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Deeper Learning in Collective Impact: Two Practical Tools

On the surface, collective impact is a relatively simple concept. After all, there are only five conditions of collective impact (and not 100), right? Yet, the simplistic elegance of the collective impact approach belies deeper concepts of complexity, emergence, systems thinking, sensing, behavior change, and many others. I’ll be the first to admit that trying to fully understand these concepts can quickly leave you reaching for a bottle of Advil, an ice pack, and the good ol’ days of the five conditions. I have found, though, that leaders who deeply understand the principles behind collective impact are able to guide their initiatives toward structures and strategies that work.

In his keynote at the recent Champions for Change workshop in San Francisco, John Kania took the audience down a path of more fully understanding how collective impact is different than other forms of collaboration, which inevitably touched on those “make you reach for the Advil” concepts. One of these concepts is getting collective impact partners to “go deep” – to achieve deeper levels of learning and understanding about the root causes of a problem in order to create transformative change.

Collective impact is a solution-discovery machine (my words, not John’s). The theory is that by structuring the ways in which partners work together (but not the solutions themselves), solutions to complex problems will emerge. As John and Mark Kramer described in Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity, partners do this through a process of seeing what’s working (or not), learning from that information, and collectively responding to it – based on data. They call this the process of “collective seeing, learning, and doing.”

If we were talking about individual transformation, reflection or meditation might be an appropriate course of action. However, in collective impact we’re talking about many organizations understanding and problem solving together. How do you do that? And how do you get partners to think differently when they’ve been conditioned to see the system in a certain way?

It is well beyond the scope of this blog to summarize John’s analysis of this topic (although you can view his Uncommon Leadership and Collective Impact presentation). However, I’d like to share with you one very small part of John’s presentation: two surprisingly simple tools – systems maps and pictures, and Appreciative Inquiry – to help collective impact leaders foster deeper, shared learning among their partners to understand what does work, does not work, and might work.

Systems Maps and Pictures
When gathering a group of cross-sector leaders, individuals will see different parts of the elephant, but not the whole elephant. For example, FSG recently supported a collective impact initiative in Dallas aimed at transforming children’s population health outcomes in asthma. The steering committee was composed of funders, hospitals, churches, community clinics, and many other sectors. How do these very different organizations see the problem the same way? A system map such as the one below can help partners to understand the broader system and where they fit, and to leave behind their limited mental models.

Visually depicting a system map is much more than an artistic exercise – it’s an exercise that lifts individuals out of their limited perspectives, which can drive behavior change.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative inquiry is a group approach to change that is “based on the assumption that questions and dialogue about strengths, successes, values, hopes, and dreams are themselves transformational” (from The Power of Appreciative Inquiry). Put another way, Appreciative Inquiry “seeks what is ‘right’ in an organization. It is a habit of mind, heart, and imagination that searches for the success, the life-giving force, the incidence of joy. It moves toward what the organization is doing right and provides a frame for creating an imagined future that builds on and expands the joyful and life-giving realities as the metaphor and organizing principle of the organization” (from Appreciative Inquiry: A Transformative Paradigm).

When FSG works directly with collective impact initiatives, we often use Appreciative Inquiry to help steering committees envision what is possible. We ask them to imagine that, 10 years from now, they have achieved their goals beyond their wildest dreams, and that they have been invited to the White House to share what progress was made, and how. In answering these questions and others in a retrospective manner (e.g., “we achieved [past tense] success because we did a, b, and c”), steering committee members are able to chart a course for the initiative based on what could be, which can help shift them from existing mental models. Appreciative Inquiry is clearly not a replacement for rigorous analysis of a problem. However, it can be a valuable exercise to set a course for problem solving, as highlighted in the table above.

There are many other tools to help collaborators more deeply understand and solve problems. We have found system mapping and Appreciative Inquiry to be two that are practical and powerful. Hopefully these tools will help you avoid your own Advil moments.

David Phillips

Former Associate Director, FSG