them to be successful?

For each thing you need to make or do, write the characteristics it has to have, or the qualifications. For example: What performance and cost characteristics do those products (or services) have to have? This is where you will also develop the indicators for success for each action you take or thing you make.

  1. How do all these elements fit together to make a system?

Draw a map of how they are related, how they influence each other. Map even the invisible things, they are often the most important for the enterprise’s success. For example: What’s the system look like when it’s finished? Who are the retailers, distributors, and manufacturers—what are the products?

Now create ideas that meet those criteria that accomplish the things that need to be true in order to get you to your north star. For example: Go crazy inventing amazing products.

This strategic path ensures that everything you devote time and energy to is an important component of helping you accomplish your ultimate goals—that everything you do is part of the same system.


Creating a disciplined idea-generating culture

Sometimes organizations fall in love with cool ideas and find that they aren’t moving past the idea or prototype phase. This happens when idea generation sessions are not framed by the questions or needs that are critical to the organization. Usually if something doesn’t get implemented it’s because it was non-essential or didn’t fully answer the brief in the first place.

A culture of prototyping is a culture of making and doing. It’s being willing to share an idea when it’s still only a spark or a hypothesis, being comfortable thinking in public before you know if your idea is a good one. A culture that is based on this is a trusting culture; one that is comfortable letting ideas emerge from a process instead of trying to plan everything in advance.

But a culture of prototyping needs to be questioned and evaluated all the time to make sure that what is being prototyped is what is needed.

One of the critical elements of the design process is critique. It’s powerful when done with care, and with detachment. (Detachment is the ability to step back from your own ideas and evaluate their quality or strategic rightness.)

In traditional businesses, there is a fear of showing things that are in process—a pressure to make sure things are perfect before revealing it to your boss or presenting it to colleagues.

Landing truly new ideas, the ones that will move your enterprise forward, requires the ability to be vulnerable, playful, disciplined and tough minded, all in the right order.

Sometimes we fall in love with a new technique or process, and we leave behind our basic instincts to question, and our common sense. Some things we already know are worth remembering.



Roshan, a telecom rebuilding a war-torn country

Afghanistan’s leading telecommunications provider utilizes social innovation to strengthen the company and enrich society. Roshan has revolutionized the telecommunications and banking sectors while working to promote the infrastructure of a torn country and creating social value through nation-building.

In 2003 when Roshan was launched, Afghanistan was characterized by economic and political instability, corruption and war.  Infrastructure in the telecom industry itself was virtually non-existent, with less than 0.05% penetration and phone call costs at $12 a minute, depriving its population from the aids of access to communication. The company has revolutionized its sector creating physical infrastructure in a country decimated by war and Taliban attacks, in absence of roads and electricity, while fighting endemic corruption. In a country with a low-skilled workforce, recruitment was a challenge. However, 93% of Roshan employees are Afghan nationals and they decided to invest heavily in training the local workforce in English, basic computer skills, diversity, cultural awareness, health and safety. They are directly addressing threats to the security of their employees, and creating opportunities for women in a place where female employment is not the norm. By providing access to telecommunications in urban and distant rural regions and by creating mobile banking, Roshan has empowered the population. By 2011 Roshan provided service to over 5M subscribers, covering approximately 56% of the population, and following competitors provided even more.

Roshan shows that, at the rebirth of a civilization, a company which creates social value is not only more likely to survive, but is likely to emerge as a dominant force.


Greyston, social innovation in hiring and PathMaking

Greyston Bakery’s mission is to combat poverty in the surrounding community of Southwest Yonkers, New York. As a social enterprise, it uses its policies to hire people who are difficult to employ and trains them for opportunities both at the Bakery and in the community. Through open-hiring efforts to create enduring and systemic change, they have transformed lives in their community and have built a pool of motivated workers. They employ people who may have never been employed before, including recent immigrants, the disabled, people who have been incarcerated, or those leaving drug rehabilitation programs. While volunteering at a local soup kitchen, the founder and his team made an important discovery: many of the homeless people in Yonkers were single parents, and without access to childcare they could not find a job and were unable to break out of a life of poverty, that could repeat through many generations. Greyston Bakery’s holistic approach attacks this vicious cycle by addressing the broader issues of access to affordable housing, healthcare and childcare that are able to support and foster job creation. Inherent in their philosophy is the concept of PathMaking by training them to work hard, making them “employable”, and facilitating their advancement to other fields and encouraging their employees to go on to higher-paying jobs.

The Bakery is New York State’s first Benefit Corporation and has been a pioneer in creating social value for over three decades. The innovative model shows how a company can foster an environment which supports employees in a holistic approach.


IBM, combining social value with business opportunity

The case of IBM provides a brilliant example of a company creating social value by building social capital, and forging new relationships that can lead to growth by leveraging on their core competencies. Among the challenges facing large multinational companies are globalization and how to develop leadership within a global context: how to become relevant and visible in emerging economies, how to understand the challenges they face and how to address the problems of moving employees overseas. To build a presence in emerging economies, IBM launched the Corporate Service Corps (CSC) in 2008 and then the Executive Service Corps (ESC) in 2010. These programs send teams of 8 to 15 IBM employees from around the world to emerging markets where they work with local governments and business leaders to establish or improve new systems and processes. More than 1,500 IBMers have completed over 120 projects in 25 countries from Chile to Ghana to Kazakhstan, which many of them refer to as “life-altering”.

IBM’s program is an example of a new reality in which the roles of government and the private sector blur to develop new mechanisms for collaboration. The CSC delivers a 360-approach by providing a global service that benefits emerging markets, adds value to the company through employee training, and returns profits to IBM through the formation of profitable contracts. Their success has changed how many people view the potential for corporate social responsibility and, in fact, IBM has helped numerous companies establish similar programs.


Ford, addressing environmental and social needs

In a time of economic crisis, Ford Motor Company has addressed strategic opportunities in sustainability and redefined the very purpose of the company. The US multinational, number four automaker in the world, has been reporting on sustainability for 12 years and has a well-developed corporate responsibility program divided into three segments: environmental, mobility, and human rights. Ford has made a commitment to be best-in-class in fuel economy for every segment they participate in, investing and patenting new technologies, and to decrease its environmental impact. The company has reduced the energy use of its global operations by 27%, CO2 emissions by 31% and water use by 25% since 2000. These goals extend to working with the suppliers base in a cascading effect to meet Ford standards.

Furthermore, they are exploring new models of sustainable mobility: the company understands that, with the growing world population and the increased population density in urban areas, it is neither practical nor desirable to put every individual into a private automobile. This has driven a major product overhaul and investments in myriad technologies, and Ford has decided to redefine its mission, imagining a different future in which it provides mobility solutions, rather than only manufacturing vehicles.

In a move that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, Ford has partnered with Toyota, a leading competitor, to co-create technologies to combat climate change and develop more environmentally friendly pick-up trucks.



A reflection on good business and social design in three parts.


Business and social innovation are not traditional bedmates, but have much to learn from one another as the thinking behind this rising class of design entrepreneurs positions them as true leaders.

by Cheryl Heller

The new design is familiar, but different.

From designer as expert to designer as creative transformer.

Design has been defined thus far by individual creators – people with a singular vision and expertise. Raymond Loewy, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bucky Fuller, Paul Rand, the Eames (two who worked as one) were designers with a vision for how things should be, and what the world needed.

This tradition in design parallels the role that experts play in other fields – engineers, scientists, academics, inventors like Henry Ford, Margaret Mead, E.O.Wilson and Steve Jobs, who opened up new worlds through their singular imaginations. But we have reached the point as a species where the power of individuals to solve the complex problems we face, regardless of how brilliant they are, is unrealistic.

Giving up the role of idiosyncratic expert will be difficult for many designers. We’ve worked so hard to earn the aura. But the change we need requires learning to co-create, to make others the geniuses and generators of their own future – helping them grow beyond the need for our help.

Design for Social Innovation applies the abilities of talented individuals to collective creativity and to the transformation of complex systems at great scale. In this new role, the designer’s practice takes place not in a private studio but inside an organization or community. It rearranges the invisible dynamics of individuals and their relationships with each other instead of material resources. Its method and value are in collective participation and creativity that engage organizations in finding solutions that work for them.

From predictions to action that emerges from iteration.

A business plan, no longer necessitates the pretense that an entrepreneur, however prescient, can predict the conditions five years hence of an enterprise that doesn’t exist yet. Remarkably, that expectation has been the norm. To raise capital, an entrepreneur made these sorts of predictions in great detail and following a strict format. Only they weren’t much use once the capital was raised. In May last year, HBR ran an article called “Why the lean start-up changes everything”. According to the article, the Lean Startup “… favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development. Although the methodology is just a few years old, its concepts—such as “minimum viable product” and “pivoting”—have quickly taken root in the start-up world, and business schools have already begun adapting their curricula to teach them.”

The lean start up looks a whole lot more like design than it does standard MBA practice where nothing that can’t be put in an Excel spread sheet is worth considering. Lean Startup IS the social design process applied to entrepreneurship – small bets, prototyping and iteration. The next step emerges when the results of the last steps provide a new reality to evaluate, observe and then act upon. The design process is based on learning, testing, noticing, refining. If entrepreneurs want perfect partners in their start up efforts – lean or otherwise– they need look no further than social innovation designers.


From designing artifacts to designing relationships

While relationships have always been important to business, (businesses are, in fact, nothing more than a series of relationships), the nature of these relationships has been both predictable and one-dimensional in terms of who the participants are, the value asked of them and the value they receive in return. Business leaders look for loyalty from customers, employees and shareholders that translates into a commitment to purchase, work hard or buy shares. These are the standard measures by which they are evaluated as leaders, and it’s how they measure the health of their firms.

But the complex, hairy, connected systems of our shrinking planet impose atypical relationships on all of us – with the myriad previously unheard voices that come through social media, with ecosystems we didn’t notice until we sent them into shock with our interference, with invisible forces that our lust for big data makes visible. These non-traditional relationships can’t be managed in the tried and true ways. They are impervious to the preordained values and rewards of business.

Designers find their inspiration seeing these types of unexpected connections between things – noticing and creating unusual relationships that change the nature of the whole. And social design extends the designer’s purview to human and ecological relationships at a scale and complexity that impacts companies, countries, species and ecosystems.


From identity as brand to identity as destiny

Traditional corporate identity is brand equity and symbolic language. Logos are flags, icons of quality, distinction and (if earned) trust. When they work, they have a positive impact on recognition, consumer loyalty and buying behavior. Corporate brands are built from past experiences, projected onto an expectation of similar experiences in the future.

Identity is our assumed context in the world – our self-image as we perceive it in relation to whatever society, company, world in which we include ourselves. Individuals have identities, as do corporations, cities, countries (and maybe planets for all we know). Identities are dialogs between the outside and the inside of us; they are self-fulfilling prophecies, conformity to societal expectations, and the belief we hold of what we can expect.

Identity plays a far more important role in life than brands do. Meg Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, tells us that all life organizes around a self. “Life’s first imperative is that it must be free to create itself.” Identity is our genesis, our past, present and future. It is our lens on the world and our place in it. Identity is the way we see ourselves, who we determine is “other”, the way we estimate the value of lives other than our own. It is the belief we hold of our place in the world, the tribes we belong to and the contribution we will make, or not make, to the common good. The full power of identity, used as a lever, is the most powerful way to start social change.

I wrote a post about a year ago inspired by trips to Nairobi, Detroit and Mexico City within six weeks of each other. The difference in the way young people in each place see themselves is remarkable. In Nairobi, a sense of expectation; young technologists in what has been called the “Silicon Valley of Africa” are on fire with their own potential. In Detroit, anger for the opportunities lost to them by others; confidence in their own abilities but frustration with the infertile ground around them. In Mexico, talented artists who can’t see how remarkable their skills are because the outside world has never reflected their worth back to them.

Robert Fritz writes about structural change[1] and the hidden assumptions within businesses that prevent them from fully moving forward. Identity is key among them. Leveraging and shifting identity as a means to open possibilities and remove structural barriers is the purview of the new design.

There’s a lesson in this for entrepreneurs on the prescriptive power of identity: spend less time worrying about whether your logo is cool enough and more time defining the character and impact you want to have in the world.

From beauty as seduction to beauty as power

Design has always had the power to create lust, whether it’s a handbag that women kill for, a building people travel the world to see, or a technological cynosure so ergonomic it becomes a human appendage. The corporate world rewards this power handsomely, because of its financial return. In social innovation, beauty inspires people to consider, and care about the things that money can’t buy and humans are powerless to replace.

Please check back next week for some examples of organizations that are illustrating the power of good business + social design.


[1] Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance for Managers


A reflection on good business and social design in three parts.

Business and social innovation are not traditional bedmates, but have much to learn from one another as the thinking behind this rising class of design entrepreneurs positions them as true leaders.

by Cheryl Heller

Traditional design exists to serve the needs of business, and has proven its value in every blockbuster product, disruptive service or platform, and successful brand. The symbiotic relationship between design and business has worked well for a hundred years, give or take, and its progeny have populated our industrialized civilization with billions of organizations and artifacts. The outcomes, as we all know, are selling products, delighting consumers, gaining market share and making money. But what I’ve just described is business as usual, and as we all know, that no longer applies to either enterprise or design.

A wake up call came for designers with the 2011 Cooper Hewitt exhibit called Design for the Other 90%; with its stark revelation of the role design has played in creating a world that fails the vast majority of people in it; and, with its heart-opening illustration of the vast opportunity that exists to give design a higher purpose; to change lives as well as bank accounts.

Since then, the desire on the part of designers to do good and well has become infectious. Design for social Innovation has become an exciting practice, launching educational programs, career paths and thousands of on- and off-line communities.

It’s clear, even at this early stage, that this new design, which focuses on transforming people instead of innovating only more “things”, can create a renewed sense of possibility, energy and creativity for business as well as society.

But as with all new ideas, it has caused a bifurcation; in this case between the old world of growth-at-any-cost bottom line driven capitalism and a new model for growing and creating markets by making them more healthy and robust. To generalize shamelessly, business doesn’t understand what social innovation has to do with business, and social innovators are far from convinced that the best way to do good in the world is through the corporate world that they have learned to mistrust.

Business is changing.

The complex, disruptive challenges confronting companies today aren’t solved with the traditional tactics that used to automatically prescribe growth. The “Disruptive Innovation” concept that Clay Christiansen placed on the tongue of every business person who reads HBR gave name to the dynamic (and the anxiety) with which corporate leaders live. Threats no longer come from known competitors and death does not come slowly enough to predict or avoid. The structural order that the industrial age founders of capitalism believed they could impose is a memory. None of the old tricks work like they used to – at least not long enough to matter. There are no silver bullets, as they used to say, design or otherwise.

Moreover, the seemingly unquestioned notion that businesses have a need (and a right) to continual growth bumps up against the reality that resources – energy and materials extracted from the earth – are increasingly more scarce (and expensive) as other nations catch up to the U.S. and its consumptive habits. Add to that the technological transformation that has given citizens everywhere voice and power; it is no longer possible, or frankly sane, for companies to plan their future without adjusting to the realities of our planet and the needs of its citizens.

The shift from a single-minded business focus on selling objects and services (extraction, consumer-based) to designing new models and systems for human interaction and impact (recalibrating our role as participants in the biosphere) is the only way forward if we look with open eyes at the state of the anthropocene[1]. I am reminded not infrequently of David Orr’s statement that “As homo sapiens’s entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the qualifying round.”[2]

Using the same tools to fix the broken system that made it won’t work. Businesses need to sustainably increase the adaptability, creativity and wisdom of the people who lead and serve them.

And that is where design for social innovation comes in.

In the past five years or so, the number of people working in social innovation has grown exponentially. Paul Hawken has called it the “largest movement on earth”[3]. Business schools adopt design thinking or “human-centered” design as their version of it, AIGA created a national program dedicated to it (Design for Good), IDEO formed to address it. Meet-ups for people wanting to understand how to use it to “change the world” take place everywhere all the time.

Wikipedia defines social innovation as: “… new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds — from working conditions and education to community development and health — that extend and strengthen civil society.[4]

At DSI[5], we define design for social innovation as working on people instead of things; at a systems level, at large scales, with complex levels of engagement and on invisible as well as visible dynamics. In other words, it’s the design of those new strategies, concepts, ideas and organization that meet social needs of all kinds. But, and here’s the point of the article, we are finding that, ironically, social innovation design – and not the design that business created – is what business needs most right now. And that is works on people, not things, energizing cultures, shifting perspectives and igniting creative potential.

Please check back next week for an explanation of how this new design is different, and how it works.


[2] David Orr, Designing MInds

[3] Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest


[5] MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA

Learning from Business4Better in Shanghai, China

Last week I traveled to Shanghai to speak at the Business4Better China Summit, sponsored by UBM and chaired by my dear new friend and inimitable connector, Richard Hsu. The gathering, called “100×100”,was a convening of one hundred for profit and one hundred nonprofit businesses that share a common intention, as the mission of Business4Better states, to “help create successful corporate and nonprofit partnerships that have a positive impact on our communities and expand the meaning of being a better business.”

That’s a familiar mission to anyone who works in social innovation or Corporate Social Responsibility; it would fit numerous organizations I know, in many parts of the world. And that, I think, is the important and encouraging news about this event. Social innovation is a global phenomenon; and China is excited to be among its leaders.

To be in Asia now, among the community of people who are emerging as the creative force behind the region’s transformation, is a very exciting experience. There is an infectious energy, filled with hope and excitement that emerges from the belief that there is hope for the future, and good work to be done.

From fellow speakers I learned about Unilever’s global CSR and sustainability strategy that affects 2.1 billion people in 196 countries; about the extraordinary work of Youth Entrepreneurship for Society that connects young people to technology and the principles of social responsibility; and about the absolutely extraordinary work being done to help orphans of HIV/AIDS by the Chi Heng Foundation, led by Chung To. And many others in a day filled with inspiring stories.

I learned that in China, an iron rooster is the symbol of a cheapskate (because you can’t pull a feather from an iron rooster).

But the most important lesson, as always, is that as different as our cultures are, as unique as each situation and each organization is, humans are humans, business is business, and the earth is the earth. We share the common challenges of living on this precious planet with finite resources, as the species who has caused the challenges we now face and the only species that can do something about it.

Thank you to my new friends and colleagues in China, for your amazing energy and efforts.

Designing for Human Energy as a Precious Resource

Depending on your job, your political persuasion and where you call home, the word “energy”, conjures images of solar panels, windmills, gas stations or coal mines. Or, it can bring to mind oil spills and oil bills. For the most part – humans being humans in the twenty-first century – we tend to think of energy as something we control.

What we often forget, in this time of politicized resources, is that we have another precious energy to manage: the human kind. This is the one we need a lot of in order to solve all the other nasty problems we face.

Anyone committed to social or environmental justice who is paying attention to all the things that need to be done, or fixed, or turned around, is exhausted. There is always more work to do than any single individual, community, city or country can manage on its own. Yet we feel the need to keep trying.

So we get together to talk about it. We have meetings, conferences, consortiums, conversations –– all in the hope that ideas will emerge, and that those ideas will be the ones that change our trajectory.

What I’m going to say next will sound a bit harsh, but stating the obvious is required if we want to change the direction in which we’re headed. We are all familiar with the convening dynamic: the gathering in groups of smart people who are extremely committed to “DOING SOMETHING”; “GIVING BACK”; “CHANGING THE WORLD”; whatever we call it. In these gatherings, half the time is taken up by everyone going “around the room” introducing themselves: who they are; what they think; what they care about. (In the interest of time I will skip, here, the grandstanding dynamics that can accompany this ritual, including the time a woman asked a room of one hundred experts gathered by the National Academy of Sciences to engage in a mini-meditation as the intro to her ever-so-long introduction to herself).

Another nine tenths of the second half of the meeting goes to surfacing ideas, one at a time, from individuals, typically those most fond of holding the floor to talk about what they think. Sometimes, these ideas are not already being done. Every once in a while they are excellent and deserve to be developed, researched, even implemented. People leave with greater or lesser commitments to get together and keep the momentum going.

Almost inevitably, we go back to our daily lives, where we are still exhausted and overworked. The great convening – and the great ideas – fade away. That’s because the people in the room with the experience and the connections to make something lasting happen are the ones with the least time available to follow up. We tell ourselves we should feel good about having gotten together and that there were some really good ideas that emerged.

But we know it’s not enough.

So why dont we design for the reality of this dynamic instead of pretending that if we just get together one more time, with the right group of people, the outcome will be different?

We don’t typically succeed in follow through because there isn’t an implementation process that helps diverse people with varying amounts of time and experience work together.

We have a methodology for coming up with ideas (design thinking) that has been adopted by businesses, educational institutions and non-profits around the world. But we flounder and run out of steam when we try to develop, prototype, or implement these ideas at scale. The way we work together in solving the problems we face is a critical but overlooked aspect of impact design –– and a much needed design project to take on.

Methodologies for getting stuff done are everywhere. The way movies are made is a great example. So is the way buildings get built and new products or divisions launched by corporations. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s a ballet that can be every bit as thrilling as coming up with great new ideas. The trick is to put it in place, and to link the idea generation to the evaluation, prototyping and making or doing.

Here’s what it would take:

A deliberate conversation: (ideally before people leave the convening) about what success is, what talent, resources and time it will take. And who wants to be on the team. Not a vague conversation, of the “I’ll be in touch” kind, but an honest conversation about what everyone wants, can and has to give. AND, an important part of the deliberate conversation is, who is going to pay for this. Are people expected to donate their time? Is there money to be raised? Who will find or provide money, and how much is needed? Can the model be self-sustaining?

Have this conversation up front, so people can decide if they can live with the answer. And so that, if money is needed, there’s time to find a creative way to find it.

An owner of the project. A leader: Someone who says, I will take the lead, not just in making this happen, but making it great. Someone who has the time and the passion and the experience (not one out of three).

A producer: Someone to keep the trains running on time; and the calendars. I love great producers. They are a pain in the butt because they demand specifics not generalities, but they are amazing, and so so important. We should treat them as the very special and valuable contributors they are.

A strategy and plan: for how people can contribute what is needed, and what they can commit to, and how to keep the project flowing and still take advantage of these contributors with varied amounts of time and sporadic schedules. Filmmakers do an amazing job of this.

This doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can be very simple, depending on the idea to be developed. (And, of course, it can get very complex when that’s what’s called for as well.)

The point is that nothing ever gets done without it.

A name: Let’s name this process something cool so that people don’t forget to do it after every meeting or conversation where something worth developing emerges.

A blog post is not good for working on this, but I hope it’s good for an invitation to join me.

This, is in my estimation is one of the most critical design jobs we have to tackle. Who wants to work on it together? Please email me at

And let’s find out what happens when we stop wasting our own energy and treat it as a precious resource needed for survival.

 Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA and the founder of the design innovation lab CommonWise. She received the prestigious AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014.





The last methodology you’ll ever need to learn.

We live in a time when self-evident, practical truths about life emerge from the mouths of self-proclaimed pundits as genius revelations. They are the kind of truths we know we know already, if we would only pay attention; the kind my friend Cheryl Kiser calls “the cutting edge of common sense”. But somehow we don’t remember them until we see them on the cover of a business book or magazine, and then we act surprised.

For example, a friend just raved about the new book, “The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essentials”, which demonstrates “how to streamline your life by identifying the essential and eliminating the unnecessary, freeing you from everyday clutter and allowing you to focus on accomplishing the goals that can change your life…” No s – – t. Or a new piece of research proving that “food marketing can create a false sense of health”? Or that design should be human-centered (design has always been human-centered – just centered on the humans with the money to commission it.) Perennials on the Times non-fiction best seller list include, “The Power of Habit”, and Susan Cain’s “Quiet”, about the value and productivity of people who don’t yack and socialize all the time. DUH to it all.

It seems that the over-abundance of things we know (facts and information) obfuscate all the things we need to know in order to be happy (intuition, wisdom).

In fairness, we have learned a great deal about how the world works. We no longer fear sailing off the edge of it, we accept the cause and affect relationship between sanitation and health (an unsolved mystery for mankind for thousands of years), and long ago worked up the courage to prove that the tomato is not poisonous. Big stuff.

It’s the part about our own real natures and needs that confuses us.

Two of the most worthy examples of the cutting edge of common sense are showing up in both expected and unexpected places of late. Through these two related methodologies, we are waking up to a 3.5 billion year old idea (life on Earth), and calling it news. The Agile methodology prescribes that we no longer spend years planning and then blindly executing complex programs when the world is changing at warp speed around us and there’s a good likelihood that what we develop will be obsolete by the time it’s done. The related methodology, Holocracy, tells us that we should not put a small number of (mostly white) people in charge of making decisions for the vast majority of people without involving them beyond telling them what to do. What is true genius about both Agile and Holocracy is that they derive their methods from the way the earth creates: no five year plans, o bureaucracy, all rapid prototyping, small steps, fast failure.

I am simplifying shamelessly here, of course, but it’s my post.

I mean to say (quickly) that Agile and Holocracy are so superior to our traditional methodologies for running businesses and communities and for creating anything new, and that the rightness of them is so obvious that they should be adopted everywhere immediately.

Why would we do anything else? Because nowhere is the avoidance of the unknown and the desire for control more evident than in established American institutions, and nowhere are the forces of money and power put to better use upholding it.

With all that humankind has learned, we should know better. Xerxes’ order to have the sea whipped and branded with hot irons when storms derailed his passage of the Dardanelles in 480 BC seems rightly foolish now. Is it any more foolish than our belief that we can maintain regulated, safe and predictable order over the chaos that is life in order to bend it to our will?

These are the last methodologies we’ll ever need to learn in part because they are finally the right ones. And, in part, because the ones we’ve been using have become lethal.

Can you say “Scrum”?

The American Dream in Black and White

A design approach to a just economy

Within the international development community, there is a growing interest in the role that design can play in solving poverty and injustice. The Gates Foundation has commissioned a study to better understand how to integrate design thinking into its work, and a recent request for proposal from the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) was riddled with the acronym HCD (human centered design.)

So here’s a something to consider: If design is the current trend in solving social problems, what’s a current, glaring social problem close to home that we could apply it to? How about the one Thomas B. Edsall writes about in his August 19 New York Times op-ed, “Ferguson, Watts and a Dream Deferred“? The title, a reference to Langston Hughes’ famous poem “Harlem,” points to the fact that, after all the promise of the 1960s, African Americans have suffered 40 years of social and economic setbacks. And as Ferguson, Missouri, has shown us, a dream deferred eventually explodes.

Edsall suggests that at the time of the 1965 Watts riots, African Americans could feel that their voices were being heard—by a government that, unlike our present one, was not so caught up in its own politics that it couldn’t act on behalf of its people. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting, both of which had enormous impact on the social and economic status of African Americans.

But in many respects, African Americans have seen little to no progress in the intervening 40 years. In fact, many of the challenges they face seem to have gotten worse. African Americans were hit harder by the great recession in 2008, and in addition to having lower average household incomes than white families, they are less likely to see economic improvements. Edsall quotes a study by Julia Isaacs from the Brookings Institution that found that white children “are more likely to move up the ladder, while black children are more likely to fall down.” That brutal statement has an intractable finality that flies in the face of whatever is left of the American Dream, the ideal of hope for prosperity and happiness in a country so filled with opportunities that “one’s children’s social and economic condition will be better than one’s own.”

Methods for fighting poverty and injustice in other countries are well documented and frequently debated—market creation, robust charity efforts, well-funded philanthropies like the Gates Foundation. But their models are based on the governments, environments, cultures, and economies of countries other than our own. Our American identity—and our adherence to the frayed promise of the American Dream—has largely blinded us to extreme poverty and social injustice here at home.

How then to address those things? This is where social design might be helpful. While its widespread adoption by business schools and multinational companies has produced many customized variations of the process, the essential phases are inevitably the same: understand the context, define the problem, create ideas, prototype solutions, and implement the ones that work.

Successful implementation of any process, however, comes not from simply knowing the steps but from the internalization of skills and values that provide deep understanding of the issues and potentialities. Here are some core social design principles that, while in short supply within our current government, could go a long way toward addressing the issues Edsall highlights.

Detach from personal agendas and expectations. Remain neutral. Watch and listen.
Personal and institutional agendas impair vision and understanding. Clinging to a preconceived notion of how things are prevents us from seeing how they really are. Yes, ambiguity is scary. But the ability to live without knowing the answer is one of the exquisite joys/pains of the creative process. This phase of the design framework is often called “immersion” because it is exactly like being immersed in the lives and worlds of people unlike us that we are trying to help. It does not mean becoming one of them or entering as an expert intent on applying solutions that worked somewhere else. Though it sounds simplistic, it’s actually quite difficult to do and takes practice. But it is the only way to come to an understanding of current reality—the first and most important principle for any sustainable change that involves human beings.

After that, ask why.
Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Social design is based on finding the right question to ask, rather than looking for the best person to blame (as is to often the case in government). Getting beyond the symptoms to the root cause of issues takes time and a willingness to learn. Paul Polak, who has brought more than 20 million people out of poverty (outside the U.S.) has a rare technique for learning: He simply asks poor people why they are poor. He says they inevitably know.

Use the creative process to heal.
Social-impact design is based on collective creativity—leading a community to the creation of its own solutions. This is the opposite of the traditional outside expert who develops and delivers pre-determined solutions. It involves facilitating the emergence of ideas from within the community itself. This leads to answers that are far more likely to be relevant and sustainable. Equally important, the collective creative process itself changes people in a lasting way. They learn to clarify and align on vision and purpose. They communicate and develop relationships; they learn to experiment, identify new ideas, navigate uncertainty, and to operate within constraints by focusing on what they have rather than what they do not. They learn to live in the present and develop a sense of fulfillment and self-reliance.

Toss the five-year plan.
By their very nature, long-range plans attempt to predict the future when the real goal should be on creating it. Just look at how quickly lean startup methodology—the exact opposite of long-term planning—has swept the business world. As the Harvard Business Review describes it, the lean startup “favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional ‘big design up front’ development. Although the methodology is just a few years old, its concepts—such as ‘minimum viable product and ‘pivoting’—have quickly taken root in the start-up world, and business schools have already begun adapting their curricula to teach them.”

One way to think about social design is as a process for making the things we dream about real, whether they are dreams of progress, money, family, or a better world. When design has been proven effective in solving problems of poverty in other countries, why would we not try it here?

AIGA Studio of The Future

It seems more than a little ironic that on the day I sit down to write about the studio of the future, I have received from storage a delivery of the contents of my home studio from three years past – things that were once precious enough to pack and store and move to a new home are now foreign objects – a one ton time capsule of the things I once felt essential to my work, yet have happily worked without. Over these three years, I have ventured from my home studio, to lead the development of a new MFA program, Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York. To say that it has changed me, the way I work, my view of the future, and of education is a gross understatement.

Design was once all about things; making things, printing things, carrying things around the studio on the way to their production. The artifacts of design were always ephemeral, now they have become inessential. But the process of design is one that I believe the future of the world depends upon.

In my world, design has transitioned from creating things to creating change. It has become invisible, and in doing so, is more powerful than ever before. What social innovators recognize is that the change we need to design is in human behavior. Designing things, no matter how clever, will never create the seismic transformation we require. We need to shift the way we treat the planet and each other, the way we view our right to natural resources, money, and in America in particular, things.

That essential transformation – from designing form, to content, to process, to behavior and finally to an intended outcome – has enormous implications for the way we practice, and for the way an educational program, like ours at SVA, can help develop the future leaders of change.

Traditionally, our culture rewards individual genius, in the arts, science, politics, sports and design.  We honor singularity, those that stand apart from the crowd, and we tolerate the ego required to attain and maintain a position above the simply excellent. Looking forward, real individual genius is the ability to help creativity and hope emerge in others, working from the inside of communities, companies, cities, countries or tribes. It is the ability to synthesize from a group a common vision for a different future, to make it compelling enough for the entire community to rally behind. To hold up a mirror to individuals and organizations and reflect to them their higher selves – creating an identity for them as people capable of thinking differently and being in the world in a sustainable way. When the goal is to design change with people, there is no hiding away, creating masterpieces that win awards. The “studio” is the world, and design education must include the world as well.

Designing change in our societies requires new skills and craft. It requires deep understanding of human nature, of change models, systems of every type, skill in leading conversations and facilitating co-creation. It takes broadly curious people, not narrow experts, no longer relying on our own brains and eyes and instincts but learning to fully engage and excite and motivate those of others. It uses traditional skills as well – making complex information accessible and exciting, bringing clarity to chaos, delighting with form and elegance –but they are used as part of a larger system with far-reaching impact.

Not long ago some students came to interview me, as part of a project called Educate 20/20. They were traveling across the country researching innovative educational programs. Their last question was what I thought the future of education might be. Since I have no capacity for predicting the future, I can only imagine it, and in doing so, hope to help bring it about. For me the future of design education has nothing to do with physical spaces or equipment or technology. It has to do with beauty, not the “designery” kind, but the profound beauty of our planet. It will develop leaders who inspire by using all of themselves, being fully human, exploding the definition of design and designer, moving beyond brains and intellect, becoming citizens of the whole world and understanding our place in it. The footprint we leave should be not detritus, but a renewed connection to nature, to responsibility, to hope, and to a real conviction that we can again live with confidence in a future that looks rosier than our past.

Matt Klein, Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Foundation, came to speak to our cohort not long ago, and gave them perspective on their place in history. He said that everyone needs, and will seek out, problem solvers with interdisciplinary skills like theirs, that it’s an advantage now, but will soon be a requirement.  All around us, we see organizations and communities that need to change. The job for design is everywhere. I would like the people who come through our program to become embedded in thousands of places in the world that we can’t even imagine yet, like seeds of change and hope, helping our species evolve from selfish users of resources to expanders and creators of resources. And for that, there is no studio required at all, but don’t let that stop you from joining us in it.