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  Social Innovation: Thinking about Changing the System
Jay J. Caughron, Amanda S. Shipman, Cheryl K. Beeler, and Michael D. Mumford

Influence by the Numbers
Web of Science Top 10
Quotable Mumford
Mumford Propositions
Selected Bibliography


Complex social systems are increasingly faced with dynamic, emergent changes in the environments in which they exist. Some social systems appear to implement changes that allow them to adapt to their environment while others seem to struggle. There is reason to suspect that the application of mental models by multiple individuals across a given social system may influence the detection of change events as well as the nature of a social system’s response (or lack thereof) to changing conditions. It is argued that the analysis of causal variables, the availability of relevant case-based knowledge, and the motivation to pursue social change will influence an individual’s ability to design and promote a social change effort as well as others’ responses to it. Implications for complex social systems, such as organizations, are discussed.

Summary of 22 Social Innovation Propositions

Proposition one: Individuals who have attained goals by routinely applying a dominant mental model will persist in applying that model even when evidence calling its relevance into question is present.

Proposition two: The rote application of a dominant mental model will inhibit the detection of indicators that suggest the application of a new mental model is warranted given emergent environmental circumstances.

Proposition three: Individuals who construct and apply unique mental models are more likely than dominant mental model users to detect indicators of change when those indicators violate the assumptions of the dominant mental model.

Proposition four: Individuals who apply mental models that provide a framework for scanning and monitoring activities that draw attention to change indicators relevant in the situation at hand will be more likely to recognize emergent change events.

Proposition five: Individuals who function within the system without applying a dominant mental model will be more objective in their evaluation of that model in light of emergent phenomena.

Proposition six: Active cognitive analysis will be required to make sense of dynamic changes in a complex social system.

Proposition seven: Sensemaking within a complex social system facing dynamic change will be facilitated to the extent that those engaging in sensemaking possess requisite levels of intelligence and cognitive complexity.

Proposition eight: Individuals will need to devote high levels of cognitive resources to the sensemaking process in complex, dynamic social environments.

Proposition nine: Expertise bearing on the technical domain, social structure at hand, and social change processes in general will facilitate the sensemaking process.

Proposition ten: More individuals within a given social system will recognize a need for social change given that the changes within the social system in question are congruent with broader social changes in the environment.

Proposition eleven: Individuals constructing a mental model to account for emergent social changes in their environment will use case-based knowledge through self-reflection and input from others.

Proposition twelve: The quality of an individual’s descriptive mental model with regard to social change will be contingent upon the relevance and applicability of cases applied when constructing the model.

Proposition thirteen: Failure to identify key causal elements during prescriptive mental model formation will undermine the development of a viable intervention.

Proposition fourteen: Feedback from others within the system will enhance the quality and thus viability of interventions flowing from a prescriptive mental model.

Proposition fifteen: Failure to balance goal attainment or multiple stakeholder groups, the building of adequate support, and minimization of disruption resulting from an intervention will undermine the successful implementation of social change interventions.

Proposition sixteen: Forecasting the outcomes of a social innovation effort will be more accurate to the extent that the innovator has access to key information regarding likely affective responses, goals, motivations, contingencies, and limitations influencing the system.

Proposition seventeen: The accuracy of forecasting the outcomes of a social innovation effort will promote the consultation of stakeholder groups and the development of high quality plans.

Proposition eighteen: The use of experimental small-scale change efforts will facilitate the revision of prescriptive mental models and the prototype plans.

Proposition nineteen: The use of experimental small-scale change efforts will facilitate the development of effective social influence attempts.

Proposition twenty: Social innovations unfold on relatively protracted time frames.

Proposition twenty-one: Effective wide-scale implementation of a social innovation effort will depend upon adjustments made during and after experimental small-scale implementation efforts.

Proposition twenty-two: Wide-scale implementation of a social innovation effort will require on-line monitoring and adjustments to allow for variability at the local level.

Caughron, J. J., Shipman, A. S., Beeler, C. K., Mumford, M. D. (2009). Social innovation: Thinking about changing the system. The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving, 19(1), 7-32.