Tamara Christensen: Unlocking Social Impact with the Power of Creativity

Q&A with Tamara Christensen, Design Thinking Expert

By Sala Patterson and Pauline Zalkin


The Social Innovation Summit convenes leading thinkers and doers in the social impact space. Their last convening took place on November 18th and 19th in Silicon Valley, California. We stopped Tamara Christensen at a recent event to ask her how she helps brands, businesses and nonprofits get creative and solve problems outside the box – an idea central to the Social Innovation Summit series. Here’s what she told us:


What do you do?

We help organizations solve gnarly problems and bring out the best in their people by designing creative, collaborative immersion workshops and programs.


What were you invited to present at the Social Innovation Summit?

We delivered a Design Thinking workshop during the pre-conference that gave attendees an opportunity to experience empathy from two perspectives (both designer and user) through a hands-on “deep dive” session.


What exactly do we mean when we talk about innovation in the social sector?

For me, innovation in the social sector is about appropriately integrating approaches that have been successful for the corporate sector to efforts aimed at social good. This does not require big budgets, it merely requires the willingness to listen, keep humans at the center of problem solving, and iteratively experiment towards an optimal solution that benefits the most stakeholders.


What is design thinking and how does it apply to innovation within the social sector?

Some people think of Design Thinking as a process or a method that should be followed like a recipe. I prefer to think about it as a mindset; hence the term “thinking”. The key elements of this mindset include empathy (a desire to discover how others experience something and mirroring that with vulnerability), framing problems and opportunities from a human-centered perspective, and iterative rounds of solution making (i.e. continual progress towards an optimal outcome through prototyping).


An excellent example is The Citizen Action Lab run by Ben Weinlick, who attended a workshop we gave a few years ago. He integrates a Design Thinking mindset and tools into his efforts to improve the lives of people with disabilities through his work with Skills Society in Edmonton. http://skillssociety.ca/projects/citizen-action-lab/


What are your favourite icebreakers to get people talking with each other?

I love having people share their name and favorite scent; it makes people happy and reminds us that we are all sensing, human beings. And it actually makes the room smell better. Sometimes we share (and use) childhood nicknames. It fosters honesty and vulnerability and a little storytelling; plus it connects us to our inner child (mine is named Tam Tam).


What tends to hamper innovation within social sector organisations?

Across all sectors I find that organizations that want to be “innovative” are often focused on outcomes and are unclear about the actual process and/or experience. This uncertainty breeds fear and apprehension because it is unfamiliar and cannot be easily evaluated and predicted according to more traditional metrics. The way to navigate ambiguity is to recognize from the beginning that it will feel different than business-as-usual and to plan ahead about how to monitor progress and assess impact on the people, culture, etc.


Give us an example of a time when you saw something that was hampering innovation within an organisation and, once unlocked, that led to important breakthroughs or gains.

We recently developed an innovation catalyst program for a public utility that aimed to engage young leaders in the development of organizational strategy. The experience was fraught with tension because, for the first time ever, these junior employees were given permission to talk about things that often went unsaid for fear of repercussions. Once these catalysts witnessed how eager senior leadership was to see their work and hear their point of view, they soared. I think it was a transformational experience for people at all levels of the organization. The key was the willingness to genuinely listen to each other.


How do you think participants at the Social Innovation Summit are innovating in their work?

I saw so many great examples at the summit. The Design Thinking mindset is all about being human-centered and acting through empathy. From large corporations to smaller service providers, there were so many examples of people helping people to become better people. It was inspiring! Most impressive to me was the open display of courage and genuine desire to improve the human experience.   


Learn more about Tamara’s work at ideafarmco-op.com


Learn more about the Social Innovation Summit here and follow the conversation on twitter with #SIS15

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