Can Design Thinking save the Lost Boys?

19 May 2010|Darrel Rhea

I spent last week running an experiment in social innovation in Finland. Our mission? Saving the “lost boys” — the teenage boy dropouts in the Finnish public school system. Is this a big problem, you might ask? Well, if you are Finland with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, the highest reading and math scores in the world, and one of the highest graduation rates in the world, the idea that even a small number fail in their system is unacceptable. And it is small. We’re talking low single digits here. Many US school districts that have greater than 50% dropouts would scoff. But this is Finland, and they are taking this relatively small but growing problem seriously.

The nature of social innovation is that it involves large-scale systems that require change to happen on many levels. Social problems deal with cultural institutions, government bureaucracies, politics, ingrained cultural beliefs, and a host of issues that make these problems seem intractable. The structure of the system itself seems to be designed to perpetuate the problem. It has all the makings of a classic “wicked problem” (as described by Horst Rittel). Even defining the nature of the problem is tough.
A sane person might ask, “Why bother?” or, “You really want to fight City Hall?” There are many reasons, but one that stands out for me…

…is that we face wicked problems in our work and life everyday. Sticky, wicked, messy problems that defy easy solutions. If you are serous about leading innovation and change, then tackling the hardest class of problems is a great way to test yourself and your ideas. If we can successfully design a transformation of a country’s culture, then designing a product or a marketing strategy within a corporate culture should be easy. Think of social innovation as a way to practice extreme or “radical innovation.”

I was running the workshop in Helsinki on a project sponsored by Sitra (the leading think tank in Finland) and supported by various government ministries related to education. The goal was to apply Design Thinking, bring together world experts in the domain of education, and attempt to outline potential solutions within a very short five day workshop. The experiment was about going beyond producing analytical white papers – we wanted to apply creative thinking to prototyping solutions. The specific project brief focused on teenage boy dropouts who are thought to turn out to be less productive members of society, can be a drain on social services and might even be a source of crime.

I won’t cover the specific findings on the educational system here yet. There will be a lot published about our work soon, and a Sitra conference in September will showcase this and a few similar experiments. Obviously, we can’t gauge our success after a single week, but there are some immediate learnings from the experiment that you can put to work. Some quick take-aways:

Bottom line: The experiment produced value. If you have a team of insightful and skilled content experts who can play the role of outsiders, you can start to make very accurate assessments of the system in a very short time. Further, you can begin to propose constructive approaches to addressing the problems. It didn’t take months, it took days.

Picking the right team is everything. My small team of eight was an amazing cast of thought leaders in education from around the world, with a couple of great Finns to help guide us through the cultural issues. They were perceptive, sensitive, experienced, and mentally agile. I was honored to be able to work with them and we all learned from each other. Pick your team with the same care you would in selecting guests for a great intimate dinner party.

Creating the right conditions. Months of planning went into the week. We had a studio space design to support creativity in downtown Helsinki, a staff of young researchers at our disposal to answer any questions or collect any data we needed instantly, and we designed a two-day emersion process with field trips to schools, lectures and discussions by leading economists, academics, local NGOs, etc. Never underestimate the importance of the design workspace, and orchestrating the experience.

Manage the team social space. We had great meals with each other throughout the week, and activities designed to help us get to know each other fast. We hadn’t worked together as a team before, but were able to be instantly productive because of this background of relationship. Teamwork requires team, don’t discount the human side.

Focus on defining the problem. While the problems with boys are real, there were much bigger problems and opportunities. The boys were a symptom, not the real system problem. Being “professional outsiders” let us ignore cultural taboos, and ask the tougher questions, and get to the heart of the issues. Deconstructing the assumptions around the problem might be the most important step.

Evidence of our success. In just a few days, our team learned enough about the Finnish culture and the educational system to astound the Minister of the Board of Education with our ability to characterize the breakdowns and propose viable solutions. He publicly committed to take our ideas and present them to the Finnish Parliament and share the work more broadly within the educational system. Identify your audience early, design your communications for them specifically, and treat them like clients. Remember, social innovation is about changing hearts and minds.

For more information, check out the Helsinki Design Lab: Credit where credit is due: Marco Steinberg and Bryan Boyer from Sitra’s Helsinki Design Lab were the real architects of the event, and their countless hours made my contributions possible. Annikki Herranen, Johanna Nieminen, and Miguel Rodriguez provided able research and logistical support. Together they were an awesome A-team that will be producing other workshops. Keep an eye on these guys!

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