Collective Impact and Emergence

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

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:

Let’s keep the conversation going!

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  • Curtis says:

    This quote from john a. powell also helps to make some of the points above – “Many of the stories that we tell now are really designed to make us both comfortable and feel powerless. In a sense, I think we have to be willing to be uncomfortable, willing to demand more of ourselves and more of our country, and willing to make the invisible visible; willing to make the structures that support the system to be able to put them on the table, and engage in real examination of those.”

    • Jen Willsea says:

      Beautiful quote, Curtis! You don’t happen to remember which chapter that’s in, do you? I think it’s perfect for Andrea and I to use at a retreat coming up…!

  • Gibran says:

    This is excellent Curtis. It brings me back to one of our most important inquiries – how do you nurture the conditions for emergence? With this inquiry, we are not just saying that emergence happens; we are saying that our best approach is to nurture it. It is a significant shift from a more top-down technical approach.

    I think that the Collective Impact framework does a phenomenal job of articulating one side of the coin. Like you, I think it falls short, and it is only half of the story. Organizational structures are easier to see and understand than the cultural conditioning and the socio-economic structures that make it so difficult to have transformational impact. Since organizations are easier to see they become the places that attract our attention. We relate to our institutions as our most important levers.

    Our institutions ARE important levers! But they are not our most important ones. How do we affect culture? Values, beliefs, assumptions? What moves hearts and minds? What are the behaviors and practices that allow us to stand in the heat of discomfort? What are the aptitudes that let us drive our institutions to do the very best they can do while remaining persistently aware that these simply cannot contain the level of complexity at which we are currently challenged?

    There are no firm answers to these questions, which makes for a less seductive argument. But we do know about holding space. We do know about the sort of design and facilitation that allows for people to connect more authentically to one another even as they are doing important institutional work. We do know about the role of passion, of love and commitment among those who want to change the world. We know about practice, about gradual shifts in behavior, as well as about social scale structural analysis.

    This is a missing layer to the collective impact framework. I’m glad we are working on it.

  • Curtis says:

    Beautifully said, Gibran!

  • I would like to cheer you all on in your celebration of collective impact and your questions about how best to bring people together in complex systems to move forward. I agree that the questions you ask are good ones, and that there is no one answer to any of them. I would like to propose a next layer of conversation around each of your questions:

    How do we affect culture? Values, beliefs, assumptions?
    In human systems dynamics, we believe that the agents in a complex adaptive system interact in interdependent ways such that they generate system-wide patterns Those system-wide pattern subsequently influence the behaviors of the agents. This is the genesis of culture. If we are to shape a different culture, can we change those seed behaviors that are the core of the system-wide patterns? Can we agree to one shared set of simple rules? If those individuals and groups who enter into the collective work agree about the patterns of interaction and decision making, we believe they can and will increase coherence across the system, and change the culture.

    What moves hearts and minds? What are the behaviors and practices that allow us to stand in the heat of discomfort?
    In our book that is coming out in April, Adaptive Action, Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization, we propose an iterative cycle of inquiry that examines the dynamics of a system at its most basic level, unleashing options for action that go beyond merely addressing the symptoms of a challenge. Using the Eoyang CDE model, Adaptive Action allows us to change the conditions that shape the patterns in human systems.

    What are the aptitudes that let us drive our institutions to do the very best they can do while remaining persistently aware that these simply cannot contain the level of complexity at which we are currently challenged?
    We believe that collective Adaptive Action engages us in shared inquiry to see, understand and influence the underlying dynamics of our organizations and institutions

    I have great hope for the potential of collective impact that functions to bring together the wisdom of shared understanding and action. I believe we can change the culture of our communities and seek systemic solutions to shift the debilitating patterns of privilege, injustice, and scarcity. I welcome future conversation.

  • Curtis says:

    Thank you, Royce, for this thoughtful and rich comment. I really appreciate your questions about how we affect culture, move hearts and minds, and hang out in discomfort. I am intrigued (and tantalized) by the notion of “simple rules,” and also like to quote my colleague Cynthia Parker who has said that she is all in favor of simplicity, but the simplicity that is on the other side of complexity. When it comes to issues of power and privilege I think there is a lot of messiness we must get into and wrestle with before we try to simplify anything. This is precisely the dynamic I mention in the post about those in power wanting to rush the “problem conversation.” There is good reason to slow it down, get real, and have the conversations that need to happen. I would very much like to hear more stories about how you and your colleagues have brought the tools of HSD to addressing racial inequities and injustice. Very good to be in this conversation with you, Royce, and thanks for your good and important work!

  • Curtis, I do so agree about the need for simplicity as we “sit in” the midst of the discomfort and complexity of the conversation. To often, in our attempts to control or describe the complexity, we make it more complicated and fragmented. We believe that the conversation has to be simple–not easy, but clear and elegant in it’s lack of complication. And it’s not a conversation that can be mapped before…It’s in the moment shared Adaptive Action where we step into talking about issues that are critical to us–and in HSD, as I said we do that by talking about the underlying dynamics rather than about the symptoms. So what I mean by that is that, in these conversations, we attend to conditions that shape the patterns of bias and prejudice. We do that by understanding Generative Engagement, and how we work together to shape patterns of interaction and decision making. It’s alot to go into right here, but you can read more about at another blog: where Mary Nations and I explain this work she and I have engaged in to explain (rather than describe) the dynamics of bias and privilege.

    We have used this work in organizations, educational settings, and governmental agencies to get people to talk about these issues in more creative and productive ways–sometime through explicitly teaching the model, and sometimes by engaging them in the conversation without being so explicit about the model. Mary and I would love your thoughts and feedback about the model.

  • Curtis says:

    Thank you for the link, Royce. I have given the post a cursory read and want to dive in more deeply and also share with my IISC colleagues.

  • Thanks, Curtis, I look forward to continuing the conversation…with you and with your readers.

  • Linda says:

    Beautiful post Curtis! Thank you!

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