How can Design and Systems Thinking really help when looking at a large complex issue you want to tackle? Our current Early Career Research Fellow, Tanja Collavo, breaks it down in the true meaning of the process. If you’re not convinced by this methodology now, you will be after reading this!
I recently joined a webinar organized by Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) on how to employ Design and Systems Thinking to produce social impact. It consisted in a recap of both techniques and in a key message: although Design and Systems Thinking have been used to deal with social issues for some time, it is their combination that can really foster innovative and creative ideas for lasting social impact. So, I thought it might be relevant to share how the two techniques can be combined in an effective way.
Design Thinking is the process of analyzing an existing situation through the perspective of different people who are involved in it, understanding how it could be improved and quickly prototyping designed solutions in order to adopt the most effective one. One of its benefits is the in-depth analysis of the issues of key stakeholders and the inclusion of their opinions and suggestions in the creation of a solution.
Systems Thinking revolves around the creation of a map of all the individuals and organizations involved in a system of reference (e.g. social innovation in the U.K.), representing all the interconnections among the stakeholders, their relative power, resources and concentration, and the critical hubs and connections. This technique is fundamental to keep in mind all the stakeholders that are affected or contributing to a given project and to reflect on possible unintended consequences that might arise from the designed solution.
Both Design and Systems Thinking have the explicit goal of helping people to think outside of the box, to deal with large change projects, and to enable the co-creation of innovative solutions. Additionally, they tend to be complementary, given that one favors an in-depth understanding of a situation, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of individuals and groups, while the other helps to keep in mind the bigger picture and the ways different groups relate to and affect one another. When combined, Design and Systems Thinking can be deployed through a four-stage process, named by the webinar speakers as: Information, Insight, Opportunities and Solutions.
Information: In this phase, Design and Systems Thinking have the goal of understanding, respectively, the core issue(s) to be solved, and the system at hand. This is best done through interviews and ethnographic observations and, in the case of Systems Thinking only, through the drawing of a map of all the stakeholders present in the system. Ideally, in the Information Phase, the collection of primary data should be supported through the analysis of information that is already available, such as expert reports, articles, or news of relevant best practice adopted by players in this or in another system.
Insight: In this second phase the information gathered through primary and secondary sources should be analyzed in order to identify what the key problems are and where enablers and inhibitors lie within the system. Enablers are people, organizations and processes that might favor the creation of social impact or the solution of a problem; whereas inhibitors are issues, people and organizations that might hamper the creation of the desired impact or solution. This phase mostly involves an in-depth analysis of all the information at disposal, the sharing of impressions and ideas, the selection of core problems to tackle, and the identification of where these are originated within the system.
Opportunity: This phase requires a switch from analyzing the situation to creatively elaborating potential solutions and revolves around the repeated asking of the following question: “How might we do something…to solve X…?” This question helps to spur as many potential solutions as possible for the chosen problem, in a brainstorming process. During this process, in order to keep creativity and innovation at a high level, it is necessary to avoid any criticism of emerging ideas. This should be left for the very end of the phase, when solutions should be combined with the map of the system. Such a combination will allow the identification of ‘leverage points’ – components of the system that, when modified, have the potential to trigger change in the entire system.
Solution: In this phase, the ideas identified should be prototyped and tested. Ideally, it will be possible to prototype all chosen solutions as well as multiple variants thereof. Prototypes can range from very simple, DIY solutions that can be created in a couple of hours to full pilot projects coordinated with the necessary stakeholders. Each prototype that is tested should be backed by a specific theory of change and target, and should be modified according to the feedback received. The testing should involve representatives of as many groups of stakeholders as possible from amongst those that will be involved in the delivery of the final project, or that will be affected by it.
The combination of Design and Systems Thinking summarized above is a promising technique to create social impact that takes into consideration the existing situation, its strengths, and the points of view of multiple stakeholders. However, it is also still in its infancy. The effectiveness of this approach is yet to be fully evaluated and what might seem a straightforward process in words is actually very difficult to implement. Indeed, coming up with an innovative idea, that minimizes the harm done while maximizing the social impact created, requires a significant amount of time and resources in data collection and analysis, the involvement of multiple stakeholders, and the contribution of many players for its implementation.
If these downsides do not frighten you, I hope this will represent a starting point to consider a new way of solving social issues or creating social impact. The following resources may be useful if you are interested in looking deeper at the combination of Design and Systems Thinking:
Oxford Saïd Researcher and Early Career Research Fellow, Tanja Collavo, gives us a whistle stop tour of her recent DPhil research.
The cultivation of networks is one of the most popular tools for supporting social entrepreneurship and social innovation. Venture philanthropists, hubs, foundations, national and local networks all try to foster social impact by connecting social innovators with their peers, with potential investors and donors, and with individuals and organizations that can become their mentors and advisors. Yet, there is little knowledge on “best practices”, on what works and what doesn’t, and on the different ways in which network-based support to social innovation can be structured.
Over the past four years, I have analysed the features of four very different social entrepreneurship support organizations (a foundation, a venture philanthropist, a network organization and a trade association). Each of them has been successful in supporting the growth and development of social entrepreneurship in England over the past 15 years through the creation and management of multi-stakeholder networks. I was surprised to find that, despite their differences, each of these organizations engages in similar activities with regard to network-management.
Shared network strategies
First of all, the four agencies invest significant effort in signalling through multiple means the initiatives and success of the individuals and organizations that are affiliated to them. For example, they talk about their operations, impact and achievements on websites and newsletters. In addition, they engage with local, national and international media platforms (newspapers, magazines, televisions, etc.) so that the positive news coming from their contacts can spread even beyond their own reach. Furthermore, they organize yearly award ceremonies that provide additional coverage and popularity to the most successful part of their networks, usually the social entrepreneurs and enterprises that they are trying to help.
Secondly, the four organizations have proactively created within their networks an environment favouring the coming together and collaboration of individuals and organizations from different sectors and backgrounds. For example, these organizations publish blogs and articles on the benefits of cross-sector collaboration and propose common projects to their network members in a way that highlights what each of them can obtain from collaborating with individuals and organizations from other sectors. Furthermore, they train their members in multiple ways in order to reduce sector and cultural barriers among them. Each of the four organizations has also developed a narrative stressing how real change and impact are only possible in the presence of cross-sector collaboration.
Thirdly, the four agencies often try to elevate the reputation of the social entrepreneurs and enterprises present in their networks. They set up free events, webinars and initiatives explaining the benefits of social entrepreneurship for society and its superiority to other means to deliver social impact. Additionally, they present social entrepreneurs and enterprises in their online and offline communication, as well as in their events, in an enthusiastic light, defining them as the changers of the world or the creators of a more just and inclusive society. The elevation and legitimation of social innovators in these (and other) ways puts them in a stronger position when negotiating for help and support with players from other sectors that might be more established and resource-endowed than they are.
Finally, the four organizations manage the unavoidable competition (for funds, recognition for the “best approach”, attention, etc.) among the social entrepreneurs and enterprises that they support in a way that makes it possible and almost natural for them to collaborate and share ideas. For example, two of the agencies encourage friendships and frequent contacts among their network members, another one directly adopts a negotiation role when collaboration is needed among “competitors” for a specific project. In general, all four have tried to attract enough opportunities and resources into their networks to be able to provide something to everyone, so that the social entrepreneurs and enterprises they support do not perceive that the success of a peer might mean their own failure.
However, despite the engagement in similar activities, the four organizations did not appear equally effective in leveraging their networks to help social entrepreneurs and enterprises. My data showed that if an organization manages a relatively small network – no more than 100-150 social innovators and partners/supporters – then it is in a good position to effectively employ its contacts to help social entrepreneurs and enterprises. Indeed, a manageable network opens up the possibility to know well enough the resources and contacts available and to propose meaningful connections and strategic advice. Additionally, in small networks it is easier to create a family-feeling and to set clearer expectations about each member’s contribution to the “common cause” — in this case the enhancement and scaling up of social impact — thus also making the maintenance of collaborations and connections easier.
On the contrary, if an organization deals with a larger network, its ability to provide helpful connections and advice is necessarily limited by the impossibility of knowing well each of the individuals and ventures attached to its network. In this case, the added value of the organization is rarely based on its offering of connections but derives instead from other resources. For example, one of the organizations analysed, which manages a large network, was praised by social entrepreneurs and enterprises for its delivery of helpful information on the legal landscape for social entrepreneurship and for signalling the resources available in the sector in terms of funds and expertise at the local level. Alternatively, organizations managing large networks might think about using their contacts to attract funds to redistribute among their affiliates for expenses they have a hard time getting funds for, such as capacity building or experimentation.
Are networks helpful?
Absolutely, but only under certain circumstances which are often determined by the network size and by the organization’s own capacities and resources. Therefore, a networking strategy should be tailored to the type of network an organization is managing. In any case, the analysis of four successful “networkers” in the social entrepreneurship sector suggests that the creation of connections and networking opportunities should be sustained through supporting activities, such as the four described above: the showcasing of a network’s members and projects; the establishment of an environment supporting the creation and maintenance of cross-sector connections; the support of social entrepreneurs and enterprises in negotiating with other players; and the management of internal competition.
None withstanding the importance of networks and the opportunities they provide to support social impact in many different ways, in a space that is almost saturated with networks it might also make sense to map out what is already there and maybe join or support an existing network rather than building a new one. Because several organizations provide similar types of support but not all of them do it effectively, in some instances it might make more sense to pool resources across “networkers” in order to jointly deliver a more powerful and comprehensive support rather than to keep trying to build new networks. If my research confirmed one thing is that there is already a lot of help available in the social entrepreneurship and social impact space but often “networkers” do not have the resource or capacity to be effective in everything they do and social innovators might end up not accessing any type of support because of the excess of supply makes it difficult to understand what network might be the right fit.
Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow Tanja Collavo hosted a workshop at Marmalade 2017 on the strengths and weaknesses of the social entrepreneurship sector in England… and where next.
The State of Social Entrepreneurship in England – Strengths, Issues, and Solutions.
What is the state of social entrepreneurship in England? In the course of my DPhil research at Saïd Business School I interviewed key people at social entrepreneurship organisations, revealing a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, worries and ambitions for the future development of the sector. At this workshop I presented some of my findings and asked participants to give their thoughts and elaborate actionable proposals around the issues most important to them.
The debate was lively! The overall agreement was that the sector is growing, vibrant, diverse, exciting, and constantly changing thanks to the very low barriers to entry. Its core strengths are its ability to break silos across sectors and organisations, and its democratic nature, encouraging bottom-up solutions to social problems and the retention of the wealth produced at the local level. Additionally, the perception is that the quality of products and services delivered by social enterprises is constantly improving and that this is a great business card to increase their market penetration both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. In this sense, many workshop participants welcomed the shift of the sector towards business and believe that more and more social enterprises should aim to become business-savvy and competitive.
But participants also agreed that there are still many key issues holding back the growth and success of the social entrepreneurship sector:
No one talks about failures
There is very little learning inside the sector because media, intermediaries, social entrepreneurs and enterprises talk a lot about successes but hardly ever about failures.
The passion paradox
Most ventures start because of founder’s personal experience with or passion for the problem they are trying to tackle. This has obvious positives but also can lead to a “do something now” mindset promoting easy solutions and immediate action more than the elaboration of long-term strategies. Further consequences can be the lack of professional sectoral knowledge and lower inclination towards collaboration due to high levels of personal ownership and commitment, also associated with stress and burnout.
Difficulty accessing supply chains
A third issue present in the sector is the low presence of social entrepreneurial organisations in supply chains, both in the business and in the public sectors. In fact, in most cases, social ventures are too small to bid for contracts and too young to have a proven track record that would facilitate their winning supply or service contracts.
Too dependent on government and poor finance
Participants described the sector as still too reliant on government and as lacking appropriate financial support matching its funding requirements and specificities. Financial support was described as particularly scarce at regional and local level, with core sector and financial intermediaries being based in London and mostly focusing on organisations and areas geographically close to them.
Lack of collaboration amongst support organisations
Finally, the group agreed on one of the main findings of my research projects: the lack of collaboration among sector intermediaries. This leads to a duplication of efforts and to a degree of confusion among social entrepreneurs and enterprises about where to look for support and how to reconcile the different messages they hear from the different intermediaries they are affiliated with.
Out of this list of issues, the workshop participants picked two areas that they thought were especially relevant in order for the sector to keep on thriving: the access of social enterprises supply chains in private and public sectors, and the low collaboration among sector intermediaries.
Social entrepreneurship in supply chains
The group tackling the issue “access to supply chains” found several core causes for this issue. Some causes can be attributed to failings of social enterprises themselves:
a lack of transparency and metrics that would lower the perceived risk of social ventures;
a low understanding of tender processes;
and the inability of social enterprises to scale and integrate or collaborate in order to bid for big projects and commissions.
Other challenges are created by the surrounding ecosystem:
procurement practices and contracts that do not favour the involvement of social enterprises and small organisations in supply chains of corporations and public bodies;
the existing regulatory environment;
and the still low recognition of the value and specifies of social enterprises outside of the sector.
Proposed solutions to improve the situation relied on the involvement of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and/or in that of sector intermediaries. Social entrepreneurs and enterprises should, with the help of intermediaries, lobby both the government for changes in legislation regarding tendering processes, and private companies to convince them about the possibility to collaborate with social enterprises to enhance the sustainability and credibility/effectiveness of their CSR practices. Furthermore, on their own, social entrepreneurs and enterprises should collaborate to win contracts and present stronger evidence about their performance and competitiveness, which would reduce the perceived risk for procuring organisations. Finally, sector intermediaries and research bodies should: analyse where the Social Value Act has worked; prove the benefits of values-based supply chains; and ensure social ventures involvement in supplier network platforms like Ariba.
Increasing collaboration amongst intermediaries
The second group of participants decided instead to work on the problem of low collaboration among social entrepreneurship sector intermediaries. The origins of this situation can be found in the presence in the sector of multiple umbrella bodies and intermediaries that publicly state that they are cooperating and collaborating with one another but in reality are very territorial and not interested in what other intermediaries do because “they occupy a separate niche in the sector”. In addition, many intermediaries have very specific views and beliefs about the definition of social entrepreneurship, about what the sector should look like, or about its role in society. This makes it difficult for them to really collaborate beyond sporadic cooperation for specific projects and events.
In this case, the proposed solution was to start from existing successful platforms involving several intermediaries (such as the Social Economy Alliance) and create a “network of networks”. This would have shared ownership and governance, would avoid exclusive definitions, and would initiate collaborations among different organisations around specific projects, such as “improving the access to supply chains for organisations in the social economy”. Cooperation on specific projects could be a starting point to create trust and a mutual understanding. At the same time, this “network of networks” should map out all the different intermediaries present in the sector and develop an online list differentiating organisations according to their core competences and easily accessible for organisations interested in obtaining support from the ecosystem. The creation of such a database would simplify the research process for individuals and organisations in need of help and would create the opportunity for intermediaries to understand where their respective strengths are and, thus, for sharing best practices and outsourcing to each other non-core activities.
The meeting finished with some networking and the hope that these solutions could lead to some concrete initiatives in the sector as well as to other opportunities to meet and discuss also the other issues present in the sector and ways to solve them in a collaborative way. Is anyone there up for the challenge? From my side, the door is open to anyone willing to know more or to jointly organise something along these lines to help the social entrepreneurship sector as well as other parts of the social economy grow and thrive even more.
University social impact centres like the Skoll Centre are contributing to the growth of social entrepreneurship in a number of important ways, examined in a recent report authored by the Bridgespan Group, with the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll Centre. One side of the work of our centres is educational: we raise awareness of social impact with the student body, and equip future professionals and leaders to work in the sector. This work and its future development were explored in an article series curated by the Skoll Centre in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
But besides educating, the other USP of social impact centres is our position at the heart of knowledge-generating research institutions. Bridgespan’s report highlighted two key contributions to come from leveraging our academic connections. First, our ability to convene practitioners and researchers to support learning and innovation; and second, the generation of actionable insights for social entrepreneurs. Two of the report’s key future opportunities for Centres also focused on research: the development of clusters of deep specialist expertise to support the evolution of practice; and the cementing of social impact as a recognised academic field, attracting legitimacy and funding to our efforts in this area.
Academics and social entrepreneurs are not always easy bedfellows. The stereotype is that academics are meticulous, long-term, big-picture thinkers, answering questions driven by curiosity. Entrepreneurs by contrast are risk-takers, impulsive, and focused on specific, immediate needs. There are many exceptions to these rules, but it is also true that academic incentives and the time taken to do in-depth research work make joint working between researchers and practitioners more difficult. And then there is the language of academia, which can be all but indecipherable to non-experts.
It is worthwhile, then, pausing for a moment to consider what there is to be gained by overcoming some of these barriers. We think that the potential is huge for research to further accelerate the impact of social entrepreneurship.
Here are six reasons why we should be doing more to bring these worlds closer together:
Understanding the problem landscape: Research can allow us to gain a deep understanding of the landscape of the challenges we are trying to address – whether the challenge is homelessness in Oxford, or global climate change. Engaging with researchers gives social entrepreneurs the knowledge they need to formulate effective interventions and to think through systemic or unintended impacts.
Understanding the solutions landscape: This is about knowing what has already been tried in tackling the challenges we are addressing: what has worked and what hasn’t. But it is also about the political economy and power dynamics of institutions in the solutions space. Very few ideas are really ‘new’ – building on successes and avoiding past and present failures can be a key to impact.
Ideation and innovation in the impact gap: Researchers are in a brilliant position to be innovators. They can see the landscape of problems and solutions from above and creatively iterate new ideas in the ‘impact gap’. This is not only about innovative products and services, but innovations too in the wider ecosystem of governance, regulation, finance and knowledge.
Assessing the impact of initiatives: Robust and defensible methods are at the core of academic research, allowing the production of credible evaluations of social impact. Such independent assessments are critical for leaders to make evidence-based decisions and can also be a powerful tool in policy advocacy and attracting funding and investment.
Connecting the dots across silos: Researchers are able to spot commonalities and spread ideas across boundaries that might not otherwise be bridged. Through their networks and their public-facing activities, researchers can transport and translate knowledge of successful models across geographies and sectors, or across otherwise poorly connected organisations in the same sector.
A critical birds-eye view: Academics are in a privileged position of being able to see glimpses of the ‘big picture’ that most of us are too buried in our day-to-day tasks to spot. They can help us to reflect on the social entrepreneurship model within the wider global picture, to understand trends, and to ask the hard questions about how well we are really serving the beneficiaries we are working for.
Academic researchers working in many of these important roles gathered for breakfast at the Skoll Centre during Skoll World Forum Week 2017 to discuss how we can do more to bring together research and practice. They were joined by social impact practitioners from a wide range of organisations with clear knowledge needs, keen to find new ways of collaborating. We think that university social impact centres can help to realise the benefits of doing so by connecting partners, catalysing new research, and communicating actionable insights. We invite your participation as we explore further in this area – please get in touch with your ideas and comments.
My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.
Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.
So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.
Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.
Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.
The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work. We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.
Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.
As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Mobalizing a Movement: More in Common”.
How many articles have you read over the last year about the rise of populist politicians? How Brexit and Trump were caused by a great divide within our societies? How xenophobia so easily becomes the go-to response?
Almost all the articles end with something like “…and we must start acting now to fix this”.
But perhaps the thing that’s been most alarming is the lack of ideas as to how we should go about tackling these issues. Lamenting their existence is an important start – few of us had appreciated the scale of the problem until recently – yet of course without deliberate, concrete actions, it’s hard to see the situation changing.
This week at Skoll World Forum, I heard from an amazing group of people who are founding a new organisation to stimulate the changes they want to see. Led by Gemma Mortensen, Tim Dixon and Brendan Cox, More in Common will focus on five key areas:
Public opinion research
It’s easy to make assumptions about the views of individuals or groups across society, but to make deliberative change successfully, we need to listen very carefully to each other. We often hear, for example, that there’s a divide between liberal cosmopolitans and what could be termed ‘angry nationalists’ in our societies. More In Common’s detailed research has found that whilst that divide very much does exist, roughly half the population have mixed views and don’t fall into either camp.
Communications strategy for key influencers
Getting the messages right is critical to winning this battle. Brendan Cox told the audience that what we often call populism is actually just bigotry and hatred. A huge amount of work is needed to get the balance right between appeasing the dangerous views of some and genuinely listening, acting on the valid concerns of others.
Convening and building broader coalitions
This work is inherently political but to succeed, it has to bring people with it across the normal divides. Organisations that normally wouldn’t take a political stance might do so if everybody was part of it. If More In Common can show that the most hate-filled views aren’t part of the same continuum – that they’re another, far more malevolent force – then they will try to get businesses, civil society, the media and more to stand up against it.
Partnerships will also play a key role. We heard the example of how the Jo Cox Foundation has organised The Great Get Together in partnership with everyone from Oxfam and the Women’s Institute to the Premier League and The Sun. Across the UK, 10 million people are expected to get gather with neighbours on 17-18 June to “be part of a national celebration of what we have in common”. Amazing!
We all know the power of social media. We heard less about this but there are plans to mobilise a ‘base’ of supporters to lead a movement from the bottom up too.
More In Common is new. There was little push back from anyone in the room at Skoll World Forum, few in the room who disagreed and this is arguably the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.
But the group running it are incredible. I was sold.
They are thinking, they seem to be listening and they have concrete plans for what to do next.