Unreasonable.is

Please Stop trying to change the world

I just finished Vivian Gornick’s wonderful book on how to write personal narrative, called The Situation and the Story. In it, Gornick explains how crafting personal stories with broad appeal—rather than boring personal anecdotes (the “I guess you had to be there” stories)—requires detachment. Only by putting some distance between ourselves and our own personal drama can we gain the perspective we need to tell our stories clearly.

It’s an interesting concept that applies far beyond the intimacy of the personal essay. For example, detachment (perspective) is what Israel and Hamas do not have right now. Or any country (including ours) that is busy bombing another. It’s what the sobbing Argentinians didn’t have at the World Cup final. It’s what we lack when we get an annoying email and succumb to the short-term satisfaction of a snotty answer rather than long-term understanding of the damage we might cause. In fact, detachment is what almost no one in power is able to sustain for fear of facing a reality too different from the one they portray.

We social innovators worship the power of stories. We tell stories of our origins, of our missions, of the people we want to help and the dynamics we want to change. And we have a tendency to sound as if we’re the first ones ever to try to make the world a better place.

We need some detachment.

I was talking to a young interaction designer recently who bemoaned the fact that every startup she encounters has the obligatory “we’re going to change the world” portion of its mission statement, whether the mission is to make potholders or a new app for parking or an innovation that ends poverty.

Saying that doesn’t help. It’s too generic a problem to solve, too lofty a goal to ever know is reached. It’s added fluff in a space already filled with hot air, where anybody can say anything and, by virtue of having said it, believe it to be true. It’s the polar opposite of the scientific process, in only things that can be tested are accepted as true.

But the scientific process is not solely responsible for human progress. Our advancement has been due in equal measure to dreamers who have the courage to say that something is coming when it has not yet, and the agency to make the things they say will happen come true. That requires detachment.

We are told to find our passion and follow our bliss. We’re told that commitment and intention are as important as experience. We’d be wise to remember as well that whatever we can think of, someone has likely thought of before. I am humbled by that, and by the difficulty of changing even one person’s life, let alone everyone’s.

It’s easy to see when others need detachment from the things that possess them, but a revelation when we see it in ourselves. I have spent my life struggling to accomplish things – only to misplace myself among the things I accomplished. I’m not trying to change the world, only to find a place to contribute in it.

Design for Social Innovation, Moving Past the Assembly Line

The most pressing challenge businesses face isn’t finding new opportunities for growth and market share; it’s changing the way they approach their challenges in the first place. And there’s no better way to change that approach than through design for social innovation.

The industrial age taught us to solve problems by breaking things down into manageable parts, assigning specialists to work on them, then reassembling them into a workable whole. This seemed like a great step forward (Thanks, Henry Ford.), but it’s now an entrenched habit that limits us in both business and life. Compartmentalization might speed things up on an assembly line, but it forces both people and processes into silos. And silos destroy creativity, context, and perspective—all things we need to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. 

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a classic example of this. At too many companies, CSR is a department (read: silo) rather than a process. And being able to point to the existence of a CSR department as evidence of commitment ends up being far more important than actually giving that department the authority to carry out real change. 

 I’ve seen this same pattern at every type of company I’ve worked with. Want to reboot your culture and re-engage your employees? Hire an outside consultant. Need to innovate? Create an innovation lab. These efforts won’t produce long-term results any more than ordering salad for one lunch will improve your overall health. Without deep, systemic change, things revert to the way they were. One way to identify the symptoms of this is to count the number of committees and task forces a company has – or the commensurate number of outside consultants. A task force for employee engagement means the employees aren’t engaged. A task force on innovation is proof that there is none. Ditto the committees devoted to better communication, sustainability, or inter-departmental collaboration.

 That’s the goal of design for social innovation—a human-first approach centered on large-scale systemic change and complex levels of engagement that help companies keep pace with the social and environmental forces surrounding them. One of the most exciting examples of this is Medtronic, the world’s largest manufacturer of medical devices, and a darling of Wallstreet for decades. They saw millions of people in India who could not affort to be tested for heart conditions let alone afford a pacemaker, and made it central to their growth strategy to develop an affordable test, and an affordable product. This is design for social innovation – in the process of helping millions of underserved people lead healthier lives, they open up huge new markets and develop a breakthrough product at a pricepoint that will enable them to expand to other underserved markets around the world. This kind of transformation is not done by setting up a committee with no authority to create change, it is done by making it key to what the entire company stands for.

Design for social innovation works from the inside out, which is the only way that real change ever happens. And the result is people who see uncertainty as a stream of opportunities rather than a barrage of disruptions.

Of course, design for social innovation is messy, imperfect, and difficult to measure, since it’s concerned more with mindset and approach than quantifiable output. That makes it scary for established businesses. (The closed-mindedness can work both ways. Too many social-innovation experts, including many of the exciting young people entering the field, are so set in their biases against traditional business that they risk creating their own social-innovation silo and, thus, changing nothing.) Still, I think the onus is on business executives to accept that change is inevitable and that they can either be agents of it or victims of it.

 You may have seen the following quote passed around on social media: “CFO asks his CEO, ‘What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?’ CEO answers, ‘What happens if we don’t, and they stay?’” Design for social innovation is the answer to that dilemma. 

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