Collective Impact: Making Peace with the Gray Area

school of fishThis fall NNPHI sent three staff members to the Tamarack Institute’s Second Annual Collective Impact Summit in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. I was one of the lucky ones able to attend, along with my colleagues Erin Marziale and Jennifer McKeever. I learned all about collective impact among folks from a wide variety of disciplines, all in professions geared towards solving social problems.

About Collective Impact

Collective Impact* is defined as, “The commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem, using a structured form of collaboration.” They five key conditions for successful collective impact are:

  • Common agenda
  • Shared measurement systems
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
  • Continuous communication
  • Backbone organization

Before attending the Summit I had been exposed to the idea of collective impact a number of times and had probably what I would call an advanced novice level of collective impact understanding. I had the big picture down—collective impact as a social problem solving strategy that entails all relevant stakeholders—but struggled with the nuts and bolts. I likened it to the participatory research methodology —drilled into my head as an undergraduate studying anthropology—which is an approach that is geared towards. “planning and conducting the research process with those people whose life-world and meaningful actions are under study.” Though it was a helpful comparison, it was only one piece of the collective impact puzzle.

And, to be honest, I was somewhat skeptical of that puzzle. Not necessarily the backing ideology—it makes total sense as a strategy—but about the feasibility of implementation. Being a pragmatic evaluator I couldn’t help but think, “Sure, that sounds great, but what if not everyone is on board? How are you possibly supposed to galvanize such efforts?”

The strategies set forth are time-consuming and often challenging. Though they clearly align and are intuitive parts of a larger whole, I can still imagine instances in which, given the nature of our work and the constraints set forth by timelines, budgets, and old-fashioned thinking the response from key stakeholders to such a suggestion would be a resounding “Nope”.

So the question I had was: Is there any gray area when it comes to collective impact? Is it okay to do things that are kind of collective impact-y? Or is the process null and void if not done in its purest form?

After attending the Summit the answer I’ve (with the help of colleagues) deduced is: Yes. Sort of. I just had to shift my understanding. And ask better questions.

The Role of Complexity Theory

Much of the Collective Impact Summit content draws not on teaching a prescriptive process, but on understanding the complex systems in which we work. In public health and other fields, theories about management, improvement, and change aim to standardize and reduce variation as the pathway to better performance.

According to Brenda Zimmerman, Professor of Policy/Strategic Management at the Schulich School of Business at York University, complexity science “studies complex adaptive systems, with all of their inherent messiness, unpredictability and emergence.” Complexity suggests that relationships between parts are more important than the parts themselves. As practitioners in public health, dealing with complex systems and populations, this idea can be actualized by embodying a few basic principles:

  • Neither the system nor its external environment are, or ever will be, constant.
  • Uncertainty and paradox are inherent within the system.
  • Problems that cannot be solved like a machine can solve something, but they can nevertheless be “moved forward” if you understand the patterns that are creating them.
  • Effective solutions can emerge from minimum specifications or simple rules rather than over-specification.

Rather than prescribe a specific linear process, we need to support the conditions which will facilitate forward movement (non linear).

An apropos analogy might be the art of planning an 11 year-old’s birthday party. See Dave Snowden, Founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge, a consulting company and research network focusing on complexity theory in sensemaking, make the case here:

Leadership Through Collective Impact Lenses

In public health, we often come from an orientation of “taking on the world”. The social challenges are so BIG and the need is so GREAT that we feel an incredible sense of responsibility to provide the answers to these challenges. But what we learned at the Summit is that the very essence of collective impact is that no one person has all the answers! As public health leaders, we bring an important perspective, but it is one of many perspectives that need to be at the table to ensure the conditions for social change, facilitated by the collective impact process.

One strategy we were introduced to was recognizing the need to be vulnerable with partners in order to create authentic relationships. When we lead from a place of vulnerability, we are better able to push ego aside and be true collaborative partners.

More about the art of living vulnerably can be found in Brene Brown’s excellent TED talk . Brown is a researcher studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame.

Understanding the Puzzle

In applying complexity theory I was able to reframe my thought process. It’s okay to struggle to conceptualize our work within the constraints of collective impact: focus on the power you do have, maximize it, and move forward. Accept the parts that don’t go by the book—aka the “gray area”.

Similarly, envisioning NNPHI as leaders–or the backbone organization (see collective impact condition #5)–we don’t have to then feel the necessity to have all the answers. That’s panic attack inducing. Rather, we should look for opportunities to influential and honest as opposed to obsessively rule-following and directive. We are not the exclusive drivers of social change.

In short, to answer my question: collective impact is essentially all gray area. There are guiding principles, sure, but they were created with the understanding that social problems can often be nebulous, ever-changing, and infuriatingly challenging to tackle. Conditions will vary. You work with what you got–that’s the nature of being in a field like public health. And the beauty of it.

*If you need more information you’re in luck because we have a whole other blog entry devoted to the topic.


Brittany Bickford, MPH

Erin Marziale, MPH

Jennifer McKeever, MSW, MPH

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