I have appreciated the growing literature around what has been called “collective impact.” These writings from staff at FSG have certainly helped people around the country engaged or aspiring to engage in collaborative multi-organizational change work to develop shared language around some of the important underpinnings of walking this path. I have also voiced some concerns about what is NOT mentioned in these writings, including some of the critical process elements and experiences that are core to this work.
So I am heartened that in their most recent installment, “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity,” the authors recognize that Collective Impact is not simply a recipe to be followed and that its unique unfolding is part of its power. This piece, featured as a blog post on the SSIR website, is a refreshing addition that looks at the necessary messiness of engaging in complex issues where solutions are not readily apparent. As the authors state, “The process and results of collective impact are emergent rather than predetermined, the necessary resources and innovations often already exist but have not yet been recognized, learning is continuous, and adoption happens simultaneously among many different organizations.”
While there is much to be gleaned from this further fleshing out, what follows is an attempt to extend the conversation even further . . .
Acknowledging complexity is very important given the nature of many of the “issues” multi-stakeholder initiatives set out to solve. This is where I would very much like to see more conversation about the power of “network” structures and techniques integrated into these writings. In the systems change consulting work that the Interaction Institute for Social Change is engaged with, we keep asking ourselves and our partners what is the balance between structure and emergence necessary to create movement on the issues and opportunities in front of us. This includes integration of more fluid (network) structures and “open” social techniques (some known as “liberating structures”) that continuously accommodate new perspectives and thinking.
It is also critical to note that complexity resides in the diverse perspectives that ideally are gathered around the table to make sense of the “current reality” before and while diving into solution. At IISC, we have often made the observation that people can race to solution when they surround themselves with like-minded people. This, of course, tends to oversimplify the situation from the start, such that what is offered up are rather anemic and irrelevant remedies. Furthermore, we often see that those in power and with considerable privilege often want to rush the “problem conversation,” which includes the examination of power and privilege. If we do not pause to acknowledge this fact and more deeply examine current reality, then we immediately limit approaches to those that support the status quo. This can be especially challenging when we have an exclusively ORGANIZATIONAL focus that further marginalizes those on the margin, rather than engaging unaffiliated and traditionally disenfranchised individuals and communities.
The point really is that we must further challenge ourselves, and I include myself and my fellow practitioners here at IISC, to more deeply engage diversity and new approaches to the work if our goal is substantive and lasting social change. In line with these points, I recommend to everyone interested in engaging in “collective impact” a few resources that push our thinking in important ways:
- john a. powell’s new book Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society (a rich commentary on and analysis of the structures of power and privilege underlying virtually every social issue in this country)
- NET GAINs: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change by Pete Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor
- Unstill Waters: The Fluid Nature of Networks in Social Movements by Robin Katcher
- Liberating Structures: Including and Unleashing Everyone by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz
- The people affected by the problem have to help define the solution, a blog post by Lucy Bernholz
Let’s keep the conversation going!