‘The world’s toughest challenges aren’t going away. In fact, many experts predict they will continue to grow in number and complexity.’ These two sentences, which come from a video about collective impact by FSG Social Impact Consultants, are both sobering and offer a wake-up call.
Across Canada, if you were to ask community change leaders about how hard they are working, you would likely hear that they are working at breakneck speed with maximum capacity and minimum resources. Many are burning out and feeling that they are not making traction on the issues that keep them up at night.
Communities are facing increasingly complex challenges. Hunger, homelessness, poverty, economic decline, mental health and addictions, the list of challenges is long. Complex community challenges are such that they require a new approach. Single program solutions will provide results, but their impacts are often individual: not the collective results that are required. As well, community service providers are often disconnected from each other. As a result their services and programs can unintentionally be disjointed from the real solutions that people require.
In 2011, John Kania and Mark Kramer published an article called Collective Impact in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Collective impact proposed a new path forward. The framework includes five core conditions: a common agenda; shared measurement; mutually reinforcing activities; continuous communications and backbone infrastructure. In articulating this new promising path for collaboration, the authors recognized that collective impact’s pre-conditions and conditions provided a broad framework but recognized that communities needed to fill in the details.
The collective impact framework was designed for communities to tackle tough and complex problems. But beyond the conditions, collective impact also requires a different way of working. It begs leaders to think about the systems that are preventing change from happening. It requires collective leadership, putting egos at the door for the greater good.
Collective impact also requires leaders to access and use evidence to drive change forward. It can’t just be a good idea, the change requires leaders to understand the complexity of the system. How do current demographics about the problem inform the strategies? What are the indicators of success and change? What lessons are learned along the way?
These can be challenging questions. But they are only first level questions. Once leaders probe the complex problem at a deeper level, they must begin to ask deeper questions. How can organizations delivering services be arranged differently to get to bigger impact? Do we really need this mix of services or could resources be deployed more effectively? What policies are preventing true change from happening? What power dynamics are in place? Am I working to maintain my job or change the community?
Since 2011, the adoption of collective impact has been fierce. The needle on complex problems is moving, but only ever so slightly. It takes courage to dig deeper, to ask the tougher questions, and to probe the underbelly of the root problem. Are we truly ready for what we might find?
It was at Tamarack’s 2015 Collective Impact Summit that this notion of confronting the tough questions that affect systems change first began to bubble in my mind. As I continued to ponder this idea and consider the questions that systems leaders need to ask themselves and each other, I had a conversation with Mona Jones-Romansic of Olive Grove – a network committed to creating a vibrant and just society. Our conversation affirmed that, as leaders in this field, it is important to create a space where tough questions can be surfaced and explored further. As my conversation with Mona has continued, the idea to co-author this joint article emerged. It’s no surprise that Olive Grove’s tag line is: champions of the courageous. I deeply appreciate Mona’s courage and willingness to share her reflection on a tough question that she is currently pondering. When you think about your own collective impact work, what are the tough questions that keep you awake?