Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Civic Data and Collective Impact

Civic leaders interested in bringing sustained positive change to their communities make choices every day as to how to use their financial, physical and social capital. Those choices are usually informed by experience, lessons learned from others and intuition. Too rarely they are informed by what I call “civic data.”

Civic data is the translation of relevant quantitative and qualitative measures into a narrative that is shared and used to inform and guide decisions.

Civic leaders -- those individuals who are willing to assume shared responsibility for achieving and sustaining positive change within their community -- need civic data to better understand what to do, whether what they are doing is working and to persuade others to alter their actions. Achieving what some call "collective impact" cannot be achieved without civic data.

Civic data has three distinct uses:

  • To help civic leaders understand the type of change our community should seek.  As Josh McManus of the Knight Foundation observes, “We need to fall in love with the problem.” One reason we need to fall in love with a problem is sustaining positive change requires civic leaders to make very difficult and challenging decisions (behavior change is never easy). Civic leaders are more likely to take those actions if they care passionately – are in love with the problem. Unlike affairs of the heart, when it comes to civic affairs our love needs to be informed with facts, figures, trends and other data that helps us understand what is going well and needs to be reinforced and what isn’t and needs to be transformed. Civic data alone cannot help us understand the change we should seek; but we cannot define the change without it.
  • To help civic leaders develop a collective understanding of the progress individual and collective efforts are making toward the desired change. The desired change should be articulated by a clear, measurable goal(s). The metrics used and data collected/synthesized to assess that progress should be widely accepted, used and communicated among those who have assumed shared responsibility for and/or are affected by the change.
  • To help individuals make critical decisions. Choices regarding the education of their children, the career they pursue, the neighborhood where they live, the type of business they start, where to locate their business can be informed by readily accessible, relevant and current civic data.
What “civic data” is available and who is responsible for developing it varies based on its intended use. For example, to truly understand the complexity of a civic system (such as entrepreneurship, education or workforce development systems) we may need to have access to a wide range of measures and information. But that data may only be needed for a one-time or periodic assessment. Once what truly matters within a civic system is well understood and a goal is defined a community may need a much narrower data set to measure its progress. However, a community will need that data to be current and widely understood. If the civic data is to be used to inform the decisions of individuals, it will also need to be very accessible.

Advocates for civic data often make the incorrect assumption that there is demand for it among public officials, private sector executives, foundation leaders and others. Demand often needs to be built as civic leaders may be comfortable or accustomed to making decisions with limited or no civic data. Many communities use valuable resources to create civic data – often made accessible through a “community dashboard” – that are not regularly used by either civic leaders or residents. The civic data is curated to meet the expectations of the advocates rather than the needs of civic leaders and individuals.

Experience teaches us that centralizing responsibility for civic data distances the data from the decision makers. Responsibility for civic data should be embedded with those who are responsible for coordinating the community’s efforts to achieve the clear, measurable goals in question. For example, Summit Education Initiative (SEI) helps coordinate the community’s efforts to achieve very clear education goals. It has effectively used civic data to help stakeholders identify those goals and it helps stakeholders use data to identify strategies and practices to achieve those goals. The civic data and the civic strategy are embedded within the same organization.

Most importantly, civic leaders (particularly funders) need to value the civic data enough to continue to use it to inform their allocation of capital, as well as their other actions. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Answering the Genie

In my efforts to help civic leaders achieve sustained positive change within their communities I am increasingly relying on a magical genie.

I ask the leaders to imagine that a magical genie shows up at the doorstep of their community and offers to grant the community three wishes. Then I ask them to answer three questions:

1. What would the community's wishes be?
2. Who would decide what those wishes would be?
3. How would the community go about deciding the answers to the first two questions?

Too often, civic leaders have little idea how to begin answering those questions.

In a speech Saturday, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren reinforced the value of being able to answer these kinds of questions. Of course the Federal Reserve doesn't believe in magic genies (although it has acted as one on behalf of Wall Street at times), Rosengren noted that the Fed's research found communities with a common vision, effective civic leadership and strong cross-sector collaborations are more likely to experience equitable growth.

While no community will ever be promised three wishes, civic leaders can develop the capacity to identify opportunities for positive change and sustain effective collaborations to achieve that change.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Collaboration Chickens and Eggs

My previous post on the four conditions that are required for effective collaborations prompted Sandy Maxey to wonder how communities that lack the leadership, trust, high-performing organizations and capacity that I believe is necessary for collaboration can develop those capabilities. She noted that my advice was a little too much of a chicken-egg conundrum.

I promised her a post on how communities can develop these four capabilities and here it goes.

First, there are many kinds of collaboration. I am talking about the kind of collaboration that is necessary to achieve large-scale change within the messy, complex systems that make up our communities. The kind of change necessary, for example, to go from dead last in entrepreneurship to one of the top destinations for venture capital between the coasts (something that Northeast Ohio has done over the last 15 years).

Second, I firmly believe that Traci Jadlos of the United Way of Cleveland is 100% correct when she said this kind of change only occurs when leaders refuse to tolerate the inequity they see in the community they care about. If we tolerate inequity (in whatever form it may come within our communities) it will persist. Sandy appropriately expressed concern that collaboration is nothing more than a collective effort at "reinforcing stasis." If a collaboration isn't rooted in an intolerance of the status quo, then it will result in nothing more than coblaboration.

Galvanizing leaders help us recognize the inequity and lower our tolerance for it. But what do we do if there is no such galvanizing leader? We have to either make one or become one. Galvanizing leaders don't necessarily have to have positional authority. But they do need to be able to unite other leaders around a cause. Because I work for philanthropy in a community rich in philanthropic leaders, it isn't surprising that I believe leaders of philanthropic entities are well positioned to play the role of galvanizing leader. It is often a role they prefer not to play -- foundation leaders are often uncomfortable being "out front." But if a foundation is devoted to improving educational outcomes doesn't it make sense that the leader of that foundation try to unite others around a common education goal? We have learned that grants alone cannot transform educational outcomes (just ask Bill Gates). Philanthropic leaders have the freedom to step beyond their own organizational walls and unite other stakeholders.

Because of the critical role galvanizing leadership plays in our communities, we should expect our leadership development organizations to help participants develop the necessary skills to become better collaborative leaders. Too many community-based leadership programs are focused on reinforcing the status quo than they are in helping their communities develop the leadership needed to achieve real change. It has been gratifying to work with both Leadership Cleveland and Leadership Akron to develop substantive curriculum that will help those communities develop more collaborative leaders.

One of the most important skills of collaborative leaders is the ability to build trust. And trust is one of the 4 conditions for effective collaboration. What do we do if our civic culture is rife with distrust? We need to change that culture. And, as Kirstin Toth of the GAR Foundation says, trust isn't built in group settings, it is built one-on-one. So if you want to bring change within messy, complex system the first step isn't to call a big meeting. It is to start meeting one-on-one with key players to identify what they want, need and believe. Eventually, you'll be ready to call a big meeting. But start by building trust one person at a time.

I've observed that high-performing organizations are much more willing to build trust with others than are mediocre or poor performing orgs. High-performing organizations trust that the value they provide is recognized in the community, and they are willing to take the risk of working with others. Struggling organizations are so focused on their own needs they cannot afford to use valuable resources to build relationships with others. Lower performing organizations are usually the first ones in a meeting to highlight how important it is that they get credit for their work. What do we do if our community doesn't have many high-performing organizations? Or worse, what if the organizations are all declaring programmatic success yet nothing is changing? Measurement is the first step toward improving performance. Once again, I believe philanthropy has an important role in making sure common, meaningful measurements are in place to assess progress and outcomes. A colleague laments that too often funders deploy what he calls "manufactured rigor" instead of meaningful measurement. "Manufactured rigor" keeps grantees busy tracking activities and outputs, not substantive outcomes. Measurement matters -- what we measure, how we measure and how we use what we learn to adapt what we do.

Measurement requires capacity. How do we measure our community's progress on education, poverty, job creation etc. if there isn't the capacity to do so? There are other critical capacities required to make collaboration work, including communication. How do we create capacity where there is none? Ideally, the individual organizations working within a system will recognize the need for "collaboration capacity" and together they will identify and/or seek the resources needed to build such capacity. The best kind of "collaboration capacity" is designed by the players within the system; players who no longer are willing to tolerate the inequities they see. The worst kind of "collaboration capacity" is designed by funders with minimal input from the players within the system. The other players often resent this new capacity (which is consuming resources that should go to each of the players...just ask them). They view this new capacity not as a resource, but as a competitor. Galvanizing leaders need to make the case for "collaboration capacity," and make sure the capacity is designed to meet the needs of the high-performing organizations who trust each other to use that capacity to achieve the desired change.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

4 Conditions for Collaboration

Collaboration is necessary to achieve sustained, positive change within the messy, complex systems that make up a region’s economy. These systems – made up of diverse players from multiple sectors -- shape the talent development, education, business development, entrepreneurship, innovation and other critical outcomes that determine the vibrancy and competitiveness of a regional economy.

Over the last eight years working with the Fund for Our Economic Future I have learned that for collaborations to generate and sustain positive outcomes four essential conditions must be met:

  • Galvanizing Leadership
  • Trust
  • High-performing organizations
  • Capacity

Galvanizing Leadership – While messy, complex systems are beyond any individual’s control, leadership is critical. Galvanizing leaders unite diverse stakeholders and persuade them to no longer tolerate the inequity to be addressed or to seize the opportunity to be pursued. Galvanizing leaders have the ability to stand above the fray of intramural battles. Galvanizing leaders hold the group together when the collaboration stumbles – and they all stumble. Sometimes the source of their leadership ability is their financial capacity, sometimes it is the sheer force of personality.

Trust – Every participant in a collaboration is taking a risk. They are assuming some level of shared responsibility for a process they don’t control. We are more willing to take risks – putting our social and fiscal capital on the line – with those that we trust. This is why Stephen Covey has observed that collaborations move at the speed of trust. The level of trust among the players within a system reflects the culture and experience of the individual players, as well as their collective experience. Trust may not be high initially, but it can be built. And if trust is very low, actions can be taken to build trust among players long before the collaboration is shaped.

High-Performing Organizations – Sustained positive change isn’t produced by mediocrity. Asking ineffective organizations to collaborate assures an ineffective collaboration. Players within a system must be committed to high-performance. A key question galvanizing leaders must consider before calling for a collaboration is whether there are sufficient high-performing organizations within the system to achieve the desired change. If there aren’t, the galvanizing leader should focus initial efforts on improving the accountability and performance of key organizations.

Capacity – Collaboration doesn’t happen through magic. It requires hard work – including constant communications among players to build trust, alignment of efforts and measurement and evaluation of outcomes. FSG has appropriately dubbed this capacity as the "backbone" of collaboration of collective impact. FSG highlighted in the initial article on collective impact that the participating organizations within a collaboration have no excess capacity to perform these and other essential functions. I refer to this capacity as "buying the donuts." Someone needs to organize the meeting of the collaborators, and that invariably calls for buying donuts and coffee for the early morning meetings that are held so that the collaboration doesn't interfere with our regular work. Of course, this capacity does much more than buy food. It helps build trust among stakeholders and helps identify what is required to be a high-performing organization. Collaborations demand capacity.

Galvanizing leadership, trust, high-performing organizations and capacity are critical elements to sustain collaborations that generate sustained, positive change in the communities we care about. Philanthropy is distinctly positioned to provide such leadership; create environments where trust can be built; to insist upon high-performance; and be a source of capacity.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Journey Through the Lonely Middle

Generational poverty is one of our society's most wicked, complex challenges. The layers of issues and barriers are often beyond our collective understanding. They are so overwhelming they often paralyze us from acting.

We need a story that we can tell ourselves that will help us understand the challenge and inform our actions. I heard that story today. Nichole Booker of the United Way of Summit County told me the story. I cannot do her version justice and I am modifying the way she tells it, but here it goes:

We are born into one of two systems. One is a work-based system. The second is a poverty-based system. Each system is full of its hurdles, challenges and stresses. As we grow, we are taught by our elders and our peers how to survive within the system to which we are born. Some of us develop the skills necessary to thrive within the system. We may come into contact with the other system, but we aren't really familiar with it. Our friends, our supporters, our family -- everything we really know -- is within our native system.

A person born into the poverty-based system may be motivated to leave and desire to enter the work-based system. And when they do they begin the journey through what Nichole calls the "lonely middle." It is lonely because the person must leave behind the known and the trusted. They haven't yet developed familiarity with the new system. They don't know who to trust. Nor do they know what is expected of them. The new system is foreign -- as foreign as if someone from the work-based system had jumped on an airplane for Japan without knowing the language or having any friends or contacts. Rare is the person born into the work-based system who is willing to make a "lonely middle" journey. Those who are willing are called entrepreneurs.

A "lonely middle" journey is terrifying, no matter what system we are born into. Yet, those of us who are born into the work-based system regularly demean and dismiss those born into generational poverty for not being willing to make the journey.

Nichole speaks regularly to the brave natives of the poverty-based system who are about to embark on the "lonely middle" journey thanks to the work of Bridges Out of Poverty. She encourages them to embrace the anxiety and uncertainty. She tells them that such loneliness is a sign that they are making progress. They are leaving behind a system that, no matter how familiar, limits their possibilities.

Of course, those who have made the journey should be encouraged to help others follow in their footsteps. But the answer to the wicked, complex challenge of generational poverty isn't just rooted in persuading more people to make that journey. The answer is in what must we -- those of us who were fortunate enough to be born into the work-based system -- do to help make their journey both a little less lonely and a lot shorter.

2 Kinds of Civc Business Leadership

Organized groups of business leaders often play a critical role in designing or supporting civic projects in our communities. While it's an over-simplification these civic projects broadly fall into two categories:

  • Physical Development Projects -- Infrastructure and amenities are critical to the vibrancy of our communities and business leaders often lead campaigns for parks, new development districts, roads, airports and similar efforts. These are transaction-driven projects and lend themselves to clear timelines and hierarchical design. Interestingly, these projects don't likely have a direct impact on the bottom line of a company providing the leadership. Yes, a business will benefit from the building of a new waterfront district that will make the city more attractive and therefore help attract or retain talent, but that benefit is very indirect.
  • Competitiveness Projects -- A community's competitiveness is determined by several factors, including its inclusiveness, its innovation capacity, its entrepreneurial climate and the educational attainment and skills of its residents. Improving competitiveness requires us to deal with complex systems made up of multiple stakeholders. These systems are beyond anyone's control. Systems maps are needed, in addition to org charts. Transactional activity alone will not produce sufficient change to achieve our goals. The quality of of the system's outcomes are a direct reflection of how well the players within the system interact with each other. These projects have a more direct impact on a company's performance as the systems involved determine the kinds of talent and innovation that are readily accessible.
Many business communities are able to organize themselves around the first kind of projects. I believe this is because the leadership skills required is very similar to the leadership required within the business organization. Business leaders are well trained in organizational management, timelines, transactions and hierarchies. Within most businesses it is clear who is in charge, how the organization works and what is needed to get the job done. Physical development projects have the same kind of clarity.

Most of us (whether we work in the public, private or nonprofit arenas) aren't nearly as comfortable working within systems beyond our control. We are trained in the linear world of complicated systems much more than the emergent world of complex systems. And most of all we don't like being dependent on others. The skills needed to lead in such environments are dramatically different from the skills needed within a business.

Business leaders can develop the skills to lead in complex systems -- indeed there are many complex systems within the business world that require different leadership skills. But generally speaking, business leaders are more comfortable leading a transaction than they are leading through complexity.

We know that to achieve sustained, positive community change we must deal with complex issues that shape our economic competitiveness. To achieve that change, we must help our business leaders (as well as other civic leaders) develop the skills required to lead in complex systems.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why the Philanthropic Dollar is Special

Recently I had the privilege of talking with the leaders of a brand new foundation about why a philanthropic dollar is a special dollar and therefore shouldn't be treated as just another dollar in the funding pot.

A philanthropic dollar is special because of the freedom associated with that dollar.Unlike other funders in the civic arena -- such as public and private funders -- philanthropic funders have an incredible amount of freedom to choose where they allocate their dollars. There are a myriad of restrictions on where public dollars can flow. Ask anyone in the public system what they'd change first, and more often than not the answer will be something like: "more flexible funding." Private sector dollars allocated for civic/nonprofit efforts also are tightly controlled. Most companies prefer funding efforts that return some value to the bottom line.

But foundations -- and individual philanthropists -- can fund just about anything they want as long as it fits within a mission (that can sometimes be rewritten) and fulfills a charitable purpose. Of course some foundations place more restrictions on their dollars than others, but generally these are self-imposed restrictions. Even foundations that are focused on staying true to their founders' original intent find themselves with much more flexibility than the average public official.

The new foundation I was speaking with is focused on access to health services -- a pretty wide open space that allows the leaders to freely choose where and how they want to put their money.

I encouraged them to use their philanthropic dollars in one of two ways. The first is to fund high-performing organizations and/or their programs. High-performing organizations produce valued outcomes for their communities and are deserving of our support. (Finding and sustaining high-performing organizations isn't so easy; but Mario Morino has written the book on that subject.)

The second way to use a philanthropic dollar is to try and align the other dollars in the funding pot. While it is an exaggeration to say there is plenty of money to address all of the world's problems, we all know that many of the public, private and philanthropic dollars being put into the pot go to waste because they:

  • go to organizations and programs that are far from high-performing.
  • fund programs that are isolated and often at cross-purposes from each other.
Philanthropy has the freedom to use its dollars to help other funders (their philanthropic peers, as well as public and private sector players) learn more about the outcomes that are being generated by their respective grants. Philanthropy can use its dollars to help convene stakeholders to reach a shared understanding of what could happen if their efforts were better aligned. And they can use their dollars to help stakeholders align their efforts (using the Collective Impact framework or another approach) to achieve greater change than they ever could in isolation.

This freedom is what makes a philanthropic dollar so special. No other player in the civic arena has this freedom. No foundation -- whether brand new or decades old -- should waste such freedom.

Monday, September 1, 2014

10 Lessons from 10 Years in Regional Physics

I shifted from trying to change the world through journalism to changing the world through civic engagement about 10 years ago. My focus has primarily been on issues related to economic competitiveness. (Read this post for why I hate the term "economic development.")

I'm still learning, but here are 10 lessons learned so far.

  • Economies are regional, but many of the systems that shape a region's economy are local. Dealing with the regional while ignoring the local is a recipe for frustration.
  • Regional economies are product portfolios. The vibrancy of the regional economy reflects the quality of and demand for a region's products (goods and services). 
  • Regionalism means strengthening community assets and connecting them to the regional economy; it does not me consolidating local government (that's called consolidating local government) nor does it mean bigger places telling smaller places what to do.
  • Economic growth without increased opportunity is insufficient and unsustainable. But only if we truly care for those who are less fortunate.
  • Economic interventions should either be focused on improving a region's product portfolio and/or improving the performance of multiple complex systems – including the education, entrepreneurship, innovation, business development and workforce systems – that contribute to a region's competitiveness.
  • The outcomes of those systems are beyond the control of any single entity or program and reflect how well the individual organizations within them perform and the quality of their interactions with each other.
  • The quality of an organization’s performance reflects the clarity of its goals and the level of accountability to which it is held for achieving those goals. High performing organizations are rare. Organizations being held accountable for outcomes are rarer.
  • The quality of the interactions among organizations within a complex system can be improved by creating the capacity for collaboration, including the capacity to build trust, develop a common agenda, align actions, and measure and communicate progress.
  • Philanthropy has a vital role to play in supporting high-performing organizations and effective collaborations within these systems. 
  • Supporting a growing, opportunity-rich economy is work that never ends.
And number 11, the most important lesson of all: Sustained positive change only occurs when leaders within a community refuse to tolerate the inequity they see within the communities that they care about.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Civic Complexity 101

A friend recently asked why I keep tweeting about complexity and why is it relevant to our respective work. Here's my attempt to answer that very good question.

Our communities are full of messy, wicked challenges that defy easy solution. Yet they can be solved. But only if we understand complexity. While the term means different things in different settings, complexity can be described as what emerges from the interactions of independent players within a system. A key attribute of a complex system is it is beyond the control of any player within the system.

I often use the metaphor of nature to help people understand civic complexity because we are all at least familiar with the complex natural systems that make up our environment and because just about everything we want to learn about our civic complexity we can learn from nature. (This is why I keep quoting Aldo Leopold in this blog.)

Beautiful landscapes like the one above can emerge from the interaction of the independent players within a natural ecosystem. Of course, so can mudslides and forest fires. It is the interactions among the players within a system that determines what emerges. Quality interactions result in order and beauty. Poor interactions result in disorder and chaos.The quality of the interactions are determined, in part, by predetermined rules. In nature, we call these the laws of nature. Laws that keep water flowing downhill and predators keeping varmint populations in check.

Our communities are home to a host of complex civic systems that are made up of diverse, independent players. The list of civic systems includes education, business development, safety, health, entrepreneurship, workforce and on and on. Of course all of those individual systems are inter-connected into a larger civic system that shapes our community's quality of life.

The education system, for example, involves organizations as diverse as public schools, private schools, universities, trade schools etc. Throw into the mix social workers, parents, students, school bus drivers and counselors and you have a very complex system. What emerges from that system -- educational outcomes -- is dependent not on any one individual organization but on how the many players perform and how well they interact with each other.

What are the predetermined rules of interaction -- the equivalent of a the laws of nature -- that guide how organizations interact within our communities? Every community has them. These laws are often referred to as civic culture. If a community's civic culture is tolerant of lousy interactions -- such as corrupt organizations abusing power or unrelenting turf protectors -- then the messy wicked problems of the community will persist. (See my earlier post on signs of a poisoned civic culture.)

Researchers as diverse as Manuel Pastor and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston have taken deep data dives to figure out how communities make progress on wicked problems associated with economic prosperity. They have reached the same conclusion. The single distinguishing factor between those communities that are able to move forward and those that are stuck is not wealth, education or innovation. It is the quality of the interactions among diverse stakeholders.

There's a fancy term for quality interactions among diverse stakeholders: collaboration. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Aldo Leopold and Urban Revitalization

Our best hope for restoring our urban cores -- and avoiding future catastrophes like what we are watching unfold in Ferguson, Mo. -- is to increase our appreciation of and demand for urban land. While Aldo Leopold's land ethic was originally framed around his appreciation for wilderness and his despair at man's "Abrahamic concept of land," his wisdom applies to our urban land, as well.

Leopold observed: "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

We abused and abandoned our urban land with little regard for the consequences, and continued to do the same as we sprawled into agricultural land and woods with our strip malls and subdivisions.

Leopold said it long ago: "Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy." As Jason Segedy so eloquently chronicles in his Notes from the Underground blog, this propensity to replicate our infrastructure is both unprecedented and unsustainable.

But maybe things are changing. Recent demographic trends indicate more people are discovering the shortcomings of living in commodity-like developments. They see in urban land a community to which they can belong. And while wilderness may be absent, inside the urban core they can readily access parks, rivers and even Great Lakes that they can love and respect.

This is why efforts like the Lake Link Trail supported by the Cleveland Foundation and others are so important. And visionaries like Rich Cochran and Jim Rokakis of the Western Land Conservancy and its Thriving Communities Initiative strive to increase the demand for and the value of our urban land.

They recognize that unless we heal the wounds we have caused our urban land we will continue to cause even more wounds across our entire region. They are helping build a land ethic for the 21st century. One that is focused on turning abandoned neighborhoods into parks; creating green corridors to connect neighborhoods; using green infrastructure to capture our rain water; and creating livable-walkable neighborhoods that meld commercial, industrial, residential and recreational uses.

Revitalizing our urban cores will both create more opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged living in our inner cities, and it will reduce the paving of our wild and working lands.

Leopold's call for a land ethic was revolutionary in the first half of the last century. It remains so today. And it's time to bring the revolution to our urban land.

Monday, August 18, 2014

High Tolerance for Inequity

A very wise woman once observed that civic change occurs when leaders jointly decide that they will no longer tolerate the inequities they see within the communities that they care about.

After reading articles like this one by Mark Naymik about long-term, troubled leadership at a critical nonprofit, I am reminded that some communities have a very high tolerance for inequity.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Regions, Community and Trust

Economies are regional; communities aren't. This is one reason why effective economic development strategies are so rare.

Economic activity concentrates within a geographic area that extends beyond the boundaries of any one city or county, and sometimes even a state. This is an "economic region." Within each region are a host of communities. The economic connections that bind a region together are generally much weaker than the civic connections that bind together a community. Those civic connections include what high school one attended, the neighborhood one lives in and what local elections one votes in. Communities share common values -- residents of a community feel a shared history and a shared future. Civic connections are at the core of the community. Economic connections alone cannot create community.

A community with strong civic connections is a community that is rich in trust. And trust is the most critical element to achieving change within messy, complex systems -- like those that shape a region's economy. Those systems include workforce, innovation, entrepreneurship, transportation, education etc. Complex systems are made up of diverse stakeholders from multiple sectors. The systems are beyond the control of any one or even a small group of stakeholders.

For example, how well the education system performs within a community depends on the interactions of students, teachers, parents, administrators, social workers, police, bus drivers and on and on and on...Messy and complex.

The performance of complex systems is dependent on how the stakeholders interact with each other. In natural systems, independent players (trees, grass, birds, rain, animals etc.) can interact to create beauty or they can interact to create landslides. Same deal in our civic systems.

How independent players interact with each other is a direct reflection of the level of trust within the system. If a stakeholder shares common values and trusts the others at the table then they will be more willing to assume shared responsibility for achieving a collective goal. In short, they are willing to collaborate.

The absence of community at a regional level can translate into an absence of trust among stakeholders. Community and trust can be built. Indeed, a regional philanthropic community rich in trust has been built by my employer, the Fund for Our Economic Future, over the last decade. Galvanizing leaders who shared common values -- if not area codes -- were able to overcome geographic distance and organized around a common goal: transforming the economy of Northeast Ohio. Members of the Fund have tried to help stakeholders from other sectors -- particularly corporate leaders and public officials -- develop their capacity to build stronger civic connections and trust. But the absence of a compelling common goal and other factors have limited their ability to develop a regional vehicle for trust building like the Fund.

Of course the level of trust within communities varies widely. Communities with a high degree of cross-sector, civic trust are more willing to take the risk of engaging in regional efforts than those that are fragmented. High-trust communities have learned the benefit of collaboration and are confident that even if the regional effort doesn't fulfill its promise they'll be able to extract some value from the process. Stakeholders from fragmented communities arrive at regional discussions focused on the risk and reward for their organization, not to their community. Suspicion and doubt retard the development of trust.

Intervening in a regional economy requires us to think, plan and act regionally and that means, as the Council on Competitiveness has noted, we must collaborate. Collaborations move at the speed of trust. Trust is built within communities.

To effectively intervene we need to help the communities that make up our respective regions become rich in trust, and we need to create safe places (like the Fund) where strong regional civic connections can be formed so that we increasingly recognize that our economic regions need to be a community, as well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fiduciary to Whom?

A chair of a nonprofit recently described the board's "fiduciary responsibility to our organization."

But does a nonprofit board have a legal duty to act solely in the interests of the organization? Wouldn't we be better served if a nonprofit board viewed its primary responsibility to be to the charitable purpose of the organization, not the organization itself?

One of the biggest challenges facing the nonprofit sector is accountability. In the business marketplace ineffective organizations will (eventually) be abandoned by their customers. In the nonprofit marketplace, there technically is nothing to stop funders from funding an ineffective organization forever.

I expect it is exceptionally rare for a nonprofit to be sustained by board members despite long-term failure. But as Mario Morino points out in his book Leap of Reason (and the invaluable web site LeapofReason.org), the percentage of high performing nonprofits is relatively small.

Mario says this is the case because nonprofit leaders and their boards fail to ask the question all good businesses ask before they launch an initiative, "To what end?" The answer should be found somewhere in the charitable purpose of the organization; it should not be found in the interests of the organization itself.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Get Out on the Ledge & Enjoy the View

Every so often I get a sign that I'm not just talking to myself. Last week I got a voice mail from the head of a foundation that I've been working with for the last few years. She was excited to share that her board had committed to a multi-year grant to accelerate systems change.

Since her foundation is a traditional, programmatic grant maker a grant designed to improve the performance of a key civic system was a departure from the norm and therefore a significant risk. The board had acknowledged the risk in approving the grant. This both pleased the head of the foundation and made her nervous. She said she felt like she was out on a ledge and was hoping I could talk her off. I called back and declined her request. Instead, I congratulated her on persuading her board to make and acknowledge a risky grant. And I encouraged her to enjoy the view from the ledge. Because she was definitely on one. And I said she should make sure her board comes out on the ledge with her.

Indeed, we should all be willing to get out on the ledge more often and we definitely need to enjoy the view when we are out there. The only way we're going to achieve sustained positive change is to support efforts to advance systems change and that means taking more risks. Granted, theses efforts won't always work as planned. That's to be expected. We'll be more willing to go back out on the ledge again if we at least enjoy the view while we are out there.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

2 Types of Leaders Required for Collective Impact

One of the many paradoxes of complex civic systems is that even though they are beyond the control of any single individual or organization, achieving change within those systems is still dependent on outstanding leadership. Without leadership the diverse stakeholders within the system will pursue their individual interests and fail to develop the capacity to collaborate.

Within the civic arena two distinct types of collaborative leaders are required to achieve sustained positive change. The two types of leaders are dramatically different in character and experience. One reason collaborations fail is the first kind of leader fails to recognize the need for the second kind.

The first kind of leader is the "galvanizing leader." This leader helps create what John Kania of FSG refers to as the preconditions of Collective Impact. Those preconditions are:
  1. An Influential Champion - An individual or small group who command the respect necessary to bring CEO-level cross-sector leaders together and keep them actively engaged over time
  2. Adequate Financial Resourcing -  Adequate financial resources to last at least two to three years and generally involving at least one anchor funder to support needed infrastructure and planning
  3. A Sense of Urgency for Change - A new opportunity or crisis that convinces people that a particular issue must be acted upon now and/or that a new approach is needed
I refer to these preconditions as the "climate for collaboration." Galvanizing leaders are able to change the climate within a community -- to create the sense of urgency; to secure the resources and to provide the public face for a new way of operating.

Ironically, these leaders often fail to translate their galvanizing efforts into effective collaboration because they don't value the second kind of leader critical to successful civic collaboration. I call this kind of leader the "coordinating leader."

Usually the galvanizing leader runs an organization -- they are charismatic CEOs, politicians and nonprofit leaders able to unite other leaders for a greater cause. When it comes to finding a leader of that cause they often look for a leader who looks like them -- an organizational leader. However, as Chrislip and Larson (and many others) have made clear, the leadership techniques and skills needed to foster collaboration are dramatically different than those learned by most organizational leaders.

Leaders of a collaboration need to focus on creating value for the stakeholders, not on building up an organization. Coordinating leaders exhibit what Robert Greenleaf identified as the principles of a servant leader. The listening, empathy and trust-building skills of a servant leader are often under appreciated by an organizational leader, but they are essential to foster collaboration.

Put an organizational leader at the helm of a collaboration and soon the entity formed to foster collaboration (what FSG calls a "backbone") looks like just another organization competing for funding and credit within the complex system. That is a recipe for coblaboration, not Collective Impact.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Organizations and Outcomes

I like to oversimplify if only because it is much easier to remember two or three things than it is a dozen or more. So at the risk of oversimplification, civic change efforts focus on either organizations or outcomes.

And while change occurs when we focus on outcomes, we spend most of our civic effort focused on organizations. Why? Again at the risk of oversimplification, here are three reasons:

1. We know organizations much better than we understand complex systems; after all we all work for organizations. Organizational structures are very familiar to us and we are comfortable with their design and redesign. The structure of a complex system is much harder to draw, let alone reshape.

2. We can control organizations. Control in the civic space is highly valued. Control plays out in many ways, not the least of which is budgets. About a decade ago a civic leader remarked how excited he was for a pending redesign of his community's civic infrastructure. "I can't wait to get my hands on that checkbook," he said. This desire for control is understandable and appropriate. We've all seen under-performing organizations and there is is great value in making them high performers. But we also know that high-performing organizations acting in isolation cannot transform a community.

3. We'd rather not be held accountable for things we cannot control. Achieving community-level change is about shared responsibility. We all have a part to play in holding each other accountable for the performance of a complex system. This is much more difficult than the relatively simple (but all too rare) job of being a fiduciary for an organization.

It is so easy (and understandable) to focus on organizational change over systems change. The best way for communities to stay focused on outcomes is to have a very clear and compelling goal that has the power to hold our attention -- or to at least pull us away from the temptation of focusing too much on a single organization.

If we are focused on the goal, the structure of individual organizations becomes secondary. Taking credit becomes secondary. Control becomes secondary. The only thing that matters is how are we doing toward achieving our goal.

Of course, that is an oversimplification.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Will, Skill and The Bill

The multi-talented Jennifer Splansky Juster of FSG wrote a great post recently that helped clarify what factors civic leaders should consider before embarking on a collective impact initiative.

I think Jen's advice is incredibly important because achieving collective impact is very difficult, and the last thing civic leaders should do is pursue it for the wrong reasons. While I believe passionately in the framework, Jen is right when she says it isn't always the correct approach to a community opportunity.

Based on experience and some recent conversations with some philanthropists and nonprofit leaders, I'd encourage everyone thinking about adopting collective impact to first take a hard look at the quality of the non-profits with which they would be working.

Do they have a proven track record of producing outstanding outcomes -- what Mario Morino in Leap of Reason calls high performers? The best way to get to collective impact is to start with high performers. Even a great collaboration among average performers can only produce average results.

Here's my overly simplistic short-hand as to what needs to be present to even consider exploring whether a collective impact initiative is worth pursuing.
  1. Skill -- Are there sufficient number of stakeholders in the space with the demonstrated ability to produce outcomes that give one confidence that achieving something great (collective impact) is possible? 
  2. Will -- Is there sufficient trust and motivation among the stakeholders to go through the pain and agony of collaboration?
  3. The Bill -- The act of organizing for collective impact does take resources. Is everyone involved willing to see some of the dollars flow to the "process" rather than having them all go to the "doing?" 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fly Fishing Your Way to Collective Impact

The Roaring Fork River flows through the canyon behind my room at the Aspen Meadows Resort - home of the first conference on the Funder's Role in Collective Impact -- so it shouldn't surprise anyone that reads my fly fishing blog that I spent the night reflecting on how my one passion informs what has become my life's work.

Look and learn before wading in. Many fly anglers, even experienced ones, assume the most (and certainly the largest) trout are up against the far bank. It seems nine out of 10 anglers immediately wade into a river, stripping out line trying desperately to reach the far shore. In the process they spook the fish holding tight against the near bank, cause a ruckus with their aggressive wading and quickly discover that there are too many competing river currents to get a good drift on the far side. A river is a complex system. Just because one has seen one river doesn't make one an expert on a new river. And even if a river has been fished before an angler should take the time to understand what has changed since the last visit, because like all complex systems a river is constantly changing. Take the time to stand at the bank, observe, learn how the fish are responding to their environment and watch some more before wading in.

Funders of collective impact need to do the same. Patrick McCarthy, CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said yesterday that advocates of collective impact cannot be in a hurry -- either to define the high level vision or shape governance. Stakeholders need to learn together and develop a shared understanding of each other's interests, as well as their collective aspirations. Learning before wading is costly, time consuming and sometimes frustrating; but the dividends are great.

Junious Williams of the Urban Strategies Council, made a strong case for the value of accessible, transparent data in helping communities achieve change. We need robust data that enables us to see the integrated relationships among the systems we are trying to influence within our communities, he said. Using data to inform decision making rather than wading in -- assuming one knows the answers -- is a critical part of the collective impact framework.

Williams, McCarthy and others emphasized the need to understand the needs of the individuals whose lives we are trying improve by actually engaging them in the change process. Paul Schmitz of Public Allies said the best people to work on neighborhood change are the residents themselves. They should be engaged, and even hired to help lead the change.

Pay attention to what's below the surface. The vast majority of trout are caught not on beautiful, delicate dry flies that float on the river's surface, but on chunky, hairy nymphs that bounce along the bottom. This requires the angler to understand the dynamics of river currents and the effects of obstacles -- such as boulders and logs -- on trout.

The Funder must also understand the power dynamics within the complex system -- including how their mere presence in the process influences those dynamics. Good data adds transparency to the system, Williams said; just as polarized sunglasses can bring some transparency to the river bottom.

McCarthy said that issues of race, class and equity are often hidden below the surface of community conversations. Because we are uncomfortable with such conversations we are eager to reach agreement on a high level vision that seems to address these issues, such as this vision for a neighborhood redevelopment effort: "All families will be better off." Yet, the stakeholders never take the time to understand what each other means by being "better off."

Schmitz echoed an earlier post here by saying that collaboration requires conflict. This work requires people to change their behavior and that is an inherent source of conflict. That conflict is often below the surface, hidden from view. But eventually it will come out and disrupt the collaborative process. Funders and designers of collaborations need to develop a process that surfaces the conflict within the "collaboration room," or else it will surface outside the safe space of the collaboration and cause even more conflict.

Fish close in. As noted above, most anglers are inclined to fall in love with the long cast even though actually catching a trout requires an angler to be in constant contact with the fly. Long casts make both sensing the take and setting the hook very challenging. And more often than not, a long cast results in an unnatural drift, spooking the trout.

Many funders, particularly foundations, have a habit of keeping their distance from their grantees. There are a variety of reasons -- including a sincere desire to allow the experts in the field to do their work without excessive interference. But working on sustained community change is not traditional grantmaking and as Ben Hecht of Living Cities said, it requires an engaged grantmaker. "You need a point of view," he said. It is very hard to develop that point of view from a distance.

Muscle memory matters. Weather and work often conspire to keep fly anglers off the water for months. And many of us think it's just like riding a bike and we can resume accurate casting without any practice. Not so much. There is both an art and a science to fly casting; and like all such hybrid activities it requires practice.

Stacey Stewart of United Way Worldwide described collective impact as the building of new community muscle that results in civic confidence. Building those new muscles takes hard work. And Hecht added that most people aren't technically proficient at using the muscles required to work and/or lead collaboratively in complex systems.We must learn to build these muscles and get proficient at using them.

Schmitz of Public Allies said leadership requires us to practice the values that engage with others -- not engage to or engage at. This practice of collaboration doesn't come naturally -- it requires preparation, dedication and commitment. In this way it isn't like fly fishing at all. Fly fishing is relaxing and pure pleasure. In contrast, collaborating to achieve collective impact is, as McCarthy said, "awfully tough work."

But it's worth it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Collective Impact Reality Check

As I get ready to board a plane headed for a Collective Impact conference for funders at the Aspen Institute I am thinking about the challenges, promise and realities of collaborating across sectors in complex systems to achieve sustained positive change in the communities for which we care.

Here are three realities that I think will be helpful to check the unbridled enthusiasm that we’re about to encounter at the conference.

Collective Impact is a process, not a solution. All true advocates of this framework for collaboration acknowledge this reality up front. Our friends from FSG write about this point extensively, but it’s often lost in the translation as eager consultants and wannabe “backbones” gloss over the challenges, limitations and hard work involved in this process. My mentor and great Karen Nestor is fond of quoting Eric Hoffer about what happens when a good idea gets in the hands of sales people.  
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
All of us who champion Collective Impact must take care to stay out of the racket business.

Achieving Collective Impact depends on transactional excellence. In all of the excitement about collaboration it is easy to lose sight of the need for nonprofits to perform their work very well. Mario Morino hammers home this point in his critically important book Leap of Reason. If nonprofits fail to be high performers able manage to outcomes but are good at collaborating what will actually be achieved? Rare is the collaboration of C-level organizations that are able to produce an A-level collaboration. And achieving Collective Impact demands an A-level collaboration. Before investing a lot of time in learning how to collaborate, nonprofits (and their funders) need to focus on elevating their own performance.

Leadership is critical. One of the many paradoxes of complex systems is that while no single entity is in control, achieving positive change is dependent on leadership. No collaboration can be successful without effective leadership. Collaborative civic leadership behavior and skills are dramatically different than traditional, hierarchical leadership. Uniting diverse stakeholders from across sectors takes a rare breed of leader who is able to build trust, foster a shared vision, and empower everyone involved. Without such dynamic leadership, the collaboration will likely be stuck at the level of “coblaboration.”

Monday, May 12, 2014

Trust's Memory

Collaborations within complex systems can only move at the speed of trust as no single entity has the authority to control others within the system.

When trust is absent stakeholders only pretend to be willing to work together the same way execs pretend to pay attention to the presentation while scrolling through their email on their iphone.

Recently a wise man shared two truisms about trust:
  • Trust has no memory; it must be earned every day.
  • Broken trust is never forgotten.
This is why we can never put enough time into the hard, often tedious work of building trust among diverse stakeholders. Yes, we all want to "get things done" but moving fast requires us to go slow and to wisely use that time to build trust.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Meeting Global Demand & Creating Local Demand

One of the more disturbing possible explanations for widening economic inequity is that innovation in the global economy is reducing demand for labor. If -- and I emphasize the word if -- this is the case, this poses an unprecedented challenge for the economic development community.

Economic development efforts today are almost entirely designed around improving a community's ability to meet global demand for goods and services. Entrepreneurial assistance programs are designed to assist start-up businesses serving global markets. Business attraction efforts target companies that are growing because of increased global demand for their products. Business retention and expansion efforts are focused on helping companies innovate and address the ever-changing demands of global markets.

But if all of that effort to help companies meet global demand actually results in fewer people working, what is the civic justification for these efforts?

If what we are seeing in the post-Great Recession economy is a global reduction in demand for labor the mantra of traditional economic development efforts could no longer be "jobs, jobs, jobs." No governor is going to seek re-election touting the growth in their state's economy if that growth resulted in fewer jobs.

Such a dramatic shift in global economics would require economic developers accustomed to helping companies meet global demand to help entrepreneurs create local demand. Perhaps the best example of this is the burgeoning local foods sector. Much of the food market is globalized -- we buy berries from Chile and chicken from China. But as plenty of communities have demonstrated, there is growing demand for local foods -- everything from farmer's markets to local restaurants that rely on locally-sourced food. The entrepreneurs propelling these efforts aren't trying to meet global market demand, they are striving to create local demand. And this local demand is -- relatively speaking -- labor intensive.

What's exciting is there is growing evidence that despite the globalization of our economy, entrepreneurs are able to create local demand. And these entrepreneurs are deserving of assistance from economic development organizations. While no more food is being consumed in a no-growth region like Northeast Ohio, more food is being produced by local labor -- whether that is by farmers affiliated with the Countryside Conservancy or the plethora of new businesses surrounding the West Side Market in Ohio City. Obviously the question is how much of the global economy can be shifted to a local economy and would that shift result in more vibrant communities? Advocates of locally-sourced clothing, furniture and even cars will tell you that huge chunks of our economy can be shifted from the global to local markets.

The good news for economic developers is that the strategies to meet global demand and to create local demand aren't mutually exclusive. The most resilient communities will find ways to support strategies that increase local demand, in addition to maximizing the value generated by helping companies meet global demand.

Friday, March 14, 2014

New Forms Needed

This is an exciting time to be engaged in rethinking the role of funders and non-profits in catalyzing sustained positive community change. Dynamic thinkers and doers are raising provocative ideas and making strong cases for a revolution.

If you haven't yet read NPC's Tris Lumley's call for transformation in the social sector on the SSIR blog check it out now. He may have been a little over the top on this one, but I respect him for declaring:
Overall, there is a lack of meaningful accountability among funders to those they claim to help.
And there's this recent post from Jeff Bradach at The Bridgespan Group, who explains why scaling up and collective impact are better viewed as a mash up than as competing concepts. He adds to the growing chorus calling for more support for the capacity to collaborate and coordinate:
The program-centric perspective espoused by much of the social sector often undervalues the role played by organizations engaged in field-building work.
With all of this good thinking going on why am I writing about forms? Here's why. If foundations and other grant makers want to explore these ideas they need to accommodate them within their business practices. The Monitor Institute captured this very well in their Catalyzing Networks for Social Change report issued last year:
Basic grantmaking structures and mechanics, such as siloed program areas static application requirements, inhibit working ... with networks.
How does an organization that is providing what FSG would call "backbone functions" and Monitor would call "network cultivation" fill out a grant application that only wants to know how many individuals will be served by the grant?

Yet, that is exactly what such organizations are being asked to do -- even by foundations that have embraced collaboration, networks, systems change etc. While foundations are increasingly embracing new ways to catalyze change, many haven't yet designed new forms to accommodate this new way of thinking. This might prompt a cynic to wonder whether this new approach will be just a passing fad. Once the forms have changed, we'll know this new thinking will stick.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Design to Build Trust

One of the key tenants of collective impact is there needs to be capacity to facilitate the act of collaboration. The consulting firm FSG refers to this as "backbone" capacity, and often that capacity resides within an organization.

Today while working with leaders in Lorain County who are forging a collaboration to create more economic opportunity for single moms I was asked a very good question: How do you design an effective backbone?

In some of its early collective impact work, FSG described six different kinds of backbone organizations and noted that there are a multitude of designs that can be used to perform the key functions required to facilitate collaborations. While the FSG descriptions are helpful, I found myself giving a much simpler (and perhaps overly simplistic) answer: Design to build trust.

Stakeholders involved in a collaboration need to trust that:

  • Their peers won't take advantage of them for participating in the collaboration.
  • Funders will value the work they do within the collaboration.
  • The "backbone" will create value for their organization.
  • The collaboration process will empower them to do things that they cannot do on their own.
If the design and behavior of the backbone generates suspicion and doubt, participation in the collaboration will be reluctant and limited. Distrust results in coblaboration, not collaboration.

How to design a backbone that will build trust varies from collaboration to collaboration. But one sage piece of advice I've picked up is this: Trust is first built through one-on-one relationships more than it is in group settings. The servant leader at the helm of a backbone must take the time to understand the perspectives and priorities of each of the key players within the collaboration. That understanding is difficult to develop in group settings. Organizations participating in a new collaboration often see themselves as competitors for funding with the others at the collaboration table. Or they may not even know some of the stakeholders at the table. (Does the librarian know the workforce development director?) Neither competitors nor strangers are eager to share in large gatherings.

An effective backbone needs to be designed so it has the time required to build trust one-on-one with stakeholders long before it is expected to start producing results; and more importantly it needs a leader who can build that trust.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Backbone of What?

The other morning one of the my favorite philanthropists asked a critical question rarely heard within the numerous collaborations that I am part of: "What exactly are you a backbone of?"

As I noted earlier, the popularity of the collective impact framework has resulted in many organizations asserting to be a backbone -- i.e. they perform key functions to facilitate the type of collaboration necessary to achieve sustained positive change within complex systems.

Backbone functions are indeed essential to moving from coblaboration to collaboration. But being a backbone is neither easy nor glamorous. And it is only possible to be an effective backbone if there is agreement on the boundaries and functions of the system being served by the backbone. Backbones need to know what they are the backbone of.

Defining the boundaries of a complex system is -- obviously -- complex. Systems consist of diverse stakeholders from multiple sectors performing a multitude of inter-connected functions. For example, the boundaries of an education system could involve everything from pre-natal health care to senior citizen classes. Anyone want to sign up to try to be a backbone for that expansive and complex a system? And while many education backbones use the term "cradle to career," rarely do they try to build a common agenda around functions that are generally considered part of the "workforce system."

The overlapping nature of complex systems can overwhelm stakeholders who are trying to organize themselves to develop the conditions required to achieve collective impact. Clearly defining the boundaries of the system being served by a backbone dramatically increases the chances of success.  

Many of the Strive initiatives that attract a lot of well-deserved attention narrowly define the education system by drawing boundaries that involve just a few school districts, not all of the districts within a community. The Summit Education Initiative is more ambitious, acting as a backbone for 15 school districts within a very diverse county and many more pre-school programs.

What Strive and SEI have in common are very clear boundaries of the systems they serve and the functions performed within those boundaries.

Most systems don't have the relatively clear boundaries of school districts. For example, where would one draw the boundaries of the system that supports entrepreneurship within an economy? Or how about the boundaries of a workforce system where more than 25% of residents cross a county line on their way to work every morning?

A map can help stakeholders visualize the boundaries and functions of the system to be served by the backbone. Stakeholders should be continuously engaged in drawing the map, defining the functions included and identifying the organizations that perform those functions. As the map is built (it's never static), stakeholders can begin to identify the limits of their influence and begin to draw boundaries and eliminate certain functions.

Backbones need such a map to know what they are the backbone of.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Building the Will for Collaboration

This post is the third in a three part series exploring the question, “Can collaboration be learned?”   This is an edited email exchange between Alison Gold of Living Cities, Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, and myself.  When we last left off, Alison had posed a series of questions about identifying and cultivating the will to collaborate.
On January 27, 2014 12:33 PM, "Curtis Ogden" wrote:
Alison, I really like your questions and feel like they would be great to take to a wider audience.  I will say that I am profoundly influenced by Carol Sanford’s  mentoring in all of this, and the belief that personal development is key to evolving our will, moving from a more self-centered perspective to “other” perspective, to understanding the symbiotic nature of different levels of systems. 
I think that some of what we at IISC have seen and helped develop as skillful and deeply rooted “Facilitative Leadership” is indicative of an evolved will that balances agency with external considering.  Facilitative Leadership includes the following:
  • Embodying authenticity (being real)
  • Accepting “others as legitimate others” (Humberto Maturana’s definition of love)
  • Demonstrating concern for equity and fairness, not just as moral imperatives, but as keys to survival
  • Curiosity, receptivity, and flexibility
  • The ability to see patterns
  • Recognizing and engaging power dynamics while leveraging privilege for collective benefit
  • Cultivating individual, organizational, larger systemic/network development
  • Creating conditions for people to be their best value-adding selves
On Jan 27, 2014 1:29 PM, “Chris Thompson” wrote:
This is very helpful perspective and echoes a lot of the work of Paul Born of the Tamarack Institute, who is one of the leading advocates of Collective Impact. His book Community Conversations is invaluable in this area.  More specifically, I believe that there are signs that key stakeholders indeed have the “will” to collaborate at the collective impact level. Organizations that have the will:
  • Value data more than opinions.
  • Focus on creating value not protecting turf.
  • Assume shared responsibility for sustaining the capacity to collaborate rather than insisting it is someone else’s responsibility.
On January 28, 2014 9:18 AM, “Curtis Ogden” wrote:
Thanks, Chris.  For what it’s worth, I came across this Vaclav Havel quote today, and it seems relevant to this notion of building will around collaboration:
"By perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we take responsibility for the river as a whole."

Tell us your experiences. Do you think we “take responsibility for the river as a whole?” Share your thoughts with us at: Alison Gold @AKGold11, Chris Thompson @ccarsonthompson, Curtis Ogden @curtisogden, or leave a comment below.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Community Ethic and Collaboration

Alison Gold, Curtis Ogden and I continued our e-mail conversation on can collaboration be learned. I am intrigued by Curtis' framing of what it takes to collaborate. See yesterday's initial post.

And readers of this blog won't be surprised that I found a way to bring Aldo Leopold into this conversation.

A big thank you to Alison for getting this whole effort off the ground and keeping it going.

From: Alison Gold
Date: Thursday, January 23, 2014 9:17 AMTo: Curtis Ogden, Chris Thompson
 Subject: Re: Can Collaboration Be Learned
All of this begs the question, how do you know when the will is there? Or isn’t? We seem to keep getting back to this point …

>>On Jan 23, 2014, at 9:27 AM, "Curtis Ogden" wrote:
I think that will can come down to two basic factors – having a strong “internal locus of control,” guided by and balanced with "external considering."

A strong internal locus of control demonstrates some sense of responsibility and agency regarding one's self and situation. That is, we do not feel like we are total victims of circumstance, we don't immediately default to blaming others (in word and deed).

Of course, this can be overdone, tipping into ego-centrism, which is where external considering comes in. It is what Peter Drucker often preached in terms of "leading beyond the walls." It is a demonstrated sense of responsibility to and embeddedness in the next larger system of which one is apart, an understanding that the degree to which we are whole, it is in service of the next whole. This is the reality of living systems; we earn our keep by being of value to the larger body/ecosystem.

I actually like the direction this conversation is heading, because I think developing indicators for this is akin to what I am talking about with some colleagues regarding measuring "network mindset" and being a "responsible human."

>>On Jan 23, 2014, at 9:35 AM, "Alison Gold" wrote:
I’ve actually been playing around with an idea related to this at Living Cities. Mine has been less about the individual, which I’m excited to learn more about and exchange ideas and ask questions about, but more about how you can get a community in a productive zone of urgency to take on a problem.

>> On Jan 23, 2014, at 8:43 PM, "Chris Thompson" wrote:
I do want to chime in on two issues you’ve both raised.

Developing the skill, attitude and will of collaborative leaders is indeed critical. I am working with two community-based leadership programs on this very issue. Many communities have leadership programs that are designed to help existing/emerging civic, corporate, non-profit leaders expand their networks and enhance their understanding of key issues within their communities. Rarely do the programs work to enhance the leadership development of the participants, and more rarer yet do they work on the skill, attitude and will issues Curtis raises. If our communities are going to enhance their ability to address the complex challenges and opportunities they face, we believe leadership programs should focus on promoting collaborative leadership skills and attitudes—which are significantly different from organizational leadership skills and attitudes.

I look forward to borrowing from Curtis as the two leadership programs I’m working with refine their thinking and shape their efforts, and if we’re successful we can embed those skills into Alison’s community-based approach.
And now to the issue of being a responsible human. The “will” for this work, as Curtis noted is rooted in “a worldview that helps us to viscerally understand how we are interconnected, why we must do the work together, how we suffer and can get in our own way when we do not.” This is a worldview that helps us be a responsible human.

This visceral understanding is what the great Aldo Leopold wrote about in his classic work on complex systems, ecology and man’s interaction with nature – A Sand County Almanac. I first read the book in high school biology and have reread it many times since but only relatively recently realized Aldo’s wisdom applies not only to man’s interaction with the complex ecosystem he lovingly called “the land,” but also the complex systems that I work in every day.

The visceral understanding Curtis is describing is what Aldo referred to as an “ethic.” His land ethic described man’s responsibility to cherish the land rather than consume it. Curtis is describing what I might call a “community ethic” or a “systems ethic.” Curtis’ world view, as Aldo writes, is “a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever 'written'… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.
Aldo also described a corollary to the “profit motive” that he called the “community motive.” While the profit motive isn’t a major driver within the civic/nonprofit space where we work it isn’t a huge stretch to say that the desire of individual nonprofits to attract funding for their “isolated impact” projects is similar to the individual corporation’s “profit motive.” Understanding that we can only achieve the sustained positive change we seek by working together shifts us toward a “community motive.”

To close, I will adapt one last Aldo quote. He wrote:
“Acts of conservation without the requisite desire and skills are futile. To create these desires and skills and the community motive is the task of education.”

In our context, I’d modify the quote to:
“Acts of collaboration for collective impact without the requisite desire and skills are futile. To create these desires and skills and the community motive is the task of people like Alison, Curtis, Chris and all of the other advocates for sustained positive change in the communities we care about.”

>>On Jan 24, 2014, at 11:09 AM, "Alison Gold" wrote:
Curtis, I’m really loving your frame on will-skill-attitude. I feel like the work that I’ve been focusing on about cross-sector collaboration has been largely focused on skill with a bit of attitude. In part, because my own experiences staffing collaborations, and my current organization which funds them, in some ways assumes that the “will” is there. But, increasingly that assumption is the kicker. It’s the difference between the collaborations that have impact, and ones that meet to meet (I love when Chris refers to this as coblaboration.) And, here’s the thing, I have a lot of questions about the will piece and making it practical.

  • How do you know if will is present? Is it a Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” thing? And if so, could you share what you’ve seen that are some indicators of will (or lack thereof)?

  • And also, what do you do if the will isn’t present? Can it be cultivated? Or is an effort better off calling it quits? If it can be cultivated, how have you or others gone about doing it?

Eager to hear your thoughts.