Social Enterprise Bootcamp at CBU

I was invited along with two others speakers to kick off the Social Enterprise Bootcamp at CBU. Meghan Farrell of Nova Scotia Coop Council and Leah Noble of Dream Big Cape Breton spoke first about looking for assets in our communities rather than deficits and from there gaining the confidence to say “Yes, we can do this.” They gave great examples from their own lives and work, and made for a tough act to follow. Because we’re expecting our third child any… minute… now… I couldn’t stick around for the weekend-long event. So I used my time to give the participants some advice:

Starting a conventional business is an uphill battle. And when you’re in social enterprise, dealing with three bottom lines and not just one, the battle is uphill both ways, in the snow, with no shoes.

But you persevere because you are confronted by some set of circumstances, you are compelled by some social need, to come up with a solution. Essentially, you look at a problem, and you don’t ask yourself “Can this be solved?” but rather “How can this be solved?”

In this way, you are like designers. As a web designer, I work with non-profits, artists, and locally-owned businesses. I’m also on the board of New Dawn Enterprises, a social and business development organization. Both in my business and on my board, we deal in solutions; we’re in the business of saying ‘yes’ to problems. If I said ‘no’ too often, I’d be out of business; if my board said ‘no’ too often, New Dawn wouldn’t fulfill its social mandate of community service, and would render itself irrelevant.

But saying yes is only the beginning. Then you have to set about finding a practical solution — an impractical solution being no solution at all. This can be daunting. Social needs related to poverty, mental illness, employment, housing, health-care, the environment — these can make you feel like you’re David versus Goliath.

But that’s where it’s important to remember that David won.

A friend recently shared an article with me by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell called “How David Beats Goliath – When Underdogs Break The Rules.”

It starts with a story about a girls basketball team, with very little talent or skill, and their coach, whose unconventional approach brought them all the way to the national championships. The coach was an newcomer to the game, so he saw it from an outsider’s perspective. He watched as game in, game out, one team would score and then fall back to defend their court, while the other team picked up the ball, brought it across court, acted out their pre-rehearsed playbook, scored, and then fell back to defend their court… and so on, back and forth.

What the coach perceived was how this conventional approach to the game favoured the team with the better offence: the bigger, taller, faster team with more skill and resources at its disposal. And the coach knew his team stunk. So he had them adopt an unconventional approach: the full-court press. Instead of falling back and yielding most of the court to the opposing team, the underdogs would defend the whole court: at the start of a play, when the other team only has a few seconds to get the ball into play, the underdogs would block every angle and force a bad pass; and then, when the other team only has a few more seconds to get past half-court, the underdogs would play hard defence. Suddenly, the bigger, better, faster team wasn’t playing against a smaller, weaker, slower team…. they were playing against the clock. And they were losing.

The underdogs took this method all the way to the national championships.

I won’t stretch myself to suggest an analogy between basketball and social enterprise. But there is something to be said for thinking like David when staring down Goliath.

So let’s apply this to what you guys are going to be doing this weekend. You’re working in groups, to design a solution to a problem. The conventional approach to group work is the brainstorming session. Brainstorming is about filling up a flip chart with as many ideas as possible. And conventional wisdom tells us that in order to do this there must be an effective ban on criticism and negative feedback, because if someone thinks their idea might be ridiculed, they’re less likely to share it. And that would prevent your group from reaching that critical mass of ideas necessary for success.

But here’s the problem. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Brainstorming doesn’t work. A psychologist at Washington University summarizes the science as follows: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Now you might offer anecdotal evidence to the contrary. You might say, I’ve seen my fair share of impressive-looking flip charts from brainstorming sessions. But the research isn’t comparing ideas; it’s comparing good ideas with bad ones.

And most ideas are bad. Most ideas are plain crap.

Most ideas — for a social enterprise, for a business, for a product, for anything that people consume or engage with in one way or another — most don’t amount to anything, if they even materialize in the first place. Most businesses are based on bad ideas. That’s why most businesses go out of business. And most do it rather speedily.

In fact, we shouldn’t think of bad ideas as ideas at all. They’re just writing. Like I said at the beginning, an impractical solution is no solution at all.

So what should you do instead? How should you approach the design process in a group setting?

First, you should avoid the trappings of brainstorming by allowing some time this weekend to do some work individually, and then come together to criticize it. (Avoid ‘Groupthink’. Instead: Think. Regroup.)

Second, by “criticize”, I mean constructive criticism. The research doesn’t suggest that you shouldn’t still be a good listener, shouldn’t be open-minded, shouldn’t be a generally respectful human being. It just suggests that you shouldn’t shy away from putting ideas through the fire, from putting pressure on them. Respect is reserved for the person who came up with the idea; don’t respect the idea itself until it earns your respect. What the research shows is that, in fact, imagination thrives on conflict. So if you truly want to respect your teammates, you should rough up their ideas a little.

Conventional wisdom also tells us not to reinvent the wheel. This feels intuitive because our natural inclination is to be afraid of the new. And so we often start by looking for existing examples of an enterprise, we then label them ‘successful’ (they must be successful or else they’d have gone out of business already), and then we replicate them.

Now, y’know, the wheel…. someone would’ve eventually come up with that idea. And the wheel… it is pretty hard to beat.

But your goal should be to design a solution to a problem that needs a solution; not to look for a solution to a problem that already has a solution. As I said at the beginning, the question you should ask yourself is not ‘can this be done?’ but rather ‘how can this be done?’

We have all sorts of ‘solutions’ to problems that don’t really exist. In philosophy these are called pseudo-problems. I don’t want to discount anything so I’ll leave it up to you to decide what is and isn’t a pseudo-problem in the real world, but I’ll give you one quick example from philosophy: a topic called “Vagueness” wherein one tries to answer the question “How many grains of sand would you have to remove from a heap of sand before it is no longer a heap?” The answer to this question is, of course… why would anyone ever need to know this?

If you were attracted to social enterprise in the first place because you want to do something meaningful with your life, don’t shoot yourself in the foot right from the get-go by solving pseudo-problems.

Now there’s nothing implicitly wrong with replicating or importing a solution. But look closely because that successful enterprise you’re modelling may be just that — a successful enterprise — it may not in fact be a successful solution. So again this is where your critical faculty becomes absolutely… critical.

Don’t pick something easy. Social enterprise is about making positive change in your community and the world; it’s not about looking cool while doing it. Gladwell points out that when that girls basketball team was playing the full-court defence, they often looked ridiculous, waving their arms in the air. He suggests that, even though this style of play got an underdog team to the national championships, it’s the uncool factor that explains why such a successful style of play isn’t adopted more frequently.

Bruce Mau, the celebrated Canadian designer, in his “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth“, says, “Don’t be cool. Cool is conservative fear dressed in black.”

Mau goes on to talk about “Collaborating,” saying that “The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.”

I would simply alter that slightly to say: IF The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife — respectfully — THEN it will also be filled with exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.”