Achieving Collective Impact Starts with Asking Hard Questions


This essay was first published at Youth Thrive on Oct. 28, 2014.

Communities across the country are embracing the collective impact approach as a way to move the needle on complex problems. At the heart of this approach is the idea of shared measurement. The term sounds dry and technical. The process, if done correctly, should be anything but.

John Kania and Mark Kramer, the FSG authors who introduced the idea of collective impact in 2011, now use the term “emergence” to convey the importance of not starting with solutions in mind. Solutions, instead, should emerge through disciplined discussions among individuals who come to the table with equal commitment but diverse perspectives. Collective impact requires collective action. Collective action, however, can be focused in the wrong places if not preceded by collective seeing and collective learning. These important pre-steps, while aided by data, are activated by questions.

Think about the national goal to improve on-time high school graduation rates. This clearly can’t be done without changing what happens in high school. But leaders who sit down to select school reform strategies from a nationally approved list might badly misdiagnose the local problem.

Getting the diagnosis right certainly starts with good data on the problem. Data on trends. Data disaggregated by racial, ethnicity and income. Data by school. Data on dropouts. Data on graduates. This data, however, should prompt questions that can’t be easily answered with more data.

Questions about who graduates: Why have graduation rates for African-American students been low and stagnant while rates for Hispanic students have improved?  What are the rates for off-track students: those who fall behind, get pregnant, engage in risky-behaviors? Are some groups more vulnerable to dropping out than others? How much variation is there between high schools? Between students in the same high school?

Questions about the benefits of graduation: Why do some high school graduates do well while others falter? Do all graduates leave school with the core skills needed to succeed in the next phase of life? Does a diploma have different practical value for different populations? For some teens, do the typical steps after graduation – college, jobs, military – seem too distant to be motivating?

Questions about student services and supports: What experiences do students have inside and outside of school that account for some of the differences? Why do neighborhoods with similar demographics have very different graduation rates? What’s different about their students, families and communities?

Questions about policies, resources and community perceptions?  Are there broader things that factor into the ability of youth and families to succeed? Transportation barriers? Health problems and access issues that cause students to miss school? Housing and safety issues? Incentives like financial aid or employment opportunities that could be publicized and expanded?

It would be foolish to compile data on all of these questions and bring into the groups that are charged with thinking about solutions to the high school graduation problem. They wouldn’t know where to start and would likely reject this data as not relevant to the problem at hand. It would be foolhardy, however, to allow them to make decisions without asking hard questions like these and trying to get answers to as many as possible.

Sometimes these answers lead to changes in how the problem is defined. A community could, for example, rally around the fact that only 65 percent of students graduate on time (in four years). The solutions selected for local implementation, however, might turn out to be very different than first imagined if the data team helped them learn such things as:

  • More than 90 percent graduate with diplomas within five years.
  • Only 50 percent of those who graduate on time are employed or are in a post-secondary institution two years later.
  • Low-income Hispanic and African-American students who work or participate in youth or civic programs after school are twice as likely to graduate and be on track two years after graduation than those who don’t have these opportunities.
  • Graduation rates in the neighborhoods cut off from city services by the interstate five years ago dropped steadily.

Equally important, the solutions selected were not all focused on the schools, which increases the likelihood that those with diverse perspectives can be engaged not only in defining the problem but in solving it.

The Forum uses question paths as a way to help communities take a “big picture” approach to collective impact. Building the muscles (and trust) to ask and answer hard questions allows leaders to sharpen their focus on goals in the foreground; widen the view of relevant correlates and contributors to track in the background, and watch for expected and unexpected patterns and trends as the work unfolds.

This, from where we sit, is collective impact at its best.


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