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.

Meet them where they live


Mobile clinics could play a transformative role in the health care system — and not just as roving emissaries for hospitals.

That was the conclusion we reached in our work with Harvard Medical School and its own mobile clinic, Family Van. We concluded that the real value of mobile clinics is the way they literally meet patients where they live, upending the social norms of medicine. This helps mobile clinics improve patients’ adherence to treatment and sense of agency in their own care – precious knowledge in a shifting health care system.

“Imagine that we could assign a very attentive graduate student to every mobile clinic” Andrew Benedict-Nelson said in a GOOD Magazine article about our work. “With enough data from a variety of settings, researchers could hypothetically identify the crucial ways in which these health workers help patients feel safe, empowered, and open to medical advice.”

The insights – also captured in an article in Harvard Medical School News – informed our work in the social determinants of health, including development of the graduate nursing program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Bringing art to heal

At first glance, it appears as if the social norms of the military and the arts are incompatible. That perception is so pervasive, in fact, that it threatens art therapy programs at military hospitals.

That was the challenge we were asked to address at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where an art therapy program was showing very good early results. We worked with medical staff, military leadership and arts professionals to look for some way to reconcile values of the two fields.

Surprisingly, it turned out we didn’t need to. By digging into the military budget and the realities of the military experience, we discovered that the arts are already a critical element of what the Pentagon does. At the time, the budget for military bands alone was bigger than the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency that supports arts institutions and arts programs in all 50 states.

The key was simply the arts speaking the military’s language. “Walter Reed’s leaders could evaluate all of their arts programs using the same metrics the Pentagon uses to assess its own efforts to reintegrate soldiers into civilian life,” our report read. “This data could not only bolster the role of art at Walter Reed, but serve as the basis for new military arts programs.”

We were enlisted in this effort by Mike Orlove, director at the National Endowment for the Arts. It is one of several projects of our projects related to the social norms of health care, including our work with Harvard on mobile health, our work with a start up on the role of patients, and our publication on the social determinants of health and professional education.

Persistent desire to do good

There has been an explosion in programs to support social entrepreneurship. From business schools to design academies to digital collectives, everyone is trying to equip a new generation with the tools and competencies they need to “start something.”

But how do these prospective entrepreneurs know what’s really worth starting?

That was at the center of our project with Echoing Green, a pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship. We concluded that while startup skills are nice, social entrepreneurs really need a way to discern a clear calling or to develop a coherent theory of change – long before they apply for 501(c)3 or B Corp status.

“Early proponents of the idea of social entrepreneurialism noticed the similarities between the way these folks pursue their dreams and the spirit that animates young companies,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson said in a GOOD Magazine piece about the project. “As a result, nonprofits and universities launched programs that seek to equip young people with similar skills.

“But without a persistent desire to do good, a social entrepreneur is little more than a glorified grant writer. There are plenty of people with strong callings who will never found a nonprofit, but instead realize their desire to do good in some other arena. We need to maximize the number of individuals actively pursuing their callings to do good, no matter what form their careers might take.”

This was a foundation of our work at USC, where we helped launch the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation.

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.”

The fourth R

Ashoka, the organization famous for empowering changemakers throughout the world, sought to infuse empathy into the next generation of schoolchildren. But they found schools to be wary and teachers to be resistant.

We discovered that the key was uncoupling empathy from the curriculum and coupling it instead with what teachers do naturally: tracking and encouraging relationships among children. As one of our collaborators, Nina Rappaport, said: “We just need a fourth R. Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and relationships.”

This critical piece of context informed the Start Empathy toolkit Ashoka released the following year.

“Cultivating empathy and building up change-making skills in children and the adults modeling their behavior isn’t the result of a single exercise,” Ashoka’s Lennon Flowers told us about the toolkit. “We do have an extraordinary of concrete exercises that help you start today. But in the end, it’s not about that. It’s about being intentional in every conversation you have with every child, as well as your peers and administrators.”

The insights we developed with Ashoka greatly informed our later work on mindfulness education with the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education. We also took up the theme of scaling social impact with Ashoka the following year.

The patient protagonist

For decades, the ultimate authority in health care has been doctors or insurance companies. But research we did with a group of health entrepreneurs suggested that many of the most exciting potential developments in the future of medicine will be unlocked only when patients lead the way.

“For much of history, this was impossible because patients were – almost by definition – isolated, broken, and weak,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson wrote in our report. “But changes in the landscape of patienthood – most importantly patients’ newfound ability to act collectively – could make them the driving force behind improvements in health care in the 21st century.”

Evolving far beyond their current role as informed consumers, patients could advocate for systemic change and drive their own independent research agendas – provided the social norms of the health care system can keep up.

We’ve explored health care’s changing norms in several other projects including the launch of a nursing department at USC and our original publication Health Plus Social.

Start here

Today, more people than ever before want to be social innovators. More than mere do-gooders, aspiring social innovators have the ambition to develop new solutions to problems that have bedeviled human beings for generations or millennia.

They’ve got the right attitude, but where should they start? With our friends from New York design consultancy Foossa, we’ve developed the answer.

In our Start Social Innovation workshop, we’ve blended the best of design thinking with our original social innovation methodology, Innovation Dynamics, to help everyone find their own best way to change the world. Whether the goal is to reinvent an old institution or develop the next great political movement, we provide the tools to target social norms that must  be transformed and help participants get to work right away.

“Innovation is what these dynamics encourage,” wrote one evangelist of our methods, “but my experience with using them in various settings has also been a practice in the construction of hope, the understanding of justice, and clearer pathways to impact. ‘Innovation’ has become a catch phrase that everyone is using but few people understand. If you are genuine in your desire to innovate, this is step one.”

Our collaboration with Foossa will also lead to a kit anyone can use to initiate social innovation with their own team.