A reflective account of making a place in the world, attempting to serve as a catalyst for a better future. This blog will track my thoughts on my professional journey.
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The value and application of a 'Collective Impact' philosophy (or 'theory') was reinforced at the recent Emerging Leaders for Social Change (ELSC) strategy session I attended. It was probably the single biggest take away, and since then examples keep popping up where it is (could be) relevant.
Collective Impact is a theory for action articulated by some fine people at FSG, which you can read all about in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. (I think 'theory' is their term, I think about it as a 'philosophy'.)
Think about COAG (Council of Australian Governments) - a bunch of ministers from states, territories and the fed sit around in committees and work out national approaches to things within the jurisdiction of the states (mostly). Just getting all these players to the table is a minor victory. But progressing from this starting point to collectively addressing an issue is well beyond simply getting parties to a table to talk. I don't know how COAG functions these days, but all I have seen is still relatively immature, in Collective Impact terms. Some great strides, but still a long way from potential. Things like shared policy statements, agreements on goals etc., and some examples of coordinated action (in this last case, usually because the Commonwealth is forcing it).
In these terms, collective action is achieved by:
Unfortunately, government is designed particularly well to undermine a progression like this. The impact of elections on sustaining action is particularly challenging. I wonder whether there is leadership and an appropriately well informed approach to making COAG more effective (Collective Impact or not)...?
There's lots of other examples, particularly in government (with committees and representative bodies abounding), where similar questions can be asked. International collective bodies like the UN would probably be great case studies - but I don't know enough to comment. It would be great for someone with a solid understanding of Collective Impact and some of these major bodies to perform some critical analysis as case studies (*nudge* FSG).
I was introduced a few weeks ago to the idea that I'm playing a 'social innovator'. No - not because I'm innovative. It's a vocation.
Unlike playing a 'social entrepreneur', I'm not looking to start up a business - perhaps that makes me a fool.
But I do want to 'do' things. Identify opportunities to make things better, intervene and contribute how I can, learn from it, and discover ways to create value for people that I can translate into an income.
I'm not stressed about the money, so a startup doesn't really seem necessary. And I happen to be interested in building collaborative communities - or more accurately, helping others to build communities. Maybe not the best place to start to build an enterprise.
This is all just an intro - the money question is one for another day. What I've been struck by recently is how well supported we are in our endeavours to be a social entrepreneur, but to be a more generic 'social innovator' we are left out in the cold.
Startup pitching is founded in the economic (business) world. Pitching social innovation, on the other hand, is rooted in the human world that we seem to have left behind.
Entrepreneurialism can be pretty laissez faire, but there are methodologies nevertheless. There are lean startup philosophies, business model canvasses, and well refined ideas about strategic, financial and business planning, branding and positioning, business and legal structures. There are also established (if difficult) ways to find financial capital. Crucially, and not to say they're easy, but there are established ways of kicking off a business idea. You find a way to connect with people around your idea, you use this to create a team of entrepreneurs that have complementary skills in all the usual 'startup' skills, and an understanding of the market and industry. You refine and test your idea (based on a gap in the market, or a hypothesis about something new to sell), aim for a minimum viable product and jump. (Easy!)
But what if you have an idea that doesn't involve selling something? What if it's a great idea, but you don't know where the money comes from? What if you have an insight about part of a social problem, but there are so many other factors that you can't imagine how to progress? What about all those great ideas that someone like government could - or should - fund, but never will because there's no way of getting the ideas through complicated funding mechanisms (not usually even to the starting gate)?
Do these sound familiar to you? To me, they sound like the sorts of discussions I have with people every day. Everybody that pays attention and takes the time to think about the world has ideas like these. They are the sorts of observations that come out of having a human - rather than economic - relationship to the world. How many of them get acted on? None. Or at least very close to it.
If I recognise there is a gap in the market for non-toxic, flavoured childrens' toys, I can go along to a startup weekend and pitch the core concept, and have a pretty good idea of the people I need to build a team to start making it happen.
But I recognise there is a gap in our social systems, and we need better ways of supporting social innovators, through providing methodologies, leadership, planning and testing tools, philosophies, ways to find resources, and ways to connect with people to help them through the complexity of it.
What do I do now? Who is there to listen to my pitch?
I've been thinking a lot lately about the formation of networks and communities, but not as much about collective action. A strategy session with Emerging Leaders for Social Change (ELSC) last Saturday brought this back into focus. Over the course of the day, some quite different models for the future of the group were raised, underpinned by some very different philosophies for action. Taking the time to think about these, it seems they fall broadly into three philosophies.
Now, these aren't 'models', but rather quite abstract philosophies about how groups can act together. A more specific model needs to be built out of philosophies like these - whether explicitly or implicitly.
1. Collective Impact
Jenny from United Way ran a great session on the principles and methods of collective impact. There are five conditions that underpin effective collective impact, and a three-phase process to get there. This theory was developed looking at a collection of organisations who are doing different, but interrelated things - but can also be applied to a network-group of individuals in two main ways.
Firstly, the group can foster collective action by the group members. The group-organisation would act as a backbone (one of the five conditions), working on maintaining the other four conditions. This would coordinate the efforts of the group members - they are the important agents who, for example, work towards a shared vision. This might be problematic in a network of individuals, if they have limited capacity for individual action on an issue (e.g. a group of social workers, rather than a group of NFPs). But the collective impact philosophy may work, if issues are selected to match the network capacity, and the group is porous enough to engage larger external interests where needed.
Secondly, the group can work to be the backbone for external organisations working on an issue. Applying this philosophy would leverage the connections of the network to be able to bring a diverse range of parties to the table. The group members wouldn't necessarily do 'the work' themselves, but would facilitate the other parties. In this case, the group is trying to work so that the external parties work towards a common vision. I think this approach has an incredible capacity for positive impact... but would depend upon the members of the group working towards a vision of 'collective impact', rather than being doers themselves. How sustainable would this be?
One of the insights of Jenny's session was that collective action takes time. It is vastly different from a 'problem solving' approach (which can start and stop in very short timeframes), and is instead about building a basis for long-term cooperation, rather than finding a 'solution'. This is a limitation - can you imagine a group like ELSC focusing on one issue for that long? - but it also makes it a much more attractive option for tackling 'wicked problems'. There may be ways around this though - one thought is that the group might act to establish a cooperative situation, and then spin off the backbone role to a separate entity - perhaps funded by the cooperative members.
Another thought is that a 'backbone' organisation would also have a role clearing roadblocks, and this might be an opportunity to leverage the network for 'problem solving' (or 'doing') activity on short scale issues.
FSG.org are a leader in collective impact work and thought, United Way have done some great work, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review have published the leading material on the topic. However, I'm not aware of any community networks for whom this philosophy is fundamental - this may be a pioneering approach!
2. Problem solving
The approach proposed by the ELSC volunteers/leadership team was a problem solving one. Members come together to understand a problem, develop solutions, and then find ways to implement them. Or, in general terms, members come together to collaborate on something particular and time-limited. These processes are well understood, and there are many options for action - there are different ways of involving members, and many specific methodologies can be applied, from design to business analysis. And what's best, many of these methods offer tried and true ways to collaborate.
It should be relatively easy to put together a program to work on an issue, running a series of events and/or online engagement, and get community involvement. It may take a substantial amount of time and effort to do, but if you put in that effort you can be pretty sure it will 'work'. It can be a great way of holding a community together and engaged, and doing something meaningful as well.
What I don't think is as certain is what the impact of this activity is. It is clear how to move up the 'value chain', from talking, to problem solving. But how to move from solution to impact is less clear. Some models deal with this challenge better than others...
And as mentioned above, this approach might not be as effective on genuinely wicked problems.
OpenIDEO is a great example of this, and I'd also say things like Global Service Jam (GSJ) and some of the workshops of Collab Melbourne fall into this category. The ELSC strategy day itself was a variation on the theme.
A philosophy of 'enabling' didn't really come up at the ELSC day, but it underpins a number of the collaborative organisations I have been involved with. The idea is that you bring people and ideas together, with similar values or vision, doing different - but hopefully complementary - things. These people then have access to a support network to help them with their own endeavors, and exposure to different ideas, perspectives and ways of working. The cross-polination is mutually beneficial. These benefits aren't necessarily all individual - out of the individual interactions emerge community and network behaviour, with bottom-up initiatives of all sorts, through the formation of groups, or the spreading of innovation.
Typically, models based on this philosophy don't aim to 'do' things themselves - but rather aim to create a vibrant space or community. The benefits of this can be understood as the leveraging of energies, and the sum of all of these results.
Heaps of examples can be found in the enterprise space, like startup weekends, incubators, and coworking models. Many meetup groups and communities of practice rely upon this as well, and I'd say TED is in this basket. It's also the dominant philosophy behind the Collaboratory Melbourne (as far as I understand).
Well, to pour your heart and soul into a collective organisation, there must be a sense that it's for something. What is the philosophy that drives bringing people together, rather than leaving them to work apart? After all, most of us are pretty good at keeping ourselves busy doing good things already - whether by ourselves or through other organisations. There needs to be some rationale for making the effort to make the world more complicated.
The above are philosophies that may help articulate the answer to that. I think they might also help to interrogate potential models, and broaden the perspective about possible options.
What do you think? I'd appreciate hearing what people think about where I've missed the mark - poke holes in it if you can, please! Advice would really be appreciated on how these might be applied to ELSC and Collab Melbourne; or how they relate to different groups that are already out there.