Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity

Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity

15.05.2013 Blog

A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review explores the benefits and challenges of cross-sector coalitions in addressing complex social problems. John Kania and Mark Kramer argue that collective impact efforts are upending conventional wisdom about the manner in which we achieve social progress. Collective impact is defined as the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.¬†This approach can often be highly effective, avoiding the duplication and fracturing of resources which can occur when many individual organisations are simultanously attempting to find solutions to the same problem. This ‘isolated impact’ approach is not only inefficient but also encourages organisations to compete amongst themselves for limited funding, in a manner which rewards secrecy and wastes resources.

Non-profit organizations are accustomed to seeking funding for highly targeted programs that address problems in a careful and thought-out manner, yet the simultaneous opportunity and risk of working in concert with other organisations is that outcomes are impossible to predict. The authors argue that this uncertainty should be embraced, as most social problems are highly complex and benefit most from models which are able to draw upon a wide range of resources to respond flexibly. It is argued that the power of collective impact lies in the pooling of resources and wealth of ideas which comes from multiple organisations looking for innovation through the same lens, and sharing their experience. This process of open communication between organizations furthermore leads to the identification of previously unused potential which may serve to accelerate social change without requiring vastly increased funding. The article argues that collective impact can and should be utilised in any situation where a complex problem is faced by multiple actors.

The authors identify five conditions of collective impact. These are:

1. That the organisations should share a common agenda and have a shared vision for change. This common agenda, established through discussion and sharing of experience, creates authenticity and enables participating organisations to see solutions and resources through similar eyes.

2. They argue that data should be collected and results measured consistently across all participants, to ensure that efforts remain aligned, and that participants hold each other accountable.

3. They stress the importance of differentiated yet mutually reinforcing activities.

4. They identify continuous communication as a key component to build trust and create common motivation.

5. They argue that there is a need for backbone support to co-ordinate participating organizations and agencies.

It should be noted that while the authors stress the importance of a shared vision for change, they do not believe that organizations should rally together around preconceived solutions. They stress this point because they have found that many still believe that this is what collective impact efforts might ideally look like, and this is exactly the kind of model that they believe is damaging. Instead, they argue that developing a common agenda is not about developing solutions at all, but rather achieving a common understanding of the problem and agreeing to joint next steps. The process of finding solutions is something which hopefully will come out of the collective impact effort rather than being something which can be agreed at the outset. The authors argue that staying with this uncertainty can be uncomfortable, yet can bring many rewards. The most common of these are that (a) a successful strategy which is already working well locally is identified and spread more widely, (b) organizations begin to work together differently and therefore find new solutions and (c) a previously unnoticed practice, movement or resource from outside the community is identified and applied locally. As they stress, in a world where resources are scarce and breakthrough innovations uncommon, the opportunity to achieve more with existing networks and capacity is well worth the potential discomfort of an uncertain path. Finally, they note that collective impact efforts can then go on to effect still greater change by providing a unified movement which may go on to influence policy by giving voice to the needs of a specific community.


Photo credit: Eugene Zemlyanskiy