We live in a world screaming for transformation and the best we seem capable of is tweaks. We’re surrounded by leaders and decision makers who share a deeply rooted obsession with scale. An obsession enabled by business models and social norms as straight jackets to keep us in our assigned place aboard the bigger is better bandwagon. Far too often we deflect attention away from the growing number of people harmed and left behind by the one-size-fits-all models, the flywheels of our most important social systems including healthcare, education and the public services we rely on. Tweaks aren’t enough, too many people are suffering, we need social system-changing transformation.
Complex Adaptive Systems
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” Heraclitus 544 B.C.
Systems challenges require systems solutions. But because our heads explode at the thought of transforming an entire dynamic system we develop point solutions in the hope that our magic bullet (new law, technology, product, service etc.) is the right lever to nudge systems to their transformational tipping point. It rarely works. There’s just no controlling for all the independent variables in a complex adaptive system. This explains why ‘evidence-based’ point solutions almost always disappoint when the goal is systems change. You can’t analyze your way to transformation, it’s a generative act. We have to design for its emergence.
“Transformers are business model escape artists.”
Historically transformers are a rare breed, isolated as icons and embodying personas unattainable to us mere mortals. But digital changes everything. Digital flips the script. Turns out we’re all capable of being transformers. But we’re going to have to learn a few new tricks along the way. We need new skills, starting with the three superpowers of transformation; human-centered design, rapid prototyping, and storytelling/engagement.
Three Superpowers of Transformation
The first and most important step in any transformation process is to see the opportunity horizon through the lens of the customer. If we see opportunities through the enterprise lens of today’s business models the best we can hope for are incremental improvements that seldom lead to system change. Human-centered design helps us develop a transformation mindset and the must-have skills of deep observation, ethnography, empathic listening, pattern recognition and identifying actionable insights. Human-centered design teaches us how to shift our lens and grants us the freedom to imagine entire new customer experiences unconstrained by the straight jacket of existing business models.
It’s easier to imagine new conceptual business models once we shift our lens. But until we take concepts off of the white board and introduce them into the real world to collide with customers we’ve barely left the transformation starting gate. The earlier in the design process the better.
We spend way too much time building elegant solutions and whiz bang apps only to learn too late after spending a lot of money and stacking market and user interface research reports up to the ceiling, that customers don’t engage and adopt our solutions the way we planned or expected. The superpower of rapid prototyping gives us permission to start with a low-fidelity, bubble gum and baling wire, version of a system-changing business model concept with actual customers at a small scale. Prototyping teaches us how to iterate with increasing fidelity and scale toward a minimum viable business model.
“Don’t just prototype the product (MVP), prototype the whole business model (MVBM)”
Storytelling and Engagement
Nobody transforms anything, especially themselves, without an emotional connection to the change. Stories inspire us and move us to act. Stories engage us by helping us to see ourselves in the narrative, they allow us to become part of the story. The storytelling that enables transformation isn’t top-down centrally controlled polished messaging. It’s the raw experience and journey stories from those doing the changing, living-out-loud and welcoming others to engage in the story. That’s how stories spread.
Don’t wait until the story is finished, storytelling is most impactful when it’s unfinished business. That’s also how system changing transformation spreads organically as people see change that excites them and that they want to engage in and tell their friends about.
Call to Action
“Catalyze movements by empowering self organized purposeful networks. Less push, more pull.”
The three superpowers of transformation are personal for me. They have been the north star guiding my personal reinvention and the foundation of all of our project work and community building at BIF over the last 16 years. I knew to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world I would need a new set of superpowers. My science and business background served me well in a share-taking world where I could analyze and proselytize my way to success. But in a market-making world that requires changing hearts more than minds I knew I would need to reinvent myself. It’s a work in process!
“Reinvention is the most important life skill for individuals, enterprises and communities.”
Transformation is different than incrementally improving how the world works today. It requires new approaches to change and it most certainly requires new superpowers. There’s no magic bullet coming to fix our broken social systems. If we want a more equitable and inclusive future, a future that everyone can see themselves in and flourish in, we will have to design it ourselves.
To transform our most important social systems including healthcare, education and public services, we need to put our new superpowers to work to catalyze the emergence of new human-centered system-changing business models. It’s time to move with intention and urgency from tweaks to transformation.