On May 12th, the Metcalf Foundation and InWithForward hosted a public event to share the results from the Learning Circle, our 6-month experiment in social sector capacity building.
The Learning Circle was a network of 23 non-profit leaders and policy makers who came together every two weeks to learn to apply the principles of human-centered design to their work. Led by Metcalf Innovation Fellow and InWithForward co-founder Sarah Schulman, the group explored how qualitative data can lead to more supportive practice and policies, and then prototyped new data-driven interventions in their workplaces.
Demo-Day: Co-Design Methods in Action marked the completion of the Learning Circle. It was an opportunity for attendees from across the sector to learn about human-centred design, view the group’s prototypes, and share their reflections on what it takes to rethink program and policy design from the ground up.
Here are five key takeaways from Demo Day:
1. Think like a designer.
Human-centred design practice focuses on the individual. It grounds proposed solutions in an understanding of a person’s unique experiences, behaviours, and surrounding environment—rather than on assumptions made about the needs of certain “types” of people. As Schulman explains, such an approach can ensure that clients are more fully supported, and that our social safety nets “act more like trampolines.”
2. Organize your services based on your clients’ motivation, not on their needs.
When designing new programs and services, it can be tempting to focus on the need at hand. However, Schulman suggests that organizations first identify the desires and motivations of their clients before they decide on a solution. For example, if unemployment rates in a community are high, an organization may choose to create a program that matches their clients with local job openings. But while eight members of the program may be interested in quickly being connected with job opportunities, four others might feel too insecure about their levels of training to attend an arranged interview. If the organization continues to define the entire group as “people lacking jobs,” their clients won’t get what they truly need.
3. Test your theories and assumptions. Constantly.
In the prototyping phase, organizations run a small-scale version of their new program, service, or approach, and continually seek input from clients and program staff around its effectiveness. As flaws or barriers are identified, adjustments are made accordingly.
Prototyping focuses on the small-scale, but it can also highlight broader discrepancies in service delivery. Organizations may discover when testing their new prototypes that their other programming doesn’t meet the needs it was intended to address. “Emotion is part of innovation,” admits Schulman. “It requires you to test your own assumptions.”
4. Build a culture of innovation, both within your organization and across the sector.
Many large private sector corporations dedicate a substantial percentage of their operating budgets to innovation. Likewise, Schulman argues that we as a sector “need to resource innovation as a core function of our organizations.” As few organizations have the funds to rival these private companies, Schulman suggests that the sector explore a shared social research engine in which participating groups could share the results of their prototyping endeavours on an ongoing basis, and build off the challenges, successes, and insights of others.
5. Understand the systemic barriers.
Organizations are likely to run into resistance when prototyping. Outcomes are uncertain, which can make some stakeholders uneasy. Funders often target needs instead of solutions, and so financing these new processes can also be a cause of concern for organizations. As Rachel Gray of the Stop Community Food Centre explains, “We get funding when we have homeless people in our shelters. We don’t get funding when we fix the problem.”
For more information about InWithForward’s “Grounded Change” approach to research and prototyping, read 7 Missing Links between Social Policy, Social Services, and Outcomes: An Argument for Grounded Change.