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About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking

Posted on October 18, 2017
By Mark Holmgren

Collective Impact is a multi-sector approach to large-scale collaboration that is authentically inclusive of citizens in its development and implementation – in particular citizens who have life-experience with the big problems or issues being addressed, such as poverty, climate change, family violence, and so many more.

Collective Impact is not an approach aimed at creating program changes among a few agencies or undertaking collaboration in order to compete with other community initiatives. Rather, it tends to be focused on efforts to leverage talents, existing services, innovations, and resources in order to effect significant changes to policies and systems and where needed, significant programmatic changes. Such changes might occur within governments or government-run institutions, within education and health institutions, within business, or within service providers.

At recent sessions and workshops I held in Vancouver (Community Change Institute) and in Edmonton (Upside Down Thinking), I shared a perspective on three types of problems identified by Brenda Zimmerman and how they connect to three types of change, three types of learning, and various types of thinking required in addressing each type of problem. My intent is to help our collective thinking about significant problems/issues facing our communities.


Simple problems are those we can fix easily and are sometimes called kaizen (the Japanese word for “continuous improvement”). Solutions to these kinds of problems are akin to tweaking a recipe or adjusting a process to improve quality or reliability of performance. Typically such changes are incremental.

When confronting these types of problems, we tend to focus on learning how to do things better (to do things right). A primary way to think about these problems is via event-oriented thinking, which is about focusing on events in sequence. This type of thinking is generally about undertaking changes to an “event” that impact the behaviour of employees in their delivery of a service to others. While important to achieving kaizen, this type of thinking limits its scope to causes of the event and does not involve looking at the overall system.

Complicated problems have “knowable solutions” but are difficult to resolve or solve. They need the necessary blending of knowledge, skills, and shared resources in order to comprehensively address the problem (or set of problems) and craft a solution. This may involve significantly changing (reforming) a system by subtracting, adding to, eliminating, or adapting various elements contributing to the problem.

For example, a complicated problem includes facing simultaneously an increase in the demand for services while experiencing a downward trend in resources. Or, to be more specific, a system for addressing addictions might require significant overhaul to optimally address the increase in addictions to opioids that are causing an alarming number of deaths at the same time as experiencing limited or declining funding.

In this case, participants are attempting to learn about the right things to do (double loop learning) and tend to be predominated by systems thinking, critical thinking, and logic more so than other forms of thinking. Addressing complicated problems involves going further than addressing a sequence of events; more focus is given to understanding causes and effects of addictions to opioids, for example,  and exploring how the current system(s) in place can be adapted or significantly reformed to provide the best possible interventions.

Complex problems manifest in the general population in countless ways. No one person experiences poverty the same as another. Mental illness affects people differently because of gender, age, culture, and can be affected seasonally or situationally. Such illnesses can be chronic or acute. There is no one right answer to a complex problem (e.g. like raising a child). Rather our collective work is dependent on us having a high tolerance for ambiguity and recognizing that “answers” to complex problems may not be universal but rather need various solutions that effectively address a pattern of problems and circumstances experienced in the population.

While complicated problems and reformist change tend to focus on doing the right things, working with complex problems also requires us to engage in foundational inquiry about “what is right” from the standpoint of values (personal, professional and organizational) and in terms of purpose and vision. Here we are looking for lateral thinkers, creative thinkers, disruption with purpose, and what I call, Upside Down Thinking.

Please keep in mind that diagrams like the one above are sense-making tools, not perfect models. For example, it is likely that all forms of thinking mentioned in the diagram are present in any type of problem; my list by type of problem is suggesting what types of thinking manifest as main methods of thinking along the continuum of problems.

As well, single, double, and triple loop learning can surface regardless of the type of problem and tend to be inclusive of one another as you move along the continuum. For example, when addressing a complicated problem, you will engage mostly with single and double-loop learning. When engaged in addressing complex problems, you will likely be deploy all three types of learning.


1. If you are uncertain or if there is disagreement among stakeholders about the type of problem you are facing, consider the perspective offered by Brenda Zimmerman and ask yourselves if there is shared perspective of the problem as having a Known, Knowable, or Unknowable solution.

2. That exploration will lead you to identifying the type of change you believe you should be working toward: incremental, reformist change, or transformation.

3. This in turn will guide the type of learning that will help you, whether to focus on small fixes in order to do things right; bigger changes that are about doing the right thing or transformational change which calls for questioning our perceptions, experiences, biases, and even our “certainties” about what is right.

4. Whatever type of problem you are addressing, ask yourselves what kinds of thinking skills you need to effectively move forward toward resolution. After all, creating a team or a collaborative to address community problems has to involve more than people raising their hands to join the challenge.


Event-Oriented Thinking is thinking in straight lines. Root causes are themselves events from which other events flow. Often this tends to be our default approach to problem-solving because this type of thinking is often applicable to fixing problems and adjusting performance to improve our work. (See the Event-Oriented Thinking diagram above).

Systems Thinking: “Traditional analysis focuses on the separating the pieces of what is being studied; in fact, the word ‘analysis’ actually comes from the root meaning ‘to break into constituent parts.’ Systems thinking in contrasts focuses on how the thing being studied interacts with the other constituents of the system – a set of elements that interact to produce behaviour – of which it is a part” (Daniel Aronson). As the previous Systems Thinking diagram indicates, root causes are not discrete nodes or events. They are “forces emerging from feedback loops” and help us identify patterns of behaviour within the system.

Critical Thinking “is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” (Source).

Lateral thinking is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic. The term was promulgated in 1967 by Edward de Bono. He cites as an example the Judgment of Solomon, where King Solomon resolves a dispute over the parentage of a child by calling for the child to be cut in half, and making his judgment according to the reactions that this order receives” (Source).

Creative Thinking tends to focus on possibilities, not probabilities. It is often associated with “thinking outside of the box” though some go further to suggest that creative thinkers often throw the box away as well. Often perspectives and actions are unorthodox, if not paradoxical,  and are not necessarily seen by others as producing viable or feasible alternatives. Creative thinkers may find obstacles as pathways to something better; they are seen to be resilient in terms of adjusting their thinking along the way towards a solution they have yet to clearly identify. They are curious about everything, which can frustrate others who want to “get to the point,” and they accept that creativity is rife with failure and see failure as a stepping stone to a renewed effort or perspective. Creative thinkers often deploy Lateral Thinking.

Disruptive or Upside Down Thinking involves turning norms upside down in order to explore ideas or options for innovation. They set out to unsettle the status quo on purpose and with purpose. An example is how Netflix disrupted conventional thinking and actions with respect to renting movies through a 24/7 online delivery system that members pay to access (rather than renting a movie).

Upside Down Thinking is also disruptive and focuses on breaking through conventional thinking and practices. One way it does this is to pose “heretical statements” that people then work together to prove to be true (even if they do not believe the statement to be true). For example, one heretical statement I have facilitated with others is” “Duplication of Services in the non-profit sector is a good thing; we need lots more of it.” Such a statement flies in the face of a growing majority of people who believe there are too many non-profit organizations duplicating services and that significant change and savings would be realized if the number of non-profits decreased significantly.

By proving the heretical statement to be true, participants are compelled to identify all the reasons they can think of why duplication actually is necessary and impactful. At the very least, undertaking the exercise breaks people out of rote acceptance of the critics of non-profits and enhances their view of duplication to include its provision of choice of services, decentralized access to needed services, and the importance of locating  services that are culturally relevant and otherwise contextual to age, gender, sexual orientation, financial means, and so on.

I am interested in what you think about this blog posting. Please leave a comment below or write me at 


Overview of Systems by Daniel Aronson

18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently by Carolyn Gregoire 

Defining Critical Thinking

deBono’s Thinking Systems

Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking by Mark Holmgren

Also see What is Disruptive Innovation (HBR)

Thanks to for the diagrams of Event-Oriented and Systems Thinking.

Collective Impact, Mark Holmgren, Systems Change

Mark Holmgren

By Mark Holmgren

Mark Holmgren is the Executive Director of the Edmonton Community Development Company and a former Tamarack Director. He is known for his track record in developing social innovations, including the development of Upside Down Thinking, an approach to thinking differently, if not disruptively.

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