Social Norms

GreenHouse principals were the first to isolate social norms as the critical element in successful, replicable social innovation. The discovery has led to the development of original theory and proprietary tools – all tested and refined in projects with the public, private, social and academic sectors. GreenHouse’s social norms approach to social innovation is also being taught in-depth at the University of Southern California, in the nation’s first-ever doctorate in social innovation.

Cancer’s unwritten rules

Cancer patients’ lives are shaped as much by social norms as by the biology of their disease. GreenHouse and the Susan Poorman Blackie Foundation have partnered to develop the first-ever catalog of those norms – specifically, the social norms related to ovarian cancer.

Findings of our nationwide qualitative research – conducted through interviews with patients, their families and healthcare providers – can be accessed online throughout the process via The Ovarian Cancer Project. One example:  “For many women, the first signs of ovarian cancer don’t seem like medical symptoms at all. They show up as disruptions of their routines in diet, exercise, and lifestyle — areas where our culture often expects them to be fully competent managers of their own health.”

GreenHouse was enlisted in this research 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.

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 a foundational framework for social innovation, grounded in both social science and empirical research over seven years of projects in the public, private, social and academic sectors.

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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.

GreenHouse has developed a methodology – and is working on a technology – to help potential social innovators with the first two steps: revealing norms and identifying deviants. The framework and methodology are being taught in-depth at USC as part of the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation and will be fully explored in the first-ever casebook on social innovation.

Stealth management

Over the past generation, changing social norms have made the white-collar workplace a much more flexible environment. From the introduction of new technologies to the embrace of enlightened HR practices, many corporations realize they will do better if they empower employees to find work-life balance.

But lots of employees don’t work in offices, and many of them face grim realities as they try to balance the responsibilities of work and home. In work with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we explored this new frontier of workplace flexibility. To find answers, we examined the social norms of jobs where flexibility would seem to be impossible – think forest rangers and psychiatric social workers.

We found that even in these places, some people were making it work – not just for themselves, but secretly for their peers. We dubbed them “stealth managers,” then suggested some ways Sloan might be able to mine their wisdom and bring work-life balance to everybody.

“We realized that the geniuses of flexible workplaces aren’t CEOs, management consultants, or even professors who have spent years studying the issue,” our report read. “Instead, they’re more likely to be front-line managers or shift supervisors.”

Reveal the underbelly

 

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Strengthening democratic governance around the world requires shaking up the social norms of international diplomacy. That was our conclusion from work with the U.S. State Department, which enlisted us to develop a new model for international organizations.

For example, democracy governance is messy. But diplomats, the polished representatives of their various countries, are polite, measured and disinclined to reveal the underbelly of how their countries’ democratic institutions actually work.

Another example: the most mature democracies, like the United States, are always cast as the teachers and the younger democracies – no matter how effective – are always cast as the students. That must change, we concluded in our report: “All participants must be given the opportunity to act as teachers and as learners. Sometimes the United States should report to Estonia.”

The project was part of our portfolio of work critically assessing norms of international relations, which includes our work with the U.S. State Department on the concept of venture democracy and with New America on supporting social stability.

Multinational norms

Multinational corporations are remarkably skilled at building and improving the mechanics of international markets, but are still learning how to untangle those markets’ social norms. GreenHouse – invited by Play Big – worked with global executives from Coca-Cola to dive deep into the shifting norms of juice consumption.

For example, juice is morphing in the minds of consumers from a drink option to an indication of care for one’s family. Using GreenHouse’s innovation methodology, Coca-Cola execs developed preliminary strategies for leveraging and capitalizing on that change.

GreenHouse’s methodology was developed over seven years of innovation projects in the private, public, social and academic sectors, predicated on an original framework, and tested in a variety of corporate settings, including Big Law and the nation’s largest utility.

Open questions

There is a troubling disconnect between social innovation theory and practice. In response, GreenHouse is developing the first-ever casebook for social innovation practitioners – leveraging the pedagogy currently used by universities to train professionals in law, medicine and business. We’re drawing on the best aspects of this tradition but making a crucial change: the problems we’re tackling will not be closed cases, but open questions facing society.

The casebook will be predicated on the social norms approach to social innovation, and will include in-depth exploration of innovation related to 15 social challenges, including mental health, childhood obesity, sexual assault, animal maltreatment, decarceration, foster care, refugees, disaster preparedness, homelessness, social isolation, and access to the legal system.

The casebook will be introduced at the University of Southern California, in the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation.

Slavery norms

Nearly all efforts to stop human trafficking are formal: economic interventions, laws and enforcement, or enlightened corporate policy. But slavery is kept alive by a complex web of social norms.

Untangling those norms and developing strategies to reverse them is our role on an international team convened by Julia Ormond, founder and president of ASSET, and Dr. Annalisa Enrile, of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The team includes advocates, economists, and corporate strategists from around the world.

The team was among hundreds that applied for the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change grant. From the application: “Together, we will develop solutions that use our economic and technological connectedness to expose slavery, raising markets to a new level of transparency. Then we will work to distribute the best tactics and tools for eliminating trafficking throughout global supply chains, creating a market economy to end slavery and ensuring that economic growth never comes at the cost of human freedom.”

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.'”

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