Services to the public and a new role for business

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the Conferedation of British Industry’s Public Services Network forum on 1 October, 2014 and on Collaborate on 13 October, 2014. It has been cross-posted with permission from the authors.

Lord Victor Adebowale

Public services is too narrow a concept to capture the shift that government and the policy world need to make. Instead, we need to be talking about ‘services to the public,’ and re-thinking all of our roles within a new delivery landscape.

This might not sound controversial, but the consequences are. They could re-shape the public services market and the role of business in society. Here are three reasons why, three starting points for reform, and three things business should be doing about it.

1. The Landscape is getting more complex

The operating context for public services is becoming increasingly complex — both in terms of the scope of social need and demand, and the means through which these needs can be addressed. Our work with the Institute for Government found that, in areas of multiple or complex social need, commissioning arrangements are often undermined by a lack of proper citizen engagement and can be distorted by payment mechanisms that one provider called “blunt instruments” designed to control cost and shift risk to the detriment of citizens. Those with the most complex and pressing needs can be affected most.

2. Managing demand needs a whole-of-market approach

Our research suggests that around 75% of citizens think that government has a role to play in improving living standards, finding a decent place to live, and being in meaningful work. Yet government is only one player in a diverse market, and traditional service solutions are clearly not enough. We need to work across the sectors to find better ways of meeting demand upstream, with business in particular playing a stronger and more socially aware role supporting employment, mobility, and new enterprise within communities. The JRF’s Julia Unwin argues that the high street is, in some senses, becoming the new front-line of public services. She points to a broader truth about our shared responsibility for identifying and meeting social need.

3. We aren’t even getting to first base with the public

Citizen engagement is both absolutely essential and frequently misunderstood. Our research with Ipsos MORI shows that only 14% of citizens feel they have a stake in the public services they receive, and only 24% felt their needs are regularly met. We should be depressed about these findings. Yet they should not just only be a spur to service improvement — a majority feel that the way people are treated is just as important as (and indeed intrinsic to) the outcome. In the wake of scandals in the public services market, business must take a lead in embedding values of dignity and respect in the delivery of public services.

These issues are fundamental  —  they get to the root of what a service to the public should feel like and what the role of business should be in delivering them. Values, respect and an absolute focus on citizens and communities are vital. How can we incentivise this?


Here are three starting points:

1. Create proper platforms for citizen-driven commissioning

We cannot effect demand management, behaviour change or collaborative commissioning without real insight into the needs, wants, assets and aspirations of communities, with citizens themselves leading this process. Creating the right conditions and methodologies to do this is a vital first step which the public sector should lead, learning from smart emerging practice in places as diverse as Oldham, Suffolk, Derbyshire, Wiltshire, Haringey and Sunderland.

2. Prepare ourselves to collaborate better

We don’t pay enough attention to our readiness to collaborate – and this is a crucial barrier to making it happen in practice. We frequently prioritise structure over culture. In the health service for example, it is curious that far less attention has been afforded to the individual and collective valence of clinicians, managers and public leaders to work together. Without this, structural change will struggle to change cultures and frontline practice — something Collaborate will be addressing in our forthcoming Health Collaboration Lab.

3. Encourage future leaders to think across sectors

Collaborating in public services requires a different form of leadership – less command and control, more adaptive and distributed, and more attuned to the need for give and take without complete control. This is well-trodden ground in theory, and in the private sector. For the public sector (in which management and risk is undoubtedly more complex), adopting this stance in a period of extreme uncertainty is difficult. Yet we are seeing emerging examples in local government and much enthusiasm for the value of ‘leading across the sectors’, as a recent Collaborate report with the Clore Social Leadership Programme sets out.

Dr Henry Kippin

So far so consensual (though hardly widespread), and no doubt something business can sign up to. But like most collaborations that have value, there is an inherent stickiness too. Acknowledging and addressing this will be a true marker of the willingness of public service businesses to lead a new, values-driven way of delivering.

Businesses need to re-think their responsibilities to the public upon which they rely.

Enjoying the patronage of the public is not something that should be taken lightly. Citizens value dignity, treatment and respect as well as outcomes, and it is not enough for organisations delivering services to the public to say “we weren’t contracted to do that,” or “we just deliver.” Shared responsibility means holding ourselves to account on principles of inclusiveness, re-distribution, fiscal integrity and public value. The best businesses will (and do) embrace this agenda, just as the public and social sectors should too.

There are important implications at different levels. At the macro level, the CBI is right to call for a culture of transparency and honesty about public service contracting and delivery — particularly as the unintended consequences of poor contracting decisions in some big areas of public spending become apparent.

At the local level, businesses can and should be stepping up to the plate to be part of a more collaborative growth setup — working far more obviously with local authorities, skills and education providers, and the social sector in communities. And at the micro level, there is a clear need to create closer, more engaged and more co-productive relationships with citizens, playing out at ground level the values we espouse in the boardroom.

Better relationships between business, state and society must be at the heart of our future model of services to the public. But let’s not wait for the perfect roadmap to be drawn out in Whitehall. The best of the private sector will make value-driven change happen now, and we are supporting them in their efforts to do it.

Listen to Lord Adebowale speak at our last CBI Public Service Network event:

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What Is The True Nature Of Partnerships?

SiG Note: A version of this post was published on Think Thrice on March 28, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author. 

The social innovation community is acutely aware that our toughest societal challenges cannot be solved in siloes. Cross-sector, cross-disciplinary collaboration is needed to tackle such complex problems.

ContentImage-18-252448-partneryogaA growing understanding of this need for deep collaboration is amplifying the urgency for individuals skilled at bridging, building and brokering partnerships.

Mary Pickering is one of these individuals. Mary is an accredited member of the Partnership Brokers Association (via PBA in London, UK) and the VP of Partnerships at Toronto Atmospheric Fund (an innovation unit embedded within the Toronto municipal government). She has and continues to broker large scale partnerships that work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto (by 80% by 2050, no small task!).

I was fortunate to participate in a workshop led by Mary on partnership brokering; below are my top take-aways around contracts, money and forces.


Drawing up a letter of intent, contract, or, in the case of a romantic partnership, a prenuptial agreement, is helpful because it forces us to go through the motions of discussing what assets exist, what our strengths are and how we can be fair with each other.

However, if the partnership gets to the point where this agreement needs to be used, it often means a deeper betrayal occurred at some point and this issue(s) needs to be resolved before the partnership can be resumed.

Predicting all possible scenarios in advance is practically impossible, but thinking through and deciding together how to address and resolve conflicts before they arise makes it possible to be logical about what is the best and most fair outcome, without emotion getting in the way.

Contracts are a useful tool in partnership as they enable parties to be up-front about expectations — particularly those to do with succession and exit planning — during the early stages of the partnership, ushering partners to together create a shared understanding and vision of what defines success.


Contributing money doesn’t equal true ‘buy-in’ because one’s value of money is weighted by how much money one has.

Mary explains that one of the fundamentals of true partnerships is that each party contributes, and incurs risk, by agreeing to engage. However, with agreements where power is imbalanced, such as those between investor and entrepreneur or music label and musician, it can be difficult to decipher whether an offer to engage is a transaction or a partnership. The intention of the engagement and level of commitment is the difference between a transaction (purely a business exchange, short-term in nature, and often a one-time deal) and a partnership (founded on reciprocity, cooperation and mutual growth, and often long-term).

These semantics are important because they have very different implications when things don’t go according to plan. And they never do. Simply bringing money to the table does not guarantee commitment, so being upfront about power is a step closer to neutralizing imbalances.


Forming partnerships can be hard enough but, once formed, there are also forces working to pull them apart. Personal responsibilities, job requirements and navigating hiccups across projects all compete for our mental-bandwidth, limiting the attention we can give to nurturing partnerships. Much like an untended garden that becomes overrun with weeds over time, unmaintained partnerships can take you backwards by growing once small nuisances into much larger issues or creating strain on relationships. Partnerships, like living organisms, need ongoing TLC to thrive.

Partnerships are crucial for getting big things done. Getting smart about how we think about, participate in, see and lead partnerships will help us move the dial on some of our more intractable social problems.

For more information about the process Mary describes and how you can be trained as a certified Partnership Broker, visit the Partnership Brokers Association website or register for the upcoming Toronto Partnership Brokers Training (Oct 27-30, 2014).

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Can Social Innovation Be Learned In School?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the Social Labs Revolution website on August 12, 2014. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author. 

Five Lessons from CIRAL

Evergreen’s Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory

One of the things that I like so much about CIRAL is the sense of limitless possibility
— Mattea Kline

Based on our experience running CIRAL, the Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory, over the past three years at the Evergreen State College, we believe that the ability to practice social innovation can be learned in school — but it can’t be taught. Instead, we need environments where social innovation is encouraged and cultivated, in which students test and apply theory and other formal learning within real-world situations.

These environments complement traditional educational approaches and because the practice of social innovation can only be learned by attempting it, through experimenting and improvising and collaborating with people, tools, ideas and situations, social innovation is not merely another subject which can be added to the curriculum.

Students in CIRAL work together in small groups (called clusters) to envision and develop their own projects that focus on civic intelligence — the capacity for groups to address significant shared problems effectively and equitably (Schuler 2001).

These projects are limited only by the imagination of the students. There has been wide diversity in the more than 30 projects so far. Examples include an anti-bullying game, video explorations of community health at Evergreen, anti-patterns (which identify and document social mechanisms that maintain oppression in society), public panel discussions and forums, software that supports group deliberation, city ambassadors, housing for disabled veterans, activist road trips, a campaign for a new student union constitution, an on-campus homelessness survey, and many others. Some of the approximately 20 student-originated clusters include Homelessness, Education, Community Health, Pattern Languages, and 15 – 20 others. We also have an overarching cluster, the “Home Office,” that is responsible for managing our weekly meetings, implementing participant suggestions for improving CIRAL, marketing the program on campus and in the community, and producing and archiving resources for future participants.

A critical part of our approach is the weekly assembly. The faculty member opens the assembly with a brief status report that includes reminders, opportunities, and challenges.

The Fresh Sheet, CIRAL’s weekly newspaper, which contains brief reports from the clusters (and provides an historical record), is then distributed. Then, liaisons from each cluster give brief reports, which are followed by cluster meetings. We were happy to learn that sharing reports from the clusters in our assemblies helped build shared consciousness and additional collaboration among the clusters.

Civic Intelligence

To put civic intelligence into practice requires thought and action. Although this specific focus isn’t required for these educational labs, we’ve found it to be extremely useful (and most students in CIRAL have taken or are taking civic intelligence for one more terms). A focus on civic intelligence in an educational venue challenges the educational business-as-usual model. It’s not really appropriate to only study civic intelligence.

While civic intelligence requires knowledge of various sorts, we have learned there are at least four other important types of capabilities that need developing. These types (illustrated below) are typically not addressed in traditional educational settings. And the diverse capabilities that support these types include courage, motivation, civic purpose, a collaborative spirit, and self-efficacy, as well as other attributes such as access to social networks, diversity, creativity, and leadership. Social imagination and the ability to engage in social critique are also important.

Diverse Capacities That Help Support Civic Intelligence

Diverse Capacities That Help Support Civic Intelligence

Five Lessons

There seems to be a strong link between social labs (Hassan 2014) and CIRAL. One way to think about this relationship is to see CIRAL as an educational version of a social lab; one could even view CIRAL as preparation for participation in the social labs that Hassan describes. And although education is still CIRAL’s preeminent goal and takes precedence over working for positive social change, the focus on social change is critical — it provides both motivation and an endless source of critical real-world challenges for CIRAL to consider.

The CIRAL experiment has been a success, both for the community and for student participants. At the same time, CIRAL participation seems to lead to relevant employment opportunities for students and contributes to positive social change. We’ve identified five lessons that account for this success. Ideally, these lessons will be useful for students, faculty members, and school administrators who are hoping to launch educational labs of their own — realizing, of course, that the circumstances are likely to vary at each institution and organizers may choose to prioritize objectives or methods differently. Nevertheless we believe that these five lessons work together synergistically; taken as a group they encourage a healthy lab with lively, engaged participants.

1/Focus on Civic Intelligence

This non-negotiable constraint (for CIRAL) stipulates that the projects that the clusters develop use, explore, and advance civic intelligence. The focus on civic intelligence, and on increasing the capacity of other groups to solve their own problems, provides a broad but unifying foundation for our work and ensures that the value of our work extends beyond the classroom, both geographically and temporally.

2/Collaboration is Central

All of our projects are intended to be collaborative. These collaborations engage faculty members, students, and community members who are stakeholders in the various projects, sustain the lab community and build critical skills. We also practice a sort of collaboration over time. Unlike more traditional approaches to education, where every term is brand new, where one set of students is routinely replaced by a new one and all of the work of the previous term is forgotten, we consciously try to systematically capture useful knowledge and insight on which future members can build. Ideally, our project participants should not only focus on the immediate project goals, but also help further refine the model of CIRAL, and also think carefully about what resources the cluster can pass forward to future CIRAL participants.

3/Student Ownership

When students feel that the lab belongs to them, and that they can change it for the better, they are much more likely to work to promote the lab and to find ways to improve it. We owe many of our positive changes in the lab’s processes and identity to this deep relationship. This feeling of ownership has been demonstrated in other ways as well. Some students, for example, are attempting on their own to establish CIRAL-like labs in other institutions.


One of the goals for CIRAL has been to actually persist and to be offered every term. When this is the case, students can plan ahead for lab participation. It also means that projects — and the involvement of students — can extend beyond a single term. When students can stick with a project — and the lab itself — over multiple terms (and, here, the availability of flexible credit hours becomes important), they can provide valuable lab memory and lessons learned to newer participants.

The evolution of the community health project demonstrates why the extra time is often important. During winter term of 2014, students recognized that they wanted to create a community health cluster and began exploring the field. At that point there were no obvious signs that an exciting project was imminent. In the following quarter, the idea of community health at Evergreen — in all its manifestations — became a campus-wide focus and the cluster quickly realized that this was the opportunity they were looking for. They launched an ambitious project that combined documentary film-making with ethnography. The project proved so compelling that half a dozen students — including students from other clusters and even students not formally in CIRAL — were putting in 30 or more hours a week on the project.

5/Cross-Fertilize and Evolve

CIRAL is a new organizational entity that is designed for conscious evolution. Because the lab and the clusters can persist over time, and because the structure and orientation of the lab itself is explicitly malleable, this approach establishes something like a permanent test-bed for an institution to try out new ideas. This is especially true if more than one research and action lab exists at an institution.

Challenges for Educational Labs

The challenges facing educational labs are diverse and impossible to ignore. For one thing, because of institutional inertia, one of the hardest challenges might be actually starting one! But once the lab is operational, new challenges arise. For one thing, labs need to attract students who long to be more instrumental in shaping their education and those who want to work with others on projects with potential real-world consequences. While these concepts may seem alien to many faculty members who have come to expect students who have been trained to be docile, there still seem to be many who would flourish in a more active and engaged environment. We have also noted that many students only learn that they too have this longing when they are given an opportunity to actually act upon it.

Poster for College-wide Homelessness Survey

Poster for College-wide Homelessness Survey

Faculty members might not like everything about the lab. Some who participate in the lab may find their workload increased — but not their pay. And if the model promotes more student autonomy, faculty control and authority within the lab may be diminished, which could be uncomfortable or even intolerable for some. The faculty member will also need to suffer a certain amount of muddling — even though this sometimes turns out not to be actual muddling! Education in the lab should be relatively safe and “failure” should actually be an option. Having said that, faculty members have an obligation to help steer students — generally with a light touch — in their projects. Faculty members will need to anticipate the need for a heavier touch on occasion, especially when the stakes are higher, such as with community work or work requiring human subject review. Another perceived barrier is that labs similar to CIRAL seem to require faculty “omnicompetence,” since the skills and knowledge that students might need at a given time might be in areas that the faculty member feels unprepared to support. But, of course, nobody knows everything! Faculty well-roundedness and the ability to improvise, plus access to foundational material (“How to Conduct Qualitative Research” or “What is Asset Mapping,” for example) and helpful, thoughtful colleagues can be invaluable when it comes to handling these inevitable circumstances.

It probably goes without saying that not every student or faculty member would choose to participate in a research and action lab. That being said, providing a research and action action lab opens up possibilities for students and faculty members who are interested in hands on project-related work or other work that influences the “real world.” These labs can’t function well without adequate numbers of faculty members to conduct them or students who are interested in attending them. In most cases, the student population is there and the faculty resources necessary for this adventure would muster as well.

Evergreen State College, a non-traditional liberal arts college with a focus on theory and practice, is an obvious choice for a lab like CIRAL. But even at Evergreen this approach can be a hard sell to many of the faculty and administrators. It was only when a new institutional form, the undergraduate research option, was made available that CIRAL in its basic form could be readily launched. In other words, it is probably easier to adapt an existing educational option than to devise a new one to establish a lab at your institution. Creating a new option may be the only way to go if no other suitable option exists. In either case, we need successful models to point to. We also need to identify allies. Circumstances will vary, but enlisting faculty members from other disciplines who, for example, would like to work with undergraduate students on various projects, is probably in order. And students themselves may be willing to bring up this idea with faculty members, other students, and administrators.

Although many Evergreen students may relish this opportunity to blaze their own educational paths, the research and action lab opportunity is not an option in most schools. In fact, I have been told by faculty members from all over the world that developing a lab similar to CIRAL at their institution was simply unthinkable. While labs like CIRAL are — I would argue — indispensable for 21st century education, the fact remains, however, that the obstacles they face are substantial. Administrative, cultural, and psychological barriers exist that can’t be wished away. Launching educational alternatives — especially in an era of compulsive testing and the sanctification of science, mathematics, and technology — are unlikely to be friction free. These forces in fact echo to a large degree the swimming upstream nature of cultivating civic intelligence in society. Social progress comes both slowly and all at once, but as Frederick Douglass observed, never without a struggle.

The fear I didn’t even know I had has dissipated. I no longer think of issues in my life as immovable, but instead jump immediately to identifying patterns and thinking of possible resolutions or improvements  — Anne Belson

Towards an Educational Research and Action Labs Movement

Establishing a single lab at a college or university can be an important complement to the other offerings. And although I’m a fervent advocate of this, the Internet — and 21st century realities — suggest many compelling directions for a new educational labs movement.

The idea of multiple labs within a given school seems to be one obvious possibility. Consciously thinking about a network of labs could help establish an evolutionary environment for social innovation at that institution. Although the various research and action labs would ideally (in my opinion) follow the same general guidelines, one of the important aspects of the approach would be the development of some body (and/or mechanisms or processes) that would help coordinate the research and action activities of the various labs. Although the labs themselves could change over time (thus presenting an immediately relevant and accessible “natural experiment”), the network of labs that also would be created is also potentially a source for educational and institutional learning. The individual labs, as well as the various networks, could be developing toolkits of ideas and resources to help students with their projects. The structure and orientation of a variety of labs could, for example, help the school better understand the role of technology within their educational framework. It could also be used to explore different approaches to working with remote or peripatetic outposts, working with the community or with graduates or other people and groups beyond the immediate region. And now that we’re here, why not explore the idea of networking the networks? This notion, while somewhat utopian, is not necessarily implausible. We are seeing new organizational forms daily made possible by new information and communication technologies. Labs built on cooperative principles that are focused on research and action may not be so farfetched as we think.

Finally, CIRAL, new educational labs, and new potential networks (and networks of networks) could help address the disquieting aspect that within educational institutions there are virtually no evolutionary paths for their development — especially ones in which students are active agents in the process. The lab model that we have piloted at Evergreen could provide a basic model which could be adapted to local circumstances. My students and I will continue to push forward with CIRAL and our hope is that our effort will spread at Evergreen and beyond. We’ve talked about the possibility and desirability of expanding beyond our current borders. Many questions need to be asked. How should these labs be organized? What relationships could they have with other educational labs? Could people at other locations join local clusters? Should faculty members be trained differently? What are your ideas and plans and projects? We make the future by building it — Tim Berners-Lee.


CIRAL HANDBOOK [online] (June 2013)

Hassan, Zaid, The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges (2014) San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publishing.

Schuler, Douglas, “Cultivating Society’s Civic Intelligence: Patterns for a New ‘World Brain’” (Summer 2001), Journal of Society, Information and Communication 4 (2).

Doug Schuler, EWS faculty, photographed on Tues., Sept. 24, 2013.Douglas Schuler is a faculty member at The Evergreen State College, where he teaches and learns about civic intelligence, social imagination, technology, and the social implications of the network society through a variety of programs and CIRAL, the Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory. He is author of several books, including Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution that contains 136 patterns for thinking about and enacting social change (pattern cards can be found at He is a founding member and current president of the Seattle Community Network and the Public Sphere Project

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Renewing Growth: Building Commons on Open Ground

The resource/manufacturing economy that has sustained Western society for the past two centuries is showing signs of rust. While the champions of weathered industries like print news, traditional manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction are applying fresh coats of paint and working double-time to undermine their opponents, global leaders are looking for a new way forward.

On October 27th/28th, the International Economic Forum of the Americas will be hosting its annual Toronto Global Forum, with a theme of Rethinking Growth. The theory is that if you put the world’s most successful, influential people in a room, they can collectively figure out big-picture solutions that can be fed down the pipe to everyone else. Or build new partnerships and land new deals, which is pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

There are other big names working at the problem of rethinking economic growth and governance at the global level. Don Tapscott and the Martin Prosperity Institute are undertaking a landmark study of how global, web-based networks can be part of the solution to our collective structural woes.

To summarize – recognizing that the model of capitalism we’ve relied on for ages is maladapted to the challenges of our time, the world’s powerful people are either internalizing solution-development or outsourcing it to usual suspects.

Here’s what’s wrong with this model.

The basic decision-making processes these leaders are using differ none at all from the ones they’re theoretically recognizing as ill-adapted to the times.  They’re looking at policy as a product that gets crafted by specialists and then sold to the masses.  In this model, those who aren’t among the world-leader crowd are either seen as resource-providers, front-line implementers or consumers.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” said Einstein – but that’s exactly what the world’s power-brokers are trying to do.  It can’t work.  Fortunately, it’s not just the world’s power brokers looking for innovative solutions to our structural problems.

While we traditionally associate grassroots activism as being anti-system and anti-government, there is an emerging trend of community-focused social innovators who see themselves as part of the solution, not problem-fighters.  The rallying cry of engagement is shifting from “we can’t let them” to “how might we?”

The most prominent example of this shift in activism from opposition to collaboration is in the expanding world of Open Government.

Open Government is a global movement of public servants, private sector partners and engaged citizens committed to opening the process of government and empowering people to be part of the policy-making process.  In just three years, the global Open Government Partnership has grown from 8 participating countries to 65, with more than 2,000 initiatives on the go.

These initiatives are evolving from one-day hackathons and well-meaning but structurally exclusive panel discussions into more dynamic, engaging and sustained event series and projects.  My personal favourite is #OGT14 – Open Government on the Open Road, a civic-engagement-as-art project conceived and led by Richard Pietro, funded by Make Web Not War, but implemented by communities across the country.

Also noteworthy is Pakathon, a unique experiment in crowdsourcing.  Pakathon is a movement that seeks to reverse Pakistan’s brain-drain and engage its social entrepreneur community.  It does this by supporting community-led hackathons around the world that empower diverse groups of entrepreneurs, researchers and technologists to rethink growth in Pakistan from the grassroots up.

The sorts of solutions emerging from discussions like Pakathon are as much about realistic economic opportunity and community empowerment as they are about policy change.  It turns out that if you bring a cross-section of people and talent together in one space (in person or online) and challenge them to collectively figure out local problems, they will come up with some incredible ideas that can potentially be scaled up for global application.

Which leaves us with an interesting conundrum – the world’s power-brokers are convening in old-school forums to rethink growth on the people’s behalf (with an eye towards new partnerships) at the same time as global communities of engagement are catalyzing new growth from the grassroots up (and also looking for partnerships to fund implementation and support growth).

This is the challenge of our times: how might we bridge the gap between the world’s power-brokers rethinking top-down growth for tomorrow and grassroots social innovators planting seeds today?

Instead of reinventing the wheel, we need to be thinking outside the box.  Post-industrial growth won’t be about what can be extracted by one group and sold to another, but what can be built collaboratively on common ground.


The Toronto Grassroots Innovation Forum:

Tuesday, October 28th at CSI Regent Park.


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Microtainer: social innovation & lab links we’re following (Sept 2014)

C/O Ashley Goldberg

C/O Ashley Goldberg

This mini blog, or bloggette, is part of our ongoing effort to spread information that we think will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. Below is a collection of resources that crossed our desks over the month of September 2014. In no particular order:

1. Innovation in aged care and wellbeing: “Circle,” created by Participle, is an innovative membership-based service open to anyone over the age of 50 that supports individuals and communities to lead the lives they want to lead. Members are supported across four areas of their lives: social activity, life’s practical tasks, tailored learning, and appropriate health and wellbeing services. At the heart of Circle is a fundamental belief that everyone has the right to a flourishing, independent later life.

2. Blog post: “Crickets Going Quiet: Questions of Evolution and Scale” by Giulio Quaggiotto (UN Global Pulse Lab) & Milica Begovic Radojevic (UNDP Europe & Central Asia). The post explores the insights and thinking that emerged from a gathering in NYC with a diverse array of development professionals (ecologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists…) and prompted Giulio and Milica to ask the very tough question: How do we create the space for constant adaptation in bureaucracies that are predicated upon predictability, risk aversion, and stability?

3. New online quarterly magazine launched by Nesta, “the Long and Short“, with stories being published over month-long ‘seasons’ rather than all at once. The aim is to offer a journalistic and storytelling approach to innovation to audiences that, while interested in new ideas and the way the world is changing, don’t typically identify with Nesta or the innovation community in general — while also providing entertaining, interesting stories for people that do.

4. Excellent practical guide written for local authorities (in the UK): “Commissioning for outcomes and co-production” written by nef’s Julia Slay and Joe Penny. The guide provides a framework, a set of principles, and practical guidance to re-assess how services are currently procured and provided.  It can help to re-focus services on the outcomes that really matter to those who are intended to benefit from them. The practical guide sets out the core ideas and how to put them into practice. This rigorously researched and tested guide is the result of eight years of collaboration between nef and local authorities (wow!).

5. We are talking a lot about social innovation ecosystems lately (stay tuned for a new two-pager by SiG on the topic to be launched soon). This Q&A style article, “What Are the Components of the Canadian Innovation Ecosystem and How Well Is It Performing?” by David Watter in the TIM review, is timely and useful in thinking about innovation ecosystems in Canada. The article explores and lays out the components for effective innovation ecosystems — that is, the supports and the collaborations that underpin a thriving innovation pipeline and activities.

6. Mindmup: Stoked about this great (and free!) mind mapping and systems mapping online software — we used this for a SiG strategy session! (hat tip: Kelsey Spitz)

7. GC Design, sponsored by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS), is Canada’s newest government innovation unit. The studio is taking on four assignments to work with a policy/project team and departmental representatives on an internal red tape reduction initiative, as announced in the Clerk of the Privy Council’s Destination 2020 report. Be sure to follow @GovCanDesign and GC Design’s first two employees: Blaise Hébert and Sage Cram. (also, while you’re at it, you’ll want to follow #StudioY fellow Meghan Hellstern for insider #GCDesign scoop!)

8. Great video of a talk by Noah Raford from back in 2009, “Explaining The Cycle of Adaptive Change,” where he compares forest cycles (a biological system) and the US car industry (a social system) using the adaptive cycle (a Frances Westley favourite!). The video is super helpful in wrapping one’s head around systems change!

9. In June, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) unveiled a new portal for innovation in the public sector: the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation. The portal aims to collect, share and analyse examples of public sector innovation and to provide practical advice to countries on how to make innovations work. The portal will be demonstrated at the OECD Conference on Innovating the Public Sector: From Ideas to Impact, which takes place in Paris, France, on Nov 12-13 2014.

10. An interview with Parsons DESIS Lab’s Eduardo Staszowski and Lara Penin, by Creative States. Check it out for Eduardo and Lara’s answers to questions:

  • In your view, how has the field of design evolved over the last 10 years?
  • How is DESIS Lab preparing the design field for these emerging trends?
  • Would you say your work shifted from documentation to application?
  • What sorts of research questions do you explore in “Public and Collaborative”?
  • How does “Public and Collaborative” work?
  • What types of projects are you working on now?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of working as a ‘lab’ within a university setting?
  • How would you define success with “Public and Collaborative”?
  • Where do you hope to see “Public and Collaborative” ten years from now?

11. Blog post by Nesta’s Stian Westlake, where he offers “Eight options for a Radical Innovation Policy.” These include:

  1. Go large // Innovation policy as usual, but much more. For example, increase the science budget, the TSB budget and R&D tax credits.
  2. Go downstream // A massive reorientation of public resources from research to development.
  3. Get in on the upside // Make sure government gets a share in successful innovations that it funds. Use this to invest more in innovation.
  4. The Teutonic pivot // Reform Anglo-Saxon capitalism to make it more long-termist.
  5. The Austrian pivot // Conclude that the 17-year alliance with industrial policy was a mistake and scrap everything that doesn’t correct simple market failures in as straightforward a way as possible.
  6. Citizen innovation // End technocratic innovation policy and empower ordinary people to both innovate and decide the direction of innovation funding.
  7. Get creative // Innovation is nothing without creativity – and it’s often cheaper to fund than science. Back creatives to make innovation flourish.
  8. Go green // Focus innovation policy on one mission – decarbonizing the economy and mitigating the effects of climate change.

12. InWithForward share the next iteration of their discussion paper,Grounded Change,” and explore three different critiques they received (including a name change to the document).  For a deeper dive into the Grounded Change model, don’t miss InWithForward’s new online seminar series: “How do we get to change?” – where the team will share (and invite you to debate and critique!) their approach of starting from the ground-up to develop impactful new programs and policies. Session dates:

  • Oct 24, 12pm-1pm ET (free) — Making Solutions for Impact (Taster & Info Session). What kinds of solutions prompt change for people most on the margins? An intro to ‘Grounded Change’ and a preview of the next seminar: Making Solutions for Impact.
  • Oct 31 & Nov 14, 12pm-1.30pm ET ($149) — Making Solutions for Impact (Two-part Seminar). What are the missing mechanisms between policy, services, and outcomes (that aren’t in your theory of change)? Explore how these 7+ mechanisms can apply to your programs and policies.
  • Nov 7, 12pm-1.30pm ET ($29) — Collaboration for whom? Collaboration is one of the change processes of choice among social service and policy makers. But…does collaboration actually change outcomes for people?
  • Nov 21, 12pm-1.30pm ET ($29) — Building capacity to innovate in services & systems. How do we get out of the trap of meetings, workshops, and planning sessions? And actually think and do differently? What does it take to organize work from the bottom-up, rather than the top-down?

13. I was fortunate to be invited to participate in this year’s Albright Challenge, hosted by MIT Collaborative Initiatives and facilitated by Marco Steinburg and Justin W. Cook (formerly of Helsinki Design Lab). The Challenge uses the HDL inStudio model (a major influence for my interest in labs) and aims to “stimulate inventive, collaborative solutions to today’s major societal issues [...] and to reinforce the critical need for and value of prevention in all areas of societal concern.” My group of 9 worked to redesign Education and Learning systems to enable 21 Century US citizens to thrive. I was delighted by the focus on wellbeing — the literature on ‘5 ways to wellbeing‘ came in handy!

14. The Tamarack Institute put out a Call for Abstracts (deadline Nov 10, 2014) for papers on the topic of “Using Collective Impact on Community Development Issues,”. The chosen papers will be published in a special issue of Community Development in late 2015. The intent of this issue is to provide a collection of high quality articles on various aspects of using the Collective Impact approach. The idea is that, given that Collective Impact is still in its developmental phases, both scholars and practitioners can make significant contributions to the literature by sharing research and practices from organization, conceptual, and implementation phases. Agreed!

 15. Launched: The Global Innovation Fund. £30,000 to £10 million in project grants to invest in thoughtful social innovations initiatives that aim to improve the lives and opportunities of millions of people in the developing world.

16. As of November 1, Christian Bason (head of MindLab) will become the new CEO of the Danish Design Center. Kit Lykketoft (currently Mindlab’s deputy director) will step into the leadership role at MindLab. In other staff news, the executive summary of Jesper Christiansen’s PhD thesis, “The Irrealities of Public Innovation,” is available for our reading pleasure.

17. Article by InWithForward’s Janey Roh and Sabrina Dominguez explores and explains the prototyping process, using their insights and lessons learned from their Burnaby Project.

18. Blog post by Tessy Britton, “Citizens who have changed big systems – by building new examples.” Tessy shares insights from her work at the Civic Systems Lab (and beyond) around what needs to happen to make possible the type of experimentation and scaling required to tip systems. Theses insights are:

  1. The models you develop have to be open
  2. The models have to be flexible and adaptable – while remaining effective
  3. People need a learning mindset
  4. It’s more practical than political
  5. The economics have to work well
  6. Government needs to share the risk taking with citizens

19. Must read article: “Time to go beyond the climate change and social innovation debate,” co-authored by dynamic duo Indy Johar and Filippo Addarii, is a rallying call to “reinvent and transition a generation of institutions,” rather than continuing to patch externalities and symptoms of our complex social and environmental challenges. You may feel the urge to throw your fist up in the air and exclaim “YES!” after reading it :)

What have we missed? What lab-related links have you been following this past month?
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Microtainer: social innovation & lab links we’re following (August 2014)

C/O Louise Boye

C/O Louise Boye

This mini blog, or bloggette, is part of our ongoing effort to spread information that we think will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. Below is a collection of resources that crossed our desks over the month of August 2014. In no particular order:

1. The final essay of a three part series on the future of independent work: “Fringe Benefits” by Bryan Boyer. In this third installment, Bryan discusses what independent workers have expressed as core needs (effort, flexibility, responsibility, pay, and security), as well as needs that are ripe for innovation (identity, community, professional development, and scaling ones own efforts), trade-offs that independent workers juggle, and questions that he is left pondering. Also see essay one, two, and zero (the prequel), the series is an interesting read for entrepreneurs, freelancers, contractors, consultants… that is, what Bryan terms: independents.

2. Another one related to Bryan: Blog post, “Bryan Boyer: Stories from 5 years at Helsinki Design Lab,” summarizes a GovLab Ideas Lunch session by Bryan, about his work at Sitra and the notion of “dark matter.” (for more on the vocab of strategic design, check out this book by Dan Hill)

3. Streamed half hour conversation with Bruce Katz (author of The Metropolitan Revolution) and Geoff Mulgan (Nesta) and moderated by Alexandra Jones (Centre for Cities), on “How to encourage innovation in city economies.” The trio explore the shifting innovation landscape: revaluing needs and assets; technology fusing with other clusters like education/health etc; countries leading the innovation charge; the role of creativity, etc.

4. Blog post: “We Need New Civic Institutions To Confront The Challenges Of The 21st Century,” by Thomas Neumark, explores the debate around whether to renew declining institutions or to create whole new institutions (as the title suggests, Thomas argues for the latter).

5. Blog post: “Why social entrepreneurship has become a distraction: it is mainstream capitalism that needs to change,” by the very wise Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford Said Business School. Some great lines include, “The key to sustainable capitalism is reasonable profits as opposed to maximizing profits…Fortunately, there are a growing number of people, particularly among the young, who embrace the notion of ‘entrepreneurship for society,’ rather than commercial or social entrepreneurship.  They are not waiting until they are 50 years old when they have ‘made their money’ and can ‘give back’.”

6. There is still a strong buzz about the book “Labcraft.” Here is a blog post about the making of the book on La 27e Région’s blog (en français) and Kennisland’s blog (in English). The book can be purchased from the Labcraft website (take a sneak peak of the book here).

7. Book: “Public Innovation through Collaboration and Design,” by Christopher Ansell and Jacob Torfing, with a chapter written by Christian Bason of Mindlab on “design attitude.” The book brings together empirical studies drawn from Europe, the USA and the antipodes to show how collaboration, creative problem-solving and design are important features of public sector innovation in many Western democracies with different conditions and traditions.

8. Article: “Finding a radical solution to a common challenge” explores the merits and potential of the Radical Efficiency model by describing the development of Family Voices — a project that emerged from work done by the Innovation Unit and the Children’s Centres in the Whiston Area of Knowsley (UK). Family Voices enables the Children’s Centres’ staff to achieve their universal mission, tailor delivery to local needs and reach more families, all while creating a measurably better service at a reduced cost. That is a win-win-win-win-win!

9. The DIY (Development Impact & You) Toolkit’s YouTube channel has a collection of thirty social innovation tools in the form of video tutorials. The DIY Toolkit has been specifically designed to arm people working in development with the tools to invent, adopt or adapt ideas that can deliver better development results and outcomes.

10. Nesta released a guide on 18 everyday social innovations – big ideas with positive socio-cultural impacts in the UK & beyond. They are:

  • Kindergarten
  • Cooperatives
  • First Aid
  • Girlguiding
  • Meals On Wheels
  • The National Childbirth Trust
  • Fair Trade
  • The Hospice Movement
  • The Open University
  • The World Wide Web
  • The Big Issue
  • Police Support Volunteers
  • Shared Lives Plus
  • Patients Like Me
  • Avaaz
  • BeatBullying
  • The Pennies Foundation
  • Code Club

11.  A great list (with hyperlinks) of the social innovation labs around the world, as part of next week’s Social iCon conference taking place in Singapore via the Lien School of Social Entrepreneurship. The list covers labs from Afghanistan (UNICEF Afghanistan Innovation Lab) to Zimbabwe (CCore Zimbabwe Lab),  and 40+ social innovation labs across Asia.

12. Great post: “6 Ways To Make Your Work More Effective, From Entrepreneurs Who Want To Change The World” on FastCoExist, by Finance Innovation Lab’s Rachel Sinha and The Point People’s Ella Saltmarshe. The six strategies highlighted are:

  1. Understand the system you are trying to change. But not too much.
  2. Experiment, prototype, test, and be prepared to be wrong. Dive in and act. Experiment. Learn. But don’t do it alone.
  3. Stop and learn. Reflection is essential to systems change.
  4. Don’t go it alone. Get smart about collaboration. If you want to create impact, you will have to collaborate. Full stop.
  5. Create liminal spaces that allow you to move in and out of the system you are trying to change. It can be hard to create radical change from within the status quo and it can be hard to influence a system from outside of it.
  6. Get humble. Become comfortable leading from behind. Don’t make yourself too central to the result. It’s often when you get out the way that the magic happens.

13.  Article: “Hacking democracy – nine interesting GovHack projects“ talks about GovHack – one of Australia’s largest hackathons — where teams of programmers and designers compete to come up with novel ways to use government data over the course of a weekend.

14.  Along a similar vein, UK’s FutureGov held a “Design Meets Social Care” Design Camp, which brought together the FutureGov team and 20 up-and-coming young designers for an intensive day of thinking big about the future of adult social care. The blog post contains images, tweets, and some of the provocations (“How would Zappos deliver social care?”) from the event.

15.  Blog post: “Reflections from Accelerate 2014: What does it take to collaborate?” by Saralyn Hodgkin of The Natural Step Canada’s Sustainability Transition Lab, emphasizes the need to collaborate across boundaries as the key to getting things done. Saralyn shares how she will pull this thinking into her work at the Lab; for example, “ask different types of questions, see their efforts within a system, and effectively shift systems to build a thriving society.”

16. Workshop: “Tapping the Power of Networks: Strategies for Innovation and Renewal,” with complexity inspired facilitator-coach-animator Liz Rykert, co-led by network weaving guru June Holley (a huge influence for SiG’s field building two-pager). The workshop introduced the network approach, an approach where everyone is potentially a leader. “Connections and relationships are key to unleashing innovation and amplifying your work to reach more people, more deeply.”

17. Article: “New Community Planning Method Evolves and Deepens Community Engagement” explores a week-long design charrette to build community engagement and consensus for an Official Community Plan in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. The process was led by Urban Systems, an progressive engineering firm with a sister social enterprise Urban Matters that is worth checking out.

18. Great (and humble) blog post: “Burnaby Summer Update,” by InWithForward, talks about which of their initial assumptions they got wrong and how they’re re-calibrating their prototypes based on what they learned. This post is helpful in getting a sense of why prototyping is hard and what it requires.

19. Also by InWithForward, an absolute must-read-immediately-if-not-sooner discussion paper, “Grounded Change,” about the next iteration of their approach. This approach dives deep into what the team has found to be the 7 missing links between Social Policy, Social Services, and Outcomes that keep coming up across the many projects they have led and been involved in. The team is also soliciting feedback on the paper, so please do read and respond with your (constructive) critique!

19. Blog post: “Minding the gap: Georgia takes a page from UK’s innovation guidebook” by the Public Service Development Agency of the Ministry of Justice of Georgia (PSDA), talks about their social innovation learning tour to the UK. The tour covered a wide range of organizations from different fields and foci, including government innovation labs, think tanks, and social enterprises. A nice way to take a virtual vacation!

20. From the i-teams blog: MindLab’s Christian Bason writes “Ask citizens and bring order to the chaos of society,”. In this post, Christian describes the value of i-teams (or innovation teams) within government. “…you might consider i-teams as organizations that help to create meaning in chaos by inviting, involving and engaging citizens, policy makers and other stakeholders to find new and more powerful solutions for society. You could say that they institutionalize innovation processes.”. Helpful in finding ways to articulate the value that labs offer~ thanks CB!

21. Adore this project: “The Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe” is a growing collection of stories about amazing people and their innovative projects — people who are actively and creatively nurturing community together and transforming where they live. The website is a wider collection of blog posts and reflective essays on this emergent new community culture. The aim of the Community Lover’s Guide is to surface and share this new community practice widely. How great is that! And, I heard that Zahra Ebrahim of archiTEXT is involved (why am I not surprised?).

What have we missed?
What lab-related links have you been following this past month?
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[Part II] Collective Impact in Action: Thinking Differently and Embracing Paradox

SiG Note: This article was originally published on September 19, 2014 on Tamarack CCI - the online learning community for collaborative leaders. It is Part II of the fourth post of our Collective Impact Series leading up to the Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact Summit this month. It has been cross-posted with permission from Tamarack.

In Part I, Sylvia introduced three mindsets essential to successful Collective Impact initiatives, based on her experiences with Headwaters Communities in Action (HCIA) and her reflection on an influential Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, co-authored by John Kania, Fay Hanleybrown and Jennifer Splansky Juster of FSGThis post introduces a fourth key mindset for Collective Impact. 


Practitioners of Collective Impact often find themselves confronted by paradoxes as they explore the complex issue they are seeking to impact. Asking questions, considering multiple points of view, attending to the relationships between things (and people), and embracing paradox are the practices that help people to most effectively understand and navigate such situations.

The ability to work with paradox is not something that is typically required when work unfolds within the context of a single sector. Those working with Collective Impact often find themselves having to develop greater comfort with working with ambiguity than has been required when using other, more traditional, approaches to doing their work.

The ability to recognize paradoxes, and accept the ambiguity they illuminate, is an important skillset for those of us engaged in the work of Collective Impact. Some of the common paradoxes that are found in the work of complex community change and Collective Impact are described below (and have also been well documented in Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed, by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton). They include:

  • Changing Others Means Accepting Change in Oneself – Because social innovators are part “of the system,” the changes they champion within the system inevitably evoke changes within the themselves as well.
  • Profound Uncertainty Co-exists with Deep Understanding –The journey to implement social change often creates new levels of understanding between once disparate groups within the system; at the same time, those engaged in this work together find it extremely difficult to predict the end result of their work from the outset.
  • Working with – and Challenging – Power – Successful social change almost always requires the unlocking of resources that are currently part of the status quo, while simultaneously advocating for radically new approaches.
  • Success and Failure – The end-point of success in any social change effort is rarely “fixed” and therefore can never fully be achieved. Conversely, a “failure” can often be the source of opening a new pathway that leads to new success.
  • Learning, Doing and Being “In Charge” – In the implementation of a Collective Impact effort, learning IS doing and doing IS learning. At the same time that project leaders are required to set a course and move into action, they must also surrender the idea that they fully control the outcome of the process.
  • The Cassandra Paradox – This paradox reminds us that often the most obvious possibilities for change are ignored or dismissed because they are so obvious that they are often unseen.
  • The Social Innovator as Leader – The attribution of individual praise or blame in the complex realm of Collective Impact is virtually impossible. While individual leadership plays a crucial role in advancing Collective Impact, no one effort by any one individual can be attributed with achieving the results.

In the work championed by HCIA, the notion of paradoxes, and the ability to embrace the ambiguity reflected within them, has helped to reframe current community issues and challenges in ways that successfully help identify new opportunities for creativity and innovation.

As our understanding of Collective Impact continues to be refined and deepened, it is important that effort is made to capture and share not only the resources and tools used to make implementation easier and more effective, but also to focus on the insights and learnings of practitioners. This will enable the field to ensure that deliberate attention is paid to identifying the internal capacities and mindsets that those championing Collective Impact initiatives must cultivate and demonstrate within ourselves and each other.

To learn more about Collective Impact and essential mindset shifts from John Kania, register to attend the Tamarack Institute’s first-ever Collective Impact Summit happening October 6-10, 2014 in Toronto, ON.

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Shifting Cultures

Changing Systems

Preparing for Surprise


Come with your curiosity.
Share your current thinking.
Discover where social innovation is headed.
It’s very exciting to have been part of this; to see how much is emerging, to see leadership, to see younger people, the next generation of social innovators coming forward. It’s been a truly transformative experience for this movement in Canada.
-Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

SIX Summer Schools are an annual global gathering and a seven-year old tradition. Pioneered by Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), the Summer Schools bring together leading social innovation thinkers, practitioners, grassroots activists and policy makers from around the world to explore key issues facing the social innovation field.

SIX Vancouver 2014 (#SIXvan14) marked the first time a Summer School was held in North America. Vancouver welcomed nearly 160 local, national and international practitioners to connect over new ideas, critical insights, practical solutions, common experiences and stories. SIX Vancouver was a collaboration between Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and BC Partners for Social Impact (#BCPSI), representing the global, Canadian, and British Columbian social innovation communities respectively.

Credit: Komal Minhas for KoMedia

Credit: Komal Minhas for KoMedia

Then, when he had flown a while longer,
Something brightened toward the north;
It caught his eye they say.
And then, he flew right up against it.
He pushed his mind through,
And pulled his body after.
– Skaay, Haida Storyteller
Excerpt From: SIX Participant Pack — Welcome Letter

The welcome letter in the SIX Vancouver program invited all participants to “Go ahead. If something catches your eye over the next few days, fly right up to it. Push your possibilities and imagination through!”

What participants were collectively flying up to was the 2014 theme: How can we increase our impact? Shifting cultures, changing systems and preparing for surprise.

Change is hard and shifting culture even harder. Perhaps the joy experienced at SIX Vancouver 2014 can in part be explained by a sense of shared struggle – struggle within one’s organization, struggle within communities, struggle within oneself. The stories and exchanges surfaced the ‘creative tensions’ that exist in social innovation and the wonderful diversity of radical thinkers and doers in the space.

This report covers several days and multiple discussions about change processes, ideas that are working and some that are not. During SIX Vancouver, we were able to peel back the many layers of ongoing exploration and experimentation with social innovation processes.

Away from this gathering, we can’t wait to have all the recommended approaches in place to get started. In social innovation and public sector innovation work, we must prepare the conditions as best we can and begin the journey. We will learn together along the way, adapting the work with feedback from the system.

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[Part I] Collective Impact in Action: Thinking Differently and Embracing Paradox

SiG Note: This article was originally published on September 19, 2014 on Tamarack CCI - the online learning community for collaborative leaders. It is the fourth post of our Collective Impact Series leading up to the Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact Summit this October. It has been cross-posted with permission from Tamarack.

Additional mindset shifts required by practitioners to support the effective implementation of Collective Impact.

In the September 2014 issue of Engage! I profiled an article co-authored by John Kania, Fay Hanleybrown and Jennifer Splansky Juster of FSG entitled, Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, which is included in Collective Insights on Collective Impacta new resource published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  Writing the profile led me to reflect upon my work with Headwaters Communities in Action and what that work taught me about implementing Collective Impact. 

Over eight years (2005-2013), I was the lead staff person responsible for establishing and advancing the work of Headwaters Communities in Action (HCIA) – a citizen-led, multi-sector collaborative that champions community wellbeing projects across Dufferin County and the Town of Caledon in Ontario’s Headwaters Region.  During that time, a broad range of projects were initiated, resulting in important contributions to the overall wellbeing of the region as a whole.

What I most appreciate about the insights shared in Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact is: how we work together is as important as the work that we do — an important dimension of Collective Impact work that mirrors a fundamental principle that has been central to the approach used by HCIA in the various projects that HCIA has successfully championed.

Collective Impact is more than a set of three pre-conditions and five conditions.  It is also an invitation to think – and work together – differently.  This is why effective Collective Impact initiatives are “very often countercultural.” It is also why those championing Collective Impact initiatives need to be willing and able to focus beyond what work is done and embrace important mindset shifts in how the work is accomplished.

Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact identifies three mindset shifts as important to the work of Collective Impact:

  1. Who Is Involved – This mindset shift recognizes the complex nature of Collective Impact work and that no one sector, working alone, can solve it.
  2. How People Work Together – This mindset shift emphasizes the importance of relationship-building and trust in the work of Collective Impact.
  3. How Progress Happens – This mindset shift speaks to the nature of Collective Impact work, which is unpredictable, constantly changing and beyond the control of any one organization or sector.

All three mindsets were key to HCIA projects, which included:

These projects were led by volunteer working groups of people from a variety of sectors, who worked together in the solution-making.  As their work unfolded, HCIA volunteers built relationships of trust with one another and established new community connections. The experience with each project affirmed the unpredictable nature of this work; initial work plans frequently had to be adapted and changed in response to new information and resources or unexpected challenges.

Yet my reflection on the work of HCIA and the insights from Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, together with conversations I have had with other networks and collaboratives across North America, has led me to identify additional mindset shifts to be mindful of when describing the invitation to work differently that Collective Impact requires.  These additional mindsets are:


There is a Kenyan proverb that says, “To go fast, go alone – to go far, go together.” This proverb describes another mindset shift required of Collective Impact.  Our dominant culture in North America is fast-paced and action-oriented. In contrast, though Collective Impact is very much focused on results, the partners involved understand and appreciate that it requires a multi-year commitment from organization and funding partners.  This initially slower pace, as partners’ understanding of the issue is deepened and challenged by the multiplicity of perspectives, can be extremely frustrating given our habit for action.

Ironically, another dimension of the pace of a Collective Impact initiative is that partners must also pay attention to ensuring that project milestones are achieved and celebrated, in order to maintain momentum and commitment to the initiative over time, all the while maintaining a mindset that is focused on long-term change.


When establishing a common agenda for a Collective Impact initiative, the partners involved must be willing to allow their understanding of the issue to be expanded and refined by the perspectives and experiences of other partners so that, ultimately, a new, more holistic and comprehensive shared understanding is created.  To do this effectively, partners need to develop the ability to distinguish facts from assumptions and establish enough trust between them to let go of long-held beliefs about what is possible and what we believe


Many who champion Collective Impact initiatives come to this work with experience and skill in using traditional logic models and linear strategic planning approaches.  These approaches to planning work well in situations that are predictable and can be predicted in advance from start to finish.  Unfortunately, complex community change efforts – which are the domain of Collective Impact – are dynamic and tend to unfold in emergent and nonlinear ways.  In this way, the planning and implementation of Collective Impact initiatives is much more akin to a hiker blazing the trail as he walks it. The implication for those doing Collective Impact work is that they need to simultaneously consider the work they are doing and how this work can best unfold within the broader community context. They must also regularly reflect on their plans and fully expect them to be changed often.

Collective Impact Summit 2014To learn more about Collective Impact and essential mindset shifts from John Kania, register to attend the Tamarack Institute’s first-ever Collective Impact Summit happening October 6-10, 2014 in Toronto, ON.

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