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The Social Labs Revolution

The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges by Zaid Hassan

Some of my favourite excerpts…

One of the challenges research labs have is moving from thought to action. My experience with technology start-up companies has taught me that prototyping and iterating is how agile companies succeed. Zaid has taken these and other ideas that have found traction in Silicon Valley and applied them to complex social problems.

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The power of solutions lies primarily in the people who believe in and own them. — V. Srinavas

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Social labs are platforms for addressing complex social challenges that have three core characteristics. 1. They are social. Social labs start by bringing together diverse participants to work in a team that acts collectively. They are ideally drawn from different sectors of society, such as government, civil society, and the business community. The participation of diverse stakeholders beyond consultation, as opposed to teams of experts or technocrats, represents the social nature of social labs. 2. They are experimental. Social labs are not one-off experiences. They’re ongoing and sustained efforts. The team doing the work takes an iterative approach to the challenges it wants to address, prototyping interventions and managing a portfolio of promising solutions. This reflects the experimental nature of social labs, as opposed to the project-based nature of many social interventions. 3. They are systemic. The ideas and initiatives developing in social labs, released as prototypes,

aspire to be systemic in nature. This means trying to come up with solutions that go beyond dealing with a part of the whole or symptoms and address the root cause of why things are not working in the first place.

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Taking an experimental approach requires not only discipline but also a degree of stability and commitment rare in a project-obsessed world.

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The Food Lab, and other social labs, generate at minimum four sets of outputs: physical capital (new services or infrastructure), human capital (new capacities and skills), social capital (increased trust and collaboration), and finally, intellectual capital (new knowledge and learning).

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Instead of seeing social interventions as always needing to take scaling up into account, the social realm is scale-free by nature.12 A social lab can be designed to operate at any scale, depending on the intentions of the people in it. It will grow in whatever direction and way is needed and doesn’t necessarily require central planning.

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It’s not simply that we lack resources, time, or people willing to tackle our most complex social challenges. Rather, we lack a theory of action; we need some way of guiding our actions, a practical theory. How do we deploy our talents, our time, our money, and our resources as a society? Where do we find the will to tackle complex challenges?

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Complex social challenges are emergent because their properties arise from the interaction of many parts. Imagine the difference between throwing a rock and throwing a live bird. The rock will follow a path that is predictable, that is, it can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy in advance. The path of the bird, on the other hand, is emergent, which means that path cannot be predicted in advance. It emerges from the interactions of many factors from the physiology of the bird to environmental factors. The system of the person (throwing the bird) and the bird is therefore said to be characterized by emergence.

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avoid having to start again. In working on these issues and reflecting on the nature of the challenge that the lab was confronting, I came to some realizations about the nature of the work. The first is that social labs are not projects. A project has a beginning and an end. Project-like thinking has been the dominant approach to addressing societal challenges.

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for innovation,” it is perhaps easiest to think of the Food Lab as a new type of organization, a multi-stakeholder institution. It is a platform for innovation, but it aspires to be a stable platform—not one that will go away after a few years. Projects therefore, emerge from the platform. Some of them are successful and some of them are not.

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The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. — Franklin D. Roosevelt

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described the lab as cocreating three sets of results: Initiatives: Three to six systemic, scalable, sustainable initiatives that can, by the end of 2007, reduce by 80 percent the number of children suffering from moderate or severe malnutrition in the five hardest-hit districts of Maharashtra. Relationships: High-trust relationships among participating leaders and their organizations that will enable them to continue to develop and implement breakthrough solutions to this and other vital societal problems. Capacities: Strengthened capacity of participating individuals and teams to undertake such deep innovation and change in large and complex organizational and societal systems.

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actors have competencies (human capital), the knowledge and understanding of what is to be changed (intellectual capital), the infrastructure and services required to deliver services (physical capital), the ability to pay for whatever is needed in order to do their work (financial capital), and the networks to organize themselves (social capital).7 In other words, we have to deploy capital to allow diverse stakeholders to find the opportunities latent in all crises.

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After hewing to our approach so religiously, the fact that we resorted to BAU planning bothered me intensely. During the preparation phase of the lab, we had discussed how prototypes and initiatives would be managed. The main proposal on the table was to invite one of the Big Five consulting companies to come in and run a classic program-management process. I objected, citing a few instances where they had performed disastrously in the social sphere, but I couldn’t put forward a coherent alternative at the time. How is it that after all the hard work we had done, we were resorting to Soviet-era modes of command and control? Is this really the best we could do? What practices were out there that could help?

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In considering what parts of first-generation labs worked and what parts didn’t, I applied three rules for evaluating effective practice. Rule #I: Make what works stronger Rule #2: Let go of what doesn’t work Rule #3: Discover what you don’t have

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In early 2001, seventeen “independently minded practitioners” came together and penned “The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.” The Agile manifesto is a call to arms against Big Design Up Front, and it represents a genuinely radical break in how software is developed. It articulates four values: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools Working software over comprehensive documentation Customer collaboration over contract negotiation Responding to change over following a plan

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Scrum was developed on top of these values. The basic ideas that constitute Scrum are startling in both their simplicity and audacity. Teams work together at the start of a project to articulate a success scenario. Once this scenario is articulated, the team brainstorms a list of all the tasks they need to complete in order to achieve success. This list is called the backlog. Then teams are organized into cycles, composed of twenty-four-hour periods and longer lengths of time, say, a week or two, called sprints. (Sprint lengths can vary.) On the first day of a sprint, the team decides which tasks from the backlog it will attempt to complete during that sprint, which might be a week or perhaps two. Once this is decided, the team scrums (basically huddles) every twenty-four hours. They report back to each other what they are going to do in the next twenty-four hours and what they need help with. A coach then troubleshoots problems outside of this short meeting. A daily scrum might last just fifteen minutes.

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My introduction to Scrum and Agile came through agile trainer Matt Gelbwaks. In early 2009 Matt and I initially spent a day together in our US offices, where we came up with a rough, back-of-the-envelope method for how to apply agile approaches to the right-hand side of the U Process.

 

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team to work on a systemic challenge, who would you pick, and how would you pick them? On the first-generation social labs we ran, the rule of thumb for answering this question was “diverse and influential.” There are two components to this rule of thumb that bear examination and explanation. Diverse was interpreted to mean multi-sector, which in turn was interpreted to mean that we constituted teams with representatives from government, civil society, and the business sectors. The second half of the rule of thumb—influential—raises the question: who in the first half of the twenty-first century is influential?

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volition is typically what we, in our work, call process facilitation because it focuses on the process of a group self-determining where it wants to go and then inviting a facilitator to help it get there.

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facilitator then becomes to support the group and deal with the how of the journey, issues such as leadership (is anyone leading?), decision making, conflict resolution, and clarifying purpose (for when the journey gets really tough).

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The risk here is that people turn up in response to an invitation only to be asked, “And what would you like to do?” Then they look at each other and say, “Uh, we don’t know—it’s your thing.” And so on till there’s no energy left. In general, it’s better to try for somewhere in between, make some key decisions but hold them lightly. “So here’s my best guess on these decisions, but do you have a better idea? Is this how we should proceed? Does this make sense?”

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If you want to see examples of world-class invitations, look at Kickstarter videos—look at the good ones and the bad ones. These videos are pitches, but they are also invitations to join something. A good invitation is mythic, a call to adventure; it incites romance and excitement, and it raises our game. A good invitation takes craft to get right.

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Once a clear and compelling invitation has been formulated, get it out. Increasingly, the most effective way of getting your invitation out is through your networks, through people who know and trust you, and through your friends. This is the ghost-to-ghost hook-up. Work your networks. This does not mean sending one mass email and then sitting back. Invite people you know and ask for a conversation, ideally in person. Once they are on board, ask them to invite ten others. Talk to people on the phone, on Skype, and in person. Explain to them what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what you’re looking for (people, money, work space, companies, etc.). If they can’t help, ask them for names—who do they know who may be interested. If your invitation is good, you’ll start seeing results quickly. If your invitation is bad and people are not responding, ask for feedback. Iterate. Remember that getting a result requires a clear ask. As our public spaces get more and more saturated with advertising, increasingly people will turn to people they know and trust, to their friends and family. Instead of trying to filter the deluge of information we are saturated in ourselves, we will rely on our networks to do it for us.

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Complex social challenges are too complicated for grand strategies. Instead, what is required from conveners of social labs is strategic direction and the creation of space. Within that space unfold multiple actions aligned in a strategic direction. That’s strategy.

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#6: DESIGN IN STACKS All the social labs involve multiple activities. In the labs I’ve worked on, these activities were divided into different layers, or stacks. 1. Innovation or problem solving: In the labs we have run, the basis for this layer has been the U Process. 2. Information and learning: This involves research, baseline surveys, documenting the process of the lab, and disseminating results. 3. Capacity building: This could involve building the capacity of the lab team or the secretariat. 4. Governance: This may consist of a formal legal structure, or it may involve a steering committee or leadership group of some sort. Warning: overdo this one at your peril.

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By definition, a social lab must be social. That is, participants of the lab are not simply experts, whether they’re academics or activists. Rather, team members must reflect the diversity of the stakeholders concerned with the issue at hand. In order to justify being a lab, a social lab must also undertake to work in an experimental and iterative way to address challenges. A program is very different from a lab.

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Finally, for social labs to actually have impact, they must be systemic in orientation, aiming to address social issues at their root cause. Labs, whatever their focus, must put inquiry—and not just advocacy—at the heart of their activities.

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Teams, in other words, focus on building working prototypes that actually add value in the here and now, as opposed to some time in the distant future. This is the approach that we tried to take in all of our first-generation social labs. The point of a prototype is to start to deliver results as soon as possible and, in the process of iterating, to improve. That is the difference between a pilot and a prototype. Why are agile approaches so well

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Scrum was developed on top of these values. The basic ideas that constitute Scrum are startling in both their simplicity and audacity. Teams work together at the start of a project to articulate a success scenario. Once this scenario is articulated, the team brainstorms a list of all the tasks they need to complete in order to achieve success. This list is called the backlog. Then teams are organized into cycles, composed of twenty-four-hour periods and longer lengths of time, say, a week or two, called sprints. (Sprint lengths can vary.) On the first day of a sprint, the team decides which tasks from the backlog it will attempt to complete during that sprint, which might be a week or perhaps two. Once this is decided, the team scrums (basically huddles) every twenty-four hours. They report back to each other what they are going to do in the next twenty-four hours and what they need help with. A coach then troubleshoots problems outside of this short meeting. A daily scrum might last just fifteen minutes. Once a team completes at least one sprint, the weekly planning meetings include a retrospective of what was done the week before. The goal is for teams to sprint until they complete all their tasks, thus achieving the success scenario. One of the radical parts of Scrum is that the backlog of tasks can change dynamically while a team is engaged in a sprint. These changes do not alter what the team does during a sprint. Rather, at the end of the sprint, the team goes to the backlog to see what to do in the next sprint.

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