Part II: Collaboration is the Jet Fuel for Social Innovation

Escaping our silos to achieve deep impact

SiloThis post is the second part of our blog series that is taking a deeper look at collaboration. Read part  I  “Why Collaboration Matters: The Platform for Social Innovation” here.

The world is a-buzz with social innovation these days. So much so that Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Business, made some bold categorical statements in his recent essay, “The Trouble with Winning”, for Stanford Social Innovation Review’s 10th anniversary issue:

“It is fair to say that times have changed. Social innovation is now super-cool…Social innovation has gone from the fringes to center stage. In important ways, it has won. But winning isn’t an unalloyed good. It brings challenges that must be recognized and overcome if the movement is to continue to prosper… When anything exceeds forecasts, expectations skyrocket…”

As a result, Martin cautions:

Increasing numbers of people believe that social entrepreneurs can solve the world’s problems. No one can solve all the world’s problems. Social innovators can work together with governments, businesses, and NGOs to tackle global problems and make progress in solving them. This should be the message of all those who support and celebrate social innovation.


The Message: We Must Work Together

As Martin alludes to, solving complex problems outstrips the capacities of individual organizations and even individual sectors.  Consequently, collaborations, partnerships, and “collective impact” approaches are becoming the sine qua non for developing social change strategies, especially those tackling root causes.

While there is a long history of successful but sporadic individual cross-sector partnerships, the cultural shift towards a broad based approach – of cross-sector collaboration being the default – has been decades in the making.


An early watershed was 1992’s UN Conference on Environment & Development (UNCED) held in Rio that produced Agenda 21 calling for cross-sector partnerships:

“Agenda 21 puts most of the responsibility for leading change on national governments, but says they need to work in a broad series of partnerships with international organizations, business, regional, state, provincial and local governments, non-governmental and citizens’ groups. As Agenda 21 says, only a global partnership will ensure that all nations have a safer and more prosperous future.” – Canada’s International Institute for Sustainable Development

Don Tapscott, writing 20 years after Rio for the Martin Prosperity Institute, identified how the rise of cross-sector networks represents a major shift in tackling global challenges:

“There is a fundamental change underway regarding how global problems can be solved, and perhaps how we govern ourselves on this shrinking planet. Emerging non-state networks of civil society, private sector, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of cooperation, social change and even the production of global public value. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity from poverty, human rights, health and the environment, to economic policy, war and even the governance of the Internet itself.”

If we are to address our modern world problems, then we must embrace boundary-spanning solutions, which inevitably necessitate cross-sector collaboration. Thankfully on the call for collaboration, no one sector is alone.


Survey Highlights Collaboration

The centrality of collaboration in the emerging “solution economy” is being recognized across all sectors.

In the wake of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), known as Rio+20, many of the 800 experts polled for the GlobeScan/SustainAbility survey, viewed collaboration “as one of the few models that could catalyze solutions to the sustainable development challenges that we face at the speed and scale that we need.”

The survey additionally found that:

  • “Despite pessimism of national governments’ willingness and ability to make substantive progress on the sustainability agenda, experts overwhelmingly believe that progress requires companies collaborating with multiple actors, including governments.”
  • “Public policy advocacy and consumer engagement on sustainability topics are seen as having the most upside when addressed through multi-actor collaboration…”
  • “Nearly half of experts cite access to diverse perspectives and expertise and pooling risk as keys to the business case for collaboration; Cost reduction is not seen as a primary reason to collaborate.”


Business Leaders See Collaboration as Key to Successful Innovation

Another reinforcing study is the Global Innovation Barometer, which reported that:

“Canadian business executives identified increased collaboration as one of the keys to successful innovation. Results showed 85% of Canadian respondents would partner first to enter new markets (6% above global average), and 83% would partner to improve an existing product or service (8% above global average).”


Former Civil Servant Calls For Collaborative Government-Nonprofit Partnerships

In his article “A Social Contract for Government”, Peter Shergold, Australia’s former top civil servant, concludes that robust cross-sector collaboration is critical to the future success of social development. His article lays out the new vision:

“Until now the transformative potential of public-community relationships and the contract state has been constrained. NFPs have too often been thought of merely as outsourced providers rather than collaborative partners. If governments and their public services can move from contract managers to innovation facilitators, bold new forms of democratic governance will become possible…[NFPs] should be empowered to influence the policy parameters, administrative guidelines, and contractual conditions under which they operate. The attitude on the government side should be one of building a relationship, not managing a contract.”


United Way Shifts to Collaborative Social Innovation

Most of today’s community leaders who rose up in the ranks inherited a mindset that saw social change through the lens of the valiant efforts of individual organizations. The spirit of rugged individualism was reinforced by a challenging fundraising environment in Canada, which saw the growth of social and ecological needs expanding faster than the financial resource base.

Apex organizations like the United Way, who have the luxury of taking a sector-wide view, are helping catalyze collaboration and collective impact. For example, the United Way of Calgary recently inaugurated its Leading Boldly Network (LBN) to become a city that solves issues innovatively and collaboratively. To achieve this vision, LBN is working with nine executive directors from a diverse range of agencies to harness the collaborative power of networks in five ways:

1      Creating and weaving social ties,

2      Accessing diverse perspectives,

3      Openly building and sharing knowledge about collaborative social innovation,

4      Creating infrastructure for widespread engagement, and

5      Coordinating resources and action to make progress on complex social problems.


Collective Impact Movement Gains Momentum

CollectiveImpactLandmark thought leadership from FSG helped North American nonprofits think through a  collaboration lens. In 2011 Mark Kramer and John Kania wrote their now famous article “Collective Impact,” recognizing that large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination.

Canada has quietly been a leader in this movement for over a decade, with support from Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement and their pioneering work through Vibrant Communities: a national network of leading social, civic, and business organizations that are transforming the way communities reduce poverty.

Whether in Canada or abroad, collaboration is essential to unleashing the innovations necessary to solve intractable societal issues. Fortunately, all sectors are heeding this call. In my next post, we will go beyond the why and examine the how of collaboration.


Further reading

Steve Waddell represents another Canadian leader in the field of collaboration. Waddell supports and writes about “global action networks” as a vehicle for harnessing the problem solving capabilities of diverse stakeholders. His book, Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together, appeared in 2011.

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Why Collaboration Matters: The Platform for Social Innovation

I recently attended an extremely worthwhile conference, Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability, organized by the Canadian branch of The Natural Step.  The conference proposed new ways for dramatically shifting gears in how we reach sustainability by reaching for levers that will drive systems change.

My role was to moderate a panel entitled “Why Collaboration Matters: Exploring Collective Impact and Shared Value.” The two presenters were Avrim Lazar, a tri-sector athlete who is the former CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada and a prime mover of the historic Canadian Forest Boreal Agreement, and David Hughes, CEO of Pathways to Education and a visionary in gold standard scaling out and scaling up. The following are my introductory remarks at the Accelerate conference:

Several months ago, evaluation expert Michael Quinn Patton observed that collaboration is like teenage sex:

  • Everyone is talking about it,
  • Everyone thinks everybody is doing it, and
  • In reality, nobody is doing it very well.

If the bad news is nobody is doing it very well, the good news is that collaboration is a topic whose time seems to have arrived. Last week my inbox was stuffed with collaboration articles boasting headlines like:


c/o Fast Company

Why is collaboration important?

I come from the field of social innovation: using a simple definition, social innovations are new ideas meeting unmet needs. They are social in their means and social in their ends. SiG uses a more complete definition of social innovation courtesy of our colleague, Frances Westley:

Social innovation is an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system. Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact.

Given how so many major social and environmental indicators are not performing well; think of biodiversity, climate change or aboriginal educational achievement or social inclusion. There is a growing market for social innovations. Recent research on successful social innovations is teaching us that collaboration is an essential element of effective innovation. As my SiG colleagues Michele-Lee Moore and Frances Westley explain in a recent article for Ecology and Society, there is a direct correlation between social innovations expanding their boundary spanning reach and those innovations’ heightened impact:

 “Complex challenges demand complex solutions. By their very nature, these problems are difficult to define and are often the result of rigid social structures that effectively act as ‘traps’… Therefore when a social innovation crosses scales, the innovation is crossing a boundary that separates organizations, groups, hierarchical levels or social sub-systems, whether they are economic, cultural, legal, political, or otherwise. The more boundaries that the innovation crosses, the wider and possibly deeper the impact, and the more likely the result is more transformative change.

Boundary spanning action is often made possible by boundary spanning collaborations, partnerships, and culture. Unfortunately, the antiquated systems we operate in often impede collaboration. British innovation writer Charles Leadbeater wrote a recent paper entitled “It’s Cooperation, Stupid”:

Humans are more cooperative than other species because we are capable of more fine-grained forms of cooperation: we are prepared to cooperate with strangers, over large distances and times, overcoming obstacles
of language and culture. This deeply wired capacity for cooperation will be more important than ever to enable us to create shared solutions to complex challenges, from global financial regulation to ageing and climate change. Yet most of our systems, institutions and models of public policy 
lock us in to a miserable, impoverished view of ourselves as untrustworthy and selfish. These approaches actively crowd out cooperation, supplanting cooperative solutions with systems that rely on material incentives. They remake the world in their own image.


c/o Centre for Social Innovation, New York Launch Party

My SiG colleague Tim Brodhead frequently speaks about there being four drivers for collaboration:

1      Austerity – The efficiency argument
* We are heading into an increasingly tight fiscal environment, we need to be much better stewards of limited resources

2      Impact – The effectiveness argument
* The “collective impact” approach fits here, individual organizations can only have limited impact on a tough problem

3      Complexity – The social change argument
* Solutions to complex and persistent problems necessarily need to draw upon a broad range of expertise and stakeholders

4      Culture – The enabling environment argument
* To succeed, meaningful social change has to rely on allies to overcome a broader context of barriers that foil scaling potentially disruptive innovation.

To those I’d add a fifth,
5      Systems – The systemic change argument
* Individual and heroic social innovations are wonderful, but their widespread and lasting impact – even if they are individually scaled up –requires them to shift the entire system around their issue, tilting the way innumerable organizations, processes and sub-systems operate.

These drivers are five lenses that we can use to view the challenges of introducing innovation with collaborative platforms. In upcoming posts I’ll review learning opportunities available to foster collaborative partnerships, as well as examine success stories to uncover their rich innovation DNA.

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Social innovation is not a fixed address

My colleague Professor Frances Westley, co-author of the pioneering book Getting to Maybe, leads a team at the University of Waterloo that is decoding the genome of social innovation.

One of Frances’ many insights is that “social innovation is not a fixed address.” This means that when one social innovation is adopted, it will shift the existing equilibrium governing the system it interacts with. Therefore, because of the way a social innovation meets one need, it might simultaneously surface and engender other needs that require yet more social innovation.
[Read more…]

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Optimizing Public Sector Innovation Platforms

Public sector innovation is a top-of-mind subject in government hallways across Canada. Innovation in the public sector has taken on new urgency as austerity budgets accelerate the necessity to re-think how government services can be provided or even how, in some cases, the system can shift from service delivery to tackling root causes that have given rise to the demand for support.

Ambitious public sector reform necessarily will range from new policies, to new ways of engaging with provincial and national innovation ecosystems, and to creating innovation Labs that support change makers inside government.
[Read more…]

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The Future Quotient: A New Social Innovation

In early October a new watershed report appeared, co-authored by John Elkington and Charmian Love of Volans and Alastair Morton from JWT. Entitled: The Future Quotient: 50 Stars in Seriously Long-Term Innovation, the report draws attention to the dramatic gap in modern society’s ability to be planning multi-generationally.

The Volans-JWT report accepts that the recent economic crisis was squandered by not being put to use to create positive change at a moment when modern society is heading into a period of dramatic transition. Unfortunately they identify that we are entering an era of creative destruction at a time “when natural resource and environmental security challenges are pressing in.”

[Read more…]

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Social Finance in the UK: Cutting Edge, Bleeding Edge

In business there is belief in “first mover advantage”, when a company gains an advantage over competitors by being first to the market with a new product or service.

In the social finance realm, Canadian practitioners have benefited from following UK’s social investment and social finance ecosystem, which is strongly supported by the government. The UK was able to pioneer and act as a role model for many new ideas and approaches that outsiders could learn from, emulate, or adapt. These include The Charity Bank, Bridges Ventures, ClearlySo, The Social Investment Task Force, The Commission on Unclaimed Assets, The Young Foundation’s and Social Finance UK’s social impact bond work, and more.
[Read more…]

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Trending in 2011: social innovation goes mainstream

Social innovation will be much more visible in 2011. Al Etmanski is the thought leader who advocates that “social innovation needs to be in the water supply”, his metaphor for going mainstream.

Another way to think of it is that social innovation has to be recognized as integral to the DNA of mainstream “innovation”.

I think social innovation will be embraced as the necessary, integrated complement to business-oriented, science and technology, R+D innovation.
[Read more…]

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Global Financial Crisis Silver Lining: European Banks Commit Funding for Social Enterprise

The recent financial crisis has led to banks in Ireland expanding funding for social enterprise.  Now the UK banks are poised to follow suit.

In late November London’s Financial Times reported that Britain’s banks could commit  £1.5bn to Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s  “Big Society Bank” as part of a “charm offensive” to “end the war between politicians and bankers that has raged since the crash of 2008.” Leading the project is John Varley, chief executive of Barclays.
[Read more…]

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Has anyone learned their lesson from the global financial crisis?

In 2008 the United States financial crisis sparked a domino-like global recession throwing millions out of work.  Triggered by a lax and liberalized regulatory system in the United States, the crisis sounded the death knell for the G7’s leadership and catapulted the G20 into prominence as the world’s new governance framework for global economic management.  It also fed a US climate of electoral revolt.
[Read more…]

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The danger of taking the social out of innovation

By dropping the social in innovation, is North America breaking the innovation chain?

Andy Grove, a co-founder of Intel and a Silicon Valley icon, is sounding two alarms about innovation’s future. Both flow from his disagreement with the accepted article of faith that the US tech sector necessarily should focus high-end jobs in the US and export manufacturing jobs.

[Read more…]

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