Saturday, February 05, 2011

Collective Impact - How to Collaborate for Positive Change

How many Harvard graduates does it take to change a light bulb?  The former director of Harvard’s sustainability office had direct experience in answering this question when implementing lighting retrofits on campus.  She calculated it took somewhere over 40 people to make it happen, when it was all said and done. 

This isn't surprising.  Creating a sustainable society is complex.  And it will require people, communities and organizations from all parts of our global society to work together towards this common goal.  To do so, everyone involved needs  - at a certain level - to share this goal.  We don't all need to agree on the details of the goal, nor do we all need to agree on exactly how to take each step towards getting there.  But we do need a shared understanding of the system we're operating in and the principles we can all agree on.

Image credit: NASA Goddard

One of the basic tenets behind Strategic Sustainable Development (SSD) is that groups of more than 5 are typically dumber than the dumbest member of the group, but that with a shared framework and a common language and common goal, a group working effectively together can be much smarter than the smartest member of the group.

The Framework for SSD provides a common goal - defining sustainability on the principle level - and common language and techniques for large groups, and cross-sector groups to work together effectively.

A recent paper by John Kani and Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled Collective Impact does a great job of articulating the need for collaboration across traditional boundaries to enact change and provides some exciting examples of groups that have been successful in doing so.  

The authors lay out five conditions for collective success:

  1. Common Agenda - a shared vision for change among the participants 
  2. Shared Measurement Systems - agreement on ways to measure and report progress
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities - alignment so different participants are doing different activities that in sum support the common goals
  4. Continuous Communication - regular meetings and conversations are necessary to build trust and understanding
  5. Backbone Support Organization - a separate organization and staff to support the collective effort and serve as the backbone for the initiative

When the task at hand is creating a sustainable global society - or creating a sustainable organization (i.e. an organization that has eliminated its contributions to unsustainable activities) - the Framework for SSD is one of the most effective tools for articulating the common agenda and creating shared measurement systems and identifying mutually support activities.  From there continuous communications are a must as are people dedicated to the constant coordination and support for this type of transformational change. 

When this works, amazing things can happen. Innovative ideas, solutions and new products are created.  Team members get excited and passionate about their work.  Risks and waste are avoided. 

It is not easy, but it is necessary avoid a collapse of human society, and it can be fun. 

Stay going. 

1 comment:

Nils said...

Hi Georges,

I read and enjoyed the SSIR article on "Collective Impact" a few weeks ago, and also thought of the parallels to the emphasis that Strategic Sustainable Development places on getting-on-the-same-page – on a shared vision and a shared language to be used in navigating together towards it. Thanks for writing this post connecting these ideas!