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The Collective Impact ‘Mindset’

2 October 2013 at 11:28 am
Staff Reporter
Understanding the theoretical mindset of Collective Impact is one thing; actually making the change is quite another, according to Australian social change advocates Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham.

Staff Reporter | 2 October 2013 at 11:28 am


The Collective Impact ‘Mindset’
2 October 2013 at 11:28 am

Understanding the theoretical mindset of Collective Impact is one thing; actually making the change is quite another, according to Australian social change advocates Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham.

When we were in the US we repeatedly heard about the ‘mindset’ required for Collective Impact.  From reading the literature we understood that collaborators needed to suspend their engrained mindset of isolated impact – my organisation’s mission, survival, program expansion etc – in order for collective impact to emerge – my organisation’s contribution within a system that improves outcomes for everyone in our community.

Since then we have learnt that it is one thing to theoretically understand the required mindset and quite another to actually make the change.  

In this blog we focus on the mindset required for Collective Impact.  In doing so, we have spoken with a number of collaborators in a Collective Impact initiative in the Blue Mountains of NSW called the Stronger Families Alliance (SFA).

It is one of many Australian examples of cross-sector collaboration that applies most of the elements of the Collective Impact approach, long before the approach was published by FSG in 2011.  

Briefly, the Stronger Families Alliance started 7 years ago initiated by Blue Mountains City Council, Mountains Community Resource Network & Families NSW.  The galvanizing question that initiated the collaboration was ‘how can we plan for the benefit of all children in the Blue Mountains?’  Cross-sector collaborators who had an interface with families were invited to join – those in non-profit and for-profit service provision, the three layers of government, the chamber of commerce, retired corporate people, the local council and others.  

They were highly influenced by best practice of the day, particularly in the area collaboration, and drew on thought leaders to help them form a common agenda.  The Blue Mountains Council housed the facilitator of the agenda-setting process, Tanya James. The whole collaboration, working in sub-groups developed a comprehensive plan for action – the Child and Family Plan – designed to align the activities and promote innovation of the collaborators and the broader service system.

In moving into implementation of the Plan, the backbone organisation was formalized as a joint initiative of Blue Mountains City Council and the Mountains Community Resource Network with Tanya James as the facilitator.  Cascading layers of collaborative governance and communication were put in place alongside the work of implementation.

The SFA has made great progress in redesigning the local system to better serve children and their families in the Blue Mountains.  One example of a systemic change has been the development of three outcome areas through the Child and Family Plan, being Neighbourhood Service Networks, Moving Children Beyond Vulnerability, and Child Friendly Communities.  

Structurally, this has resulted in three subgroups that focus on the outcome areas and enable services to use their core business and current service provision to value-add to other existing service delivery or to plan new initiatives together. This approach acknowledges individual organisation's contributions while also driving collective action.

 We asked the interviewed SFA Collaborators to reflect on the last 7 years through the lens of mindset.  FSG, authors of the Collective Impact approach, have written about three specifics areas related to the mindset needed for Collective Impact.  We asked the interviewees about each of them.

  1. Shifting from technical problem solving to adaptive problem solving

A strong theme that emerged from the interviews was that the collaborators gradually grew into this required mindset.  

While some already thought and acted systemically, in the beginning, most were focused on their own ‘day-to-day’ demands, challenges and opportunities.  Over time, they began to think beyond their own organisation and ask: “how can we respond to challenges or opportunities together?”  

The interviewees identified the primary driver of this change as being a program of professional development facilitated by the backbone organisation.  Collaborators came together regularly and engaged in highly valuable shared learning opportunities that allowed them to see the system from multiple perspectives.  This meant the collaborators were able to see social challenges and solutions more holistically, to hold differing views simultaneously, and take a longer-term view.  

The content and skilled facilitation of this training created a shared understanding of the adaptive approach needed to achieve the common agenda.

However, the interviewees were quick to point out that the organizational constraints experienced by some collaborators limited their ability to act adaptively.  For example, some government workers may personally see the need for flexible, person-centered approaches but not have the professional freedom within the bureaucracy to adopt that approach.  Circumstances where collaboration occurred, despite the inflexible structures of government, was referred to by one interviewee as ‘collaboration under the radar’.  

Their advice to other Collective Impact initiatives was to talk openly about the tension between how the collaboration would like to act and what was practical.

  1. There are no silver bullets but there is silver buckshot

Again, all interviewees thought that the process of collaboration – and the skilled facilitation of it – allowed collaborators to see that there were no silver bullets to achieving significant improvement in community level outcomes.  

Rather, they came to see that this type of change could only be achieved when they aligned their many initiatives, resources and efforts to a common agenda.  One interviewee emphasized the need for shared measures and good data collection as a platform to allow collaborators to see how their contribution fitted into the larger collective effort and outcome.

3. Credibility vs credit 

Generally, all interviewees felt that the SFA had grappled with this particular shift in mindset to varying degrees. They each acknowledged that the enduring characteristics of the social system – competition for funding and organizational survival – meant that collaborators often needed to attribute the success of the collaboration to their own organisation.  The need to own or control attribution in this way had sometimes been detrimental to relationships and trust.  

Recently the SFA has put in place a mechanism that formalizes the making of commitments and sharing of attribution.

The advice of the interviewees to others was to develop early a way to deal with attribution – one that helps collaborators understand that the light will necessarily shine on different collaborators at different times, including the backbone organisation and its key people.  

In interviewing three of the SFA collaborators about the required mindset for Collective Impact an unexpected theme emerged – the importance of shared measures.  In particular, one interviewee thought that shared measures being in place from the start would have kept the collaborators more engaged beyond the high-point experience of setting common agenda and made it possible to celebrate wins, identify organizational contributions, and collectively chart progress and impact.  

Another reflected on the challenges of developing shared measures.  Prior to 2011 the collaboration had grappled with the different ideologies and approaches to evaluation.  Without alignment within the collaboration, the evaluation efforts that were undertaken were not sufficiently holistic to evaluate the community level impact (they were more process or qualitative in nature).  In 2011 the Collective Impact literature was published and the collaboration resolved to commit time and energy towards putting in place shared measures.  

This is now one of the primary focus areas for the SFA.

Great thanks goes to Tanya James, Convener of the Stronger Families Alliance Collaboration; Dianne Jackson, CEO of Connect; Kris Newton, Manager of Mountains Community Resource Network; and Lyn Bevington, Manager of Mountains Outreach Community Service for sharing their insights about living the mindset of Collective Impact.

About the authors: Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham have just undertaken a Collective Impact study tour in the USA on behalf of the Centre for Social Impact. Their vision is to translate Collective Impact into the Australian context.  

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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