Collective Impact

The term ‘collective impact’ was coined by John Kania and Mark Kramer – founders of the philanthropic consulting firm FSG – to describe the contribution of multiple actors to solving a social problem. They used it first in a 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, and it has since moved into common use.

We accomplish far more by working together than we could ever achieve by ourselves. This is particularly true with wicked problems, where challenges are systemic and a whole system has to be mobilized to find solutions.

Complex systems have numerous leverage points. Aligned action at a number of these points can have a combined effect that goes far beyond what a single intervention might achieve.

Unfortunately, many change initiatives are patchwork efforts. Scarce resources are used ineffectively. Effort is duplicated. Actions work at cross-purposes. Something critical may be overlooked. Not surprisingly, the result is dismal outcomes.

Harmonizing Shared Efforts

When a whole system is mobilized and interventions are harmonized, every player makes an important contribution, just as every instrument adds something essential to an orchestra.

In the orchestra, strings carry the melody. Woodwinds add color. Brass instruments create drama. The percussion section keeps rhythm and adds punctuation. Every instrument contributes its own unique song. The role of the conductor is to interpret the music and set the tempo. When the whole orchestra plays together, a concert hall is filled with magnificent sound. Actors trying to change a social system need to harmonize their efforts in the same way.

Food insecurity is an example. In our prosperous society, many people still go hungry –  low-income families, children living in poverty, seniors, disadvantaged groups, and the homeless. The complexity of the challenge defies simple solutions. Real change requires that the entire system get involved – farmers, food processors, food distributors, food warehouses, gardeners, grocers, restaurants, food banks, social service agencies, schools, foundations, local government, and volunteers.

When all of these stakeholders work together, neighborhoods start seeing visible change. Local gardens, seed libraries, farmers markets, food cooperatives, and community kitchens appear. Supportive relationships are created between the community and food producers. People learn new skills in gardening, nutrition and food preparation. Food spoilage is reduced. Food that would otherwise be wasted is redirected from groceries and restaurants to people in need.

Organizing Ourselves

Transformation demands more from us than other kinds of change. Consultant Steve Waddell compared incremental change, adaptive change and transformation in his book Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together. The first requires that we change the way we act and behave; the second, the way we think. Transformation requires that we change the way we perceive reality. Our relationship to the change shifts from I am acting on the problem, to others are the problem, to I am part of the problem and ‘we’ are in this together.

If we hope to make transformative, systemic change, we need to shift the motivation from acting independently out of self-interest to acting together out of shared interest. We also need to find a new way to organize ourselves.

Aligning effort in a large system of stakeholders is a challenge for every community. In their collective impact framework, Kania and Kramer identified the need for a backbone organization that can help to orchestrate shared action. It would be a mistake to interpret ‘backbone’ as being in charge, though. Experience has shown that command-and-control fails when contributors are equals.

Dee Hock successfully pioneered a promising new form of organization in the 1970s that he called ‘chaordic’ – combining elements of both chaos and order. VISA International was designed based on this model – a global enterprise that in 2011 operated in around 200 countries, with 22,000 member banks and 750 million customers. After the organization was created in 1970, Dee Hock became its CEO. VISA is a self-organized, highly decentralized and highly collaborative enterprise.

Hock believed the new model had much broader application in an increasingly complex world where the attempts of existing institutions to cope were failing [Dee Hock, One from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization].

“We now live in a world of such complexity, diversity, and multiplicity of scales that there is little possibility of achieving constructive, sustained governance with existing concepts of organization. People everywhere are growing desperate for renewed sense of community. Deeply held, commonly shared purpose and principles leading to new concepts of self-organization and governance at multiple scales from the individual to the global have become essential.”

In Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together, Steve Waddell drew upon Dee Hock’s chaordic model to summarize six design principles for systemic collaboration:

  • Multi-centric and distributive – Decisions are made and activities are performed at the level closest to those being affected and engaged.
  • Participant-owned and owner-governed – Members govern themselves, and collectively own the parts of the network in which they participate.
  • Self-organizing and self-evolving – Participants can form new organizational units based on shared purpose and principles. Participation is voluntary.
  • Diverse and adaptive – The organizational structure facilitates innovation, experimentation, and adaptation in diverse settings around a common purpose.
  • Tied by purpose and principles – Numerous independent organizations are joined by a shared purpose and principles.
  • Enabling – Participants provide the motivating force, and are supported rather than pushed.

Waddell then added another one of his own:

  • Reflecting principles of fractals – Each sub-group has the same core structures as other groups, allowing connections to be made easily between groups.

Fractal Organization

Fractals are found everywhere in nature – in river networks, mountain ranges, craters and coastlines; in sea shells and spiral galaxies; in trees and other plants. Fractal patterns repeat over and over at different scales.

Fractal pattern in Romanesco broccoli

In nature, every system incorporates other systems, which it relies upon to perform essential tasks. This nested universe is playfully described in the child’s nursery rhyme, “The Siphonaptera,” adapted from a poem by Jonathan Swift:

Big fleas have little fleas,
Upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
and so, ad infinitum.

This is the profound pattern of life – life that exists in continuous integrated flow, enabled by reciprocity at every level.

Hierarchies are fragile, yet we naively depend on them to manage complexity. In his introduction to Dee Hock’s book One from Many, systems theorist and MIT senior lecturer Peter Senge described the gap between how we think and how nature works as the source of our most challenging problems.

“We face a mounting range of insoluble problems because the DNA of our dominant institutions is based on machine age thinking, like ‘all systems must have someone in control’ and change only happens when a powerful leader ‘drives’ change. Yet, we all know that in healthy living systems control is distributed and change occurs continually.”

We need a new concept of organization that is alive at every level, Dee Hock says: “One that also allows self-organization and self-governance to ensure effective action at any subsequent scale right on through to the global. An organization within which coherence, cohesion, and order could emerge on which every part could rely without need for knowledge or control of others.”

Self-organization is fractal. “Given the right circumstances, from no more than dreams, determination, and the liberty to try, quite ordinary people consistently do extraordinary things,” Dee Hock says [Dee Hock, Birth of the Chaordic Age (2000)].

That is how we achieve collective impact.