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The Challenges of Collective Seeing and Collective Doing – Webinar Questions Answered

In a recent FSG and the Stanford Social Innovation Review webinar discussion on complexity in collective impact,  John Kania, coauthor of SSIR’s “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity,” Blair Taylor, of Memphis Fast Forward and Mark Cabaj of the Tamarack Institute explored how leaders of successful collective impact initiatives have embraced a new way of collectively seeing, learning and doing that marry emergent solutions with intentional outcomes.

In this 5-part blog series, Blair and Mark continue the discussion by answering thought-provoking questions from webinar participants on emergence in action and the role of Developmental Evaluation in collective impact. This is the final post, in which Mark and Blair each share their experiences and actions from situations where collective seeing and learning don’t result in collective doing.

Q: What happens when collective seeing and learning don’t result in collective doing? How do you address this?

From Mark Cabaj:

A: Developing shared goals is a necessary but insufficient condition for encouraging people to engage in mutually reinforcing activities.  The “pull” of working together to achieve a shared aspiration may not be strong enough to overcome the “push” of working independently. 

One set of push factors are ecological in nature. Like frogs living in a marsh, organizations behave in a way that fits their ecology. Their independent – even competitive – behavior is profoundly shaped (even encouraged) by the institutional, cultural, policy and funding context in which they work. For example: 

  • In response to funders’ general reluctance to fund the core operations and overhead of non-profit organizations, many groups are under-resourced and struggle to “keep the wheels” on their programs and services. They understandably neglect investing in the time-consuming and unpredictable work of building the trustful networks required for cross-organizational and cross-boundary work.  As a rule of thumb, larger organizations, who have a critical mass required to fund these important overhead functions, are better able to collaborate than smaller organizations. 

  • Governments and philanthropic groups tend to organize their policies and investments categorically, targeted towards discrete domains, demographic groups or programs, often with fairly rigid eligibility criteria and program requirements.   It is possible for organizations to break out of these structurally imposed siloes, but it can require an enormous effort and one that it is difficult to sustain over time.

  • Competitive tendering processes discourage collaboration amongst organizations. As one non-profit leader noted when asked to describe collaboration in the early childhood development sector, “We collaborate in the sector meeting in the morning and compete in the afternoon once you release the Request-for-Proposals.”

Stakeholders that are serious about creating a new pattern of outcomes in their communities will embrace the challenge that comes with creating the new pattern of policies, investment flows, and processes required to encourage the type of collaborative behaviour required to generate those outcomes. 

From Blair Taylor:
A: Collective seeing and learning is a frequent challenge.  It’s our natural human tendency to gravitate towards the path of least resistance, and other people create resistance!  Sometimes our heads hurt after dealing with collaborations where we can’t control things and instead have to facilitate or (even worse!) be facilitated toward the goal.  I think that the strategy has to be a sort of “live and let live” approach. 
 
As an example of this in action, our latest iteration of our Operation: Safe Community  plan has 5 goals, 26 strategies, and 61 action items.  Many of the action items specifically relate to one organization doing their thing while driving and managing a multi-partner collaboration.  In some cases it has them doing new and different things within their own organizations.  Despite those different possible roles, the wonderful fact is that those organizations are acting as part of a larger team of people and organizations, each doing their part toward a common goal.

In this sort of framework, I don’t think individual doing is a bad thing at all.  People and organizations feel more productive and will be more enthusiastic members of the partnership to the extent that their particular work is held up as valuable to the goals and outcomes of the overall work. The key is to help them link their work to the shared goal, and encourage them to participate in team discussions about what’s working, what’s not, where the gaps are, and how can we look across partners and organizations to better leverage resources toward our shared vision and goals.

Blair Taylor leads Memphis Tomorrow, an association of CEOs of Memphis’ largest companies who work collectively, primarily through public/private partnerships, to advance prosperity and quality of life in Greater Memphis.  As President, Blair has guided the engagement of top business leadership in addressing some of the community’s most pressing challenges. As part of her work coordinating the Memphis Fast Forward initiative, Blair serves on the boards of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, the PeopleFirst Partnership, Healthy Shelby, the Growth Alliance and the Greater Memphis Chamber.

Mark Cabaj is President of the company From Here to There and an Associate of Tamarack Institute. His current focus is on developing practical ways to understand, plan and evaluate efforts to address complex issues.  He is particularly involved in expanding practice of developmental evaluation, a new approach to evaluation which emphasizes evaluation and learning in emerging, messy and sometimes fast-moving environments. 

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