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.

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