The Importance of “Emergence” in the Youth Field

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I don’t know if he could hear it from the podium, but there was an audible “ah-hah” moment from the audience when John Kania spoke two weeks ago at the Ready by 21 National Meeting.

Our annual meeting brings together hundreds of community and state leaders from around the country who are working to improve the odds for young people through collective impact strategies to strengthen partnerships, improve practices and align policies. John’s plenary session address was about “embracing emergence” – looking at how collective impact addresses complexity. Before I summarize what he said, let me stress why it was important that he said it.

The term “collective impact” has brought much-needed clarity and urgency to the kind of deep collaborative work that’s needed to change conditions for young people (the population of focus here at the Forum for Youth Investment, the creator of Ready by 21®). But the movement to implement collective impact strategies has generated some unintended effects on how groups approach the challenge of creating “needle-moving change” in communities.

The heightened commitment to achieve impact, coupled with traditional ways of doing business, sometimes impedes opportunities to leverage the power of the collective. Here’s why: Collective impact gets introduced as a disciplined process for narrowing goals and selecting solutions that will drive community investment – but into competitive spaces filled with underfunded providers and initiatives. That sometimes ignites a scramble to see who defines the starting point and who can provide the backbone supports. There’s a sense that those who are in the inner circle set the agenda, and a fear that those who get left out will lose funding. The press to organize around the idea of collective impact sometimes leads to competitive relationships, rushed decisions and rigid implementation.

So the mid-course corrections offered by John and Mark Kramer of FSG are welcomed.  At our National Meeting, John’s observations about embracing emergence as an explicit framing of collective impact approach generated a low buzz from the crowd of continuous improvement enthusiasts. His introduction of the new “collectives:  collective seeing, collective learning, collective doing” generated  vigorous nods from those who have been saying that these are the actions that lead to impact.

What generated audible ah-hahs was his assertion that the social sector routinely limits its ability to create large-scale change by starting with predetermined solutions rather than predetermined rules of interaction that allow solutions to emerge. Juxtaposed on a slide, these words drove home an uncomfortable reality: The purpose of bringing together a cross-section of thinkers who have different perspectives on a problem is not only to gain support for taking existing solutions to scale, or even to ask why solutions haven’t worked. The purpose is to create the space and conditions to reimagine what the solutions really need to be.

The embracing emergence message flies against tradition and against the “impact” word itself.  It is consistent, however, with the “big picture” approach the Forum uses to bring the multiple players focused on child and youth development to the same table to think differently, act differently and act together.  The first step is getting them to “zoom out” to locate themselves in the bigger picture of what it takes to raise a child (an exercise in collective seeing),  before they “zoom in” to identify, debate and dig into the specific things they can tackle together (collective learning).

That first step is extremely important.  Denied the chance to be in the room to “zoom out” and find their place in the equation, too many important stakeholders either opt out or feel locked out of the opportunity to take collective action.

Returning the favor of John speaking at our meeting, I’ll be speaking at FSG’s upcoming Funders Meeting in Aspen, Colo., where we will continue the needed conversation about “embracing emergence.”

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