Catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem: Phase 2 — Conducting a positive deviance inquiry and fostering practitioner peer coaching and learning

As my SiG fellowship wraps at the end of December 2017, this is the second of a three-part blog post series documenting the insights, decisions, signposts, twists and turns of a social R&D ecosystem catalyzing journey, supported by Social Innovation Generation (SiG). The purpose of this series is to candidly share that journey to help inspire and empower individuals in Canada and around the world to foster social R&D ecosystems specific to complex issues around their work, including homelessness, newcomer settlement, early childhood education, among others.

This post, as two of three, focuses on Phase 2 — conducting a positive deviance inquiry and fostering practitioner peer coaching and learning. This phase was about empowering a collective ecosystem-catalyzing process, identifying positive deviants in the social sector and understanding their R&D practices and needs, creating an enabling environment for practitioner peer-to-peer exchange, coaching and learning, and beginning to inform federal innovation policy development.

Note: This is not intended to be a how-to manual or field guide for fostering an R&D ecosystem. What is highlighted are some of the key ingredients. You could better your existing recipe by removing, adding or tweaking ingredients through exchange with others, or better yet — learn by doing.

During my work with former Governor General David Johnston to develop the Rideau Hall Foundation, Mr. Johnston frequently referenced “barn raising” in meetings as an example of the great potential enabled by galvanizing collective energy and to demonstrate that one of Canada’s strengths is collaborating to build things together. Given the collective energy and aspiration following the first convening on R&D in the social sector in 2015 (read more in the first blog of this series), I felt that catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem must similarly be a collective effort. I took a page from the former Governor General’s book and attempted to foster a “barn raising” effort.

As I thought more about this approach, I met and spoke with more sector leaders, practitioners, policy makers, funders, and other passionate people across the country to share the Declaration of Action, add more signatories and invite them to participate in the collective build.

As the community interested in working together grew, there were two distinct sets of interests and strengths for the collective build. First, there were people interested in development, who became the development group, comprised largely of practitioners who wanted to work shoulder to shoulder on the ecosystem itself and lead the development of its diverse components. Second, there were people interested and ready for stewardship, who became the stewardship group, comprised largely of sector leaders and funders who would champion and advise the work of the development group. The idea was that these two groups could support one another and work in tandem through the collective ecosystem build process. We planned a two-day meeting, one for developers and the other for stewards in October 2015 to get this going.

A set of input documents put together by MaRS Solutions Lab framed the meeting, as well as Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt’s book on ecosystems, The Rainforest. At the meeting, both groups mapped critical bottlenecks to pursuing R&D in the social sector, including weak data infrastructure, lack of a talent pipeline, and a need for right-sized capital. They identified stakeholders for each barrier, created initial prototypes for a social R&D ecosystem, and put together specifications for each prototype. The meeting wrapped with “napkin agreements” on commitments to move forward.

We quickly learned that the “collective build” approach — with developers (practitioners) prototyping different parts of the ecosystem and stewards (funders and sector leaders) supporting them — was an idea that was good in theory, but not in practice. A common reflection across participants was that there is a combination of factors that make a barn raising approach challenging, including the nascent nature of social R&D as a field, propensity for a single point of leadership, people’s bandwidth, among other things.

So, my first attempt at barn raising an ecosystem didn’t quite pan out. Now what?

I went away on paternity leave. After returning to my SiG Fellowship in April 2016, I remembered what a wise experimenter at Harvard University once said: spend 80% of your time testing the hypothesis and spend 20% testing its inverse. It was time to put that to work. Instead of funders and sector leaders as the stewards of ecosystem building, I began engaging practitioners as the stewards, supporting, championing and advising the process — with success. After all, these practitioners were a small, but growing number of “positive deviants” across Canada — organizations that are bravely pursuing R&D and breaking down systemic barriers to R&D while at it. These organizations were delivering core services even as they researched, designed, developed, and delivered new practices and services to better realize their visions. Not only that, they were doing it despite the structural problems in the system that made it seem impossible to do so. They were growing innovation capacity, producing new knowledge, and creating new kinds of value.

This led to a course correction for the development of social R&D ecosystem: What if we focused on better understanding the R&D practices of these organizations and what they need to pursue R&D well?

This kicked-off a positive deviance inquiry with 14 incredible organizations from across Canada. Together, we began to envision what it might be like if “the best of what is” occurred more frequently and in a systematic way. Working with SiG National Associate, Karen Gomez, we captured close to 50 inspiring R&D practices and published them as the report, ‘Getting to Moonshot.’ It was the first comprehensive capture of social R&D practices in Canada. With a foreword written by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta, it became a widely referred to publication.

The positive deviance inquiry did something else — it gave us a better understanding of needs of these organizations to continue advancing social R&D practices within their everyday work. At the top of the list of needs: peer learning opportunities.

Having identified a lack of peer-to-peer learning and coaching among R&D practitioners as the need — and therefore a critical opportunity to catalyze R&D — we quickly got to work. In late August 2016, with support from the McConnell Foundation, we convened a ‘Practice Gathering’ dedicated to connecting practitioners and enhancing R&D capacity across the social sector. From ethnography and data science to technology and frontline services, the Practice Gathering convened 23 practitioners from across Canada for three days of talks, demo sessions, peer coaching groups and co-creation opportunities, all centred around helping practitioners pursue research, experimentation, and embed what they’re learning within their organizations well. We received over 50 expressions of interest for 23 spots, hosted Sean Lowrie, Director of Start Network in the UK, and convened practitioners from organizations like ColaLife, Winnipeg Boldness Project, WEST Neighbourhood House, Open North and GrantBook.

73 percent of participants met someone new, 80 percent learned something new, 75 percent gained a new perspective from another sector or discipline or region, and 80 percent strengthened their ideas or came up with new ideas for their R&D work.

With the Practice Gathering and Getting to Moonshot publication, practitioners felt part of a wider and growing movement. They felt they had peer support across the country. And the term ‘social R&D’ began to gain traction.

Insights from Phase 2

1. There are limits to leveraging the Declaration of Action

Could we have mobilized significantly more people, resources and signatories for the Declaration? Possibly. We also realized there was only so much a Declaration could do and we needed to find more compelling reasons based on research that spoke to the innovation realities on the ground. It’s an important insight as you generate calls to action in Phase 2 and 3.

2. Collective aspiration is not to be mistaken for collective investment or action

Collective aspiration does not necessarily translate into collective action. It might not be the optimal timing, there might not be right-sized incentives, you might not have people with the required bandwidth. There can be a number of factors. The collective build gathering gave us good insight into this reality.

3. Test the hypothesis and its inverse concurrently

One of our insights in phase 2 was that developing and testing a hypothesis (funders are stewards, practitioners are support) and its inverse (practitioners are stewards, funders are support) in parallel could have accelerated the process. Keep in mind, however, doing this requires an additional set of resources and commitments.

4. Identify “super users” within the group of positive deviants

We initially identified approximately 30 organizations as part of the positive deviance inquiry with 14 organizations making the final cut for further study. Within the 14, we identified a handful of “super users” of R&D — individuals who not only practice R&D but are also re-imagining what R&D processes and functions are and advancing the field. Super users can also demonstrate the positive impact of good R&D process and champion the cause of R&D infrastructure for the social sector. Giving super users the opportunities to tell their stories and help shape and make a case with you is mutually beneficial in the long-term.

5. Find a catalytic opportunity quickly, but don’t lose sight of the overall problem complexity

It’s easy to focus all of your energy on creating something that leverages a catalytic opportunity you’ve identified and lose sight of the complexity of the bigger challenge itself. In this case, the catalytic opportunity was facilitating connection and peer-learning between practitioners, but complex systemic barriers to R&D still reigned. These included mainstream organizational, grantmaking and regulatory cultures that don’t value — or actively object to — R&D in the social sector. It was important to reflect on if and how the catalytic opportunity may also support the system transformation that’s integral to more effective outcomes. As well, to reflect on how to balance both approaches: strengthening the practice of existing R&D practitioners and challenging systemic barriers to mainstream social R&D as a robust field and practice within the social sector.

Signs and Signals to Notice

1. What systemic barriers are hidden, invisible?

People frequently cite resourcing as a barrier to R&D in their organization, but there are barriers that are less evident or easily articulated, that need a bit of digging around, such as not having the task freedom to pursue R&D or facing the social stigma of experimenting when it is considered by your peers as “not doing your job.” Try to unearth the root causes limiting R&D practice.

2. What is too good to be true?

We didn’t need to find out in a roundabout way that a collective build “barn raising” approach might not be the most effective in this context. We could’ve saved precious time and energy and tested the inverse hypothesis in parallel. Maybe we were romanticizing the Canadian way of community collaboration or maybe we followed the wrong signals. With the energy and momentum on high, notice the weak signals, the blips on the screen, and seek advice from your elders.

3. Are there strategic policy windows?

Keeping an eye on the political and policy landscape helped us to inform elected officials and public sector leaders on the positive value of R&D in the social sector. In partnership with the Public Policy Forum, SiG National hosted roundtables with representatives from multiple ministries and sectors on inclusive growth to inform the consultations hosted by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. As part of a broader international tour that SiG National facilitated, we were able to host leaders from abroad like Carolyn Curtis, CEO of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) in Ottawa to share TACSI’s learnings in being an R&D engine.

4. Am I meshing stories to get to a cohesive narrative?

Strategic story crafting at times can be about taking multiple and different stories and weaving a singular cohesive and touching narrative. But there doesn’t need to be a single narrative. Multiple narratives, although disparate, sometimes make for a stronger case. You may benefit from looking at R&D through a diversity of needs and contexts, emphasizing the breadth of the need, opportunity and potential impact.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How did you identify the positive deviants?

The gatherings introduced us to organizations that are bravely pursuing R&D against all odds and offered us a sense of the systemic barriers facing social mission organizations as well. Through SiG National’s extensive network, funder networks, and personal relationships, we identified close to 35 organizations. We then narrowed it down to 14 organizations, accounting for diversity in geography, methodology, issue domains, and organizational maturity. We also selected for organizations that pursue R&D as a structurally and/or culturally embedded practice or function or method (as opposed to having conducted a one-off innovation project).

2. Why did you pick 14 organizations?

Given the size of the nonprofit sector, we could have had a larger positive deviance group but after consulting with research methods experts at a few universities, they noted that the sample size was sufficient to draw inspiring habits and practices.

3. Why did you invite Geoff Mulgan to write a Foreword for Getting to Moonshot?

Having a Foreword for key reports is always a good idea to have an external perspective. Geoff Mulgan is a global thought leader on innovation. As the Chief Executive of Nesta, he has been able to spot trends and craft innovations, and at SiG National, we valued his insight to weigh in on the potential of R&D for the social sector.

4. R&D is not defined in the social sector. How did you manage multiple definitions?

Phase 2 revealed a spectrum of language, from the robustness and rigour of academic research to colloquial terms that do not carry equal weight across professional contexts — from ‘hack’ and ‘causal analysis’ to ‘stress test’ and ‘logic model.’ Then there are terms such as ‘bootstrapping’ that mean one thing in the technology R&D world and another in the social sciences research methods world. Or terms that are used interchangeably such as ‘capacity’ and ‘capability.’ The language used and presented in each of the organizational R&D profiles in Getting to Moonshot is unique to the organization. It was a deliberate choice to not provide a glossary. Instead of translating the essence and attempting to standardize, we chose to preserve language, as it allows for diversity and opportunity for everybody to gain unique contextual insights and potentially new language.

Thank you to Stephen Huddart and the McConnell Foundation team, Tim Draimin and the SiG National team, MaRS Solutions Lab, Community Foundations of Canada, Public Policy Forum, and practitioners and sector leaders from across the country for supporting phase 2 of the journey of catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem for Canada.

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Vinod Rajasekaran About Vinod Rajasekaran

Vinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader obsessed with improving systems so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He is SiG's Fellow, exploring Social R&D.

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