Craft Quality

11 september 2013

Kennislands visiting scholar Sarah Schulman buigt zich over de voor KL zeer relevante vraag: hoe weten we dat wat we doen ook echt waarde toevoegt? In het geval van Kennisland: maken we Nederland echt slimmer door wat we doen? Doen we genoeg goede dingen om het geld dat daaraan besteed wordt te rechtvaardigen? En wat is goed doen eigenlijk en wie bepaalt dat? Vragen, die op zijn tijd zeker gesteld moeten worden.

Klik hier voor links naar alle artikelen van haar hand op de KL-site.

It was 7AM on a Tuesday. 16-year old Thijs was still in bed. His mum had already left for work. His dad wasn’t around. School wasn’t exactly a compelling reason to pull back the covers. No matter how many times his parole officer, his attendance worker, his court-appointed psychologist, and the judge cajoled and compelled. Be it in family group meetings, in 1:1 sessions, over the phone, by text message. “He’s not doing what I and all the other organizations need him to do,” his parole officer explained. “He needs to show up at school. That’s the country we are in. You have to go to school, you have to get your diplomas by a certain age.” Thijs seemed impervious to this formal logic. So the parole officer wanted to deploy more formal power. He wanted to fine the parents. He wanted to make non-compliance more consequential.

This is innovation. Using evidence-based (family-centered) methods. The latest (systems thinking) techniques. And scale-up (implementation science) principles.

Two years ago, a kid like Thijs might have had multiple workers but no coordinated systems response. The parole officer probably would have only worked with Thijs. Not with his whole family. Thijs wouldn’t have seen a copy of the reports his workers wrote (the 8-page single-spaced dossier on his life, his weaknesses, his strengths). His parole officer would have specialized in similar cases, rather than serving as a youth protection generalist. Thijs would have met his parole officer in an office building in his local area. Not in the remodeled centralized building, or at home. And his parole officer wouldn’t have so rigorously tracked Thijs’ progress – after each contact point, rating his return to school on a 0-10 point scale, using a customized backend system.

Is all of this good? Are these quality solutions?

Strange as it sounds: Big systems solutions like these aren’t actually that different from small everyday solutions. Like sharpening a kitchen knife. Fixing a torn dress. Repairing a broken chair.

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance argues, “The nature of our culture is such that if you were to look for instruction in how to do any of these jobs, the instruction would always give only one understanding of Quality, the classic. It would tell you how to hold the blade when sharpening the knife, or how to use a sewing machine, or how to mix and apply glue with the presumption that once these underlying methods were applied, ‘good’ would naturally follow. The ability to see directly what ‘looks good’ would be so ignored (p.275).”

Ignoring what ‘looks good’

When I ask parole officers, like Jo, why changes to Amsterdam’s youth parole system are good, she tells me. “We’re family-centered now. We use the Vanguard process and have less paperwork. We sit in the same room. We’re not as rigid. We are not solving the problem for families. We’re more focussed on the goals.”

Getting to know a parole officer

The presumption is that once these ‘new’ methods and processes are applied, ‘good’ will automatically spring forth. Kids will return to school. They will get jobs. They will stay out of trouble. They will stay within the accepted rules and confines.

When we define what’s good according to a set of codified practices (be it something trendy like design thinking or systems thinking, or something classic like leadership development) you end up in a dichotomous trap. Separating methods from substance. Form from function. And facts from values. Just because a knife has been sharpened, according to best practices, doesn’t make it a good knife. It’s just a knife. Just because a young person gets a diploma, according to accepted or even innovative social practices, doesn’t make it a good outcome. It’s just an outcome.

Were Thijs given the leeway to discard the institutional context of schools and diplomas – and instead find something he cares about, that he feels intrinsic motivation for – he just might be propelled to learn, to intellectually develop, to meaningfully contribute. Surely a good outcome isn’t a piece of paper and a dull job. But a life worth living?

Indeed, what is worthwhile, what is good, what is quality, can’t be reduced to a static set of practices, of methods, of tools, of features. No matter how progressive or creative those things seem to be.

I used to think they could.

Just a year ago, I would have said good quality solutions were bottom-up, co-designed, peer-to-peer, and outcome-focussed. I co-founded an organization with this premise. I helped hire and train-up a team with these principles. And then we developed a solution that was bottom-up, co-designed, peer-to-peer, and outcome-focussed. But this solution wasn’t all that good. It was nice. Even helpful. But it couldn’t (at least at the time) cut to the core of older people and their families’ stress and stuckness. It could’t disentangle the ethical dilemmas that are at the crux of sickness and dying. Despite all the sharpening, the knife remained dull.

InWithFor, that organization I co-founded, will soon dissolve. Helsinki Design Lab has closed its doors. Think Public is on hiatus. For many different reasons. This first generation of ‘social design’ labs are now giving way to a second generation of labs. In Canada. In Singapore. In the Netherlands. In France. Over the past 2 months, I’ve visited these places, heard their visions, seen some of their methods, and had some truly meaty conversations. There is fresh thinking. There is learning from prior failures. There is real ambition, curiosity, hard work – all the right fodder for ignition. But there isn’t yet a language for or an understanding of what is good, of what is quality. Despite the significant cultural differences between countries (in communication styles, in policy intent, in values like freedom and justice), I was most struck by the similarities. By the (inadvertent?) perpetuation of the same-old structures and modes of thinking, cloaked in a discourse of innovation and design thinking.


Jan is a civil servant. Working for a Dutch local authority. He’s young, enthusiastic, full of ideas. Every few months, he and over 200 colleagues across the country participate in one of about 10 do-tanks. Each do-tank works on a specific challenge facing the civil service. Challenges like leadership, knowledge transfer, government-citizen communication. These do-tanks are facilitated by Slimmernetwerk – a partnership between Kennisland, the Kafka Brigade, the Ministry of the Interior, and a couple of research institutes. What’s particularly bold is the scale Slimmernetwerk started with – hundreds of civil servants, across the country, working on multiple issues at the same time. Netwerk members, like Jan, are exposed to a number of user-centered design tools – from probe packs to interviews to personas. They get peer support (not always within their organizations – but at least between). And they draw on the latest public management theory. Jan loves it. But..when I ask him to tell me about what makes for good work, he’s contemplative. “I’m not really sure. I’d say it’s about the experience, encouraging civil servants to think out of the box. Civil servants that are open to it, at least.” I probe a bit further. Out of the box, to do what? “To be innovative, user-centered, not so old fashioned about things,” he says.

The 27th Region, based in Paris, also wants a more innovative and user-centered public service. Like Slimmernetwerk, their theory of change starts with the civil servants themselves. After 5 years experimenting with how to build civil servant capacity – through short, intensive residential programs and longer, immersive projects – they are gearing up for a more systemic approach to shifting civil servant culture. They’ll try and influence the national civil servant curriculum, expose more design students to public sector working, and demonstrate how design can be integrated within typical functional units like evaluation, procurement, and contracting. What’s so refreshing about their work is the true sense of experimentation – of setting up initiatives with testable hypotheses, and trying things out multiple times in multiple contexts. What constitutes a good result from an experiment isn’t always clear, though. Staff talk about good work in terms of civil servants working more collaboratively, more bottom-up, enjoying their work; and citizens feeling more connected and central to the public sector. Again, I probe a bit further. A more collaborative, bottom-up, connected civil service is good because ….? There are no explicit answers, yet.

Civil servants work with designers through the 27th Region’s La Transfo program

A user-centered and innovative civil service seemingly contradicts the original idea of an independent, and yes, bureaucratic civil service. Bureaucracy was designed as an antidote to corruption. The civil service was to be hierarchical, impersonal, and always, reliable. But here’s the important part: the civil service was to be all these things in order to enable fairness. Fair meant giving the same consideration for all. A standardized process. A technical response. Documented step-by-step. No variability. No whim.

User-centered approaches offer a different take on fairness. The same isn’t always what’s fair. And yet, user-centered approaches manage to fall into the same bureaucratic minefield. They too focus on a standardized process, and technical responses. Just a different standardized process. And more modern technical responses. It’s not that standardized processes and technical responses are necessarily problematic, but they aren’t necessarily good. When people are taught to apply a process, without understanding why, for what purposes, for what’s fair or what’s good, they are unable to truly problem-solve. They are trapped inside the box.

For instance, take a functional issue like evaluation. Sure, you can throw out the existing standardized operating procedures. Where evaluation comes at the end of implementation, uses paper surveys and focus groups, and results in a report. You can replace it with new standardized operating procedures. Fancily, called a blueprint. You can draw on more visual and emotive methods. You can use mobile phones. You can build a dashboard, and summarize data in real-time. But unless you shape what evaluation is for, how results are identified and interpreted – in other words, unless you redefine what’s quality – you’re stuck in a dizzying loop. A loop ensconced in the same-old scientific rationality that underpins our existing systems.

As Pirsig points out, using motorcycles and mechanics as his analogy, “The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely the ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality… This is an ability about which formal traditional scientific methods has nothing to say. It’s long past time to take a closer look at this qualitative preselection of facts which has seemed so scrupulously ignored by those who make so much of these facts after they are observed (p.265).”

Searching for craftsmanship

What is quality, then? Pirsig staunchly avoids a precise definition. That would play into the same static, tick-box mentality. He claims we know quality when we see, smell, taste, feel, encounter it. It’s an awareness that is developed over time – as we experience more and more stuff, and grow a more discriminating point of view. People with similar backgrounds and reference points tend to share a common awareness of what’s more or less quality. But people from different cultures, from different disciplines, from different institutions tend to hold different conceptions of quality. Rather than breaking down these different versions of quality into their codifiable parts – the typical analytic approach – Pirsig advocates approaching quality like a craftsman.

Richard Sennett in his terrific book on craftsmanship defines the concept as an “enduring and basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake (p.9).” What keeps craftsmanship going is participation in the workshop, and the guild. And not a workshop in the white-walled, post-it note kind of way. The Medieval workshop where quality of skill was constantly developed by using your hands, visibly comparing your work to others, passing on stories verbally, trying out new techniques, and adopting a never-quite-done mindset. Good work is not a finished end, but an ongoing pursuit towards something. And it’s articulating, and re-articulating, the ‘something’ that keeps the work alive and relevant.

In Toronto at the newly established MaRS Solution Lab and in Singapore at the Lien Centre, their articulated aim is both to spread innovative work processes and innovative work products: to develop and grow social services and welfare programs. So unlike Slimmernetwerk and the 27th Region, they focus on solutions to named social challenges (rather than to organizational challenges) as the way to build civil servant capacity.

User-centered design is the basis of the Solution Lab’s process: defining problems, designing solutions, prototyping with partners, and scaling what emerges. What makes their process deeper than most is the explicit focus on bringing more and more people into the fold (from innovators to early adopters to the early majority) and on shifting the policy discourse along the way. A couple of civil servants are seconded into the core innovation team – and will learn in a hands-on, do-it-yourself kind of way.

The Solution Lab is so new it’s still a bit of a blank canvas. Literally.

Meanwhile, the Lien Centre is still making their process. Together, we’ve been exploring a range of different theories & practices about how to change social realities. From hyper-rational scientific processes (like the evidence2success model) to hyper-emotive processes drawn from psychodynamics. Some sort of blend will (hopefully) emerge.

Both of these labs are trying to meld methods and substance; form and function. That’s what InWithFor tried to do too. And yet what we all seem to be leaving out is the connective tissue. The quality, the craftsmanship, the sensibility to seek out, to understand, to redefine and be re-invented by what is good. And to do this simultaneously between civil servants, policymakers, service delivers, and users. If we were to focus on this connective tissue, I think our language would be pretty different (Specific examples of quality would replace generic words like innovative and user-centered). We’d tell different stories (Less about what we do and more about why). We’d ask different questions (More dialectical, not just rhetorical or empirical). We’d structure work differently (Lots of little interventions to break down quality divides between policy, service deliverers, and users over time). We’d build capability differently (Less on methods and tools and more on interpretations, reference points, and logics). In fact, we might be creating a new kind of guild – that cuts across politicians, professionals and lay people. A guild characterized by strong ethical discourse, by a masters and apprenticeship structure, by embedded routines.

Sennett captures what’s different about teaching and learning in a craftsmanship culture. He presents four different how-to instructions from various chefs. The instructions that show, rather than tell – by using narratives and metaphors – yield the richest experience and results for new cooks. The step-by-step instructions yield the dullest dishes.

I only wish I’d remembered Sennett’s words two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, Kennisland, the Dutch development aid organization Hivos, and the University of Amsterdam hosted a 10-day immersive learning experience for about 20 professionals from across the world. Development workers, civil servants, designers, students. The aim was to introduce them to a ‘user-centered design process’ by diving into 4 real-world social challenges. Like the youth parole system, where I met young people like Thijs and parole officers like Jo.

Now the tendency of these kinds of training programs is to emphasize process; to distribute tools and offer step-by-step directions. We tried to step back from just teaching process. To raise questions about why we were working in this way and to toggle between rolling up our sleeves and enrolling our hearts and minds. It wasn’t easy. I’m not sure we found a language that really expressed quality. Nor did we find a format that moved from the presenter’s rhetoric to an engaging back-and-forth conversation (more a dialectic) to practice and back again.

Facilitating a safari idea generation session

Speed bumps

When you are trying to move towards quality, there are plenty of bumps to throw you off the track. Some of these bumps are external – a change in circumstance, like a loss of funding or a shift in political power. Other bumps are internal – what Pirsig deftly calls hang-ups. Like ego, anxiety, impatience, boredom, value rigidity. I’ve experienced them all. In the last year of InWithFor – whilst working in, with, and for The Australian Centre for Social Innovation – we faced resource scarcity, political uncertainty, leadership instability, and dysfunctional governance. And those were just (some) of the external set-backs.

Internally, as the insecurities began to aggregate, our egos got in the way. Our team veered off the quality track by a defensiveness, a protectiveness, a need to feed our fragile selves. We were impatient to see results. Our anxiety meant many of us – particularly me – were overly invested. We confused the number of hours at work with good work. And then without realizing it, I/we crossed a subtle line. Sennet names the line “obsessional energy.” In moderation, this energy propels the craftsman towards good work. It’s a critical differentiator. But when obsessing about quality “subjects the work itself to relentless generic pressure” it becomes destructive (p.245). Our team splintered. And painfully so.

Of course, what proved most destructive was not openly talking about any of this. Until after the fact. And it was mistaking ego, anxiety, and impatience for value rigidity: the hardest and deepest bump to get over. When you stop looking at a team member’s behaviors in context, and instead ascribe it to their personality, you begin to treat situations as fixed and unchanging. This, I believe, ultimately undid the partnership that was the basis of InWithFor. Quality was seen as a harmful trait, rather than as a dynamic reality requiring recalibration.

It’s not hard to get derailed from the quality track. And end up on a dizzying loop that starts and ends at the same place: be it efficiency, innovation, user-centeredness, co-design, co-delivery, whatever is the trend du jour. Rather than ignore or be caught off guard by the bumps, we can expect them. We can develop tactics for them. We can try and craft teams and organizations that are reflexive, and are confident enough both to withstand creative tension and call out excessive obsession. In craftwork, Sennett tells us, it’s best if “some issues are left unresolved (p.263).” In my experience, there are very, very few organizations in the ‘social innovation’ space that manage to do this. That can keep a healthy dose of dissent and tension palpably alive – as fodder for new and different stuff. One of these organizations is Kennisland. And it’s a big reason why I’m now based in Amsterdam: to experience it, and tap into it.

Carrying forward

So I’m opting for more robust and divergent feedback loops, over dizzying ones. Pirsig wisely counsels, “If you want to build a factory, or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then…you have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good. This is what carries you forward. This sense isn’t just something you are born with, although you are born with it. It’s also something you can develop. It’s not just intuition, not some unexplainable skill or talent. It’s the direct result of contact with basic reality, with Quality…(p.268).”

Lately I’ve been asking myself: how do we give our policymakers, teachers, social workers, addiction counselors, mums, dads, young people, aunties, uncles, neighbors, designers, sociologists, community organizers, business analysts, etc. more contact with basic reality, with quality? How do we develop a plain language around quality? And how do we facilitate super practical projects where the focus is on the transition to quality work – rather than on a particular set of methods or on a single solution?

Luckily, these aren’t questions I’m asking alone. But with a growing group of fellow craftsman – from a businessman turned writer (Dan Mohr) to service designers (Jonas Piet, Muryani Kasdani) to visual communicators (Yulia Kryazheva) to an ancient Greek philosopher.

Soon, we’ll launch in with forward. The core of in with forward will be stories. Stories of mums, dads, aunties, uncles, addiction counselors, social workers, policymakers. etc from around the world. Stories designed to give people much more contact with reality, and to give rise to some big and some little questions about what’s good and what’s worthwhile. Through these stories, we hope to start building a language of and a sensibility for quality. Not through lecture or persuasion. But through exposure.

We’ll also start testing out some different project structures and team set-ups. Our hunch is that we need to work simultaneously with users, systems, and on the craft itself. So we’ll experiment with 3 convergent work teams, in a kind of guild environment. Imagine crafting interventions to shift what 16-year old Thijs sees as good, what his parents see as good, what his parole officer, attendance worker, judge, and the local politician sees as good, and what the designers and social scientists see as good. Through new kinds of conversations, immersion in alternative realities, and apprenticeships.

Our thinking and our plans are still very much emerging. No doubt as we carry forward, we’ll also take a few steps backwards. We expect to. And this time, we hope to be a (bit) more ready. Let’s hope a few others are ready too.

Sarah Schulman

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This text has a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) and has been copied from the Kennisland website. For a full version with images, streamers and notes go to