There is this inspirational quote that says “be like a duck. Calm on the surface but paddling like the dickens underneath”. I don’t know who first said this – but clearly they didn’t spend much time paddling. It’s tiring. And boring. And it doesn’t matter how calm you look if you’re just paddling in circles.
Projects that focus too tightly on their activities are duck projects. There is a lot of busy paddling happening, but the outcomes and the vision often get forgotten about in the busyness of doing. Very little learning or reflection happens; these too are lost in the busyness of having to keep yourself above water.
It’s very easy to fall into duck mode when you’re trying to create innovative social change. A far more effective model is the one used by the surfing Gentoo penguins. These surfing birds keep their eye on the horizon so they can see the swell and anticipate the wave set. They look to the shore to know how far they can ride the wave before hitting the sand or the reef below. And then when a wave comes that looks promising, then and only then, do they paddle like heck.
These penguins use what we like to call a tight-loose-tight approach. A ‘tight loose tight’ project is one where there is a tight focus on the project vision, a loose focus on the way the goals might be achieved (the activities), and a tight focus on outcomes. This approach is visualised below:
Surfing - more fun than paddling
This approach uses a learning culture in which insights and feedback are discussed and there is an openness to adjusting the prototype, trying new ways of working and failing fast. Innovation is held lightly and these important questions are asked constantly:
Check: In what ways have the activities we have undertaken helped us towards achieving our vision? What differences have we made? And for whom? How do we know?
Reflect: What’s working? What looks promising? What’s not working?
Adapt: To achieve our outcomes, what do we need to do more of? Less of? Differently?
Activities that aren’t working towards the vision or to support intended outcomes are therefore changed, adapted or let go entirely as there is no point spending time and energy on paddling just for the sake of paddling. Take a bit of time to think about your social innovation project and activities. Are you paddling crazily like a duck, or surfing like a penguin? If you find yourself quacking under the pressure, it might be time to think about doing things a bit differently.