[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.

[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 Impact, a 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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