Tag: collective impact

social innovationsocial systemssystems thinking

Lost together

Lost and found

A post certainty world

Doing new things to create social value means going into the great unknown, yet our fear of being lost need not prevent us from innovating, wisely and sustainably. Instead of being lost alone, we can be lost together. 

I’ve heard it all so many times before

It’s all a dream to me now
A dream to me now
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together

– Blue Rodeo (Lost Together)

Humans have real problems with uncertainty. Risk mitigation is an enormous field of work within business, government and politics and permeates decision making in our organizations. It’s partly this reason that our politicians too often speak so cryptically to the point of basically uttering nonsense – because they want to avoid the risk of saying something that will hurt them. The alternative perhaps is to spout so much untruth that it no longer matters what you say, because others will create messages about you.

Thankfully, we are still — and hopefully into the future — in a world where most of what organizations do is considered and evaluated with some care to the truth. ‘Truth’ or facts are much easier to deal with in those systems where we can generate the kind of evidence that enable us to make clear decisions based on replicable, verifiable and defensible research. Ordered systems where there is a cause-and-effect relationship that is (usually) clear, consistent and observable are those where we can design interventions to mitigate risk with confidence.

Risky options

There are four approaches to risk mitigation.

  1. Risk Acceptance involves awareness of what risks are present within the system and establishing strategy and an organizational culture where the nature, type and potential consequences of risks are (largely) known, accepted and lived with.
  2. Risk Avoidance takes the opposite approach and seeks to steer operations away from activities where risk is limited.
  3. Risk Limitation seeks to curtail and mitigate the effects of risk where possible and often involves contingency planning and balancing activities with higher levels of uncertainty with areas of greater confidence and certainty.
  4. Risk Transference involves finding ways to offload risk to a third party. An example can be found in many partnerships between organizations of different sizes or types where one is able to absorb certain risks while others cannot for various reasons and the activities allow for one partner to take lead on an activity that isn’t feasible for another to do so.

Within social innovation — those activities involving public engagement, new thinking and social benefit — there are few opportunities for #2, plenty for #1 and #3 and a growing number for #4.

Risk is a core part of innovation. To innovate requires risking time, energy, focus and other resources toward the attempt at something new to produce a valued alternative to the status quo. For many human service organizations and funders, these resources are so thinly spread and small in abundance that the idea of considering risk seems like a risk itself. Yet, the real problem comes in assuming that one can choose whether or not to engage risk. Unless you’re operating in a closed system that has relatively few changing elements to it, you’re exposed to risk by virtue of being in the system. To draw on one of my favourite quotes from the author Guiseppe di Lampedusa:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

So even keeping things away from risk involves risk because if the world around you is changing the system changes with it and so, too does your position in it. If this makes you feel lost, you’re not alone. Many organizations (individuals, too) are struggling with figuring out where they fit in the world. If you want evidence of this consider the growing calls for skilled knowledge workers at the same time we are seeing a crisis among those with a PhD — those with the most knowledge (of certain sorts) — in the job market.

Community of flashlights

There is a parable of the drunkard who loses his keys on his way home at night and searches for them under the streetlight not because that’s where he lost them, but because it’s easier to see that spurred something called the Streetlight Effect. It’s about the tendency to draw on what we know and what we have at our disposal to frame problems and seek to solve them, even if they are the wrong tools — a form of observation bias in psychology. Streetlights are anchored, stable means of illuminating a street within a certain range – a risk zone, perhaps — but remain incomplete solutions.

Flashlights on the other hands have the same limitations (a beam of light), are less powerful, but are adaptive. You can port a flashlight or torch and aim it to where you want the light to shine. They are not as powerful as a streetlight in terms of luminosity, but are far more nimble. However, if you bring more than one flashlight together, all of a sudden the power of the light is extended. This is the principle behind many of the commercial LED systems that are in use. Small numbers of lights brought together, each using low energy, but collectively providing a powerful, adaptive lighting system

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This same principle can apply to organizations seeking to make change. Like an LED flashlight, they need a housing to hold and focus the lights. This can be in the form of a backbone organization such as those advocated in collective impact strategies. It can also be a set of principles or simple rules that provide a set of guides for organizations operating independently to follow, which will stimulate a consistent pattern of activity when applied, allowing similar, focused action on the same target at a distance.

This latter approach differs from collective impact, which is a top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously and is a good means of focusing on larger, macro issues such as poverty reduction, climate change and city-building. It is an approach that holds potential for working within these larger issues on smaller, more dynamic ones such as neighbourhood building, conservation actions within a specific region, and workplace health promotion. In both cases the light analogy can hold and they need not be done exclusive of one another.

Let there be light

A flashlight initiative requires a lot of things coming together. It can be led by individuals making connections between others, brokering relationships and building community. It requires a vision that others can buy into and an understanding of the system (it’s level of complexity, structure and history). This understanding is what serves as the foundation for the determination of the ‘rules’ of the system, those touch points, attractors, leverage points and areas of push and pull that engage energy within a system (stay tuned to a future post for more detailed examples).

Much of the open-source movement is based on this model. This is about creating that housing for ideas to build and form freely, but with constraints. It’s a model that can work when collective impact is at a scale too large for an organization (or individual) to adequately envision contribution, but an alternative to going alone or relying only on the streetlight to find your way.

You might be lost, but with a flashlight you’ll be lost together and may just find your way.

Image credits: Author (Cameron Norman)

complexitydesign thinkingpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

Collective action, impact, intelligence & stupidity

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Collective impact is based largely on the concept that we can do more together than apart, which holds true under the assumption that we can coordinate, organize and execute as a unit. This assumption doesn’t always hold true and the implications for getting it wrong require serious attention. 

Anyone interested in social change knows that they can’t do it alone. Society, after all, is a collective endeavour — even if Margaret Thatcher suggested it didn’t exist.  Thatcherites aside, that is about where agreement ends. Social change is complex, fraught with disagreements, and challenging for even the most skilled organizer because of the multitude of perspectives and disparate spread of individuals, groups and organizations across the system.

Social media (and the Internet more widely) was seen as means of bridging these gaps, bringing people together and enabling them to organize and make social change. Wael Ghonim, one of the inspirational forces behind Egypt’s Arab Spring movement, believed this to be true, saying:

If you want to liberate society all you need is the Internet

But as he acknowledges now, he was wrong.

Ghonim’s beliefs were not illogical as he discusses in the Ted talk above. He espoused a belief about collective action that echoes what leadership consultant and author Ken Blanchard proclaims:

None of us is as smart as all of us

Blanchard’s quote is meant to illustrate the power of teams and working together; something that we can easily take for granted when we seek to do collective action. Yet, what’s often not discussed are the challenges that our new tools present for true systems change.

Complex (social) systems thrive on diversity, the interaction between ideas and the eventual coordination and synchrony between actions into energy. That requires some agreement, strategy and leadership before the change state becomes the new stable state (the changed state). Change comes from a coalescing of perspectives into some form of agreement that can be transformed into a design and then executed. It’s messy, unpredictable, imprecise, can take time and energy, but that is how social change happens. 

At least, that’s how it has happened. How it’s happening now is less clear thanks to social media and it’s near ubiquitous role in social movements worldwide.

Complicating complexity

The same principles underpinning complex social systems hasn’t changed, but what we’re seeing is that the psychology of change and the communications that takes place within those systems is. When one reviews or listens to the stories told about social change movements from history, what we see over and again is the power of stories.

Stories take time to tell them, are open to questions, and can get more powerful in their telling and retelling. They engage us and, because they take time, grant us time to reflect on their meaning and significant. It’s a reason why we see plays, read novels, watch full-length films, and spend time with friends out for coffee…although this all might be happening less and less.

Social media puts pressure on that attention, which is part of the change process. Social media’s short-burst communication styles — particularly with Tweets, Snapchat pictures, Instragram shots and Facebook posts — make it immensely portable and consumable, yet also highly problematic for longer narratives. The social media ‘stream’, something discussed here before, provides a format that tends to confirm our own beliefs and perspectives, not challenge them, by giving us what we want even if that’s not necessarily what we need for social change.

When we are challenged the anonymity, lack of social cues, immediacy, and reach of social media can make it too easy for our baser natures to override our thoughts and lash out. Whether its Wael Ghomim and Egypt’s Arab Spring or Hossein Derakhshan and Iranian citizen political movement or the implosion of the Occupy movement , the voices of constructive dissent and change can be overwhelmed by infighting and internal dissent, never allowing that constructive coalescing of perspective needed to focus change.

Collectively, we may be more likely to reflect one of the ‘demotivation’ posters from Despair instead of Ken Blanchard:

None of us is as dumb as all of us

Social media, the stream and the hive

Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Media Lab has written extensively about the irony of the social insularity that comes with the freedom and power online social networks introduce as was explored in a previous post.

The strength of a collective impact approach is that it aims to codify and consolidate agreement, including the means for evaluating impact. To this end, it’s a powerful force for change if the change that is sought is of a sufficient value to society and that is where things get muddy. I’ve personally seen many grand collaboratives fall to irrelevancy because the only agreements that participants can come up with are broad plaudits or truisms that have little practical meaning.

Words like “impact”, “excellence”, “innovation” and “systems change” are relatively meaningless if not channeled into a vision that’s attainable through specific actions and activities. The specifics — the devil in the details — comes from discussion, debate, concession, negotiation and reflection, all traits that seem to be missing when issues are debated via social media.

What does this mean for collective impact?

If not this, then what?

This is not a critique of collective activity, because working together is very much like what Winston Churchill said about democracy and it’s failings still making it better than the alternatives. But it’s worth asking some serious questions and researching what collective impact means in practice and how to we engage it with the social tools that are now a part of working together (particularly at a distance). These questions require research and systemic inquiry.

Terms like social innovation laboratories or social labs are good examples of an idea that sounds great (and may very well be so), yet has remarkably little evidence behind it. Collective impact risks falling into the same trap if it is not rigorously, critically evaluated and that the evaluation outcomes are shared. This includes asking the designer’s and systems thinker’s question: are we solving the right problem in the first place? (Or are we addressing some broad, foggy ideal that has no utility in practice for those who seek to implement an initiative?)

Among the reasons brainstorming is problematic is that it fails to account for power and for the power of the first idea. Brainstorming favours those ideas that are put forward first with participants commonly reacting to those ideas, which immediately reduces the scope of vision. A far more effective method is having participants go off and generate ideas independently and then systematically introducing those to the group in a manner that emphasizes the idea, not the person who proposed it. Research suggests it needs to be well facilitated [PDF].

There may be an argument that we need better facilitation of ideas through social media or, perhaps as Wael Ghonim argues, a new approach to social media altogether. Regardless, we need to design the conversation spaces and actively engage in them lest we create a well-intentioned echo chamber that achieves collective nothing instead of collective impact.

Photo credit “All Power to the Collective” to Mike Benedetti used under Creative Commons licence via Flickr (original artist, Graffito)

behaviour changesocial systemssystems thinkingUncategorized

Systems thinking and collective impact

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When we seek change the temptation is looking for ‘the key’ component of a problem or situation that, if changed, is expected to lead to profound transformation. Too frequently these type of solutions fail not because the change to the component is poor, but that the thinking is not aligned to the system that contributes to the problem in the first place and thus, changing thinking is what’s actually the key not the designed solution. 

If you’re one of the millions of people who made a New Years resolution there is a very good chance that your resolve has already wavered if not been completely abandoned. Research shows that New Years resolutions simply don’t hold up. This is not because of lack of will or even lack of effort or thought, but because we often confuse changes in a part of the system (e.g., exercise and better diet) with changes in the system itself (overall better health and weight loss).

Travel might be the ultimate example of systems and change. For the scenario pictured above, having a better automobile does nothing to help navigate the streetscape. No amount of fuel efficiency, top speed, safety rating or performance tires are going to make an ounce of difference in traversing this space. The reason is that the transportation system is broken, not that the units within it are. Indeed, cars, bikes, rickshaws and foot all perform perfectly well in this environment as designed, yet are rendered disabled in this context, which was designed to facilitate, not hinder their use.

Collective impact, systems change?

The model of collective impact is one that recognizes the fallacies of assuming that organizations seeking transformative social change will do so on their own, independently through wise thought and action. Collective impact is a model that has been widely supported by organizations such as Tamarack as a means of building capacity for systems change, not just change in the system.

The concept of collective impact was first popularized by John Kania and Mark Kramer in an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Collective impact is a specific set of strategies that align the following five qualities and brief summaries that follow:

  • Common agenda (are organizations striving for the same things?)
  • Shared measurement systems (are partners measuring the same things in the same ways to enable comparisons and combine data?)
  • Mutually reinforcing activities (are initiatives building on one another, syncing up, and coherent?)
  • Continuous communication (are partners ‘in the know’ about what is happening across the system as activities unfold? )
  • Backbone support organizations (is there an organization or more that provides coordinating support and infrastructure to maintain the whole enterprise?)

The concept of coordinated action toward a common goal supported by shared means of assessment and feedback and ongoing communication is an enormous step forward in organizing actors involved in social change initiatives.

What is often missing from the discussion of collective impact is systems thinking. That is, explicit discussion of the way systems operate and not just discussion of the system itself that is to be changed. To be clear, there are many ways of doing collective impact and I mention Tamarack because they are among the few organizations that bring systems thinking into their work on systems change and collective impact. But it’s important to note that this is an exception, not the rule when reviewing what’s out there on collective impact. Many organizations do not (or may not) realize that thinking about systems change is not the same as systems thinking.

It is quite possible that we could see collective impact produce a larger-scale version of the flaws we see in initiatives aimed at changing components of the system if systems thinking isn’t considered integral to how its implemented. No amount of communication or shared measurement will help if we don’t measure the right things.

Systems thinking about collective impact

Social change is not doing the same thing that works at one scale (e.g. a person, family or team) and simply doing a lot more of it in more places. There are corollaries to be sure, but it’s not a linear pathway. Just as scaling a challenge and the response to it up produces potential for benefits, it also can scale harmful (or limiting) effects if the problem is not well-defined.

With that, let me pose some questions and challenges for those engaging in collective impact to help advance our shared understanding that are rooted in systems thinking?

  • What is the problem that is aimed to be solved (and is it the real problem?) Have alternative viewpoints from a diversity of actors throughout the system been considered in light of their position within the system and the values, goals and aspirations of those seeking systems change?
  • One of the ways that this diversity of perspectives is gained is through systems mapping. Systems mapping can be done through many different methods with each producing different looks at the dynamics, structures and relationships within the system. But what is shared is that it visualizes these qualities in a manner that makes it accessible to (almost) everyone. It allows for participants in the process to ask questions like: “why is [x] located so close to [y]?” or “where is [z] in all of this?” These create the kind of discussions that allow assumptions to emerge about the dynamics of the system itself.
  • An important follow-up to this is tracking these issues and framing them as evaluation questions. This grounds some of the metrics and measures in the system itself, not just the activities that the participants in collective impact initiatives seek to perform. It can also recognize the limits of the organizations at the table and either better account for them or provide guidance on how to overcome them (e.g., recruit more or different partners).
  • Systems maps are not only useful at the beginning, but can be an evaluative tool in itself. Maps developed at the start of an initiative and at different time points can enable partners to see what has changed and potentially find out how by examining how the structures, relationships and inclusion or exclusion of certain parts of the system shift over time. It may not allow for explicit causal attribution, but it can help understand and document what changed and initiate collective sense making about how that might have happened.

This is just a sample.

If we consider the traffic problem posed at the start of this post, one might find that the system problem isn’t even one related to the street, but to the larger community. One may find that the distances or locations of places to work, worship, shop and play are misaligned or that there are times of days when certain activities bring people into the street or perhaps its related to temperature (too hot, too cold) and the absence of climate control systems that work. More importantly however, systems thinking may enable us to account for all of these at the same time and avoid us focusing on one or two problems, but the system as a whole avoiding what is known as “a fix that fails”.