Microtainer: lab resources (January 2015)

SiG Note: This article was originally published on January 3, 2015 on the MaRS Solutions Lab Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

Launched August 2013, the Microtainer series was created and curated by Satsuko VanAntwerp of Social Innovation Generation. The MaRS Solutions Lab is excited to take on this legacy to spread information that will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. To access the whole archive of Microtainers, please visit the Microtainers series page.

Interesting resources that came across our desks in the month of January 2015 (in no particular order):

 

  1. Nesta’s annual predictions “10 predictions for 2015″ (podcast)

    “This year, we’re predicting that a new online political party will emerge in the UK, there will be new ways to interact with our national museums and galleries, and there will be a surge in young people expressing their creativity using new digital tools.”

  2. Medium blogChile’s new public laboratory and its many waters”

    Read more about Chile’s upcoming new public sector lab, the GobLab.

  3. MindLab’s blog “Design Games That Play”

    “A design game is an effective and inspiring playground, where you can practise before ideas turn into reality. Get good advice and navigate around the most common pitfalls, if you are faced with rethinking or developing new services for your users.

    C/O MindLab

    C/O MindLab

  4. Government Technology’s news article “Google Reveals its Innovation Lab for Government”

    “Google plans to institutionalize innovation through a mobile innovation lab that combines its suite of apps with motivated government innovators.”

  5. Wired Magazine’s article “Serious Games Go Offline: Bringing the Board Game to the Board Room”

    “Instead of e-learning, apps or social media, [companies] use physical simulations inspired by board games to accelerate the organization’s ability to learn and adapt to change.”

    C/O Wired Magazine

    C/O Wired Magazine

  6. Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article “The Dawn of System Leadership”

    “The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader—the system leader, a person who catalyzes collective leadership.”

  7. The Social Labs Fieldbook 

    Download the first section of the Social Labs Fieldbook. “This is a practical and interactive ebook that will guide you in creating and sustaining an effective social lab with passion, precision and purpose.”Social Labs Fieldbook

In case you’ve missed it:

 

  1. The Long + Short’s blog “Hooked on Labs: The experimental life is being created all around us

    “Labs are places where people conduct experiments to test out theories. The new labs proliferating outside the hard sciences are a symptom of the spread of experimentalism as an ideology for how we should shape the future.”

  2. Nesta’s guide “Innovation teams and labs: a practice guide”

    “This practice guide shows what innovation teams and labs do, and provides a practical introduction to establishing and running a new team or lab.”

  3. Deloitte’s Gov 2020 

    Explore trends and drivers for the future of government in year 2020. A resource accumulated by Deloitte.

Don’t build a start-up, become a systems entrepreneur

560px-Morne_Seychellois_NP_footpath“Make sure you start the year on the right foot…”

…my grandmother always used to remind me. Given that I work at what is externally referred to as one of Canada’s main entrepreneurship centres (though I much prefer describing MaRS as an innovation hub), starting the year by writing a piece on why you should NOT build a startup probably wouldn’t meet her standard. But you have to put your job on the line at least once a year to make the ride worthwhile, right?

Whenever I am trying to solve a problem, whether it’s in my personal life, at work (first in management consulting and now in innovation) or in my relationships (where I get a lot of slack for treating problems like projects), I generally go through a three-stage process:

The why

How is success defined? How should it be defined? What is the North Star or goal post we’re going after?

The how

What are the options? What pathways can we imagine to get us there? Which one(s) should be chosen?

The what

Where do we start? What’s the first step? How do we track progress and learn?

There is also a big “who” question that runs through all three stages, but we will leave that for another time. For now, let’s consider the challenge proposed in the title of this article through these questions.

(Re)defining success: Why people build startups

When I consider the wide range of underlying motivations for why people decide to build startups, they generally fall into one of the following (non-comprehensive) categories:

  • Necessity: “This is my best chance at providing the basics of life for me and/or my family.”

If this is the case for you, you should absolutely take what you believe to be the best path forward. Nobody else understands your specific context better than you do. Just make sure that you understand the realities of the startup life and the risks associated with it, and also be sure to get access to the fast-growing range of public resources that can help support you along the way.

  • Achievement: “I am going to do this so that I can have more money/power/freedom/excitement/etc.”

While I have my own opinions about why these are the wrong settings on a personal compass, fortunately I can just defer to Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, who explains why you shouldn’t build a startup if these are your goals.

  • Impact: “I want to change or create a positive impact in the world!”

I’m lucky enough to meet a lot of people for whom impact is a primary motivation. Listening to them express their motivations makes my heart both melt and ache every time. It makes my heart melt because these are absolutely the kind of people we need much more of—those who seek meaning, are driven by purpose, and have a vision for the future. On the other hand, it makes my heart ache because I see so much of their amazing potential go to waste (or, at best, not go very far). This is due in part to their choosing the wrong “how,” even though they have the right “why” as their starting point.

Mission Big Change: Why building a startup isn’t the best path

Of those in that final category, almost everyone I speak to genuinely wants to create real, meaningful, positive, long-lasting, sustainable change—what we will call ‘big change.’

The next question is whether building a startup is the best way to get there (most people default to this option and only ask how to build the best startup.)

To answer that question, we can compare the most significant conditions necessary for big change with the most common pieces of advice given to the founders of new startups. As we can see in the chart below, for every one of the five key conditions, the common advice for startups is the exact opposite:

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 4.43.19 PM

A whole article could be written analyzing each condition and piece of advice, their respective underlying logic and their stark contrast, but we will leave that to another time. For now, I will just share a quote from Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab and One Laptop Per Child fame (who has, with freakish accuracy, predicted the future over the last several decades), from his interview with Stewart Brand of The Long Now Foundation:

“Startup businesses are sucking people out of big thinking. So many minds that used to think big are now thinking small because their VCs tell them to ‘focus’…they’re doing these startups and their venture funding tells them focus, focus and become cash-flow positive—which is a really stupid idea in a startup…keep the risk high, don’t become cash-flow positive.”

To be abundantly clear, no part of this is a criticism of entrepreneurial thinking or entrepreneurial spirit—both of which I love, with the former featuring prominently in our curriculum (led by our amazing faculty member Assaf Weisz) and the latter being a big part of our culture at Studio Y. Both are necessary ingredients to becoming a truly successful systems entrepreneur. The issue is that these really powerful, bold ideas and concepts have been corrupted in the way in which we’ve built our dominant startup ecosystems.

“But what about Elon Musk?” is an unavoidable counter to the arguments outlined above. Elon Musk, in this case, is exactly the exception that proves the rule. He thinks big, he gives away his intellectual property and he takes on big societal challenges that matter to our future. In fact, the fact that Elon Musk is celebrated for being such an outlier in how he goes about working on his ventures is what should concern us most.

Another great (and Toronto-based) example is Aled Edwards, director and CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium, who has championed the view that drug discovery advances would be made more rapidly within an open access research environment in which no patents are filed, and materials and ideas are exchanged without restriction on use.

C/O NASA

C/O NASA

So if not ‘launch a start-up!’ then what?

The road less traveled: The rise of systems entrepreneurs

To make the case for an alternative path, it is important to also consider how big change happens. Two distinguishing factors include adoption and success definition:

Let there be light.  

The fundamental transformations in our world come from large-scale adoption, not from the act of invention. For a number of reasons, including very innate human tendencies, we reward invention significantly more than we do adoption, despite adoption being an absolutely necessary condition for big change. In my research for this piece, I came across Dr. Marc Ventresca, an economic sociologist in strategy and innovation at Saïd Business School, who makes this point in a TEDx talk using a great example. He argues that it is large-scale power-grid systems (each unique to its particular context) that have changed the world, not simply the invention of electricity.

We need to grow.

This is the shared mantra of almost every organization across industries. Even in those organizations focused on growing impact (rather than profits), the problem is that the “we” is the organization; our dominant, if not exclusive, approach to success definition is at the organizational level. Just think about the mind-blowing amount of resources that go into setting up, growing and promoting individual organizations, or about how highly we regard leaders (again, across all sectors) who grow an organization’s budget, size, reach or, in the best case scenario, actual impact.

Yet, what we know to be unequivocally true is that our biggest issues are so complex and interdependent that no single organization or solution can alone achieve the level of fundamental systems change required. One of the biggest issues with the startup model is that it fundamentally defines success as organizational success (and how fast, big and far you can grow it) with zero accountability for system success.

So who, then, are systems entrepreneurs? The concept of systems entrepreneurs is not widely recognized, as can be seen by performing a Google search for  “systems entrepreneur” or “system entrepreneur,” which return 25,000 and 5,000 results respectively, almost all of which are related to information, communication and power systems.

Both Engineers Without Borders and our team at Studio Y have used the term “systems change leaders” as a frame over the past couple of years, in developing the people we work with.

In her paper, “How Actors Change Institutions: Towards a Theory of Institutional Entrepreneurship” (2009),  Julie Battilana, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, suggests that while all systems entrepreneurs are change agents, to be considered a systems entrepreneur, two criteria must be met:

  • First, you must initiate divergent change (something that breaks with the status quo rather than simply improving or enhancing it).
  • Second, you must actively participate in the implementation of these changes, demonstrating an ability to marshal the resources required to implement change (speaking to the adoption point made earlier).

She and her colleagues then describe three sets of activities that systems entrepreneurs undertake:

  • Developing a vision — encompasses activities undertaken to make the case for change, including sharing the vision of the need for change with followers.
  • Mobilizing people — includes activities undertaken to gain others’ support for and acceptance of new routines.
  • Motivating others to achieve and sustain the vision — consists of activities undertaken to institutionalize change.

Note how none of these criteria and activities require building a startup. In fact, the dominant startup model limits one’s ability to truly focus on some of the most important elements of systems entrepreneurship.

More recently, Peter Senge, the author of The Fifth Discipline and a guru in systems thinking and organizational learning, co-authored a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled: The Dawn of Systems Leadership. In it, the authors offer the following advice for those interested in getting started on a journey of becoming a systems leader/entrepreneur.

  • Learn on the job.
  • Engage people across boundaries.
  • Let go of control.
  • Build your own toolkit.
  • Work with others on a similar journey.

A plea and a pledge

I may not have listened to that piece of advice from my grandmother about how to start a new year, but one thing I learned through her actions (rather than her words) was never to shy away from a healthy debate about the future.

So whatever your vision or passion for the future, consider this a plea to make the pledge to take the road less travelled by way of systems entrepreneurship because, as Robert Frost said, we will look back years from now and know “that has made all the difference.”

For more on systems change roles, thinking, mindsets and initiatives, explore Ecosystems for Systems Change.