Collective Impact 3.0: Big Ideas from CI Summit in Toronto

I’m a really lucky guy. I got to spend a week with my Canadian friends earlier this month and, once again, they both affirmed and pushed my thinking. Boy, did they affirm and push! The occasion was Tamarack’s inaugural Collective Impact Summit in Toronto. Featured plenary speakers included Melody Barnes, John Kania, Brenda Zimmerman, and Jay Connor. In this space I want to highlight the five biggest ideas that came out of this event for me. The concept of a “big idea,” of course, is relative. What is big to me may not be big to you so I will explain my criteria. The five ideas that follow were big to me because they both confirmed what I have been learning through my own work with Collective Impact since December, 2011 and inspired me to go even deeper.

Elayne Greeley, from St. John's, Newfoundland and the CI Summit "Artist in Residence," illustrated the evolution of Collective Impact at the CI Summit in Toronto, October 6-10, 2014.

Elayne Greeley, from St. John’s, Newfoundland and the CI Summit “Artist in Residence,” illustrated the evolution of Collective Impact at the CI Summit in Toronto, October 6-10, 2014.

In the opening session of the summit, Tamarack’s Mark Cabaj set the theme and tone by arguing that the Summit was marking a new phase in the development of Collective Impact. The first phase, Collective Impact 1.0, was marked by experimentation with the approach. Collective Impact 2.0 saw the framing of broad parameters  and the emergence and development of practices related to it. Collective Impact 3.0, though, would extend and build upon these previous two phases as it deepened  understanding of the practices, capacities and ecology or context required for CI. The CI Summit did a great job of focusing on Collective Impact 3.0 and, as a result, these five big ideas emerged for me.

Big Idea #1: “Collective Impact” Does Not Need to be Applied to Every Collaboration. This idea represents a major leap in the maturation of the Collective Impact framework. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recognized “Collective Impact” as #2 in their top ten list of philanthropic buzzwords in 2011. In doing so, though, it suggested that CI was merely a new term for an old way of working together. Shortly thereafter the term was applied to every sort of collaborative effort. My regular readers will know that I am one who has been frustrated by the wholesale application of the “Collective Impact” label to every group effort. New ideas can benefit from such publicity but they can also die when, as a result, they are misunderstood as simply “new and shiny” objects. When a new idea’s label is, therefore, misapplied it can be devalued and its benefit to the field lost. I think Collective Impact 1.0 and 2.0 was at risk of devaluation as a result of its popularity.

At the CI Summit, Brenda Zimmerman delineated known, knowable, and unknowable problems. Isolated efforts and traditional collaborations are usually sufficient to address the known and knowable problems. Complex social issues, which is the realm of Collective Impact, are unknowable problems. That is, the problems are difficult to define and the solutions are even less clear. The appropriate application of Collective Impact 3.0 is to complex issues.

Big Idea #2: “Context Experts” and “Content Experts,” a 50/50 Proposition. The CI Summit introduced new language, as well as a new understanding, for how to think about the residents with lived experience that CI initiatives are trying to serve. “Residents with lived experience,” for those unfamiliar with the term, are people who are living directly with the issue a CI initiative is trying to address and are, therefore, likely to be the people who see the greatest benefit from a successful initiative. Context Experts are residents with lived experience, including children and youth. Typically, they are the people who experientially know about the issue. Content Experts are professionals, providers, and leaders with formal power who have knowledge, tools, and resources to address the issue. Typically, they are the people with the technical knowhow. The language is new and quite friendly to use though the concept of having both types of experts in a collaborative effort is not.

The really big idea is with regard to achieving the right mix of the two types of experts. For too many years and in too many collaborative initiatives, Content Experts have far outnumbered Context Experts, to the point of tokenizing them. The information coming out of the Summit, though, argues that it needs to be a 50/50 split to achieve Collective Impact 3.0. This reformulation of the equation has profound implications, particularly, I believe, among CI initiatives in the United States. In future blogs, I will try to unpack some of those that are most significant.

Big Idea #3: Ownership and Buy In are Not the Same Thing. This idea has an important correlation to the previous one: the more we involve Context Experts the more likely it is that we will facilitate “ownership” and not merely “buy in.” Why is this? The explanation lies in understanding how these are defined in the context of Collective Impact 3.0. “Buy in” means that Content Experts have come up with an idea and now have to get Context Experts to “buy in” to it, if it is going to stand a chance of working. This, I argue, is the sad status quo for most social change and public health initiatives I have both seen and been a part of in the United States. “Ownership” means that the idea comes from the Context Experts and, as a result, it is theirs from the outset and, therefore, need no convincing. We Content Experts are infamous for coming up with ideas for doing good to or for others, but not with them.

Big Idea #4: Best Practices are the Enemy of Emergence. The CI Summit highlighted that Collective Impact 3.0 is designed to address complex problems with emergent solutions. As noted earlier, complex problems do not have known solutions therefore evidence-based and best practices from past experience have very limited value. While they may offer clues, they cannot provide the definitive answers we expect of them. When best practices are applied, in fact, they stifle the creative thinking and adaptive responses needed for the solutions to emerge. Here is the danger of best practices when applied to complex problems: If we are convinced we already have the solution through an evidence-based or best practice, we stop thinking about and seeing other solutions when they emerge. As a result, we keep pounding the square peg into the round hole. Collective Impact 3.0 asks us to take the leap of faith that our Context Experts and Content Experts, when working together in a close relationship based on respect and trust, can allow the solutions to emerge and, together, see them, test them, and implement them.   

Big Idea #5: Change Happens at the Speed of Trust. “Change happens at the speed of trust” refers to comments made by FSG’s John Kania when he was speaking about the mind shifts that are needed for Collective Impact 3.0. Among the mind shifts John identified was the need to establish deeper relationships among CI partners to support the movement needed for progress to occur. It is not clear to me whether John actually used the phrase “change happens at the speed of trust” or whether this was an interpretation given to his actual words by another. I heard one of the members of my Learning Lab use this during our final meeting together of the Summit. It immediately resonated with me. The following week I used the phrase in my keynote presentation at the Iowa Department of Human Services Breakthrough Series Collaborative meeting in Des Moines. It strongly resonated with the group there as well. Wendy Rickman, Administrator of the Division of Adult, Children and Family Services, was so taken by it that she proposed that “change happens at the speed of trust” be carried forward as the theme for the next phase of the Iowa Breakthrough Series Collaborative, a five-year-old initiative of Iowa DHS and Casey Family Programs to improve the state’s child welfare system.

Regardless of the origin of the phrase, it says a lot about the look of Collective Impact 3.0. As one of John Kania’s slides did said, “typical social sector mindset and behavior has it backwards.”  It is not about pre-determined solutions and emergent interactions and relationships; it is about pre-determined interactions and the relationships and solutions that will emerge as a result.

The many pieces of information I gleaned from the Summit that congealed into these Five Big Ideas came so fast and furious that I am not sure I can accurately cite any single source. Some came out of the plenary sessions, some came out of the workshops, and some came out of the interaction with Learning Lab #20 (you know who you are and thank you for all I learned from you) which I had the honor and pleasure of facilitating. Regardless of the source, I am deeply appreciative of the insights and ideas that were shared at the Collective Impact Summit. I hope to meet you there next year!

Be greater, do good…every day.

T.W.K.

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