Monday, June 18, 2012

Three philosophies of collective action

I've been thinking a lot lately about the formation of networks and communities, but not as much about collective action.  A strategy session with Emerging Leaders for Social Change (ELSC) last Saturday brought this back into focus.  Over the course of the day, some quite different models for the future of the group were raised, underpinned by some very different philosophies for action.  Taking the time to think about these, it seems they fall broadly into three philosophies.
  1. Collective Impact
  2. Problem solving
  3. Enabling
Now, these aren't 'models', but rather quite abstract philosophies about how groups can act together.  A more specific model needs to be built out of philosophies like these - whether explicitly or implicitly.

1. Collective Impact

Jenny from United Way ran a great session on the principles and methods of collective impact.  There are five conditions that underpin effective collective impact, and a three-phase process to get there. This theory was developed looking at a collection of organisations who are doing different, but interrelated things - but can also be applied to a network-group of individuals in two main ways.

Firstly, the group can foster collective action by the group members. The group-organisation would act as a backbone (one of the five conditions), working on maintaining the other four conditions.  This would coordinate the efforts of the group members - they are the important agents who, for example, work towards a shared vision.  This might be problematic in a network of individuals, if they have limited capacity for individual action on an issue (e.g. a group of social workers, rather than a group of NFPs). But the collective impact philosophy may work, if issues are selected to match the network capacity, and the group is porous enough to engage larger external interests where needed.

Secondly, the group can work to be the backbone for external organisations working on an issue.  Applying this philosophy would leverage the connections of the network to be able to bring a diverse range of parties to the table.  The group members wouldn't necessarily do 'the work' themselves, but would facilitate the other parties.  In this case, the group is trying to work so that the external parties work towards a common vision.  I think this approach has an incredible capacity for positive impact... but would depend upon the members of the group working towards a vision of 'collective impact', rather than being doers themselves.  How sustainable would this be?

One of the insights of Jenny's session was that collective action takes time.  It is vastly different from a 'problem solving' approach (which can start and stop in very short timeframes), and is instead about building a basis for long-term cooperation, rather than finding a 'solution'.  This is a limitation - can you imagine a group like ELSC focusing on one issue for that long? - but it also makes it a much more attractive option for tackling 'wicked problems'.  There may be ways around this though - one thought is that the group might act to establish a cooperative situation, and then spin off the backbone role to a separate entity - perhaps funded by the cooperative members.

Another thought is that a 'backbone' organisation would also have a role clearing roadblocks, and this might be an opportunity to leverage the network for 'problem solving' (or 'doing') activity on short scale issues. are a leader in collective impact work and thought, United Way have done some great work, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review have published the leading material on the topic.  However, I'm not aware of any community networks for whom this philosophy is fundamental - this may be a pioneering approach!

2. Problem solving

The approach proposed by the ELSC volunteers/leadership team was a problem solving one.  Members come together to understand a problem, develop solutions, and then find ways to implement them.  Or, in general terms, members come together to collaborate on something particular and time-limited.  These processes are well understood, and there are many options for action - there are different ways of involving members, and many specific methodologies can be applied, from design to business analysis.  And what's best, many of these methods offer tried and true ways to collaborate.

It should be relatively easy to put together a program to work on an issue, running a series of events and/or online engagement, and get community involvement.  It may take a substantial amount of time and effort to do, but if you put in that effort you can be pretty sure it will 'work'.  It can be a great way of holding a community together and engaged, and doing something meaningful as well.

What I don't think is as certain is what the impact of this activity is.  It is clear how to move up the 'value chain', from talking, to problem solving.  But how to move from solution to impact is less clear.  Some models deal with this challenge better than others...

And as mentioned above, this approach might not be as effective on genuinely wicked problems.

OpenIDEO is a great example of this, and I'd also say things like Global Service Jam (GSJ) and some of the workshops of Collab Melbourne fall into this category.  The ELSC strategy day itself was a variation on the theme.

3. Enabling

A philosophy of 'enabling' didn't really come up at the ELSC day, but it underpins a number of the collaborative organisations I have been involved with.  The idea is that you bring people and ideas together, with similar values or vision, doing different - but hopefully complementary - things.  These people then have access to a support network to help them with their own endeavors, and exposure to different ideas, perspectives and ways of working.  The cross-polination is mutually beneficial.  These benefits aren't necessarily all individual - out of the individual interactions emerge community and network behaviour, with bottom-up initiatives of all sorts, through the formation of groups, or the spreading of innovation.

Typically, models based on this philosophy don't aim to 'do' things themselves - but rather aim to create a vibrant space or community.  The benefits of this can be understood as the leveraging of energies, and the sum of all of these results.

Heaps of examples can be found in the enterprise space, like startup weekends, incubators, and coworking models.  Many meetup groups and communities of practice rely upon this as well, and I'd say TED is in this basket.  It's also the dominant philosophy behind the Collaboratory Melbourne (as far as I understand).

So what?
Well, to pour your heart and soul into a collective organisation, there must be a sense that it's for something.  What is the philosophy that drives bringing people together, rather than leaving them to work apart?  After all, most of us are pretty good at keeping ourselves busy doing good things already - whether by ourselves or through other organisations.  There needs to be some rationale for making the effort to make the world more complicated.

The above are philosophies that may help articulate the answer to that.  I think they might also help to interrogate potential models, and broaden the perspective about possible options.

What do you think?  I'd appreciate hearing what people think about where I've missed the mark - poke holes in it if you can, please!  Advice would really be appreciated on how these might be applied to ELSC and Collab Melbourne; or how they relate to different groups that are already out there.


  1. JB,

    This is fascinating and insightful - nice work. Nothing deeper to add at this stage.


  2. Hey John,

    thanks for that great write-up. I agree that CI delivers an awesome concept, one that I would love to see continuously re-appropriated and refined by groups like us. I like the idea of having a shared overall ELSC-goal, under which smaller groups can ideate around design questions that fit the agenda, and come up with micro agents that can be stored on the ELSC system, so others can pick up where another group might have stopped. Depends on the project and constellation I guess. Which brings me to the next point.

    As you say, we need to improve/spread better ways to move beyond the idea/prototype state to getting it off the ground. Seems to be elementary that people have a true stake at finalising a project, be it because it's related to their work or there's external funding (bodies of which seem to pop up specifically for collaborative effots: At the ELSC-evolution event, we discussed getting funders and corporations as members, so we ensure a quick exchange in which opportunities arise where and how to best apply for these opportunities. It really needs engaged people from all areas to harness our collective potential, otherwise we'll always get stuck at a certain point, no matter how intricate a design we develop.

    Just a few ideas to further a discussion.
    cheers, ele

    1. Thanks Ele!

      A thought re first paragraph - having a shared/overall goal is possible within an enabling philosophy. The Collab Melbourne essentially has a goal to develop (and practice) better ways of working together. This sort of goal is also central to what I am trying to do in Adelaide (it is in particular about fostering the local collaborative ecosystem). If the reason for the goal is to have a rallying point, this might work, and probably something similar can work for any model... but I think that is a different reason for having a goal than what you're imagining.

      I really like your ideas about an outcome-driven, networked, plural-action Collective Impact model! It could be scarily powerful if it can be made effective, and may also make a very useful replicable model.

      Good ideas re implementation - fostering those connections is definitely in the right direction. I imagine it would take some prototyping to work out how to do this well - or it might be a completely different challenge on a case-by-case basis!

      What I would really like to see though, as far as 'making it happen' goes, is for people NOT to have a stake in finalising the project, but instead to be committed to addressing the issue. This is one of the reasons I really like the open-endedness of CI, and the idea you raised in your first paragraph - it is innumerable the number of times I have seen projects (in the public sector) where finalising the project became the measure of success, and not the impact it was initiated for.

      Cheers, John

  3. Hi John,

    Thanks for sharing your ideas – these three philosophies are key to ELSC’s future direction.

    The “enabling” philosophy has always been part of the fabric of ELSC – the organisation was originally established to enable emerging leaders who wanted to create positive social impact.

    As we evolve, while retaining this enabling role, we also want to focus on the “problem solving” space. By focusing on shared problems, we could begin to channel the collective skills, knowledge, experience and influence of our members and use it to solve tough problems.

    The “collective impact” philosophy has been a key driver/influencer in the evolution of ELSC, and it has informed the belief that we can achieve social impact more via collective action than via isolated impact.

    I see a lot of overlap/synergy between these three philosophies. Two options stand out in my mind. Both retain the enabling philosophy at their core, but Option 1 emphasises the collective impact philosophy, while Option 2 emphasises a problem solving philosophy. Explained more in two posts below…


    Collective impact is a great philosophy that many are supportive of, conceptually speaking. However, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of collective impact – and recognize just how hard it is to make a collective impact model work in practice. As Jenny mentioned at our session, collective impact models take time. Backbone organisations also require investment, which can often be hard to argue a case for under existing government/non-profit funding models, as backbone organisations do not always deliver specific services or tangible outputs that can be easily measured. Further still, it’s not just the backbone organization that needs investment/time – for collective impact initiatives to work, long-term commitment of time and resources from all relevant parties is crucial. This can be difficult to achieve when each of the relevant parties may themselves face short-term funding cycles, changes in leadership, and have potentially competing agendas.

    FSG’s work on collective impact provides a useful conceptual framework, but it does not provide a methodology detailing how to achieve each of the five conditions for collective impact. If ELSC were to adopt a collective impact first approach, we would want to be confident we could pull off the how.

    Existing problem solving philosophies and methodologies can address this gap (and, as you mention, there are many that are tried, tested and very effective). For example, the MG Taylor methodology used by The Difference provides a way to bring groups of people together within a collective impact initiative to do things like:
    a) clearly define and understand the issue at the centre of the collective impact initiative
    b) collectively define shared goals, shared measurement systems, communication systems, roles/activities (so that they are mutually reinforcing), and the role of the backbone org
    c) hold timebound sessions to target specific roadblocks or problems that must be addressed as part of the broader collective impact initiative.
    In this way, the problem solving philosophies could enable a collective impact approach to become a reality.

    However, there would still be the challenges you mention with regard to who performs the backbone role – ELSC as an organization or ELSC’s members acting within that organization and mobilizing external actors. I’ll come back to this.

    A problem-solving emphasis is perhaps more aligned to the principles of the enabling philosophy. We could enable our members to solve the problems they are currently grappling with – ELSC would provide a platform/methodology through which members could raise a problem, decide to tackle it collectively, co-design solutions and tap into the collective intelligence of other members.
    For example, one member might raise the problem of homelessness in Sydney; another might raise the challenge of how to better enable social entrepreneurs in Australia; another might raise problems within the current government system of funding non-profits.
    Each of these problems would need to be clearly scoped/defined (perhaps by the member that raised the probem/is driving it) so that all members understood what the goals/objectives are in tackling that specific problem, and a series of workshops would need to be planned (tailored to each problem). The ELSC core team could provide expertise in how to plan the collaborative problem solving series, and would support the members tackling it by organizing events and pulling in the right expertise from the member network. Self-organising project teams could be established along the way to focus on particular aspects of the problem. All members interested in this problem could be connected and kept up-to-date of progress via an online platform, which would also enable members to cycle in and out of particular problems depending on their availability/level of passion at each point in the process. The online component would enable continuity of communication and effort.
    This type of approach clearly has elements of the collective impact philosophy – shared vision, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, a backbone organization – but it is limited to the members of the ELSC network.
    It is likely that one of the outcomes of a problem-solving workshop is that members reach agreement that a formal, collective impact initiative requiring external organisations + funding is required to drive action. Perhaps then the members begin the process of engaging the external actors, making the case for commitment to the long collective impact journey ahead, exploring options for setting up a backbone organization, attracting funding to do so, etc.
    In this way, a problem solving approach might actually enable collective impact…

    In a way, debating these two options is a bit like debating what came first – the chicken or the egg? Should a collective impact approach drive the need to use problem solving philosophies/methods; or should a problem-solving approach drive the need to use the collective impact framework? I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts.

    In some ways, it really comes down to the scope/size of the challenges we want to tackle. There is a saying that ‘the way to eat an elephant is to do it one bite at a time’. Option 2 (problem-solving emphasis) would enable us to take strategically-placed bites out of the elephant – and is possibly more realistic given our (current) volunteer status and resource levels. Option 1 (collective impact emphasis) would involve trying to eat the whole elephant at once (or at least a limb!) – which could be more impactful if done effectively, but would require significant amount of investment/resourcing to do it right.

    In my view, I think Option 2 is a good starting point for ELSC, and it is likely to naturally progress towards Option 1 if it proves to be successful.

    What do you think?

    1. Liz, I think you're wonderful and I completely agree.

      That's all I have to say about that.

    2. But really, I think you've hit the mark. Even if the goal is to establish a CI role, this doesn't seem practical in the short term - and as you say, should probably be driven by a need to address a problem, rather than the other way around. So maybe even aiming at this stage to progress to a CI-based model isn't worthwhile, though it could be kept in mind as an option.

      A few thoughts reading through your posts...

      I think it's curious that you conclude ELSC will probably gravitate towards a CI role. Not because I don't think this is true - I think you can definitely make a good case. But rather, because for everyone out there working on social problems, there aren't many at all that have concluded they should be playing a backbone role. Having said that, there are plenty of organisations who enable, support or lead, and perhaps this amounts to the same sort of thing, but it still feels strange to think it.

      Another thought is to keep the options open re the role of a 'core team'. It hasn't been properly realised yet, so I can't advocate, but the Collab mostly operates on the basis of a distributed informal network, rather than a core team (except for the fact that David does most of it). It is 'stronger' at the middle, but still fluid. One upside is that nobody in the network needs or expects ordinarily to get paid for their contribution. In contrast, the Hub has about four staff who do things that could in other places be done collectively (for free - though definitely not as well!).

      I don't think they made the final presentations, but some of our group discussions at the ELSC session touched on this. Potentially having a representative group, vs. an operational oversight team, or a leadership/core team, or maybe process guides... there are lots of potential configurations.

  6. I finally got around to reading this (I haven't read the comments). It's good to see the different patterns laid out like that.

    I wonder which basket you would put the Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change into?

    Michael Kubler

    1. That's a really great steer Michael, great to get a sense of the Zeitgeist approach.

      In terms of the above, it is definitely a 'collective impact' philosophy. Having said that, Collective Impact is a very specific 'theory', as formulated by the FSG crew. You've just reinforced that there are alternative ways of looking at it that are closely related.

      The reason I say they're related is because as I see it, there are a range of independent agents, who don't (necessarily) work together on a particular piece of work (i.e. collaborate), but who have a structure for doing their own work towards a common goal, and understanding how their work intersects and complements one another.

      The obvious difference I see is that Collective Impact uses a 'backbone' organisation, as the glue/governance. But I think the philosophy is the same.

      In Clay Shirky's 'Here Comes Everybody' a distinction is made between cooperation, collaboration, and collective action. It's a great book, and explains well the different dynamics between collective/collaborative action.

      Looks like I've got a few models of collaborative social change to read up on. : )

    2. ... finished reading through the article.

      If you're familiar, I might ask you to explain how the starfish model will look in practice when we next meet up. I can't see it.