IISC would like to share our Top 5 most influential post of 2012! Join us until the New Years Eve when we reveal our number 1 blog post!
The following post began as a response to FSG’s lastest contribution to its work around “collective impact” on the Standford Social Innovations Review blog. There is much value in the additional details of this cross-sectoral approach to creating change, and I especially appreciate what is highlighted in this most recent piece regarding the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of “backbone organizations” to support and steer the work. In the ensuing conversation on the SSIR blog, there is a comment from an FSG staff person about the importance of building trust in launching these efforts, and it was from this point that I picked up . . .
With deep appreciation for the good work of FSG in helping to codify this important approach, I wanted to add that from our experience at the Interaction Institute for Social Change, helping people develop the skills of process design and facilitation is of paramount importance in cultivating trust and ultimately realizing the promise of large-scale multi-stakeholder collaborative efforts.
From our work over the past 20 years, we have remarked how often people come to these change initiatives without the necessary skillset, and in light of this we’ve found it important to help them to see the water in which they swim and cultivate the capacity to strategically and “spiritually” align process (how they do the work) with their aspirations in terms of results. For example, funders may be called to shift into a convening role that is somewhat or completely unfamiliar to them. How one exercises power in this new mode is critical and can be a great challenge. We’ve engaged in robust conversation about this through our work with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and with various other philanthropic, state agency, and community-based convenors. And of course power is not just about access to resources, but also about the structural inequities that are often at the root of the very issues we are trying to solve. We’ve found that grounding people in a safe space and an ability to see and talk about structural analysis and complex systems is key.
Also critical is getting people into genuine relationship with one another. This means taking time to get to know one another beyond formal roles and through their authentic longings for change. There can often be resistance to this exercise – “We are all so busy, can’t we just get to the real work?” And as my colleague Gibran Rivera notes, “This resistance is endemic in a society that has devalued the human gift and power of relationship. The most important sustaining factor for change is a true connection to one another at the most human of levels, the space of the heart, the place where our personal purpose comes together with our shared purpose.”
From here it is critical to move intentionally through a series of steps to carefully design the process that holds diverse stakeholders together in the pursuit of a shared goal. This includes identifying the shared goal or goals, via facilitated dialogue, and framing it in such a way that it appeals to key and shared interests. For example, in some current work around changing a state-wide early childhood development system (in the direction of more equitable opportunities and outcomes) we had a very valuable conversation in the design phase about where this initiative ultimately saw young children sitting. It was revealed that initial assumptions were that we were focused on early care centers, which, it was also revealed, risked marginalizing those who wanted to keep their children home. Furthermore, the initiative began with an emphasis on early education, but shifted through conversations with key (and otherwise disconnected) stakeholders to embrace “development,” thereby integrating the health perspective and community. With respect to framing outcomes, we also emphasize that collaborators focus not just on “results,” but also procedural and relationship outcomes.
And there are the important questions of who should be involved in the initiative – the stakeholders – and how they might be involved. We find that stakeholder analysis is one of the most important endeavors in the design process, which is often glossed over in a rush to get to results and sees people defaulting to “the usual suspects.” If we are looking to truly shift systems, then it is important to “get the system in the room,” first identifying the diversity of perspectives and commitments that will be necessary for the work at hand, including getting at root causes. This means ensuring that those who are most impacted by the issues we are trying to solve are centrally involved. It was precisely this exercise of rigorous stakeholder analysis that led to the engagement of those who have been critical in helping us to shift the early childhood work mentioned above in more strategically inclusive directions.
Beyond who, there are other questions of “How?” that we invite collaborators to answer and map out through the construction of a process map: What roles and resources are required? What conversations do we need to have, in what order, with whom, and to what end, to get from where we are now to where we want to be? This is what we call laying out the “pathway to change.” These conversations also include focus on measurement – How will we know we are on track given the longer-term nature of many of the bigger outcomes we seek? Here the caution is to avoid defaulting to measuring what we can, at the expense of overlooking what really matters.
We have also learned that some of the most important action is not what appears at the “center” of a collaborative effort, but often what transpires at the periphery. That is, while some conversations may be happening at the convening table, new relationships and partnerships emerge that we often ignore or do not attempt to track or support. This is where we find thinking in terms of the fluidity and flexibility of networks can be helpful. For more on this front of balancing structure with emergence, check out Robin Kather’s great article in The Nonprofit Quarterly.
And for anyone who might be interested in more deeply exploring this realm of skill building around collaborative process design and facilitation, check out IISC’s Pathway to Change workshop, coming up in Boston March 20-22.