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.

Human infrastructure

greenhouse-fellowship-photoAsk any struggling city about the best way to reclaim its former glory and you’re likely to hear about new roads, a refurbished downtown or tax breaks for big, new employers. But these cities rarely consider investments in human infrastructure, in the next generation of residents who will lead the cities’ various institutions and community groups.

That was the big idea behind the GreenHouse Fellowship, which we developed and piloted in East Chicago, Indiana — the archetypal struggling, Rust Belt community. With the Foundations of East Chicago, we recruited a handful of new graduates from the local high school – students described by their teachers and peers as savvy, popular and influential – and gave them a year of intensive training, in community organizing, civic innovation and hands-on community service.

In GOOD Magazine, Andrew Benedict-Nelson laid out the core concept of the program, imagining it as a “third path out of high school”:

“Using community-organizing techniques, a trained staff would help the young people answer the question, ‘How would we make this town different if we were in charge?’ The students would then spend the rest of the year designing and implementing a major initiative to make that change happen. …

“When young people turn 18 in this country, they’re told to head to college and build a life for themselves. But many of them would be well-served by an option that lets them first spend some time building something in their own communities.”

Our engagement with East Chicago initially grew out of School Is Not School, another effort to question the social norms of the American education system.

Flash mob for good



There are a handful of essential questions that every organization – certainly, every organization taking on social challenges – must answer regularly and honestly: Are we solving the right problem? Have we outlived our usefulness? Is it possible we’re pursuing the wrong core strategy?

But that’s much, much easier said than done. For one, the key actors in any successful organization have bought in to its strategy, necessarily giving up the objectivity required for rigorous self-examination. For two, tackling questions is dangerously disruptive, introducing discomfort and insecurity among staff, volunteers and boards of directors.

This is why GreenHouse principals launched Insight Labs as the first-ever philanthropic think tank. Between 2010 and 2014, we we enlisted more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to tackle the foundational challenges facing 45 public, private and social-sector institutions.

The Labs became best known for our novel approach: invite a dozen or so subject matter experts to tackle a challenge in which they did not have expertise; keep the invite list secret from even the participants until the project was launched; and do most of the work in a three-hour flurry. It was most aptly described as “the love child of a think tank and flash mob for good.”

Our first effort was on behalf of what is now Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, whose nearly billion-dollar capital campaign had stalled in the wake of the 2008 recession. Together, we deconstructed the ground-breaking engagement strategy of Barack Obama’s first run for president, and mapped it to the potential, expanded role of children’s hospitals in society.

Over the next 60 months, we convened brain-trusts at the request of groups as diverse as NASA, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. State Department, the TED Conferences, Boeing and Starbucks. Our approach was explored in books and magazines, including Forbes and Fast Company.

Eureka, with rigor

Large corporations know they must innovative to survive. But they approach the process with much less structure and discipline than they do more routine functions like sales or IT.

With Exelon, the country’s largest energy company, GreenHouse raised the standard for corporate innovation, helping develop a repeatable process for group ideation – which we tested together around the country with groups of corporate executives. The experiment produced new, actionable insights into the role Exelon and other utilities could play in building a better electric grid.

From our final report: “Many experts claim that they can guide companies toward new ideas and ways of implementing them. But such interventions often wither and die after the consultant’s contract ends or the organization’s leadership changes. To truly thrive in today’s world, organizations need sustainable means of innovating that are woven into the culture of the organization itself.”

Our findings informed applications of our original methodology for social innovation in similar tests with executives at Coca-Cola, entrepreneurs at 10.10.10 and doctoral students at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Staid no more

Industries are almost impossible to disrupt from the inside. Winners in the current system have way too much to lose, so it’s hard for them to imagine a vastly different environment or to abandon the strategies that made them successful in the first place. But radical disruption is inevitable –  even in the relatively staid, predictable business of practicing law.

That was our challenge in Law 2023, a year-long project in which we worked with a national team of top attorneys and legal-industry vendors to imagine the impact of sweeping economic, sociological and technological changes on their field. We guided the group as they reckoned with corporate and academic trend-watchers as well as authors, reporters, and designers who embrace disruption.

What emerged were seven rules we believe the winning law firms will follow in the next decade. For example, the winners will develop offerings that transcend jurisdiction.

“As the pace of globalization quickens, the nature of jurisdiction will change,” our report reads. “It’s not just that corporations and other institutions will need to navigate dozens or hundreds of sets of rules and regulations — they’ll also have a significantly greater need to choose among them. These clients will expect their counsel to keep up.”

“The opportunity: Firms will employ technologies to help them rapidly understand how a transaction might play out across all possible jurisdictions. Then, crucially, they’ll use their human ingenuity to craft offerings that transcend jurisdiction, maximizing clients’ freedom to act across the globe in real time. Top legal minds will help regulatory bodies and intergovernmental organizations figure out how to make sure everyone plays fair in this new arena.”

After releasing the report, we continued the work with two of our collaborators, who are launching the industry’s first real legal R&D effort.

Hearts of children

Virtually everyone agrees that children would benefit from mindfulness training – learning how to be calm, attentive and aware of their thoughts and feelings. But virtually nobody knows how to squeeze mindfulness training into already jam-packed school curricula.

That was at the center of a challenge posed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who in 2004 told a crowd in Vancouver, Canada that the time had come to “educate the hearts and not just the minds of children.” A year later, followers launched the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education, which has been trying ever since to integrate mindfulness and public education.

We took up the challenge through our initiative UX for Good, which GreenHouse developed with Jason Ulaszek to enlist top user experience designers from around the world in solving social challenges. Interestingly, the answer we found was unrelated to school curricula and related instead to classroom management. Teachers had independently discovered that they could use mindfulness techniques to more effectively manage disruption and disciplinary issues, leading to quieter, happier classrooms. They were more than happy to share these insights with their colleagues.

This insight led to the Center’s development of Heart-Mind Online, a resource launched to facilitate the sharing of mindfulness resources among teachers and parents.

We have also deployed UX for Good to tackle challenges facing genocide memorials and the livelihood of professional musicians in New Orleans, for which the initiative won the user experience design industry’s top award.

Inhuman capital

Everybody wants school reform. But decade after decade of public debate hasn’t brought us much closer to substantive change. It appears, at least to us, that the problem might be with the debate, itself.

That’s the conclusion we drew from a project called School Is Not School. We drafted and posted online an original, incendiary manifesto, which suggested the role for school ought to be building community. We collected a week’s worth of online comments, then analyzed those comments to see what we could learn from what well-intentioned people thought about the idea.

What we learned is that it’s nearly impossible to divorce the idea of school from human capital development, from preparing individual students for college or career. The social norms related to the purpose of school are pervasive and fixed.

From our report: “Right now, even advocates for greater community involvement in schools tend to view community as a mere external resource that supports schools’ essential activity of adding to students’ skills and knowledge – this human capital development is seen as what the school ‘is.'”

Throes of idea-making

As a culture, we’re fetishizing ideas. Our thoughts, notions and insights are becoming increasingly precious – served up at conference after conference like haute cuisine. You’d think it would be a great turn of events for the folks behind Insight Labs, but it all makes us a little crazy.

“Everybody’s innovating, everybody’s iterating, everybody seems to be in the throes of idea-making. That’s an awful lot of thought leadership going around,” Howell Malham Jr. said on one of our regular appearances on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.

“There are people talking about ideas. There are people talking about the idea of ideas. But there doesn’t seem to be anything significant happening.” We said the real problem is the opportunity cost – what we’re not doing when we’re all together because we’re so busy applauding each other for presenting ideas.

Among our other appearances on WBEZ were our thoughts on the future of civic engagement and Chicago’s social anxiety.

Past trauma, present action

The world’s genocide museums successfully ensure that we never forget history’s most horrific events. But these institutions can do so much more, we concluded in our work with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

Specifically, genocide museums can build a movement from visitors who are sufficiently touched by their experiences to incorporate lessons into their own lives. If enough visitors are transformed, the resulting movement would be an unprecedented force for good and a breakwall against future atrocities.

“The experience of the Holocaust could ultimately help people to make sense of what is going on in other conflict situations,” said former U.S. congressman Toby Moffett, who collaborated with us on the project. “To be a fountain of know-how and information and technical assistance, while at the same time not relinquishing the main idea of the Holocaust as history’s greatest case study – I think it’s very exciting.”

This work informed our later work in Rwanda, in which we explored alterations of the museum experience that could produce transformed visitors.