Collective Impact 3.0: a response

I have a copy of the Collective Impact 3.0 paper by Liz Weaver and Mark Cabaj in my permanent reference file.

I have been using Collective Impact principles in my work with communities since 2013 and during that time I have been noticing patterns that repeat over and over again.

These patterns are reflected in Collective Impact 3.0.

This post outlines three elements from this paper that reflect these patterns particularly well:

  1. Emphasis on the role of community;
  2. Shift from ‘Mutually Reinforcing Activities’ to ‘High Leverage Activities’; and
  3. Need for the backbone function to attend to the facilitation of of partner’s ‘inner journey of change’.

1. Emphasis on the role of community

In the Collective Impact Initiatives I have been part of, both as a participant and a facilitator, challenges in sustaining engagement with community have been common.

After a couple of years of work, all the ‘usual suspects’ sometimes find themselves sitting around the same board room table, much as they were before they started.

Sustaining meaningful community engagement is challenging.

Systems often resist our change efforts, and unless we remain vigilant, they can inexorably (and almost imperceptibly) push us back into the outdated formats that we originally came together to break free from.

The inability to sustain meaningful community involvement is one indication that the system may have ‘snapped back’ to to it’s pre-Collective Impact equilibrium state.

Brenda Zimmerman coined the term ‘snapback’ at the Collective Impact summit in Toronto in 2015, and I use it frequently in my Collective Impact work.

There has been a lot of discussion about the ‘equity imperative‘, and some consider equity to be the sixth condition of Collective Impact. Simply because you can get the other five conditions right but if you don’t have equity, you won’t have meaningful community engagement. Without community engagement it’s hard to change the system and get to impact.

As Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver note, “robust community engagement is back-breaking work“.

It’s resource intensive.

And it creates vulnerability for everyone involved. More on that in #3!

2. A language & conception shift: from ‘mutually reinforcing activities’ to ‘high leverage activities’

From the beginning I thought that the name ‘Mutually Reinforcing Activities’ was confusing.

I completely agree with Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver, when they write “CI participants must see beyond collaboration and instead focus on strategies that focus on ‘high leverage’ opportunities for change. They must commit to a systemic reading of the complex systems they are trying to change, and to making a realistic assessment of where local actors have the knowledge, networks, and resources to make a difference“.

I believe the first step in this process is to understand that systemic reading of complex systems may require a different worldview.

In North America, most of us been educated and enculturated into a positivist way of seeing the world and may need to go through a reprogramming process before we can begin to think in terms of complex adaptive systems. I could geek out on this process for an hour, but I’ll save that for another post. Right now I’ll just skip to the main point:

Thinking in terms of complex adaptive systems is necessary to begin to see high leverage opportunities.

I first learned about leverage from systems theorists like Donella Meadows, whose research introduced me to the concept of using leverage points as a way to change the structure of systems.

Leverage points are places where a small shift can lead to significant change.

Meadows cautions that leverage points can be counter-intuitive. If we don’t engage in thoughtful analysis, we can easily end up pushing a system in the wrong direction, hoping for particular results but actually contributing to what we don’t want in a given situation. According to Meadows, that happens all the time.

The basic rule: the more complex a system is, the more carefully we need to assess leverage and the more adaptive we need to be when intervening.

Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver assert that it is usually a high-leverage strategy, “for policy makers and funders to decentralize responsibility for program design to regional and local organizations and hold them accountable for broad – rather than discrete – outcomes. While these measures are more far more likely to lead to comprehensive, flexible, and quality services, along with better results for families, they consistently meet with resistance from people within the systems because they are messy and require shifts in power and resources.”

Which brings us to the third of my top-3 takeaways from the CI 3.0 paper:

3. The need to attend to the facilitation of of participant’s inner journey of change

…and allied with that, to the processes that create trust and empathy among participants

This last challenge relates to the first one: attention to the role of community. But takes it one step further.

All participants in an initiative that is focused on system change require support with the change process. Not just those with lived experience and/or who live with conditions of risk.

One of the most powerful forces for ‘snapback’ that I have seen is the discomfort that those who have historically had the most power, and therefore set the norms and command the allocation of resources, feel when the system begins to change. They feel vulnerable and threatened, and we rarely offer them support for navigating this discomfort and sticking with the change process.

To address this, I facilitate a short one-act play in my Collective Impact training workshops.

Here are a couple of snapshots from the script:

We keep learning.

We keep sharing what we’ve learned.

I am grateful to Mark and Liz for the all work they put into their own learning. And ours.

Note: this post got picked up by Tamarack Institute. You can find it on that blog here.

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