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.

Take note

Music is so ubiquitous in New Orleans that it feels like a natural resource. But every note of every song is the product of somebody’s hard work, and most of those somebodies are getting a raw deal.

We tackled this problem as part of UX for Good, the initiative GreenHouse developed with Jason Ulaszek. Together, we enlisted a dozen of the country’s best user experience designers to join us, music industry executives, local performers and leaders of community organizers in figuring out how to improve musicians’ quality of life.

Our final report read: “To maintain the culture of music, musicians need access to different resource sets than other participants in the economy and social safety net. If we want musicians to keep doing the things musicians do, we need to design solutions that are compatible with the way musicians must live.”

We went on to detail several solutions, from re-tooling tipping to building new technologies for music career management. Our findings related to tipping spawned several new companies, through which musicians can automate tips from their fans.

UX for Good, which won the user experience design industry’s top award for our work in New Orleans, has also tackled challenges related to schools and genocide museums.

Place your bets

After years of muddled democratization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American political class needed a new way to talk about sharing the virtues of representative government abroad. So we set out to concoct one, seeking inspiration in the logic model of venture capitalism.

VCs, we observed, place small, well-timed bets to realize big returns. Working with democracy advocates at the U.S. State Department and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we identified several key ways in which a new model for democratization could borrow ideas from Silicon Valley.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson laid out the key traits that both democratization and venture investing require in a piece for GOOD Magazine: investing in many different projects with a very long time horizon; investing in ways that help make sense of failure, particularly by recouping non-traditional returns like relationships and knowledge; and investing in ways that advance the state of the art, incorporating those advances into future efforts.

We further concluded that the proper place for those investments was civil society. Within a week, the idea was being considered at the White House as a way to guide future U.S. efforts.

Enlisted for the project by Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, with whom we also worked to design a new model for international organizations.

Typewriter repairmen

Maybe voting is played out. Maybe we’re ready to move beyond the confines of representative democracy. This is the fight we were trying to start on our one of regular appearances on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.

“We can finally stop electing middlemen. We have the tools and the inclination to scale Athenian democracy, where we actually represent ourselves,” Jeff Leitner said. “Think about it: we hate our politicians; we hate our elected officials; and Congress’s approval rating is negative 4. Some of them deserve our ire. Some of them are badly behaved. But mostly they’re just doing jobs we don’t need anymore, like typewriter repairmen.”

We suggested that we take all the technology and agency we’re currently spending to throw more effective tantrums and use it to figure out how to re-tool the political system.

We picked this fight with host Steve Edwards. Among our other appearances on WBEZ were our thoughts on the emerging idea bubble and Chicago’s social anxiety.

Transcendent interest

The single most essential element of collaboration – of cooperative efforts at any scale – is an inadequately understood idea called transcendent interest. This is what GreenHouse unearthed at the request of the world-renown TED Conferences, which was looking to boost participation in and impact of its annual, global TED Prize.

“I’m not talking about a win-win, where our interests overlap. It’s something that lives up here – above our interests, a grander concern,” Jeff Leitner said in a subsequent address on transcendent interest to the Kellogg Innovation Network. “Let me tell you what it’s not: it’s not a homeowners’ association; it’s not the EU; and it’s not cooperation, in which I help you move your couch upstairs and you give me a beer. That’s a win-win. It’s not simply a sublimation of interests. It’s beyond that.”

GreenHouse has successfully isolated a few of transcendent interest’s key features. For example, transcendent interest requires suspension of individual identities; it renders original interests hollow and it utilizes an untapped element that wasn’t being accessed in previous interactions between the parties.

Mission control

Institutional leadership requires the assertion – not simply the development – of a vision. GreenHouse principals worked with top officials at NASA’s Langley Research Center, the space agency’s longtime home of R&D, to develop a framework for asserting the agency’s vision to Congress, the private sector and the public.

There is no shortage of vision at NASA. But the agency had become overly reliant on passive strategies, such as waiting for a U.S. president to set the space exploration agenda just like John F. Kennedy did in 1962.

But the social norms around “the vision thing” have changed. Adam Frankel, a presidential speechwriter we tapped for the project, explained:

“When JFK challenged us to go to the Moon, he was essentially challenging NASA,” Frankel said. “Now that would be different. It would be the president calling on NASA and all of the American people who are interested in this work. The ‘we’ would be different. That’s the opportunity.”

Change the world to what?

The humanities are frequently dismissed as useless. Yet we at GreenHouse have come to believe there is virtually no discipline better suited to solving the world’s toughest challenges.

This isn’t because of any one particular thing that students of humanities know. On the contrary, it’s because of their feel for the unknown and uncertain, for the shifting terrain of the human condition where one finds the root of all social problems.

“Every time I hear the phrase ‘Change the world,'” Howell Malham Jr. said, “I think ‘Change the world to what?’ The humanities can help us figure out what to change the world to.”

We first uncovered this hidden power in a project with the state humanities councils of Illinois and Indiana. We explored the idea further in our work with Humanities Without Walls, training doctoral students at 15 research universities.

Killer norms

Creativity in big corporations will die without the right social norms to sustain it. With design executives from Starbucks, Herman Miller, Johnson & Johnson, and the BBC, we isolated those norms and the structures that keep them healthy and alive.

Together, we identified four models by which corporations successfully nurture and protect creativity. One, for example, requires the corporation to leverage the natural cycle of reinvention and maximization.

From our report: “There are times when the people who are itching to develop a new product or plan must sit back and come up with tactics to harvest the benefits of what has already been built. Similarly, the folks responsible for the next earnings statement or report to the board need to remember that creative types always need some level of stimulus if they are to exercise their brilliance and bring about the next spring.

“Conversation between the maximizers and the reinventors is be made possible by a common understanding of the organization’s place in the natural cycle.”

Committed to the music

The Clinton Global Initiative broke important, new ground in social impact: holding corporations and social sector organizations accountable for their commitments to do good. As members of CGI, we made and fulfilled our own commitment to improve economic conditions for professional musicians in New Orleans.

“We commit to take action to improve the standard of living and bolster the social safety net for musicians working in New Orleans,” our pledge read. “Through this commitment, we will develop new, more effective models for directing financial resources and providing social services to musicians.”

We fulfilled the commitment through UX for Good, an initiative GreenHouse started with Jason Ulaszek to enlist the world’s top user experience designers in solving social challenges. The project in New Orleans was awarded the experience design industry’s top honor.