By Shelley Zuckerman, Executive Director, North York Community House
In early October, I attended Tamarack’s Collective Impact Summit, thanks to the support of Maytree. It was an intensive week of learning, thinking and dialogue. Close to 300 people attended from all parts of Canada and many regions of the United States, and from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, Denmark and Israel. I Iearned about a number of interesting collective impact initiatives, ranging from increasing early childhood readiness to reducing poverty to preventing childhood obesity.
I was especially interested in trying to figure out if and how collective impact practices can be used in our community development work in neighbourhoods. I was also thinking about some of the collaborative projects that I’m currently involved in and wondering whether we could have more impact if we adopted a collective impact framework. It seemed like a promising way of addressing complex social problems, but I had a number of questions.
During the week I gained a much greater understanding of collective impact, which is defined as a collaboration with diverse stakeholders that is intended to have large scale community-wide impact. There are five conditions of collective impact that distinguish it from other types of collaboration. They are:
- Common agenda with a common understanding of the problem and joint approach to solving it.
- Shared measurement where data is collected and results are measured consistently among all participants.
- Mutually reinforcing activities that are differentiated but coordinated.
- Continuous and consistent communication across the many players.
- A separate organization to provide backbone support for the entire initiative.
As it’s impossible to capture everything I learnt in this blog post, I will share a few ideas and “ah ha” moments that resonated for me.
One concept that I found useful is what one of the keynote speakers, John Kania, referred to as mindset shifts. Kania argued that for successful collective impact, three mindset shifts are needed.
Mindset Shift One: Who is involved?
This shift is to ensure that an initiative “gets all the right eyes on the problem” and they bring “new vision.” It is clear that we in community services do not have the capacity ourselves, no matter how well we’re funded, to resolve complex social issues on our own. We need to involve a range of stakeholders including government, corporate and philanthropic sectors and those with lived experience. As Kania stated, “If you want to change the system, you have to get the system in the room.”
Mindset Shift Two: How people work together
Kania reminded us that this was adaptive work, not technical work. Complex problems are unpredictable and constantly changing and no single person or organization has control. Solutions that emerge are not known in advance.
Mindset Shift Three: How progress happens
Those involved in collective impact must think system strategy, not program strategy. It’s not about rolling out a new program, it’s about focusing on strategies to change systems. The change needed is transformational, and Kania argued that there is very little systems thinking occurring today.
As an organizational leader, I was particularly interested in learning more about the type of leadership required for organizations participating and leading collective impact initiatives. Dr. Brenda Zimmerman provided an interesting perspective at the summit. I was first introduced to Brenda’s work in complexity more than ten years ago when I participated in the York University Maytree Management Certificate program. Her work has had a big impact on how I lead.
Brenda’s keynote had several “ah ha” moments that I’m still thinking about. She told us that leaders need to embrace “unknowability” and quoted Eric Bonobeau, a researcher in swarm intelligence: Often “Managers would rather live with a problem they can’t solve than with a solution they can’t fully understand or control.”
Brenda also advised us that in complex situations a leader should be engaging participants (or staff) in collective ownership, not passive “buy-in.” Often it is the leader who has developed the idea, made the decision, designed an action plan and then asks and needs the staff or citizens to implement it. That’s buy-in. Ownership on the other hand is “when front line staff/citizens develop the idea, make the decisions, design the action plan and act on it.” When I heard this, I began to wonder about the times when I confused buy-in with ownership.
Brenda talked about best practices stifling innovation. She explained that because complex problems do not have known solutions, best practices from past experience have very limited value. When best practices are applied, they stifle creative processes and we stop looking for new or different solutions because we think we have the solution.
Some of my initial questions were answered at the summit. I saw that we could increase the impact of some current collaborations if we utilized one or more of the collective impact conditions and/or mindsets. Some of our community development efforts could be more successful if we paid more attention to ownership as Brenda defined it. The summit also raised some new questions for me, such as how social innovation and collective impact can be combined and how we can involve the corporate sector more in our initiatives, besides just asking for funding. The list goes on.
For me, what became very clear is that whatever framework we adapt or adopt, we a need to find ways to work together to address our complex social problems.
Brenda Zimmerman ended her presentation with the following quote from Dee Hock:
“Time is too short and things are too bad for pessimism.”