Why ‘adapt’ is the new ‘nudge’ (and why that’s good for social entrepreneurs)

  Skininthegame I’ve written before about my love of podcasts, and how they can spark off new ideas or generate new thinking on the way to and from work. My current fave is More Or Less, the Radio 4 programme about statistics, numbers, and how they relate to the news events of the day (often to politics and policy).  This covers everything from the real value of the national debt to the comparative effectiveness of different contraceptives. It’s more interesting (and entertaining) than it sounds, and  it is particularly useful to have that rational discipline and questioning mindset when, like me, you are giving a lot of thought to an organisation’s measurement and evaluation.

I mention all this because the main man of More Or Less is Tim Harford, also known as the FT’s Undercover Economist (incidentally, the book of that name is a great intro to economic thinking and gives useful insights into pricing, costing, markets and much else besides).  He has a book being launched later this year called Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, and I’m looking forward to it to an almost indecent degree.

Why? Well, if you read my recent piece on how social entrepreneurs learn, or anything about SSE’s approach to learning, you’ll know that we are keen advocates of action learning or learning by doing. That the best learning comes from action, and that the most successful initiatives are not those with the perfect business plan, but those which learn from failures, mistakes and imperfections. That things get figured out on the frontline, not in back offices;  that it is not academic ‘experts’ who solve complex problems, but practitioners with experience; that solutions are often better generated from bottom-up action and adaptation than top-down planning and grand strategies.

Indeed, it is that flexibility, agility, and adaptability that is identifiable in the best social entrepreneur-led organisations around, explaining their ability to both continuously improve and innovate their product and service, and also their readiness to seize opportunities and utilise untapped resources. The blurb for Harford’s book resonates strongly with this, saying that ‘out’ go experts, plans and (top-down) leaders, and ‘in’ come adaptation, improvisation, failing and learning (and trying again). And it looks like he will apply that thinking to big problems (Iraq, global warming, terrorism) and ‘small’ ones equally (everyday decisions in life and business).

While ‘nudging’ focuses on influencing (and changing) behaviours, adapting is more fundamentally about encouraging action before planning, overcoming obstacles as they arise, changing approaches rapidly and, most of all, about shifting the culture of risk-aversity to one of risk-awareness and even risk-acceptance. And further accepting that there will be failures along the way.  It is an approach that makes most sense in a world in which contexts and circumstances shift rapidly, and in which the pace of society’s development (and life generally) seems to outpace the best-made plans of policymakers and theorists.

So 2010 might have been the year of ‘nudge’, but 2011 should be the year of ‘adapt’ (and the year after that….).

[NB – Some might then advocate for an ‘adapt’ unit at the heart of government, perhaps headed up by Tim Harford himself; but obviously that would be a top-down, strategic plan for adaptation with an expert at the centre…which wouldn’t really work at all :0) ]



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Learning from failure (and social entrepreneurship)

I attended a fascinating lunchtime seminar the other week. It's not often the words 'fascinating', 'lunchtime' and 'seminar' are used in juxtaposition, so thought I would share some of the key points from the session. It was called, Trial, Error and the Big Society though it was more 'trial, error and failure in the public policy sphere' in reality (it would appear you're actually not allowed to hold any event currently without the words Big + Society in the title…). Aubrey Fox, who has been working at the Young Foundation, was talking about the lessons from his work at the Center for Court Innovation, and his associated book Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure

Despite my lack of knowledge about the criminal justice system, Aubrey was thankfully making some points of more general relevance which I was able to make sense of. And I think there are some interesting lessons for both social entrepreneurs and those who support them. This is all in the context of "there is failure in anything you do" and "failure is difficult to talk about":

1) Failure is in the eye of the beholder: a binary view of pass/fail does not reflect the complexity of most project outcomes, nor the experiences of those taking part in it in some way; success looks different to different people, and so does failure

2) Working once doesn't mean it will work forever (or somewhere else): this is a fascinating one for us, because we franchise our model and are passionate about replication that works; but there are countless external factors beyond 'the model', and a constantly changing environment

3) Leadership is crucial: Aubrey made the interesting point that 'boring' leaders are better than 'heroic' leaders; it is also about different stages of leadership for different elements of a project….and how to achieve those leadership transitions (often a point of failure)

4) Work to close the gaps between policy + practice: still these two groups are not effective at working together (I know, shock!); but ways to avoid failure involve a two way street of nudging or incentivising or de-risking or facilitating policymakers to be more creative, and also training, supporting, developing practitioners to effectively run and sustain what they do and not to fall into the trap of…

5) …the 'seductive power of unrealistic expectations': another great phrase, and one that I've termed the risk of "overpromise and under-delivery"; actually, changing behaviours and cultural norms at an individual level (never mind organisational or system level) is very difficult; and there is an assumption (is this correct?) that "projects would not win (public) support with modest results"; but that is a short-term win rather than a long-term success outlook…..

Further points of interest were

– that the consequences for individual failure differ depending on the project or sector (i.e. it's fine for James Dyson to trial 550 different hoovers and throw them out, it's not the same with, say, young offenders)

– that structural leadership (of teams, of coalitions) with agreed analysis and measurement is important

– defining what success looks like too early can put a limit on ambition (aka "sometimes you need to hold your nerve")

– the burden of proof in the sector is often on the new, rather than the existing

– the value of "calculated candour" (a phrase I love), which speaks to the need to be open without being reckless, to being as straightforward as possible about what has worked and what hasn't; because openness builds trust, which builds credibility builds support….

– areas ripe for innovation might be those where the risk (and cost) of the status quo is higher than the risk (and cost) of innovation

– couple of interesting questions; one that doesn't get asked (what is your expected failure rate?) and one that was difficult to answer (what is the motivation for individuals to take risks and to admit failures?)

At that point, brain expanded, and tried to come back to work…learning and failing, learning and failing.

[hat-tip as ever to the wonderful Indexed blog for the image; buy the postcard book via the site!]

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Connected: why different networks are crucial for social entrepreneurs

Connected Was fascinated reading an article in the paper this weekend, entitled "Are your friends making you fat", which is all about research that demonstrates the influence of friends in your network on how you live and work. Like all the best books of this type, Connected seems at its heart to be based on a very obvious idea: that social networks affect our behaviour more powerfully than we tend to acknowledge. Be that in becoming obese, taking up (or quitting) smoking, or what we wear.

For me, the article became more interesting when it started to talk about how the success of projects or initiatives might depend on different types of networks. For example, the article discusses the success of a broadway musical:

Christakis tells the story of a friend of his, Brian Uzzi, who has used
the impact of social networks to analyse the success or otherwise of
Broadway musicals. "He finds that if the key players – the director,
costume designer, sound person, producer, etc – all worked together
before, and everyone knows everyone else, then the show is a flop. He
also finds that if you put together a group of people, who have never
worked together before, the show is also a flop. But if you put
together a group of people some of whom have worked together and some
who haven't, then the show is a runaway critical success with enormous
financial rewards."

This got me thinking about what I often say in presentations about SSE and why we attempt to put together a diverse group of social entrepreneurs in a cohort, and the importance of the network they develop in terms of resource, opportunity, support and experience. It's also worth reflecting on this when thinking about the type of organisation you build and the mix of skills + trust that is needed.

Later on in the piece, the researcher (Nicholas Christakis) discusses this in a different evolutionary context:

"If you want to hunt a mastodon," Christakis says, "it's really good if
all your friends know each other because you can work closely together
to kill it. But if you want to find a mastodon, it's much
better if your friends don't know each other – because they'll all have
the same information. If you don't know your friend's friend, the
chances are he will be able to tap more distant regions of the network."

I think this is potentially fascinating from a social entrepreneur's point of view, and demonstrates why networks can be so important to success.

For example, in the early stages of researching and establishing a new organisation (or 'finding a mastodon' in this context), a social entrepreneur needs information, expertise, inspiration, support and knowledge from a variety of sources. That's when the cohort of like-minded, supportive people who don't know each other beforehand can come into play, along with the networks of witnesses and staff they come into contact with at SSE.

Then, when it's about running the organisation, and building and mobilising a community of support behind it (or 'killing the mastodon'), it is those who share the same mission + are part of the same group or team who can play a key role in making that happen. The ability and confidence of the social entrepreneur to build that community + team around them, and to 'bring people with them'  on the journey is then pivotal.

Get both of those networks right, and those mastodons won't have a chance there'll be plenty more successful entrepreneurs and organisations to be influenced by.

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Russell L. Ackoff and the F-Laws of business

Since I recommended Peter Day's World of Business in my top 10 podcasts for social entrepreneurs, it's only become more relevant. In the past few weeks, the programme has covered the Salvation Army (once described by Peter Drucker as the most effective organisation in the world, in any sector), Project Alcatraz (or how a Venezuelan businessman became a social entrepreneur) and, most interestingly of all for me, the thoughts and learnings of the late Russell Ackoff, a management and business thinker.

Ackoff speaks much sense about a whole range of topics related to business and management, but I was particularly interested (given our work here at SSE) in his emphasis on learning. He's strong on the difference between teaching and learning (something which we still struggle at times to get across). He emphasises that an ability and willingness to learn are the keys to a successful organisation, and that one can only learn from doing something wrong (or making a mistake). Further, the best opportunities for learning come in the face of adversity or difficult times: perhaps we should reframe 2010 as "a great year of learning for the third sector". More seriously, this chimes exactly with our belief in learning-by-doing.

I particularly like his distinction between errors of commission and errors of omission. The former consist of doing something that should not have been done; the latter consist of not doing something that should have been done. Ackoff contends that errors of omission are much more serious, because they cannot be corrected or retrieved…they are lost opportunities; and that organisations fail more often because of what they do not do, rather than what they do. But this is not often reflected in practice, because it is only errors of commission (i.e. what has been done wrongly) that are recorded and noted, which tends to make people averse to risk and less prone to challenging the status quo. Which makes an entrepreneurial ethic all the more important in establishing, leading and working within an organisation.

I've added three Russell Ackoff books to the SSE bookshop:

Management f-Laws: how organisations really work

Turning Learning Right Side Up

A Little Book of f-Laws

You can also download a pdf of the latter for free from www.f-laws.com

Highly recommended.

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Forces for Good: a brief review

Forces Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits
by Leslie Crutchfield & Heather McLeod Grant (Jossey-Bass)

[review originally in Social Enterprise Magazine with a strict word limit: hence the brevity…]

This book could not come more heavily garlanded with praise from the other side of the pond and, as the name might suggest, it is an American book written primarily for an American audience. And there is plenty to raise the hackles of a cynical Brit: from effusive acknowledgements (running to four pages) to occasionally alienating business school jargon (“bench strength” etc.). But if you can get past those, there is much here to inspire and inform.

The six practices are:
1) to serve and advocate;
2) to harness market forces;
3) to inspire evangelists;
4) to nurture nonprofit networks;
5) to master adaptation;
6) to share leadership.

Some of these may strike you as obvious, others as simplistic, but the book goes into each in depth, and draws out further useful principles and case studies under each heading. And there’s much else of interest on the way, as you would expect from a book based on four years of research. Such as the average length of tenure of the CEOs of these high-impact organisations (just under 21 years) and the average size of their boards (just under 24): a stark contrast to the turnover rate and size that is often recommended here.

Most crucially, the book focuses on the scale of impact, not scale of budget or scale of organisation, and on action. For those social entrepreneurs and social enterprises trying to achieve such impact in the current climate, the most relevant points are to cultivate a network mindset (partner, collaborate, share, empower) and to be adaptable. Then more of us might still be a force for good on the far side of the recession. 


[added today:]

Looking back, it's definitely the network mindset aspect of the book that has stayed with me, along with the length of tenure not necessarily being a bad thing (one feature of SSE at the moment is that a majority of the staff have been with the organisation for between 3 and 7 years). The network mindset seems so obvious, and yet inter-organisational competition is still a feature of many in the sector: genuine partnership based on trusted relationships is hard to find, but prospers wherever it does. But knowing that such successful organisations focus on a network mindset, and believe in a combined service + advocacy model (SSE remains delivery-centric but has increased its policy and advocacy work, again in partnership), definitely helps reinforce and affirm the approach we are taking.

Still worth a read…and, reading my own review, probably worth a revisit!

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