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Collective Impact, Metaphorically Speaking

FSGers have been traveling the world talking about collective impact with various audiences. When we speak about the fact that isolated impact – while well intentioned – will not solve complex social problems at scale, we generally get agreement and hunger to learn more about how collective impact works in practice. We’ve found that the limitations of isolated impact and the five conditions of collective impact (common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and backbone organization) resonate even more when we can explain them using metaphors. Thus, I want to start a conversation in this blog about metaphors that bring collective impact to life. Below are a few that I’ve used or come across – please let us know if these resonate with you, and more importantly, other metaphors that you think work well!

The Symphony Orchestra –> for music lovers and artists
Close your eyes. Imagine a beautiful concert hall full of shiny new instruments. There’s a beautiful grand piano. There are several violins and cellos that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. And the clarinets – they are the envy of concert halls around the world. The list goes on and on. Why is this orchestra blessed with so many wonderful instruments you ask? Because the town has very generous donors of all shapes and sizes that each have one or two favorite instruments they’ve paid for. It is Sunday afternoon and the musicians have all convened to play a symphony. Indeed, they’ve even agreed to play a Beethoven symphony. But now imagine the following scenario: they have not actually agreed to which Beethoven symphony. None of them have any sheet music. And there is no conductor! This is the setting of isolated impact: wonderful individual efforts that don’t actually add up to a cohesive whole. A lot of noise, but no symphony… You can imagine how this story goes on, comparing the common agenda to the specific symphony itself, the conductor to the backbone who guides the interplay among the expert musicians and the sheet music to the shared metrics and action plans…

The Row Boat – for nature lovers and hobbyists
Close your eyes. Imagine a river full of small boats with one or two rowers in them. They are all rowing as hard as they can but the end of the river seems so far away and somehow they just can’t get to the finish line. Indeed, at times it seems as if they’re rowing in circles. Often they bump into each other! All of a sudden the river goes quiet and all that can be heard is the rhythmical sound of a long row boat, with 24 rowers and a coxswain, swooshing by at a rapid clip. The 24 rowers aren’t necessarily rowing any harder than all of the rowers in the little boats, but somehow they’re much faster! Sitting backwards, they can’t even see the direction they’re headed in but somehow they have total trust in each other. What does the rowboat have that the others don’t? First, they have a common understanding of where they’re trying to go. Second, each of the rowers plays a very special, highly differentiated role on the boat – playing to his or her strengths in harmony with the others. Third, the coxswain helps shepherd the process of continuous communication and helps the whole boat track how they’re progressing toward their goal. Finally there is the boat itself, which holds them all together and bundles their energies for maximum impact… Again, you can imagine how this metaphor translates into a common agenda, the backbone, differentiated action, etc. We often use the rowing metaphor in conversations with the field on Collective Impact. Recently, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation developed an engaging video that expands on the rowing metaphor to describe why Collective Impact has become an important approach for their community and extends it to illustrate the key elements of the model in greater detail.

The Baseball Team – for sports fans and anyone from Boston
Close your eyes. Imagine your favorite baseball team. Are you seeing them? It is the top of the first inning and they’re playing at home, so your nine heroes take to the field. But something strange unfolds. The manager has quit and they haven’t been told which position any one of the nine are playing, so it is a bit chaotic. Further, as the game unfolds, you notice some strange interactions, which result in the visiting team scoring several runs. Sitting near the dugout you overhear the conversation as the nine players discuss the brutal top of the inning. You start to realize they’re all trying to achieve different goals. The pitcher thought the goal was to throw no balls, which explains the high number of hits. The outfielders thought it was most important to entertain the spectators since they pay the bills with ticket sales, which explains why their focus was on theatrics rather than getting the ball back to the bases. The second baseman thought the goal was to make the first baseman look good, which explains why he always threw the ball to first, even if there was no runner there. And the short-stop was afraid of committing throwing errors, so he never even tried to catch the ball. You can imagine that this team will not perform very well defensively. On the offensive side, it is almost worse. Some players think the goal is to always hit a homerun, while others think the goal is to never strike out. Again, while some of the team gets on base, they never come together to score a run... You can imagine how this story can be used to highlight the importance of a common goal, shared metrics (baseball is full of them!), coordinated and differentiated action, etc.

 

 

Hopefully these metaphors are useful and trigger others. Please share your ideas with us so we can build a library of metaphors together.

Valerie Bockstette

Former Managing Director, FSG