Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity

Complex social problems cannot be solved by a single organization, predetermined solution, or simple recipe. Our new Stanford Social Innovation Review article Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity explores how collective impact creates the conditions for change to happen differently, when new or unanticipated opportunities emerge from the work being done by the collective.

Before thinking about how collective impact is valuable in complex systems, let’s think about these two terms at the core of our new article – terms often used loosely but often not well understood:

  • In complexity, the unpredictable interactions of multiple players in a system determine the outcome of a situation or answer to a problem 

  • In emergence, new ideas or solutions come into view that were previously hidden or concealed from the system due to the interaction between parts of the system

So, how can collective impact help solutions to complex systems emerge? The article highlights three ways that collectives identify emergent solutions:

  • Collective Vigilance: By sharpening a community’s collective vision, and with a shared understanding of the problem, unforeseen resources and solutions are often identified due to a heightened focus by a range of different players

  • Collective Learning: Through reflecting on shared measures, and using a developmental approach to evaluation, collectives actively learn about their work as they are going and improve the effectiveness of their solutions

  • Collective Action: With heightened vigilance and collective learning, true collective action can occur as new solutions are discovered that bridge the needs of multiple organizations or are only feasible when organizations work together, and second, all participating organizations adopt the new solution at the same time

In our experience, the processes put in place through collective impact – that facilitate collective vigilance, learning and action — surface emergent opportunities from three places:

  1. A previously unnoticed evidence- based practice, movement, or re- source from outside the community is identified and applied locally.

  2. Local individuals or organizations begin to work together differently than before and therefore find and adopt new solutions.

  3. A successful strategy that is already working locally, but is not systematically or broadly practiced, is identified and spread more widely.

We caution collective impact efforts from trying to predetermine all solutions and strategies during the design of the effort, and rather to focus on creating the structures and processes that will enable the right solutions to emerge. Collective impact should not be seen merely as a new process that supports the same social sector solutions and collaborations but as a different model of social progress. The power of collective impact lies in the heightened vigilance that comes from multiple organizations looking for resources and innovations through the same lens, the rapid learning that comes from continuous feedback loops, and the immediacy of action that comes from a unified and simultaneous response among all participants. 

What new and innovative solutions have emerged on your collective impact journey? How has collective impact led to emergence in your work? We’d love to know!

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