Howell Malham Jr

Howell J. Malham Jr. is a founder and managing director of GreenHouse, The Center of Social Innovation. He is an Innovator in Residence at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and a director of UX for Good.  He co-founded Insight Labs, the world’s first philanthropic think tank, to tackle a range of social challenges and design new methods for solving them. As a brand strategist, Howell has worked with Walgreens, Allstate, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, LEGO, and HarperCollins. He is the author of I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t), The Illustrated Guide to Strategy, published by Jossey-Bass. He has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Fast Company. A more detailed bio is available here.

Now you can

51w3rlo0jlNo big idea – no matter how elegant, inspiring or right – can come to life by itself. Execution of big ideas requires strategy, which has become in recent years such a fuzzy, imprecise terms that most ideas are never animated.

We’ve tried to solve this problem, one that arises over and over again in our collaborations, by simply explaining what strategy is. Howell Malham Jr. wrote and illustrated our first book, I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t): The Illustrated Guide to Strategy, to make it crystal and entertainingly clear for anybody charged with implementing a big idea.

“There are worse crimes than using a word incorrectly, but not many,” Malham writes. “For me, there is nothing more important than understanding the words we use to communicate the thoughts and ideas we have – especially when we’re communicating with each other. It’s how civilization became, well, civilized.”

“One person may say tom-a-to, the other may say tom-ah-to – but woe if one of those people believe tomato means shoehorn. Or worse.”

Land of the sick

When people are diagnosed with an acute disease, they enter a new world, one with unwritten rules they do not understand. At the same time as they are trying to heal, they suffer physical and psychological harm because of their inability to navigate the hidden social conflicts of being a patient.

GreenHouse took on this issue through a year-long study of a disease where these conflicts are particularly severe: ovarian cancer. Working with the Susan Poorman Blackie Foundation, we determined that ovarian cancer patients face eight fundamental social conflicts, including everything from learning and decision-making styles to how to handle their changing roles in their families.

Finally, at a symposium with patient advocates and other health care leaders, we envisioned a way to foreground the conflicts patients will experience, designing a new model to give them the social support they will need from day one.

GreenHouse was enlisted in this project by Buck Dodson, SPB’s president and executive director. The effort is part of our portfolio of work furthering the translation of social determinants of health into improvements in the health care system. Our portfolio also includes our publication Health Plus Social and the graduate nursing program at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

More broadly and more assertively

In 2014, GreenHouse was enlisted to be the first-ever Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work – the first-ever in a school of social work, the first ever in the social sciences and one of only a handful in any field in the U.S.

Here’s why we agreed: society desperately needs social workers. More precisely, society needs the kind of things social workers know about social context and human systems applied more broadly and more assertively.

The challenge was that social workers were ill-prepared to play that larger role. Overcoming the challenge required a culture change — in the field and in its professional education.

So far, so good. Recruited for this role by Dean Marilyn Flynn, our partnership with the school has been highly productive. Together, we have developed and launched the first-ever doctorate in social innovation, the first graduate program in nursing within a school of social work, and an award-winning masters fellowship in social innovation.

Hope restored


Genocide museums – like those in Rwanda, Germany and Washington, DC – are extraordinarily important institutions, ensuring that the atrocities they chronicle are never forgotten. But the museums are not terribly effective at enlisting volunteers in preventing future atrocities.

That’s because the institutions follow a proven, predictable path: introduce visitors to horrific events through facts, artifacts and stories, which leave them smarter but shaken. We discovered a new path: by re-introducing hope and humanity within the museum experience, the institution allows visitors to recover their emotional balance and imagine themselves joining the fight.

The research was part of our UX for Good initiative, in which GreenHouse and Jason Ulaszek invite a dozen top user experience designers from around the world to join us in resolving a complex social challenge. The initiative produced the Inzovu Curve, a model that has guided modifications in Rwanda and helped designers map the emotional impact of institutions around the world.

UX for Good was launched in 2011, has worked at the behest of The GRAMMY Foundation and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education, and has won the user experience design industry’s top award.

Norm, deviant and diffuse

Social innovation is very serious business, with profound human consequences. But it has been largely misinterpreted: as creativity, as an expression of noble character or as a pretense to teach business and entrepreneurial skills. In response, GreenHouse has developed and publicly released a foundational framework for social innovation – called Innovation Dynamics – grounded in both social science and empirical research over seven years of projects in the public, private, social and academic sectors.

At its core, social innovation involves three steps: revealing the social norm that holds the undesirable conditions in place; identifying or creating a deviant from that norm; and diffusing the deviance through a sufficient number and breadth of reference groups.

The methodology is being taught in universities – including in the first-ever professional doctorate in social innovation – and in the private sector, and is now available to the public.

Asking for the impossible

Big, new ideas do not emerge from incrementalism and virtually never materialize in conventional business settings. That’s the central idea of “Dream On: The Art of Strategic Imagination,” a piece Howell Malham Jr. wrote for the business journal Leader to Leader.

“The imagination stage of strategic development is neither analysis nor synthesis – it is seeing and thinking in the subjunctive in order to discover that which has yet to be known: a pre-reality.

“Unsurprisingly, this is a fundamentally different process – different from  every other stage of development, and it requires different kinds of people in the room. Not planners and analysts, who come armed to the teeth with data, and who—to be fair—are not expected or required to imagine beyond the latest infographics on customers ‘most likely’ or ‘least likely.’

“Ask yourself: ‘Where and when does that kind of thinking happen now in my world?’ Odds are you’re investing in incremental innovation: refining existing principles, processes, and products, not transforming or, even bolder, transcending them. And that’s okay. New and improved dishwasher soap is a much safer bet than designing a universe where nothing ever gets dirty. But strategic imagination begins by asking for the impossible.”

Birthplace of modern thinking



Chicago really, really wants you to believe it’s a world-class city. Hence, the failed bid to host the Olympics in 2016 and the successful bid to host the NATO Summit in 2012. The strategy appears to be to show how important the city is by showing how important its guests are.

But Chicago is already legitimately world-class. It is arguably the hub of modernity in the United States: the birthplace of modern thinking in science, literature, architecture, journalism and social justice.

“Why should NATO come here? Because NATO is re-thinking NATO,” Howell Malham Jr. said on one of our regular appearances on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. “Because NATO needs to break through, to think beyond what NATO already knows. What better place (to do that) than a place like Chicago?”

We worked this through on air with host Steve Edwards. Among our other appearances on WBEZ were our thoughts on the emerging idea bubble and the future of civic engagement.

How great thou art



The social norms of a museum don’t align particularly well with the rebellious spirit of contemporary art. But we found the right social norms – in all places – at the corporate campus of a financial services company.

The West Collection – one of the nation’s most important collections of work by emerging artists – is housed at SEI, in the Philadelphia suburbs. The campus’s employees, who originally had no particular fondness for contemporary art, now cherish the art in ways few museum visitors ever have.

That is due in large part to revolutionary curatorial practices, such as letting employees choose pieces from the Collection for their workspaces and even allowing employees to “steal” pieces from their colleagues.

We worked alongside the collection’s curators for two years to isolate lessons that could be shared with the rest of the art world. Among our findings: “We need a happy medium between the ‘wild’ of the artist’s studio and the ‘zoo’ of a traditional museum. In this ‘nature preserve’ for art, viewers’ reactions would inform the experience, but the integrity of collections could still be preserved.”