Welcome to HSMAI’s Innovation Book Club, a new feature that will introduce Organizational Members to recently published books intended to get people and organizations to think differently. We begin with See Think Solve: A Simple Way to Tackle Tough Problems, by Andrew Benedict-Nelson and Jeff Leitner, social-change experts who for the last four years served as the first-ever “innovators in residence” at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
See Think Solve grew out of Benedict-Nelson and Leitner’s work in social innovation, which involves “innovations that change how people behave,” Leitner said in a recent interview. It’s centered on the idea that “social norms” — which the book defines as “unspoken, informal rules that tell everybody how to behave in social situations” — are more influential than anything else when it comes to solving problems. They exist in any organization and any environment in which people interact — as colleagues, friends, clients, family, and, yes, hotel guests. “Between here and any problem we want to solve that involves people, there is a social norm that is in the way,” Leitner told HSMAI. “How do we isolate that social norm? How do we excise it? How do we get rid of it? And how do we allow a healthy norm to grow in its place?”
But problem-solving is just one side of the coin. The nine-step process that Benedict-Nelson and Leitner share in See Think Solve — in direct, simple language, which plenty of relatable examples — can also be directed at fostering innovation. We asked Leitner how.
Six of the nine steps in See Think Solve have to do with seeing, as opposed to thinking or solving. Why is this process weighted so heavily toward that?
Social norms are more influential than our brain chemistry, than our childhood traumas, than our individual preferences. If you want to know why somebody’s behaving the way that they’re behaving, chances are really good it has to do with social norms. The problem is that even though they’re unbelievably powerful, they’re invisible. The example I give sometimes when I lecture is, “I dare you: Get on an elevator. Press the button for the lobby. Rather than turn around and face the door, just face everybody else in the elevator and smile all the way down to the lobby.” You cannot do it. But there’s no rule that says you face the front of an elevator. That’s not a thing. [The social norm governing that situation] is invisible.
Our great contribution to the field is the development of these six lenses that allow you to look at a situation, see clues in the situation, and then begin to understand what the norm is that underlies that. What are these behaviors that we take for granted? You can’t see it directly by looking at it. We’re all too close to it, so we ask these questions: See the actors, history, limits, future, configuration, and parthood of it.
When it comes to seeing the history of a problem, you write that “It is not your job to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong.” Why not?
When you’re trying to get at the underlying social norms, it doesn’t make any difference whether George Washington really chopped down a cherry tree. That’s not relevant. What’s relevant is that there are a whole group of people who believe it. What does that mean that they believe it? What does it mean that they say it? What does it mean that some people think it’s nonsense? That’s what’s interesting, right?
Seeing the future also has something to with history, because you write that the future is “a collection of people’s expectations” — which are informed by things that have already happened.
What we’re after here are what rules are people playing by that they don’t even know they’re playing by. And it turns out that a really rich vein for those is in people’s expectations about the future. If somebody says, “Well, that could never happen,” it’s a great place to say, “Huh, I wonder what values, interests, priorities, world view they’re bringing to this that they think that’s impossible.” We think our life is governed by actual, formal, official rules, and it turns out that virtually nothing we do is governed by that. Almost everything we do is governed by these informal expectations we have of each other about how to behave in social situations.
Here’s an example from when I taught my daughter to drive. You’re driving along an expressway, and everybody’s going 70, which is in Illinois is still a few miles over the speed limit. And I say, “Honey, pick it up. Drive 70.” And she says, “But that’s against the law.” And I say, “But drive 70 anyway.” And she can’t figure out why I would say that. And the answer is, because you go with the speed of traffic around you. That’s the social norm. And in fact, you probably won’t ever get pulled over for going the speed of the people around you. You probably only get pulled over when you exceed the speed of the people around you. The speed limit — this legal thing approved by the state legislature, posted by the National Highway Administration on the side of a road — doesn’t really have anything to do with how fast we drive.
You also write, “Every problem is part of every other problem, sometimes in ways that are very hard to see.” If that’s the case, then how do you isolate a problem that you want to solve?
Oftentimes social norms migrate from one problem that is connected to our problem, to our problem. They’re these sort of invasive species of norms, these non-native norms. You know, hunger and homelessness — two things I’ve worked on — are related to each other, and there are ways we behave in response to homelessness that have migrated over to hunger and don’t make any sense. Homelessness is a tricky issue for us in the U.S., in part because we haven’t fully reconciled whether or not we think it’s somebody’s own doing. You’re homeless because you’ve made poor decisions versus you’re homeless because the system is set up in such a way that there’s winners and losers. That sort of idea has migrated over to childhood hunger. I mean, isn’t it weird that we’re not all on the same page about childhood hunger?
And it’s not that we’re up in the air about childhood hunger. It’s that a norm from things like homelessness has migrated over to hunger, in which we say, “Sometimes your bad circumstances are just because you screwed up.” So what you have to do is you have to dig into that problem, figure out what are the weird, skewed, socially reinforced beliefs, and then we have to do surgery to remove those.
Your example is at a societal level. What about at the corporate or organizational level? Does every group or environment have its own social norms?
Absolutely. Organizations function by a sort of informal understanding of who in the organization is really the person you’re supposed to talk to about stuff, and who really knows the scoop on how things work. And no matter what a leadership team does, it can’t change those.
So every problem can be solved by replacing a social norm?
I’d flip it around and say between us and every problem solved lies one or more malignant social norms. Social norms reinforce behaviors that we didn’t even realize were there, and if we can, we want to identify them and then figure out how to change them or get rid of them.
Do you have a favorite example of a problem that you’ve helped solve with this process?
Years ago, I was asked by NASA to come in and help them fix their relationship with Congress. NASA used to be the coolest kids in the world and the pride of America, and by their own admission, they had become increasingly marginalized. Congress was increasingly critical of them. The problem that they were trying to solve was, how do we restore our reputation as being an amazing organization and thus we’ll be able to get resources that we didn’t previously have access to?
So we started wandering around NASA and talking to people. This really interesting thing emerged. Leadership at NASA would pull us into rooms one at a time, almost telling us a secret about how what the organization really needed was another moonshot speech like [President] Kennedy gave in ’61: “By the end of the decade, we’re going to put a man on the moon.” This wasn’t exactly talked about publicly in the organization, but everybody seemed to hold this. There was a social norm — a belief that what the organization needed was another moonshot speech. That the president of the United States would stand up and declare a new objective, and it would coalesce everybody in the organization as a result. You can imagine this in any organization: “Boy, I just wish we had a new vision from the CEO.”
What’s so interesting about this at NASA is what had resulted in the absence of this was that there was a sort of weird passivity in the organization to declaring anything themselves, because they were deferring to the president to declare this thing. So we interviewed a chief speech writer for the previous administration and said, “Is there every going to be another moonshot speech?” And the answer was, “Absolutely not. And here are the five reasons.” And they’re really interesting.
We met with all [NASA’s] leadership. We said, “Hey, each of you has told us this really interesting story about the need for a moonshot,” and we dropped this thing on the desk and we said, “Here. It’s never going to happen again. Here’s why.” Let’s talk about the social norm in the room. The social norm in the room is to defer to the White House to set our direction. And if you defer to another organization to set your direction, you start to get passive. You start to get almost insecure in pursuing your objectives, because you believe that Papa Bear is going to solve this problem for you. So we said, “Let’s take that off the table. Let’s remove this malignant norm.” Now how might we behave if that’s gone? And all sorts of interesting things showed up — one of which did not strike me as radical, but it struck them as radical and they immediately started behaving this way. Which was, they would go to Congress and say, “Here is the next thing NASA needs to do. It will cost X amount. How much are you giving us toward that?”
In some ways this isn’t just a process for solving problems. It can also be a process for identifying opportunities, right?
Absolutely. We are now at work on sort of the big, definitive version of this. We shift the frame somewhat to address the point that you’re making, which is we’re taking it away from problem and solution. The frame is inventing the new normal: “Well, this is normal. This shouldn’t be normal anymore.” We’re fourth-largest market share in our industry. We’d like to be the first. So, what are the social norms that are involved in this? What are the implicit beliefs that we have that lead us to keep finishing there, or that lead our customers to think of us fourth, and then what can we do to change that?