Friday, December 6, 2013

3 Football Keys to Collective Impact Success

Recently I had the privilege to listen to Jim Tressel, the former Ohio State University and Youngstown State University football coach, talk about success and I was struck by how his three keys apply to the world of collaboration for collective impact.

Unselfishness: Tressel said his teams that won national titles were unselfish; specifically the most talented players were more interested in achieving victory than individual glory. For a collaboration to achieve collective impact, stakeholders (particularly the biggest, most powerful stakeholders) need to make sure they stay focused on the common agenda. As Jill M. Michal at the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey so elegantly puts it, stakeholders need to check their egos and their logos at the door.

Grit: Tressel said his national title teams refused to accept failure. Players who were told they couldn't succeed worked harder to prove their doubters wrong. They never gave up. Stakeholders in collaborations need to stick with it through the "traps" that are inherent in the collaboration cycle described by Liz Weaver of the Tamarack Institute. These traps are natural within collaborations and stakeholders without grit will find them to be a convenient excuse to drop out. Stakeholders with grit fight through the traps and keep pushing forward.

Curiosity: The best teams are always curious about how they can get better, Tressel said. The best collaborations are the same way. They use data to better understand what works. They keep asking questions, keep learning together and keep pursuing emergent solutions.They know that to get through the collaboration cycle one must keep adapting. The systems we work in are always changing; to deal with that change we must be curious.

Whether one is talking about football, education (Tressel is now vice president of student success at the University of Akron) or collaboration for collective impact: unselfishness, grit and curiosity are 3 keys to success.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

3 Lessons from Rereading Collective Impact

I try to reread three of my favorite books every year or so -- A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane and A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. Each time I crack them open I learn something new about myself, the authors and my world. For example, over the last few re-readings of Aldo’s seminal work I’ve been strengthened by the revelation that he was writing about my work world, not just the natural world.  I apply his views on complexity and community nearly every day.

It’s been nearly two years since I read the first article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Collective Impact at the urging of @karen_nestor. (Perhaps this post will inspire Karen to start sharing her wit and wisdom via Twitter.) Like many who work within the complex systems that make up the civic sector I immediately rejoiced at having a new, sharp and shared vocabulary to describe my work and what I believed needed to happen to achieve the kind of change sought by the diverse organizations that make up the Fund for Our Economic Future.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say the article transformed my work -- not so much what I did, but how I did it and how I described it to others. As the “Collective Impact” framework has become more broadly accepted it has also become something of a buzz term. And like many buzz terms, “Collective Impact” is at risk of losing its meaning almost as fast as it spreads. The new forum launched by FSG and the Aspen Institute clearly is designed to make sure that the true meaning and value of “Collective Impact” isn’t diluted by time or popularity.

Thinking about this prompted me to wonder if my understanding of Collective Impact has been diluted. So I went back and reread the original Collective Impact article. Just as I learn new lessons about family, love and fly fishing each time I travel back to Western Montana with the Maclean family, rereading the CI article provided me with new insights into the challenges of sustaining effective collaborations. Here are three key “lessons” I got from rereading the first Collective Impact article:

1. We must work across sectors and that requires a long-term perspective: “The problem with relying on the isolated impact of individual organizations is further compounded by the isolation of the nonprofit sector. Social problems arise from the interplay of governmental and commercial activities, not only from the behavior of social sector organizations. As a result, complex problems can be solved only by cross-sector coalitions that engage those outside the nonprofit sector...Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts. They need time to see that their own interests will be treated fairly, and that decisions will be made on the basis of objective evidence and the best possible solution to the problem, not to favor the priorities of one organization over another.”

We live in an age where instant gratification isn’t nearly fast enough. Who is willing to work “several years” to develop the capacity to achieve collective impact? And who is willing to admit that they need to work with “those people” -- whether they be in the public, private, nonprofit, civic or philanthropic sectors? Many ask why is this work is so hard. This is why.

2. Collaboration requires a systemic approach:  “The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations who can plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly. Collective impact also requires a highly structured process that leads to effective decision making.”

Very few people like process -- most of us just want to do. The best entrepreneur I know says that the more risky a new venture is the more process is needed. We know this is the case for collaborations too, but how many of us are willing to put the time and resources into developing processes that empower cross-sector collaborations? Sounds painful and boring. Getting something done -- now that’s exciting and fun.

3. Collective impact requires funders to shift their perspective: “As successful as Strive has been, it has struggled to raise money, confronting funders’ reluctance to pay for infrastructure and preference for short-term solutions. Collective impact requires instead that funders support a long-term process of social change without identifying any particular solution in advance. They must be willing to let grantees steer the work and have the patience to stay with an initiative for years, recognizing that social change can come from the gradual improvement of an entire system over time, not just from a single breakthrough by an individual organization. This requires a fundamental change in how funders see their role, from funding organizations to leading a long-term process of social change. It is no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single nonprofit or to build that organization’s capacity. Instead, funders must help create and sustain the collective processes, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enable cross-sector coalitions to arise and thrive.”

Shifting from an isolated to a collective impact framework requires everyone within the complex systems to change. Those with the least incentive to change are the funders -- private, public and philanthropic. One funder friend of mine and a huge champion of Collective Impact recently shared how she dismissed a recent grant application because it didn’t fit the framework she was accustomed to. Two colleagues pointed out  that the grantee was pursuing a fresh, collective approach. She told this story on herself to remind me how hard it is for funders to make the switch to Collective Impact stick.

After rereading the original Collective Impact article, I am going to be encouraging others to do the same. And I will keep rereading it, as well. We need to constantly remind ourselves that this is long-term, rigorous work that requires us all to behave very differently.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Coblaboration vs. Collaboration

I steal a lot of ideas and concepts from innovative thinkers. One of my more popular thefts is the term "coblaboration." I used it in a presentation at the Economy League of Philadelphia last month and it got tweeted out by several folks. I stole the term from Eric Gordon, the dynamic CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. He correctly considers calls for more collaboration with some skepticism.

The following chart -- which I didn't steal from anyone -- shows the top five differences between a collaboration that has no chance of generating positive change and one that is designed to sustain systems change.

Focused on assigning blame or taking credit
Focused on outcomes
Stakeholders participate to protect
Stakeholders participate to generate value
Opinions rule
Data is king
Talk exceeds action
Actions emerge from engagement
Informal process
Intentional, rigorous process

During lunch today a colleague said it's the final difference that is the most important. She wondered how anyone expects change to happen in a complex system if the work isn't guided by an intentional, rigorous process. Indeed. Yet more often than not funders encourage stakeholders to collaborate but fail to provide them with the capacity required to engage in a rigorous collaboration.

Friday, November 8, 2013

3 Signs of Poisoned Culture

Amy Celep at Community Wealth Partners recently had a great post on the Dream Forward blog about the invaluable role culture plays in facilitating collaboration.

Participants in collaborations often rally together because of a crisis moment or an exciting opportunity to do more together. In either case, they are focused on the results that may be possible through collaboration. This healthy focus on results combined with pressure from boards, funders, and others, cause many participants to prioritize execution ahead of something as seemingly abstract as “building a shared culture.”
This can be a dangerous orientation. Without a solid foundation, the most elegantly designed and expertly crafted cathedral will collapse. Likewise, the best strategy will quickly crumble if it does not align with the group’s culture.
Strong research exists to substantiate the assertion that culture has a powerful influence on what groups of individuals, organizations, and even nations can accomplish. 
I wrote earlier about the value of shared understanding, value and responsibility. And those three combined reflect the shared culture described by Amy.

What are some signs that the culture in the system you are trying to change may eat your collaboration effort for lunch? Here are a few:

1. Middle School is Still in Session - If the conversations among stakeholders sound more like the whinings of middle school age children caught up in petty feuds rather than adult conversations about critical challenges, the system's culture isn't ready for true collaboration. Middle-school conversations focus on personalities and turf rather than design and value.

2. Support Generates Distrust - Recently a stakeholder in a collaboration informed me that they were interested in helping their peers better understand an issue and were even willing to help fund the work needed to create that shared understanding. But they knew that if they paid for the work several other stakeholders would immediately reject the value of that work simply because of who paid for it. When doing the right thing generates more distrust than shared understanding it's impossible to move forward.

3. Protecting People Comes First - Several years ago a group of emergent leaders successfully built consensus among a large group of stakeholders that a fundamental change had to occur within a key system in the community where I was working. One element of change was that an established organization would have to shut down and its well-liked leader would lose their job. It took more than two years to move from consensus to action because the culture in that community was to protect those at the top. Personal relationships were more important than value creation.

The good news is that a poisoned civic culture isn't a permanent condition. Remediation is possible by engaging stakeholders -- and oftentimes engaging new stakeholders -- through narratives that illustrate the value to be created by collaborations that can generate collective impact.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Communicate to Engage Not Direct

Why is communications so hard?  Why are some civic leaders unwilling to communicate?

Increasingly I answer both questions with one word: complexity.

Communications within complicated organizations is most often used to direct or tell. Leaders communicate to their staff as to what they want them to do. Corporations tell their customers about their products. Funders tell their grantees what outcomes they want.

In complex systems no one is really in a position to tell anyone else what to do. Instead of using communications to “direct,” communications should engage stakeholders in ways that that foster collaborations capable of achieving collective impact. During the early stages of a collaboration it is rarely clear what the stakeholders will do together. Within a complicated organization such uncertainty would rarely be communicated. Instead the organization would wait to communicate until a strategic direction is set. So leaders accustomed to complicated organizations where control and clarity are preferred are reluctant to communicate early and often when they are leading a collaboration in the civic arena -- where complexity is nearly always a given and control and clarity are rare.

Leaders used to communicating to “tell” often have little experience with communicating to engage. And sometimes even the audience is more accustomed to being told rather than being engaged. So a communication inviting stakeholders to engage can cause confusion with stakeholders.

Communications to engage must be designed to facilitate shared understanding among many stakeholders. Such shared understanding is achieved when stakeholders learn together from each other. A communications system that enables many-to-many engagement  is pretty much the opposite of the centralized communications systems used in complicated organizations. Thanks to online tools many-to-many communications is much easier today than ever before. But just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it is either easy nor does it mean we’re comfortable doing it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Chunky, Not Smooth

Collaboration has aptly been defined (by the Council on Economic Competitiveness) as an unnatural act among non-consenting adults. As a result collaboration is never smooth. But it helps if it is chunky.

John Kania, one of drivers of the Collective Impact framework at FSG, emphasizes that efforts to achieve sustained positive change in complex systems should be broken into chunks to build early wins and momentum. The importance of "chunkiness" hit home last week during a health and human services discussion among community leaders. Some at the table thought narrowing the discussion to "youth issues" might make the conversation less daunting. That wasn't the case, as the conversation soon stalled as the group struggled with where to even start -- early childhood, literacy, educational attainment, health etc. The list of "youth issues" is nearly as endless as "health and human services issues."

Considering what makes for good "chunkiness" can help stakeholders decide where to start. I think three big factors should be considered when collaborators are beginning to consider their first chunk to take on.

1. Manageable -- Is the chunk within the influence of the present group of stakeholders at the table?
2. Meaningful -- If the collaboration is able to create change within that chunk will it make a meaningful difference in the overall issue, or at least give stakeholders the confidence to take on an even more meaningful chunk?
3. Measurable -- Can we measure the progress we are making on changing the "chunk" and the downstream effect that change is having on the overall issue?

If your collaboration can identify a first chunk that is manageable, meaningful and measurable you are on the path toward Collective Impact.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Avoiding Coblaboration

More often than not collaboration efforts rarely get past what one colleague calls the "yak, yak, yak stage" and another more succinctly calls coblaboration. The Council on Competitiveness accurately calls collaboration an unnatural act among non-consenting adults, and this is why it collaboration rarely gets past the talk.

Of course the term "collaboration" is used nearly as freely and meaninglessly as "economic development." The type of collaboration I'm interested in is the kind that results in sustained positive change within the communities that we care about. This is the type of collaboration that is described by FSG's Collective Impact framework.

Borrowing heavily from Ed Morrison's Strategic Doing framework, I believe that getting past the coblaboration requires stakeholders participating in a collaboration to develop "three shareds:"

  • Understanding -- Do the stakeholders have the data, strategic analysis and knowledge they need to fully understand the opportunity they are pursuing together. In our rapidly changing world the context and content of the opportunity may change multiple times through the life of a collaboration. As things change, the shared understanding must change as well. It helps if every meeting among collaborators begins with an affirmation of the shared understanding by the stakeholders.
  • Value -- What value can be created by working together that cannot be created through unilateral action? Is that value sufficient for me and my organization to cross boundaries and collaborate with others? These are essential questions that must be answered for stakeholders to commit to the collaboration process. "What's in it for me?" is not a selfish question at all. Without the creation of clearly understood and articulated shared value, collaboration won't get past talk.
  • Responsibility -- One way to test the level of value being created is the level of responsibility stakeholders are willing to assume to create the value. If the stakeholders expect others to be responsible they obviously have a low assessment of the value. Realistically, most stakeholders are skeptical about the ability of a collaboration to create the predicted value. After all they've been unable to create such value on their own, so why should they think someone else could help them do it? That is why most stakeholders aren't willing to assume 100% of the responsibility for creating the value in the early days of a collaboration. Instead outside funders -- public, private and philanthropic -- often must catalyze the collaboration by providing the resources and support needed to launch the process and generate the initial value. However, funders should design the collaboration so that over time -- as the value is proven -- the stakeholders assume more of the responsibility for the value created.
When stakeholders understand the opportunity, identify the value and assume responsibility collaborations can move beyond yakking and blabbing to generate sustained positive change.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why Engagement Looks So Hard

In several meetings recently where leaders addressed diverse priorities I heard several variations of this common complaint: Engaging diverse stakeholders is difficult, takes a ton of time and rarely increases our ability to sustain positive change in the communities that we care about.

I'm sure my friend Jack Ricchiuto's new book, The Power of Circles, will do a much better job of answering the "how" of engagement than I could ever do. But I have a theory on why it rarely produces the desired results: The wrong kind of organizations are conducting the engagement.

Most organizations that conduct engagement are designed to address complicated issues. As Will Allen (and so many others) explains, complicated issues are dramatically different than complex issues. Simply, complicated issues can be resolved with a technical solution and complex issues can only be solved with solutions that emerge from the system involved.

Organizations designed to deal with the complicated (let's call them "complicated organizations") tend to design processes that rely on a command-and-control framework to implement a technical solutions. Such processes do not work on complex issues, and complicated organizations aren't comfortable designing engagements that enable emergent solutions.

Complicated organizations are accustomed to engaging stakeholders in environments where they control the conversation. In a complex system, there is no control. Most complicated organizations are used to choosing who they engage with. In a complex system, it is the system that determines who needs to be engaged.

To design effective engagements in complex systems we need to design frameworks, processes and tools that promote emergent solutions. This is the heart of FSG's framework for Collective Impact. Engaging stakeholders is a primary role of what FSG calls a "backbone" entity. To be successful, backbones need to be designed for complexity.

Organizations designed for complexity are designed for engagement. Complicated organizations are designed for control. Asking complicated organizations to conduct engagement in complex systems is like sending a hammer to do a screwdriver's job: It can be done, but the damage done usually exceeds the benefits. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Redefining Regionalism

Regionalism -- like many "isms" -- is a word that raises many fears. Regionalism usually conjures up thoughts of control and consolidation. Someone from "over there" is going to show up and tell us what to do.

If possible, I'd redefine regionalism to be about creating value for communities by helping them strengthen their assets and their connections to the regional economy.

Such a definition is rooted in these basic assumptions:

  • Economies are regional
  • Communities have assets, not economies (See my earlier post on why I hate "economic development")
  • Growing, opportunity-rich economies have strong, well-connected assets that generate innovation, entrepreneurship and inclusion.
Regionalism therefore should help communities attract, develop, retain and engage diverse, talented people who have access to the resources needed to innovate products that create more opportunities for residents, existing companies and new enterprises. 

That's a long way from regionalism being about the consolidation of local governments. 

No Glamour in Being a Backbone

The popularity of the Collective Impact framework for sustained positive community change championed by FSG has generated considerable interest in the notion of "backbone organizations."

In short, backbones coordinate the actions of diverse stakeholders that participate in a collaboration organized around the Collecitve Impact framework. Because of the growing popularity of the "Collective Impact" approach, many non-profit leaders are under the impression that becoming a backbone is a sure-fire path to funding and recognition. Some are clamoring to position themselves as the "backbone" for whatever cause their organization is addressing. Some communities are swimming in wannabe backbones.

However, being a backbone is not a role for those interested in attention or glamour. The role of the backbone is very much like the role of the IT department back in the early days of networking.

In the early days of corporate computer networks -- WANs and LANs -- and the early 1990s version of the internet, poorly designed networks that lacked adequate capacity could bring all activity within an organization to a halt. I worked for corporation that tried for a year to get by with only enough bandwidth that email was delivered intermittently. "E-mail is not intended for instant communication," the head of IT responded to my complaints. IT departments were frustrated that there never seemed to be enough bandwidth -- or backbone -- to keep folks happy. Every time more bandwidth was added users found new things to do with it -- increasing their productivity and effectiveness. Creating demand for even more bandwidth.

Such is the case, as well, for civic networks that are using the Collective Impact framework. The backbone is what enables the stakeholders to communicate with each other, align their actions and assess their collective progress. If there isn't sufficient backbone capacity the collaboration slows down, if more capacity is added more collaboration can occur, creating demand for more capacity.

Of course the analogy isn't perfect as a computer network is much easier to coordinate -- data can be directed via basic protocols. The protocols of a civic network need to be much more sophisticated to enable quality interactions among diverse individuals and organizations.

Being a backbone is a behind-the-scenes role; often under appreciated by leaders (and funders) focused on the delivery services rather than how that delivery was made possible. But just as the IT department is critical to the success of any business of substance, backbones are essential to any collaboration interested in achieving sustained positive change.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Why I Hate "Economic Development"

“Economic development” is one of the most misused and misunderstood terms within the civic arena. While I don’t hate interventions in the marketplace that result in increased and more inclusive economic growth (my definition of the term “economic development”), I do hate how the term has lost all meaning as it is used to describe nearly anything that resembles economic activity.

For example, a colleague laments that the mayor of his community is fond of ribbon cuttings where he can announce that the opening of a new car wash or some other service business as “economic development.” My friend, who I would describe as a true economic developer, observes that no additional cars are being washed as a result of this “development.” More than likely there’s a car wash down the street that recently went out of business or one that is about to see its customers wash their cars elsewhere.

Another friend gets very frustrated when politicians tout the relocation of a business that merely crossed a municipal boundary. This is tax base development, not economic development.

A third goes bonkers when physical developments (casinos, stadiums, museums etc.) are touted as economic development. Unless these developments are actually able to attract large numbers of people from outside your economy to visit (or better yet, move), they really don’t do much for the overall economy. They may make your community a better place to live, and that can have a long-term positive effect on the economy; but it’s a reach to call such investments economic development.

Each of these activities may be good for the economy, but they don't necessarily mean the economy is outperforming the competition. And the more civic leaders are able to pass off such activities as "economic development," the odds increase that sustained, inclusive economic growth won't occur.

Bob Weissbourd of RW Ventures in Chicago cuts through all the noise when he notes “neighborhoods don’t have economies, they have assets.” I would go farther and say cities and counties don’t have economies either, they too have assets. Strengthening and connecting those assets to the regional economy (or metropolitan economy, if you prefer) is what will result in increased economic activity and opportunity within the neighborhoods and communities we care about. Strengthening and connecting assets is at the root of economic development.

Imagine how differently a city’s “economic development” department would operate if it was called the “asset development” department. Every city’s number one asset is its people, and perhaps all city halls would focus more on effective workforce solutions. The second biggest asset is a city’s existing business base. An “asset development” department would make sure those companies have what they need to grow -- including providing access to workers.

I don’t expect there will be any “Asset Development Departments” formed in the near future, but I sure do hope we see less misuse of the term “economic development.”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Is the Temperature Right for Collective Impact?

Collective Impact advocates need to check the weather first to see if the conditions are right to push for the establishment of a backbone to coordinate the type of collaboration necessary to sustain positive community change.

More often than not, advocates will find that the temperature is too cold for effective collaboration. You know it's too cold when key stakeholders either are resistant to working with others or are insistent on CMW, "Collaboration My Way." Organizations can be resistant to collaboration for many reasons, not the least of which is it consumes precious resources and the "payoff'' -- or "shared value" -- is less than clear.

Sometimes, the climate is actually over-heated. This uncomfortable condition occurs when a funder (or funders) puts a large pot of money on the table and make it clear that the only way to get the pot is if stakeholders collaborate. This can result in organizations working up a sweat to win a grant without reaching shared understanding of what they will do together, what value they will generate and what responsibility they will assume to produce that value. Collaborations built on winning a grant rather than shared understanding, value and responsibility are likely to fall apart before the money runs out.

Under the best of conditions the climate for collaboration is heating up. Collective Impact advocates know the temperature is moving in the right direction when stakeholders acknowledge that despite their best efforts, projects alone aren't generating the degree of change they want to see in the communities they care about. And when funders are requiring more consistent measures of success. Advocates can help turn up the temperature by using data-driven narratives to build broader shared understanding of the opportunities to accelerate positive change.

As readers of my Steel Pursuit fishing blog know, a single degree increase in water temperature can turn moribund trout into aggressive feeders. Sometime the same is true when it comes to the conditions for collaboration. A change of heart by just one reluctant stakeholder in a complex system can send the temperature rising and make the climate right for a collaboration capable of generating Collective Impact.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Local Systems and Regional Economies

Our economies are regional. Our civic systems are local.

This reality means that reversing a region’s economic decline demands an extremely high level of collaboration among diverse stakeholders who are, more often than not, required to compete with each other. Talk about a high degree of difficulty to get the civics right and to achieve collective impact.

Defining an economic region is no easy task -- either with words or lines on a map. But ample research has shown that even in the Internet age economies are organized around regions as businesses locate and grow in places where they have have access to regional assets, such as capital, markets, supply chains and talent. Some argue that the boundaries of an economic region are determined by the commuting patterns of its residents -- which at least puts a 45 minute to 60 minute commute circle around most metro areas. Here in Northeast Ohio, one could reach six different MSAs within that circle, depending on where one is located (and how fast one drives).

While someone who lives in the Canton MSA may commute to suburban Cleveland for work -- or may drive north for a dinner and a show -- that same individual will rarely encounter a civic institution that reflects their personal “regional footprint.” While this challenge is exacerbated in a “multi-metro region,” the same reality exists in economic regions dominated by a single metropolitan area. Civic infrastructures simply aren't designed to match up with economic boundaries.

Indeed, the civic organizations that are critical to shaping a region’s economic competitiveness (systems that govern education, workforce, transportation planning, business development, innovation, governance etc.) are almost all designed to serve local markets. Those systems were established when the economy was less global and less regional, and their base of power (constituent support) is derived from serving local constituents. In those rare instances when civic infrastructure might extend beyond a single county line it’s not uncommon for them to be designed in ways that exacerbate the challenge of creating regional alignment. For example, two counties that partner on workforce development may well be in different transportation planning districts. Good thing people who need workforce training don’t use roads or public transit to get to work...

This disconnect between our civic structures and our economic regions results in systemic dissonance. Systems designed to be local shouldn’t be expected to understand what needs to be done regionally, nor are they capable of acting regionally. Instead, local institutions must have the capacity to collaborate to address the opportunities that they cannot do on their own. And as noted earlier, regional collaboration is an unnatural act among non-consenting adults.

Creating an environment where local institutions can develop both shared value and shared responsibility in regional collaboration tests all of the skills of the regional physicist.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Trained for Projects, Not Complexity

In my ongoing journey to understand complexity and its role in our civic infrastructure I find myself reading and enjoying books with titles that are more than a little imposing. Today's example: Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership; Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation.

Technical yes, but so far it's been like visiting with a wise friend. Early on the authors capture a vexing reoccurring reality: "A complex system can adapt, whereas a piece of machinery cannot."

Most civic work is at the project level and projects resemble "machinery" -- there are inputs, outputs and outcomes on most projects. The problem with this static approach, as Eddie Obeng delightfully points out in his Ted Talk on the rapid pace of change, is the world is changing too fast to keep up. We need to be able to adapt to that persistent. The only way to keep up is to spend less time designing civic machinery (projects) that cannot evolve as the world changes and more time designing highly effective collaborations that engage and empower stakeholders within complex systems that can evolve.

Most of us focus on projects because we know how (we've been trained) to get them done. We are intimidated by systems and complexity. Recently, while speaking to a group of corporate, public and non-profit leaders I was struck that none of the 40 or so leaders had attended a single class or course in complexity. I'm willing to bet none are trying to wade through "Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership" either, yet they are all being asked to lead change in their communities or organizations. I don't begin to claim that I fully understand how -- as the authors insist -- that complexity science empowers small groups to make a major difference that goes beyond any of their individual capabilities.

But I do know that I and others who care about our communities must better understand how complex systems work if our projects have a prayer of achieving the change we want.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Alignment Without Influence

Sustained positive change in the communities we care about -- the kind of change that meaningfully alters the quality of life, vibrancy and appeal of a community -- is achieved either by serendipity or alignment.

Serendipity -- Bill Gates and Paul Allen both attending the same school in Seattle or John D. Rockefeller's mom moving to the outskirts of Cleveland -- cannot be influenced much by those of us who work within our respective community's civic infrastructure. But we can influence the level and quality of alignment achieved. Indeed, in many communities a base level of alignment of diverse stakeholders is so common that we often don't notice that it's been achieved. We don't notice this alignment because it isn't accompanied by influence -- the ability to change behaviors in ways that will result in sustained positive change.

A city official recently brought this de facto alignment to my attention by recalling how she had walked into a meeting of civic leaders within a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood who were exploring workforce needs. Nearly everyone in the meeting was also part of an effort to better align workforce efforts across the entire county. Throughout the meeting no one connected the two efforts. Instead they talked as if the neighborhood's workforce needs were somehow disconnected from the surrounding neighborhoods, and somehow weren't dependent on the possible solutions being explored at the county level. The city official said the clout in the neighborhood meeting was likely sufficient to shape the county's workforce efforts. But that wasn't going to happen because even though the stakeholders were aligned, no one was seeing the opportunity for influence.

Similarly, a coordinator of a workforce collaboration inquired how she might get a local chamber of commerce engaged in their effort to increase its ability to influence policy and behaviors. Since the workforce collaboration was employer-led this shouldn't have been a challenge. And since the CEO of one of the employers involved is chair of the chamber, it should have been even easier. Alignment had been achieved. But influence remained elusive. And change was minimal.

Most civic leaders wear multiple hats -- corporate hat, committee hat, non-profit-board hat, political contributor hat, etc. But rarely do they wear their hats simultaneously; rather they wear each one separately -- reflecting the silos that make up the community's civic infrastructure.

Connecting those silos -- and getting leaders to identify the opportunities for influence that are possible through this de facto alignment -- are key roles for those of us who strive to strengthen the civic infrastructure of our communities so that we can achieve collective impact.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Leading Without an Org Chart

The first organizational chart that most of us encountered was the first grade seating chart. The teacher's desk was at the top of the chart and it was crystal clear who was in charge. Over the years, whether our career path took us into the public, private or non-profit sector we each learned to understand the org chart. It simplified things -- it told us who was in charge and where we fit into the system.

When I started working full-time in the complex civic environment in Northeast Ohio it seemed like everyone wanted an org chart and I spent a lot of time trying to draw one to satisfy this primordial need. But the org charts we drew really looked like relationship maps drawn by folks like Valdis Krebs and Not many people liked the charts because no one was at the top and there were too many organizations on them. And this was just the chart for the complex business development system. If I added the chart for the talent-development system that map got entirely too complex (and the nodes multiplied).

I blamed my lack of drawing skills. But upon reflection, the audience wanted to see a chart that showed who was in charge and who was accountable to whom. Such a chart was impossible to draw because civic environments are complex. No one is in charge, yet nearly everyone must be engaged and connected.

This reality is foreign to us because are accustomed to working in complicated environments, where org charts and hierarchies work relatively well. (But not as well as we think, according to this compelling article by Dave Pollard on the Wirearchy blog.)

Most board members of civic organizations are not used to operating in the complex civic environments where multiple organizations need to collaborate together to achieve the desired change. Complex environments are so foreign and org charts so comforting that many leaders respond to the lack of a chart by insisting that one be created. They try to put organizations on top of each other. They are encouraged when strong organizational leaders eagerly exert control over other organizations at resource allocation time, only to be disappointed when those same leaders justifiably refuse to be held accountable for the actions of those they tried to control.

Creating positive change in complex environments requires leading without an org chart. Thankfully there are plenty of approaches that tell us how to provide such leadership. The Art of Hosting builds off of the many lessons taught by Margaret Wheatley regarding leading in complexity. And the Collective Impact framework identifies the need for a "backbone entity" to bring coordination (but not control) to complex environments.

But the first step is persuading ourselves that we can thrive without an org chart.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Collaboration Isn't Informal

One of the biggest mistakes we make in the civic space is assuming that collaboration is an informal process. By definition, collaboration is a shared process without clear lines of authority. The lack of hierarchy however doesn't mean a lack of rules. Indeed, if a collaboration is to achieve collective impact their needs to be predetermined rules of interaction that guide the behavior of each of the collaborators.

As Mark Kramer and John Kania highlight in their Embracing Emergence article, the solutions that emerge from collaborations are a reflection of the quality of the interactions among the independent actors. To assure quality interactions, rules need to be in place and understood by the participants. The rules will need to evolve as the collaboration does the same, but they should be in writing.

The most common complaint about collaborations is that they don't produce results as too much time is spent talking (or fighting) and not doing. One reason many collaborations never get beyond the "navel gazing" phase is the participants have never taken the time to clearly articulate what they will do together, and just as importantly how they will work with each other.

In his book Collaborate! Dan Sanker identifies the essentials of collaboration, and one of the most important is to put agreements in writing. Writing down what is expected of each collaborator, as well as the collaboration, as a whole can help keep everyone focused on the common goal. The written agreement can also be used to clarify roles and responsibilities. The agreement should also make clear what is being measured, by whom and how participants in the collaboration are expected to use that data. As Sanker notes, "Even a simple document can help the group use its time and resources as wisely as possible and avoid problems that could interfere with its ability to achieve its goal."

The process of writing the rules of interaction can also give participants an opportunity to build trust. The mere act of reaching an agreement on the rules is an "early win" that can build momentum toward more substantive actions.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Process and Projects

A colleague recently observed that the public wants projects not process. This is a common sentiment, particularly among those who believe transactional activities alone are sufficient to generate sustained positive change.

My perspective is what the public wants is for the economy to improve. They've watched 30 years of civic projects (aka transactions) and 30 years of economic under-performance. Expecting improved transactions to emerge from the same old processes may not be Einstein's definition of insanity, but it's darn close. Solutions that emerge from complex environments are a direct reflection of the quality of the interactions among the players within that environment -- those interactions can also be called "process."

So my colleague may be right, but to get a good project we need better process.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Innovation in Complex Civic Environments

Many of us who work in the civic arena – that wonderful yet perplexing place where the public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit worlds intersect – are frustrated by the lack of innovation that results in sustained positive change. While the pace of innovation is driving unprecedented change in the private sector – including communications, finance and even how we eat -- not enough has changed in how communities address education, economic, environmental or public health challenges and opportunities. The lack of innovation means homelessness rates are relatively stable, education performance lags and public health challenges alone threaten to crush our economy as every dollar spent treating a preventable chronic disease is a dollar not invested in our future.

If we are to accelerate the pace of innovation and increase our ability to sustain positive civic change we should focus on three simple lessons that have been observed for decades by a wide variety of practitioners yet are rarely put into practice.

1.      Recognize that we work in complex environments and develop tools specifically for such environments.

It should be clear – five decades after the launch of the war on poverty – that innovation in the civic arena requires different tools, skills and frameworks than what works in the private sector. Yet – partly because there is so much innovation occurring in the private sector – we continue to use tools designed for the complicated environments of the private sector in our much more complex civic environments.

Writers as diverse as Aldo Leopold and Margaret Wheatley have been advising us for decades on how to recognize and function in complex environments – where solutions emerge based on the interactions of independent agents, and no one is in charge. Yet, we continue to rely on “blue ribbon panels” to develop and impose solutions in complex environments. And we continue to blame the failure of such solutions on parochialism and turf protection by the actors, rather than acknowledging that the design of the solution itself was flawed. Instead of spending precious resources designing technical solutions we need to put more effort into helping the independent agents to design new rules of interactions that will enable more efficient, effective solutions to emerge. We call those interactions “collaboration.” The latest essay from John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG in their popular “Collective Impact” series highlights the critical need to recognize and honor the role of complexity and emergence in the civic sector.

2.      Effective collaborations within complex environments depend on the rules of interactions among the actors.

We make the mistake of associating collaboration with informality. Just because collaborations don’t have a traditional org chart doesn’t mean there aren’t rules of behavior that govern the interactions among the independent actors. Just as the complex natural environment has rules that guide the interactions of the birds, mammals, insects and land – as Leopold observed – so do complex civic environments. We ignore those rules of interaction at our peril; one of the most important is that we prefer to interact with those we trust. Since the quality of the emergent solution reflects the quality of interactions among the independent actors, it is critical that those interactions not be poisoned by a lack of trust and misunderstanding. Of a collaboration I’ve been involved with for nearly a decade that has struggled to live up to its promise, a participant wisely observed recently: “It’s never been designed to build trust.”

Liz Weaver and Paul Born of the Tamarack Institute articulate clearly the need for well-designed and well-governed collaborations to achieve sustained positive change.

3.      Data should guide the resource allocation and actions of our collaborations.
Relying on emergent solutions to drive innovation poses inherent challenges to those who work in the civic arena. First, we are accustomed to working on solutions that have predetermined outcomes (this is often required to secure the grant dollars or the public dollars needed to implement). By definition, emergent solutions don’t have predetermined outcomes and therefore entail at least a modest leap of faith. Also, many solutions will emerge from a well-designed collaboration of civic actors. Which possible solution should we choose? Relevant data can help us address both challenges. Measuring the results of the emergent solutions at all levels – including the level of trust built among the collaborators – helps us understand whether we are moving forward or spinning our wheels. And if we wisely choose what we measure we will select only those emergent solutions that help us move those measures.

I use the term data with caution -- as the wise philosopher Neil Young said, “Numbers add up to nothing;” and numbers alone won’t inform decision making. Quantitative and qualitative data should be woven together into a narrative that influences the resource allocations and actions of the actors within the complex environment. The Strive Partnership in Greater Cincinnati uses data to influence both programmatic and community-wide progress on specific education goals.
Big Data is driving innovation in the private sector, and we in the civic sector need to embrace it as well. Data can act as the “north star” for keeping collaborations focused on creating shared value and sustaining positive change.

As Michael Porter has said, “Innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity.” And the only way we are going to create more vibrant, opportunity-rich communities for the people we care about is to develop the tools, rules and data needed bring more innovation to the civic environment.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

About Regional Physics

I’ve been testing the laws of regional physics in one way or another since about 1999. What is regional physics, you ask? Those are the laws that govern how organizations, institutions and individuals inside a region think, plan and act win a complex regional environment to intervene in the economy. Some call this regional economic development others call it regional economic competitiveness. Regardless of its name, it is challenging work that is never boring.

Pete Carlson, of the FutureWorks consulting firm, first used the term “regional physics” on me when he was evaluating the Fund for Our Economic Future’s efforts to align economic competitiveness efforts across four metropolitan areas in Northeast Ohio. Pete, who is one of the sharpest wits in the economic consulting world, quipped: “You guys are really testing the laws of regional physics.” Not only is Northeast Ohio a big place with very distinct metropolitan areas, the Fund is pursuing an economic agenda that promotes both growth and equity. Most regions are dominated by a single metro area, and most economic agendas either promote economic growth (often led by business groups) or economic equity (often led by social service groups).

Since Northeast Ohio gave birth to the modern industrial corporation (Standard Oil) and community philanthropy (The Cleveland Foundation), it makes sense that we should try to test the laws of regional physics here.

This blog and my Twitter feed, @ccarsonthompson, will chronicle my personal reflections on those laws and their implications for operating within complex enviornments. (You’ll have to put up with some posts about fly fishing and my children on my Twitter feed, as well.)

I hope these lessons are helpful to others interested in building stronger, more vibrant regions. I believe many of these lessons can also be applied across all aspects of civic infrastructure as many of the laws of regional physics apply within our communities, our neighborhoods and even our homes.