Embracing Emergence – Part 2

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Posted by Eileen Ellsworth

This is the second and final post on “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity” by John Kania and Mark R. Kramer from the January 21, 2013 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Generally speaking, community based nonprofits fight an uphill battle. From their perspective, there are never enough resources or opportunity. They must relentlessly prove the value of their isolated impact to potential donors in order to win funding in the first place. And more often than not, they act alone.

Enter “collective impact,” stage right.  According to Kania and Kramer, cross sector collaborations are discovering something rather unexpected. From the perspective of the collaborative, there are enough resources, opportunities, and solutions to achieve real, lasting change.  And here is why:

Collective Vigilance:  Collective impact results in a sharpened collective vision of the problem.  More eyes on the issue, more feet on the ground, larger networks to tap, more brainpower to exploit.  This, in turn, incentivizes more generous support from members of the coalition and from outside resources as well.  It all aligns for the common good.  There is great power in simply maintaining the intentionality to continue a cross sector coalition. Combine intentionality (the sustaining force) with emergence (the creative force) and you’ve got something special. It isn’t luck. It’s just work.

Collective Learning:  Collective learning is a hallmark of collective impact.  The obvious and plain meaning of “collective learning” is that many people simultaneously learn something.  But what is not obvious about “collective learning” is the increased speed at which learning occurs in a group setting.  The speed is caused by the information feedback loop.  We learn, then put into practice what we’ve learned, which  creates a direct experience, which we then share with the group, which then learns from our experience, and so on. Learn, practice, gain experience, share, and then learn some more.

“Developmental evaluation” (as opposed to the usual “episodic evaluation”) of social endeavors is a kind of collective learning that Kania and Kramer feels is particularly well suited to cross sector collaborations.  It, too, uses the continuous feedback loop mechanism.  As a result, it does not render final judgments on the success or failure of something, but rather enables ongoing evaluation and analysis to help the group uncover emergent opportunities and innovative solutions.

Collective Action:  In any cross-sector collaboration, members of the group not only learn all at once, they also act all at once, creating a critical mass of activity that has two important consequences:

  1. New solutions are discovered that satisfy not just one but many organizations, and
  2. All coalition participants adopt the new solution at the same time.

“Cascading levels of collaboration” speed the process up and create a transparent and highly dynamic response. The collaboration’s “backbone” has a window into the needs and actions of all subgroups and the emergent solutions that evolve as a result of collective action.

Shift the Mindset:  The paradox in all this is not lost on the authors.  Intentionality to collaborate in the first place must combine with emergence – a phenomenon entirely outside the realm of intention. This has implications for philanthropists of every stripe.  Instead of funding a classic “solution,” Kania and Kramer encourage funders to support the process itself and methods of evaluation that accommodate open-ended inquiry.

The Process is the Solution:  In the end, Kania and Kramer’s core message is this:  Trust the process and be comfortable with uncertainty as you go through it. When the initial group of aligned stakeholders first convenes, solutions are not evident. People need to start talking, get comfortable, share their authentic experience, develop a common understanding, and grow in trust. That is fertile ground for successful cross-sector collaborations.

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