"The only way to get radical innovation is to break down the system," says Anna Kirah.

Go bake a Cake for your Neighbor


27/04/2014 11:38

Freja Eriksen

Bundlinjer nedbryder os og vores samfund, mener den internationalt anerkendte designantropolog Anna Kirah. Hun tror inderligt på mennesker og menneske-centreret innovation. DenOffentlige har eksklusivt mødt den norske antropolog og innovationsekspert Anna Kirah, der er gået til kamp mod systemer, der dræber organisationer, arbejdsglæde og fantasien til at se de svar, hun mener, ligger lige foran os.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” What different "bottom lines” should we be counting on, if we should be counting on them at all, today?

My issue, and I can't say it enough, I will spend the rest of my life and my career working on this, is that the numbers that provide the results for bottom line, are useless. They are not really reflecting the needs of everyday people in their everyday lives. There is no proof that these models work, but they make us feel safe. When you cannot control the world around you, you try to control what you can. What they have done is created environments where we cut, cut, cut. When we keep cutting budgets, and forcing people to do more and more in less and less time, we are creating machines. And human beings are not machines. We are to produce, produce, produce, instead of using brains for what they are. For analyzing and reflecting. And in the case of innovation, in creating new solutions, there is one thing I know: We need to have time to reflect in order to be able to come up with the best ideas.

Every company has heroes. Potential heroes and antiheroes. The heroes are people who go beyond their framework to solve the problem. Potential heroes see the problem, see how to solve it, but do not dare. The antiheroes are the ones who ruin it for the other employees and for the customers. For the citizens of the country. They stick to the piece of paper and the framework they are given when the obvious answer is right in front of them: To bend the rules. I see that over and over in our “forvaltnings” cultures in Denmark and Norway. But I think Denmark has come much further than Norway in this because of your user driven innovation push.

Why is co-creation and the people-centric approach crucial to you and the world right at this moment?

I truly believe the answer relies within organizations. Not in hiring in mega consultants like McKinsey, which is the typical answer. Why do these guys hire in McKinsey? Because they went to school with them. The McKinsey guys network, they use their old boys club that they had from the beginning of time. I’ll give you another quote from Albert Einstein, which is just as relevant: Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them. But that is what we do, because it is far easier to deal with people who will support your way of thinking than to deal with someone who does not support you way of thinking, and tells you, “you're killing the organization”.

When I look at society, there are days when I become so demotivated with my own beliefs. Because I really, truly believe in people, and I see that you have to fight so hard to get this system to break down. And the only way to get radical innovation is to break down the system.

SKAT in Denmark is actually working really hard at this. It is something there is a lot to be said about, because they were willing. They stopped and realized. We have a tendency in the public sector to build rules around the people, maybe the five or ten percent, who want to abuse the system. Instead of the 80-90 % who are not trying to abuse the system. But you need to believe that humanity is in place. Yes, there are bad people. Yes, there are people who are going to abuse the system. They will always be there. But the most important thing is to make sure that those 80 % have a smooth experience. And we do the opposite. We make it difficult for everybody. We need to be humble enough to realize that we have the answers within our organizations, and we have to let go of this idea of control.

My work is really quite common sense. I can give you an example from Microsoft that never ceases to amaze me. Microsoft had built a product and they had thousands of people filling out questionnaires, written from the perspective of Microsoft. But numbers only tell you "what". They never explain why people are doing what they are doing. And we base all of our decision making on that. Everyone was saying they wanted this product. I tested it on three people in their homes - and they hated it! I went back and said, “Don't build this product. Don't do it. This is going to be a disaster, I promise you.” “Where are your numbers?,” they asked. It turned out I was right. They launched it, and it was one of our major failures in the company. One human task would have told them. The same thing happens with organizations today. We think we are the experts, and so, we do not involve the people.

In welfare societies like Denmark and Norway, what are some of the obstacles facing innovative thinking? Do you think the safety in our societies nurtures a kind of laziness?

Yes. You become lazy, or passive. I think passive is the better word, and you do not act. But I do not think the real problem is the welfare state. It is that we have created a world, where men and women have to work full time. What is happening to the kids? Where is community? We need to start teaching humanity, and I think it starts in the education system. It starts in schools, in organizations. We need to be teaching humanity, love, caring. Why? Because society is fragmented. Your place of work is becoming your church. Who do you listen to? The managing director, right? He has his little gang of shamans working for him, and they go into the little secret meeting rooms, and come back and tell the word of the Lord. The problem is that we have nothing else than our workplace. We have created people who are so afraid of being human that they use the language and context and behaviours of technology. Perhaps we have become so technology-focused that we have forgotten the organic human being. Maybe it is time to go back to that antiquated mode of looking at human nature and human behavior.

I am idealist, I always will be. I believe in the people-centric approach, and I come to do these talks because if I can just help one person, I have done something. But, if I can be honest, it is not every day that I can stand up and feel, that I can keep on fighting. It is hard when you see the solutions being made, knowing that they did not involve the people. It is so obvious! The best way to change would be for the people, the citizens to just stand up for themselves. Come back and say, “This is not the solution that we want. We want to be involved.” Then you have it. But as long as we stay passive in this process, it is going to be real hard.

In Denmark as well as Norway, I am really opposed to the debate, where people keep saying that we have a shortage of engineers and that "this is so terrible". I just keep screaming: “No, you need to work with social scientists. You need to work with humanities.” I am not saying one is better, I am saying that they have to work together. In an ideal world, I would like to see in IBM, in Microsoft, in public sector jobs, 50 % of each working together. Learning together and fighting these battles out in the real sector.

When you bring those people who normally are in silos together, they suddenly see each other in completely different ways. That works. I really believe in the people-centric approach because the best ideas come from that. It just works! It is not rocket science. It is not difficult, and it can be done without one penny taken or lost from the system. So, why don't you try it, before you turn it down? You are not risking anything in the attempt. The solution is the risk.

Do you see a willingness to take risks and involve the people slowly surfacing? Or not at all?

No. I see that there is a push for it, but I do not see it happening. I am an anthropologist and I actually think it is getting worse. As I get older, I think that this is going to be a tension in society forever. It is nothing that can be solved. But we have to strive against it. That is a very important point. It is a constant battle between these forces of feeling safe and being willing to open and allow change to happen.

I would love to end this interview with one thing. Right after the 22nd of July (Utøya massacre 2011, red.), I sat at an innovation conference listening to all these experts come in and say, “I do this”, and “I do that”. They were so into their very egos and it just upset me so much. That is not what the people-centric approach is about. It is not a way to power. So in my head I kept thinking what Jens Stoltenberg, our Prime Minister, was saying at the time. The whole time during this crisis, he said one thing: Don't do it on your own. Go bake a cake for your neighbor. If I could give one action item to your readers, it would be, 'Go bake a cake for your neighbor'.

Watch Anna Kirah talk on TEDx

About Kirah: Anna Kirah is the Chief Experience Officer in Making Waves, a Member of the Board of Design without Border, and an Associate in LinKS

Anna Kirah was in Copenhagen where she spoke at Innovation Day 2014 organised by KMD on the 10th of April.  



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