On Complexity and Collective Impact

I think it’s safe to say that we live in an increasingly complex world. All of our really “big” problems are now safely out of reach of simple solutions. From poverty to climate change, financial systems to water shortages, it’s becoming obvious that individual people, institutions and even governments aren’t able to adequately address society’s greatest challenges. Why is this? Let’s start by examining problems, from simple to complex.

Simple problems are like cooking a meal. Find the right ingredients, do things in the right sequence (follow the same recipe), and you’re pretty much guaranteed to consistently get the same result.

Complicated problems are a bit trickier. Take building a plane and flying it from one destination to the next. There are a whole lot of different disciplines that come together to make that happen, along with bits and pieces of material from around the globe. A lot of math and physics involved. Yet, building planes and flying them around is now commonplace. Companies have figured out the formula for air travel.

Complex problems are different. They’re a chaotic and moving target. Often times they’re “wicked”, in the sense that the problem you’re seeing is actually the result of a different solution, applied to a different part of the same system. Greenhouse gasses are emitted by the very furnace that keeps me warm in the cold Canadian winter. Burning carbon is the current solution to my heating problem.

So how then, are we to tackle complex problems? For starters, we need to act collectively. As I previously wrote, the really big problems our world faces are way outside the scope of any one organization.

I was recently at a conference about the idea of collective impact. Pretty compelling stuff, but definitely outside of the realm of most problem-solving protocols we’ve developed thus far. First, it requires that we come to a common shared agenda. I’m not sure, and I hope I’m wrong, but it feels like we’re moving in the opposite direction of shared agenda. It seems that we’re becoming increasingly polarized, at least politically.

Second, collective impact requires a shared measurement system. Which means we need to agree on what “success” look like and how we might measure it. Again, not something that we’re great at. I do have a bit more hope on this particular problem, as more and more communities are developing indicators for the “health and wellbeing” of the community. Check out a local Albertan’s work on this (Mark Anielski). Some good stuff happening.

Third, collective impact demands that all parties are involved in mutually reinforcing activities. This kind of strikes at the heart of our competition driven system, but I suppose that if you do have authentic engagement in a common agenda, then it’s not out of the question to believe that people could adopt mutually beneficial behaviour.

Fourth, collective impact initiatives require continuous communication back and forth across the system to ensure that activities are aligned with the vision, and that data from shared measurement systems is being appropriately analysed and used for course-correction.

And finally, collective impact typically requires some sort of “backbone” organization to support the collective efforts.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences and workshops on this whole “change the world” thing. This last one, put on by the Tamarack Institute in Vancouver, was by far the best. I’d highly encourage you to look into the work they’re doing across the country with regards to collective impact, read the book “Deepening Community” by Paul Born, and start to shift your thinking about what the real problems in our world are, and what solving them will entail.

What do you think?

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