Thursday, May 7, 2015

On Reorgs and Spaceships

There are two common (and commonly ineffective) approaches civic leaders use to address persistent challenges within their communities.

The first approach is to reorganize the institution that is deemed to be to blame. Superintendents of urban school districts are very familiar with this phenomenon as they've watch one wave of reorganization after another wash over their districts. Rarely is a school reorg tied to a community effort to eliminate economic poverty, even though numerous studies link poverty to poor educational outcomes. Yes, we need high-performing schools (and other civic institutions) as the Leap of Reason movement makes so very clear. But we also know that no single organization can change the outcomes within a complex system. Restructuring a single organization in the absence of systemic change will not result in the outcomes we desire for our communities. But we keep trying.

We also like to try spaceships. "Spaceships" is my term for the practice of transplanting a "successful" program/project/initiative from one community to another.

In the best case scenario, the new initiative is led by an emotionally intelligent leader who is able to adapt to their environment, build relationships, create connections and generate results that make the spaceship a valued part of the system and the community.

Too often, the champions of the new initiative let others in the system know that the spaceship is here to fix what others could not. Existing players cannot be engaged because they are part of the problem. The spaceship must not be infected. These champions are like the aliens from a bad sci-fi movie; here to save the human race from itself. The problem with this spaceship approach to civic change is that spaceships are expensive to keep up. They start off all shiny and new and attract a lot of attention. But over time, the luster wears off, the problems they are trying to address are complex and therefore beyond the control of even the fanciest of spaceships. Eventually the funders of the spaceship tire of footing the entire bill and try to persuade others to embrace and make their spaceship "sustainable." But other funders have their own spaceships to sustain.

This is when the really bad stuff happens. The spaceships agree to a merger and promise all will be well as soon as they finish their reorg.

The Root Cause for Failing to Achieve Change

Recently a civic leader I work with expressed frustration that he's heard the same complaints for years about poor workforce development outcomes in our region and nothing has changed. He correctly observed that before we try to make change happen, we need to understand the root cause for why change hasn't happened to date.

While I originally offered several specific reasons for the persistence of the workforce status quo, upon reflection I believe the real root cause is rather generic. Whether the issue is workforce development, business development, public health, innovation or entrepreneurship, the root cause for the lack of sustained positive change is that these are complex civic systems.

What is a complex civic system and why is it so hard to achieve sustained positive change within such systems?

Complex civic systems are made up of diverse independent stakeholders (organizations, institutions and individuals) from multiple sectors (private, public, nonprofit and philanthropic).

Here are several things that we need to understand about complex civic systems:

  • They are not controlled by any individual entity or even a small group of entities.
  • The outcomes – educational outcomes, business development outcomes, job training outcomes etc. – that emerge from these systems are also beyond any single entity’s control.
  • Complex civic systems exist even when they are not well coordinated. (Both chaos and order can emerge from complex systems.) Often I hear that "there is no system" or "we need to create a system." There is always a system, it just may not function in a way that we would like.)
  • The quality of what emerges from a complex civic system is determined by the quality of the interactions among the players within the system.
  • The boundaries of such systems are unclear, can change and vary widely. Just as in natural systems, civic systems are made up of multiple subsystems and they're all interconnected.
The consequences of poor performance (“the pain”) is diffuse and unevenly felt. For example, the poor performance of a workforce system in a community may mean a large international company needs to expand employment in a different market. While that may be a hardship, the company is able to expand. However, a small employer may not have resources to relocate and will instead struggle to be competitive. And the resident hurt by a poorly performing workforce system likely is neither prepared for a job, nor has access to one.

Within poorly performing civic systems, stakeholders with resources and capacity can influence parts of the system or create workarounds to achieve the desired outcomes. This may improve outcomes for some, but the overall system continues to perform poorly. Stakeholders without resources and capacity have limited influence over any part of the system and struggle to develop workarounds. They also have limited capacity to aggregate their individual interests into a collective voice and/or collective action.

This is the root cause of our frustration.

Civic leaders can catalyze the capacity for the cross-sector collaborations that are necessary to bring change to complex civic systems. The first step is recognizing the root cause of our frustration is that we are dealing with a complex system.

Thank You to Intersector

Last month, the Intersector Project was kind enough to post an article I wrote for them about valuable role that public sector officials can play to catalyze cross-sector collaborations.

I've been tracking the Intersector Project for awhile. Its four-step process for supporting cross-sector collaboration will be familiar to those who follow the work of the Collective Impact Forum, Bridgespan and others.

It is encouraging to see more energy and effort going into helping stakeholders develop systemic approaches to addressing the wicked, persistent challenges within their communities.

While I believe that philanthropy has the most freedom to catalyze cross-sector collaborations that target systemic change, clearly the private and public sectors can do the same. I am fortunate to work with public leaders willing to do just that in Summit County, Ohio. And I'm very thankful that Intersector was willing to help me highlight their leadership to a global audience.