In this episode, Collective Impact Forum senior advisor Paul Schmitz shares what he’s learned through supporting many collective impact initiatives, including some specific challenges that he has seen repeatedly come up and block progress. We dive into the dangers to avoid and also explore three key lessons that can help navigate through these challenges.
This chat is jumping off of Paul’s recent article “10 Dangers to Collective Impact,” that was featured online in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and is part of the online series Collective Impact, 10 Years Later.
Please find a transcript of this podcast lower down this page
Resources and Footnotes
- Article: 10 Dangers to Collective Impact
- Series: Collective Impact, 10 Years Later
- Article: Centering Equity in Collective Impact
- Article: The Culture of Collective Impact
- Book: New Power
- Book: Dare to Lead
- Tool: TRIZ
The Intro music, entitled “Running,” was composed by Rafael Krux, and can be found here and is licensed under CC: By 4.0. The outro music, entitled “Deliberate Thought,” was composed by Kevin Macleod. Licensed under CC: By.
More on Collective Impact approach to collaborate for social change:
Listen to Past Episodes: Listen to past episodes in the Forum resource library. You can also listen and subscribe via Itunes, Spotify, Simplecast, Sticher, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.
(Intro) Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.
The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative and online community that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.
In this episode, I’m talking with Collective Impact Forum senior advisor Paul Schmitz about a recent article he wrote titled The 10 Dangers to Collective Impact that was recently featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. We chat about what Paul has learned through supporting many collective impact initiatives, including some specific challenges that he has seen repeatedly come up and block progress. We dive into the dangers to avoid and also explore three key lessons that can help navigate through these challenges. We hope you listen in.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: Hello everybody and thanks so much for joining today. I’m really excited about today’s conversation. First, let me introduce our guest today, Paul Schmitz. Regular podcast listeners are probably very familiar with Paul but let me take a moment to introduce him for anyone just joining. Paul Schmitz serves as senior advisor to the Collective Impact Forum and is CEO of Leading Inside Out. He’s also the author of the book, Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up, and is former CEO of Public Allies. Thanks so much for joining today, Paul.
Paul Schmitz: My pleasure. It’s always great to be with you.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: In this chat, we’re going to go over an article you wrote that was recently published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article is titled, 10 Dangers to Collective Impact. It’s part of a short series of articles that the forum has sponsored that’s reflecting on what’s happened in the collective impact field since the original collective impact article was published in SSIR back in 2011. For listeners who are interested you can check out the full series at ssir.org.
Paul, I really appreciated your article, 10 Dangers to Collective Impact, as it very concisely and straightforwardly discussed real challenges affecting collective impact initiatives and collaboratives. I also really appreciated the recommendations you shared to help navigate those challenges. In this chat, we are going to go over both the dangers and the recommendations. But before we get started, could you share a little bit about what helped inform your thinking about your piece and when did you start running into these challenges?
Paul Schmitz: This article evolved from a presentation I’ve been doing for a few years that itself came from work I did with a client that was a startup collective impact. At the end I started thinking about what do they need to know to avoid. Back when I was CEO of my former organization, Public Allies, I used to do this presentation called The 10 Worst Practices of Social Entrepreneurship, where I laid out the 10 biggest mistakes I or my organization made during the first decade that we would do over if we could. I published a piece back then, about 20 years ago, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on that.
Back then the thought was people talk about social entrepreneurship and how to support them and the same time was like, “Here are the best—,” and I’m like what do I wish I didn’t do or what do I wish—missteps I knew might be coming and what kind of threats and things. As I was thinking about this group I was working with, this collective impact, I kind of approach in the same way like what are the things I keep seeing that groups are struggling with that get in the way of success and these mistakes I keep seeing being made? And I started cataloging them and the list kind of grew. I think it started like the six dangers and grew to 10 over the course of a few years.
Since this kind of journey for me began, I visited over 200 collective impact efforts and I’ve been under the hood deeply consulting with at least two dozen of them. I keep seeing the same things. That’s where it comes from is just what I keep seeing and feel like. I joke in the article that I feel sometimes that I’m a collective impact repairman and when groups come in and ask the questions to kind of diagnose where their kind of challenges are, it seems like it’s always the same things.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: I’m really interested in going into these dangers. Let’s go through each. The first danger you listed was strategy drift. Can you tell me more about that and why it made the list?
Paul Schmitz: I’ll talk a moment about what I think strong strategy is when we get into the lessons about what works. I think that what I see is a lot of groups create strategy and they create measures and then they start meeting and they become focused on activities and then they stop being strategic. They’re not managing and holding themselves accountable to metrics. Their activities start to go into what people’s interests are and what people think might work and it starts adding up and it feels like you become a collection of activities versus everyone aligning around a few strategic actions that have the best chance of moving your needle.
It’s not the sense that a strategy should be something that’s fixed in stone because it needs—everyone had to adapt their strategy over the last two years. My point is that in adapting strategy of course it emerges and evolves and has some adaptation but that should be driven by one, data, if we note that we’re doing these strategies and we’re not seeing the needle move, we need to adjust or we need to engage. Or, we need to make sure we put some of the same rigor into thinking about if we need to shift or change.
I saw a lot of groups during the pandemic do really rigorous thinking about what do we need to shift and change as a result. Could stay toward our aim that we’re reaching and not be kind of stuck, just like getting into a slippery slope of going off in new directions away from what our ultimate aim is.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: Related to that also, your second danger that you listed was culture drift. Can you tell me more about that one?
Paul Schmitz: Again, culture is another key ingredient I think of a strong collective impact. What I see is groups at the front end kind of define that in a strong place and clearly and they do the check-ins at meetings and they have core values or ground rules and they’re collaborating and then over time, they get busy and that stuff all floats away and they start just having meetings where it’s all reports and the staff are doing everything and they’re not really creating space for the collaborative to do the work and it starts to kind of drift away from this culture they created.
The point I make is like there are inflection points that come over time when collective impacts have to make really hard choices and have difficult conversations and it’s often when those values, when the way you work together that’s different that’s inclusive, that’s collaborative, that’s accountable, that shares learning. When that culture drifts and you just become a bunch of reports and stuff, when you hit those points where you have to make those hard choices, your muscles for doing that, that trust within the group, that culture within the group is lacking at the time it’s needed most. I see often that’s what happens, is that stuff drifts away and then they hit the hard parts and their muscles are like doing hard work together have just atrophied.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: That’s a lot to think about. For your third one, it sounds really interesting, treating work groups like committees. What’s that?
Paul Schmitz: Most collective impacts have some type of action team or work groups that’s focused on implementing a set of strategies. What I notice is again, and it’s related to the culture. If they start to look like traditional committees and what I mean by traditional committees, they sit around a big table and they get reported to, and maybe ask if a few people want to volunteer on things and then they go away versus they’re looking at data together, evaluating how things are working, coordinating work across organizations, making hard choices, and dictating what work they’ll do when they get back to their agencies.
To me, one thing I keep seeing with collective impacts that I visit is the backbone is doing all the work and they complain they can’t get people to do more. But at some level they have people around the table whose work is not what that strategy is and if I’ve got a work group it should be people who—if I’m trying to move third grade reading I’ve got the people around the table who are going to be doing the work to move third grade reading and we should be coordinating our work, looking at data together, problem solving together, but when people leave that meeting, the decisions they made should be guiding the work when they go back to their organizations. It shouldn’t be something that’s in addition to their work. It should be their work. I think that distinction gets lost a lot and then you start acting just like an advisory committee versus a working group that they’re actually like out there implementing the strategy together.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: Great point. Your next one is one that we’ve definitely talked about in the past because it’s definitely a big issue that can really be challenging for building trust in relationships, which is a lack of transparency. Can you share more about that one?
Paul Schmitz: Yeah, and I think that becomes obvious to people, but I always use the joke that everyone gets which is, if the meeting before the meeting is the real meeting, that’s the problem, right? So we’ve all been part of groups where it seems like there’s a small group of people who meet separately and make all the decisions and we’re brought in to rubber stamp and do the work. Now that’s not to say that there’s very important times when a small group can accelerate work and bring it back to the group. It’s not to say there shouldn’t be meetings outside of meetings. It’s to say what it shouldn’t be is the sense that the group itself is a rubber stamp on what people are already doing, and that there needs to be that trust and the backbone staff need to make sure that those more grassroots providers, etc., are not treated differently than the funders and policymakers and others who are given different kinds of information because the moment they’re seen as having differences in terms of how they relate to different people and what kind of information different people get, that’s going to break down the trust.
So I think that it’s really about recognizing that transparency needs to be inclusive and it’s not that everything needs to be shared with everyone every time, no. But it shouldn’t be the case that you create two groups of people, some who get inside information and everyone else gets something different. Again, if you’re doing small meetings those should be to feed up into the group, not to make decisions that have implications for everybody else who aren’t in the room. It’s just making sure that transparency is there and that there’s that inclusion in relationships and what information people get and have access to and how they’re treated and given access to resources and things.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: Spot on. This next danger that you listed kind of also connects back a little bit to what you were sharing before about treating work groups like committees which is having the wrong people at the table. Tell me more about that one.
Paul Schmitz: It’s interesting because I’ve seen this happen in three different ways that are all very distinct and different.
One is that they create a collective impact that’s way too top down. They bring in all these leaders who have authority but don’t do the work, and don’t have skin in the game on the issues, don’t do the work, and therefore while they have the ability to move resource and stuff, there’s not the buy-in, commitment, and collaboration of the people actually doing the work and making it happen.
The second is that I’ve seen a lot of groups that are too grassroots. They’ve got all these people passionate about the issue and making things happen but they have little ability to influence resources and systems to make it possible for them to do it, and that becomes another thing, and I’ve seen this happen. It’s almost the opposite problem, right? Is that they have big hopes but they have very little ability to influence the resources and decision-making needed to make those happen.
The third is that the table itself just isn’t reflective of the community served or the ecosystem that’s doing the work. So the issue is how do you build a table that’s reflective, that has people who do the work, and has people with the ability to make decisions and move systems, and how do you manage the inclusion around that table.
Fortunately, we’ve all co-authored a piece called Centering Equity in Collective Impact that talks about the challenges of doing that, and about power and things like that within it but it’s just such an important thing. You need all three of those components. You need to have that credibility across constituencies. You need to have people who do the work, and you have to have people who can move resources and systems. You need all of that to make this happen, and a lot of times I see the tables and I’m like, it’s faulted in one or other of those ways.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: That’s a great point. For listeners, we’ll link to Centering Equity in Collective Impact in the show notes for those that want to read it. It’s a great article.
The next danger listed is definitely one we’ve also heard about a lot. It’s definitely something that people can really—can be really challenging in a collaborative which is lack of accountability. Would love to hear more about this one.
Paul Schmitz: This is the one that I think scares people because we all care about this work, we all care about each other, and we all want to be nice and be liked. The reality is the reason why we’re doing collective impact is because no one does collective impact to do it. They do it because the way the current work that’s happening in our community now, as well intentioned as it is, is not getting the impact we want. And if we want to get greater impact, we need to make commitments we’re accountable to, and I think the challenge is that if we allow people to not be accountable for commitments they make or their performance, then we set an expectation that that’s OK, and everyone will overpromise and under-deliver and that becomes the culture.
I think sometimes the desire to include everyone can mean that we avoid hard choices or critical feedback, and that’s also a problem. So I think that it’s about how do we make agreements that hold our ultimate results and strategies and need to commit to each other, and that’s why ground rules and values are so important, and they’re not—I think the challenge is so often we see groups create these things and they go away. They need to be on the agenda every meeting. They have to be discussed when we’re making decisions. Well, we’ve made a commitment to this as a ground rule we’re not practicing and how we’re going to fix that. They need to be something present in our facilitation and in our meetings.
But one of the things I’ve always encouraged groups to do is like every meeting should be built not around sharing information so that’s email, should be built around getting action commitments. Every meeting should begin with reviewing the action commitments from the last meeting, and so in my experience it’s just such a critical aspect to making these things work is you’ve got to have that inclusive culture but it has to also be an accountable culture, and that sometimes can come at a tension, and that’s OK. The leader’s job is always to hold tensions, and so it’s like creating that balance is important but we can’t—if we don’t have accountability and people can overpromise and underdeliver, that’s what we’re going to do with our goal ultimately, and then we have the same amount of people struggling with the problem we’ve aimed to move are going to be struggling with it in three years.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: So your next one feels definitely right for right now, especially during this time that can feel deeply polarized, at least here in the U.S., which is—the danger was funder and political hijacking. What’s that?
Paul Schmitz: The funder and political hijacking is—and I thought of a couple of specific examples. I saw one where a city government entity in partner with nonprofits did this whole planning process in their city on this issue and built all this will among partners to work on it, and then the mayor went to a conference and heard a speaker and came back and said I want to do this which was contrary to what all this planning had done.
I’ve also seen the case where a bunch of groups work on a collective plan and get these organizations that usually compete on the same page and moving in the same direction, and then a funder issues an RFP that would move everyone in a different direction than all these groups have agreed to move.
I’ve also seen within steering committees and groups where funders or political leaders within them put their thumb on the scales in ways that kind of can hijack the group away from what it knows it should be doing to what looks better because the funder wants to see quick results or the politician needs to run on them, and so I think that the biggest way to avoid this is to make sure you’ve got the social and political capital in your group to be able to address that, and that you’ve got leaders and champions within your collective who have the ability to get the mayor on the phone, who are able to get the philanthropists on the phone, and that you’re also reaching out to those folks as you’re doing the work to make sure that that conflict doesn’t happen but you need to have people who can help weigh in to kind of protect the collective against that.
So if we’re doing an initiative that the mayor’s really weighing in on, who do we have on our committee that if the mayor tries to move us in a different way has enough political capital with the mayor that they can help us advocate or prevent that or kind of influence that. Same thing with philanthropy, and again that’s why having the right people at the table, and we need those people who have some influence so that we have that protection as much as anything else, who champion the work in the process and will help us guard against people trying to hijack it for their ends.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: That’s a lot to think about. Your next danger was managing a network like an organization. That sounds pretty complex.
Paul Schmitz: Yeah, this is probably the most complex and the most specific of the dangers, and this is really for those collective impact backbones that set themselves up as their own 501(c)(3) or where a 501(c)(3)’s primary work is collective impact. We saw this. This was a specific situation I had worked with where I had seen a planning process that had 27 meetings and over a hundred people who were active in the process create a common agenda for a new collective impact and which a new group was born to be the backbone for it, and a group of people from this were chosen to be on the steering committee for it, and at their first meeting as they’re talking about hiring the director of the backbone, the first thing someone says is, “Well, you know, if we’re going to hire somebody, they have to be able to create a vision,” and I’m like, no, you just had 27 meetings and like a hundred people create the vision. Well, no one would want to be the—and all their—and I realized because there was a bunch of things like that, all their mental models and ways of thinking were based on a traditional organization that controls its work internally. So when they’re talking about staffing or planning or budgeting, they all—even though almost all of the steering committee members had been in the planning process, their brains just flip to organization thinking in a traditional model.
The metaphor I used at the time which is quite inelegant but I think works at some level was like they’re governing Airbnb but they think they’re governing the Hilton. The Hilton is—they can decide what soap is in every hotel room in the world, and they have the same systems for everything. Airbnb has to build a network and support a network, and they have to be supporting their customers, the people who house people, you know, what everyone thinks about it but like I think the idea is that you’re governing a network and that network has built ways of being that we have to be the container for, and so it’s like how do you help the people in governance see themselves as stewards of a network, not as hierarchical governing an entity.
So again it’s a little complex but I think that it’s a shift in thinking that should—I found the book New Power by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans helpful as just like a mindset around this stuff but it is like thinking in a new way about what it means to govern in networks instead of thinking about governing in individual entity organization that you control because it’s really about stewarding a network and those are different things.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: Your next one is one that kind of touches deep into a fear within—that’s probably been a fear of anyone who’s been a project manager which is insufficient timeframe. Can you tell me more about this one?
Paul Schmitz: Yeah, I mean it’s that idea that like people thinking they’re going to like drive up reading scores by 30 percent in three years, and like with the first year being creating their network. It’s just I think the challenge is that there are a lot of unrealistic timelines often driven by funders that lead collectives to dead ends.
Now I also need to throw the caveat that I have seen during the pandemic collectives move population goals in quick time but I think the specific circumstances of the emergency in the pandemic are different enough that our day-to-day issues that drove—that made that possible, and it’s not to say it’s impossible moving but I think generally what we’ve seen from groups that have really hit population change in a good way is that it’s usually in about five to 10 years it’s taken them, and it usually takes one to two years just to get like the coalition all aimed and set up and working right.
So it’s just being clear that sometimes we set goals that are just not possible within the timeframe we have, and it’s not to say people haven’t broken through in less time. It has happened but it’s recognizing that we’ve got to be realistic that it takes a while. People come to me as a consultant and will say like, “We want to do a planning process in three months, and we’ve got two years to hit this result,” and you’re just like, “You’re not going to get there and we’re not going to get a planning process done that can be truly inclusive in two months either, right?” So it’s really understanding what’s the timeframe and having some patience with the fact that we’re doing something in a new way and organizing.
The relationship building and setting up and building the architecture of this right takes some time, and doing it right on the front end can accelerate things on the back end, and doing it wrong on the front end means you get a couple of years in when you should be hitting results and you’re not getting them, and you have to reframe and that’s going to take more time so it’s really just being aware of what’s the timeframe and being realistic about what it takes to get it set up. It’s really about educating funders and using things like evaluation study we’ve done and others to show that those groups that seem to hit that change, it takes some time to get there, and we need some time to get things right on the front end.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: Your last danger in the list of 10 is adaptive or lack of adaptive leadership. So what’s this one?
Paul Schmitz: I mean I think that it’s the recognition that—I go back to adaptive leadership which distinguishes between those technical changes or challenges which are ones that there are best practices for or within our capacity that like there’s things that we can just implement that are off the shelf, and adaptive challenges are those which sit outside our capacity, outside our knowledge base but mostly are difficult because they involve change in people, and collective impact is about changing people and changing organizations, and I think sometimes people miss that there’s a lot of change management involved like if I’m bringing people to join my coalition, asking them to do this is just something—I’m asking them to change what the work is back at their organization, to change their goals, to change how they work with others, and it’s not going to happen because they come to one meeting and listen to me make a big pitch.
It’s going to take working with them and managing that, and it’s recognizing all the challenges baked into that, that groups have to stop and start and change programming if they’re part of collective impact. They have to sometimes integrate programming with groups they’ve competed with historically. They have to cede some organizational decision making to the collective. They’re going to have their evaluation data scrutinized by peers and funders in real time. They have to work concurrently on different strategies and timeframes, and they have to manage new interpersonal and team dynamics across groups.
So all of that is really difficult, and if you’re not thinking as a backbone about how are we helping people manage this change and to hold the tensions within that and figure out how to kind of support and manage that change really, it’s sad.
We know that great change management involves signaling early, and communicating how decisions are made, and walking through the math on it, and acknowledging straight off some losses that people are experiencing and are going to have to change, and helping people learn what their responsibility for participation will be in the change, and then ultimately also having empathy for people who like different levels of comfort, that some partners might be really excited about shifting things and doing things new, and some people are really scared about anything that has to change at all so just bringing those best practices of kind of adaptive leadership is really important, and I see a lot of times that people approach collective impact in very technical ways when in reality all of the difficulty of collective impact comes to the fact that it requires people to change, and managing people to change is hard work.
If you’re not thinking that way and you think it’s just a matter of building a thing and then everyone will do it, you’re not going to see it happen.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: I really appreciated that with along with the 10 dangers that we’ve just gone over, you also shared in the article some key lessons to help navigate through these challenges. The first lesson that you shared was a clear strategy guide, clear commitment. Can you tell me more about that one?
Paul Schmitz: Yeah, and I’ll use a story I kind of used in the paper as an example which is if I set a strategy for my community, that aspirational goal that says our goal is for all children to read at grade level within three years, and our strategies are a mix of everything people can think about that would help more kids read or whatever our favored practice is, we kind of create a strategy where everyone gets to do what they’re already doing, maybe a little more and a little different but not much different.
But if we do the analysis and build a clear strategy that says, “Listen, in this city if we’re trying to increase our reading score from 60 to 80 percent, that means we need 400 more kids a year hitting that goal, and we disaggregated data and we realized there’s disparities among kids in 12 schools, and then we build strategies focused on how do we have 400 kids a year at these 12 schools. It probably means we have to reach 800 to move that result, and then our—when I join that work group, I know my job is to help move 400 kids in those 12 schools to a result, and I’m much more clear why I’m there. I’m much more clear what the work is whereas if I’m coming to group to talk about how we’re helping all kids read, it’s just going to be a lot of conversation about what we’re already doing.
So it’s like the clarity of strategy and specificity of what we’re trying to move and how we’re aiming at it makes it easier for the work groups to be really well organized around that coordination, around evaluation, around continuous improvement, and again it doesn’t mean that like everything is completely data driven because community information is data as well but it means that we’re looking at it in ways.
I remember one of the early efforts in Milwaukee on teen pregnancy that had a lot of impact, early on looking at data they realized because they were looking at data and had clear measures, they noticed the Latino rate was not falling as fast as the African American and White rate, and they shifted strategy, built a task force, and that task force was focused on driving change in that community, and again it’s like the clarity of strategy which allowed the clarity of measurement and adaptation allowed them to do that, and when you have broad and vague goals, and your strategies don’t have clear performance measures, and you don’t have a clear work plan, then you just start doing a little bit of everything, and you’re probably going to end up with what you’ve got already.
I should also mention that a clear strategy of course has to have a racial equity analysis and a systems change analysis, and that we’re often working concurrently on program interventions and systems changes at the same time, and often the systems changes take more time than a program intervention but we can’t lean on one or the other, we have to be looking at both.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: The next one, your lesson that you mention in the article is one that I’ve heard you mention before, and it’s one of my favorites because I think about this a lot which is form follows function. It’s such a critical point, and I’d love to dive deeper into this one.
Paul Schmitz: Yeah, it’s like I can tell you I visit collectives where it’s like, “We formed the steering committee and all the work groups, and we know the issue but we haven’t decided what we’re going to do,” and I’m like, “You’ve kind of got it backwards because you’ve got all the people but you don’t have a clear direction.” The actual strategy—so if you build that clear strategy, that should define who you need at what tables to do the strategy, and so if you first build all the architecture and you don’t have a sense of where it’s all going, then you end up with—again, you’ve kind of decided what’s important before you know what’s important.
So I think that the key thing is how do you make sure that first you build that clear agenda, and then if you know to use the earlier example that we’re going to focus on implementing evidence-based reading programs in these 12 schools, we’re going to build a mentor network, and we’re going to—and I’m making this up, I don’t know this issue well—and we’re going to have a teacher training initiative, then we form a work group around each of those of people who are going to do that work and that’s the work they do to move that strategy or we make a work group that that’s their three things they’re going to focus on, and when they meet they’re building those out.
But the idea is that your form, and what I often find is that the group that starts creating the strategy often shifts when you get to—because you realize some of the people who may have been involved in planning aren’t the right people to implement it, and that there’s other people who might need that you might need that you haven’t even thought of yet who you’re going to need to do it.
I often tell the story in southwest Wisconsin where they are working in mental health in rural communities where they started engaging people from equipment mechanics and banks and farmers’ groups, seed dealers, to help with mental health first aid. They had like who they needed to implement the strategy was not who they came in with but once they created their strategy, they knew we need different people if we’re going to reach this population. So again the strategy should help kind of refigure who needs to be at the table, what tables we need, who needs to be at them to do the work we’ve agreed is the most impactful to get to our results. Too often we build the strategies around who is at the table instead of build the strategy around the problem we’re trying to solve and then form the table around that.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: Your last lesson is culture eats strategy for breakfast. I believe this is based on a very—a quote from business writer, Peter Drucker. This is one is so vital. I’d love to hear more about it.
Paul Schmitz: I mean this has been my soapbox since I got involved in collective impact. I think the first article I wrote for the forum was called The Culture of Collective Impact which was based on critiques I had early on in witnessing some of the early collective impact efforts that I thought were too technical and not adaptive, and didn’t build culture, and were so focused on the data and everything else, they were missing the fact that people have to do the work, and people are complex, and you have to build a culture where people can work together.
So to me, the lessons are always one that culture has to be thought of as something that’s intentionally build and managed by the backbone, not just something that is. That values often define that, and creating a sense of shared values, and I talk about ways of doing that but I think the important thing is that you have a set of values and ground rules. They shouldn’t be like lofty aspirational statements. They should be things that define behaviors that we want people to do and expect people to do.
Brené Brown talks about this in Dare to Lead, and I think has resourced like lots of groups do but like when defining values or ground rules, they’ve got to be things that are very specific and tell people what behavior is—people do, and it’s not that you should create it for the group. The group should create it, right?
Like we often do an activity based on TRIZ which a lot of us have used when we say if you were to create the worst coalition possible, what would you put in place to do that, and people come up with a list and they laugh. Then you say, OK, what can we put in place to prevent those things from ever happening, and let’s try and narrow it down to maybe a half dozen things that if we put those in place, these things we know don’t work won’t happen, and however you get at it but getting clear about these are the things we all agree on, and then the facilitator’s job is make sure those stay present and are used to manage the group so when we’re making decisions, as you know we all agreed when we started this initiative that this is how we’re going to make decisions, and this is—we’re going to do that or we all agreed early on that accountability and commitment was going to be critical to make this work. We start each meeting by going to our—like make sure that they realize this is what they said they wanted, and that you’re holding as facilitator their decisions for how the group should manage, and I see too many groups create values or ground rules, and then that’s an activity that goes just on a flipchart page in a corner of an office from four years ago versus it’s on the back of every agenda and we talk about it when making decisions.
And then I think the facilitation of meetings and again making sure that meetings are organized around interaction and action commitments that we shouldn’t be using meetings as places for everybody to report. It’s about how do we create meetings that are interactive where people are problem solving and doing work together, and that meetings end with clear action commitments that we’re trying to drive everyone to do between meetings so we can move the work forward.
So I think that notion of how we build a culture by having shared values and ground rules, having a meeting style that when people come to our meetings, it’s different than other meetings and there’s a way it works that people know this is how we do things, and they know we get real work done and they’re going to be engaged fully. So I think all of that helps build a culture, and again those other practices like that transparency and inclusion and community engagement are all part of that culture that talks about how we do our work together and make decisions together, engage people together, and so if we have those, then it helps us succeed better.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: That was great, Paul, super helpful. We’re about to wrap up. Is there anything that we haven’t gone over that you want to make sure that we include for listeners?
Paul Schmitz: I think I just want to emphasize that collective impact is really hard like anything else. If it was simple we all would have always been—like it’s hard, and what makes it hard is because people are difficult, not because we’re trying to be difficult but we have competing interests, we have lots on our plates, we’re an under-resourced sector where we’re trying—and under capacity often organizations, we’re trying to get a lot done that we’re very passionate about so it’s not that people have intents that go against but a lot of the incentives of the sector like the way things are funded, and the way proposals work, and just the busyness of our lives and work make it difficult to do this work well.
So it requires us to think differently and to be—I think one thing COVID did amid all the horrors of it and everything else is it also I think created more grace and patience among people. I’ve seen that a lot and I think that we have to bring that and just realize like everyone’s got hard things they’re dealing with, and people are often between rocks and hard places, and I would say when people have self-interests within a coalition, it’s not like a bad thing, of course they do. If you’re CEO of an organization, your board expects you to protect your organization’s interests, right? But then let’s navigate that and name it versus treat it as a problem or pretend it doesn’t exist, and we shouldn’t shame people for having self-interests. I’m not talking about selfish stuff. I’m talking about in their organization’s wellbeing and funding and everything else. They should care about that but then let’s be real and think about what that means and navigate that and own it but I think so often we just miss the fact that this is all about difficult people stuff, and that people are—that managing and moving collective impact requires us to just acknowledge that, and then within the process have patience and grace, and not shame people, and realize that we’ve got to build bridges to bring people along, and that the best way—what I’ve found is nothing motivates people in collective impact more than success, and when they see needles moving, when they see more kids are reading, and they see the teen pregnancy rate going down or they see that affordable housing units are increasing, when they see that needle moving, that generates more momentum than anything else so it’s like recognize that like do the process but once you see that happening, that will create the momentum.
But it’s hard work and hopefully some of these lessons help, and again you’re not alone in trying to work through these things and fortunately more and more groups are learning the same things. We just see a very different kind of collective impact now than we saw 10 years ago for sure.
Tracy Timmons-Gray: Thank you so much, Paul. This has been a fantastic discussion. For listeners, you can check out more about the 10 Dangers to Collective Impact at SSIR.org, and I know we also talked about a bunch of different resources throughout this chat so we’ll be linking to those in the show notes. Again, Paul, it’s always just a real pleasure and honor to talk with you, just very grateful to have you as a colleague.
Paul Schmitz: Always a pleasure to work with this network. It’s all people who really care about making a difference. Thank you everybody.
(Outro) And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes of this podcast, including a links to the SSIR series Collective Impact: 10 Years Later where the article discussed today is featured.
We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.
The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.
And our recent news is that registration is now open for our virtual Collective Impact Action Summit that will be held on April 26-28, 2022. The Action Summit is our biggest learning event of the year, with over 25 virtual sessions focusing on topics like culture and narrative change, shifting power, data, and sustainability.
And one big plus for being virtual is that we’re recording many of the sessions and sharing those recordings with attendees after, so you’ll be able to plan a schedule that fits best with you, and watch other sessions later.
We hope you can join us this April. Please visit the Events section of CollectiveImpactForum.org to learn more about this year’s Collective Impact Action Summit.
This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast host. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, we hope you are safe and well.