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.

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