[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 FSG. This 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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About Sylvia Cheuy

Sylvia is the Director of the Tamarack Seeking Community Learning Community. Sylvia helps to design and deliver learning opportunities that profile, disseminate and share the resources, tools and experiences to Tamarack's vast network of learners primarily via the Tamarack Seeking Community Learning Community site. She is also the Editor for Tamarack's e-magazine Engage!

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