Sparking the social R&D community

For the past few years I’ve been part of a growing community of social R&D practitioners. As the community comes together next week at the Spark conference, Jason asked me to reflect on the conversations I had at the August Practice Gathering, looking first for insight into how we might continue to cultivate an ecosystem for social R&D, and second, for things that practitioners may want to keep in mind as they develop their practice.

Social R&D practitioners mostly come from small organizations or small teams within big organizations. However, every single person has plans to make BIG change – in seeming denial that the world may see them as small potatoes. They’re all taking on Goliath.

To give social R&D practitioners a fighting chance, here are some things that organizations trying to support their work can keep in mind:

1. Help them mobilize others and create movements

It’s been my experience that the bigger you are the harder experimentation is because the pressure to perform gets stronger. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the most innovative practitioners find themselves in small, nimble groups.

Perhaps with this framing in mind it’s also not surprising that one of the most common conversations heard among these practitioners was how to make change as the small guy. Part of it is creating new knowledge and testing new models to figure out what works and what doesn’t. There is also such a need among this community to be able to act as an effective catalyst/facilitator: someone who is able to instill new practices, behaviours and habits in others so that the change can spread well beyond their interventions.

In this vein, I think it’s important for social R&D practitioners to see themselves as movement builders as well. We don’t create the change via discovery and invention alone; those we are able to catalyze into action do. To maximize practitioners’ impact, an ecosystem of support therefore requires access to influence over incentives, rewards and shape of the path (in reference to Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Switch). The question I left the practice gathering asking myself was “How might we apply our R&D practice to improve our ability to mobilize others?”

2. Invest in efforts that bring together actors across silos

The other common conversation I found myself in was how to bust silos and get groups working together. Silo busting expends a significant amount of time and resources, and is emotionally draining. It’s also one of the biggest barriers to scaling innovations that address complex or multi-level challenges.

A valuable shift that sector leaders could make in this regard would be to make initiatives human-centred (e.g. having disability services and homeless shelters entirely separate looks rather foolish if you start from a place of working with individuals who are homeless AND have disabilities) and give up ownership over your silo. We can’t be interested in getting credit for “just doing our job”. We need to make the work outcome focused (e.g. an organization can give access to capital and incentives to small businesses to hire the unemployed but if those businesses are unstable and close, then you are still simply creating short term unstable employment. They might have done their job perfectly, but the outcome wasn’t realized). Also important is the notion of nothing for us without us; it should go without saying that those we are trying to serve be involved in the solution.

These are some of the principles that social R&D practitioners spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy socializing. With stronger organization-wide adoption, practitioners could redouble efforts to generate new knowledge and inventions, and help create conditions within organizations for the production of high quality social innovations.

To Social R&D practitioners: my days (and some nights) are spent thinking about failure: how to predict, detect, avoid, as well as create room for the kinds of failure necessary for experimentation. Given this focus, I want to close with a couple of thoughts on potential failure modes for this group that I heard during the August Practice Gathering.

First, we are a busy group. Huge ambitions mean our time and resources will never be enough. One risk I see for this group is we get so busy we end up implementing all the time. It’s so easy to get caught up in the doing/operational mindset because there is always so much to get done.  Given this bias I think it’s important to carve out time to reflect, imagine, make space for connections and look up from the laptop. Otherwise the interesting, non-obvious possibilities and opportunities might pass us all by in our drive to get to the goal. Following some of the reflective practice models that CKX is exploring is a good step, as are regular check-ins with other practitioners.

Second, we need to examine the problems we are trying to solve and make sure we get the problem statement right ( honing it and pivoting as it changes via experimentation).

Ajmal Sataar from Inspire Nunavut spoke about how framing the problem as: “How do we train these people to be entrepreneurs?” is okay, but it’s way better to think: “How can we create the environment for young people to thrive with entrepreneurship as a vehicle?” I thought that was just brilliant. Playing this back more broadly, how do social R&D practitioners not only try to strengthen program and services, but also create the conditions where vulnerable populations feel able to come up with their own social innovations?


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About Ashley Good

Ashley Good is the CEO and Founder of Fail Forward, supporting organizations to learn, innovate and build resilience.


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