John Kania at the Collective Impact Summit

Posted on October 25, 2014
By Larry Gemmel

It is always a pleasure to see and hear John Kania speak.  In fact one participant at the recent Collective Impact Summit hosted by Tamarack in Toronto called Kania a “Rockstar” and I think the tribute is appropriate - John is a compelling speaker and certainly inspiring with his wonderful mix of clear conceptual thinking, rigorous research, real-life examples, and practical advice. 

John Kania is obviously a deep thinker whose work and interest goes far beyond the CI file, but he never comes across as pedantic or condescending.  I would describe him as thoughtful and caring.  This is perhaps explained in part by the breadth and trajectory of his career, having started out in Chicago in advertising with Leo Burnett, working as a management consultant (partner) based in Boston with Mercer and Corporate Decisions, before becoming a Managing Director at FSG and overseeing their consulting practice.   FSG itself is rather unique: Co-founded by Mark Kramer and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter in 2000 as Foundation Strategy Group, the nonprofit firm is now moving beyond traditional consulting and publishing to advance knowledge and practice and increase engagement around four linked strategies to create impact and social change: Catalytic Philanthropy, Collective Impact, Shared Value, and Strategic Evaluation. 

What I particularly like is the spirit of inquiry that permeates Kania’s practice and leads him to always delve further into how to make Collective Impact work.  In fact, every year since he and Mark Kramer published the original “Collective Impact” article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2011) Kania and his colleagues at FSG have put out a significant new piece with fresh insights: Channelling Change (2012), Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations (2012), Embracing Emergence (2013), and now a new articleEssential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact which was published as part of a special supplement to SSIR entitled Collective Insights for Collective Impact (2014) and was the subject of his keynote address on Day 2 of the Summit.   

According to Kania, a series of Essential Mindset Shifts are needed to actually do the work of Collective Impact, and while they are not necessarily counter-intuitive, they are counter-cultural.  It’s all about people working differently, getting the right people at the table, and really focussing on creating transformational change.  While FSG still feels that the conditions of the CI framework hold, there is a concern that some initiatives that call themselves “Collective Impact” are not really using the framework and understanding the critical interdependence of the five conditions.  More importantly, FSG’s experience has shown that very different forms of leadership are required to successfully create large scale change and identify emergent solutions.    

Mindset Shift One: Who is involved

Get all the right eyes on the problem

Kania started with a quote from David Baily Harned: “How much we can accomplish in this world depends on how much we can see.” and proposed this challenge:

What if each of us could see what everyone sees, what if we had collective vision? 

How much we can accomplish in this world depends on how much we can see.

Citing an initiative addressing Childhood Obesity in Dallas, Kania described how getting non-traditional players in the room created critical breakthroughs to overcome inertia and break down territorial barriers.  In the case of Charting a Course for a Healthy Future in Dallas, the steering committee was able to engage everyone from the Mayor to hospitals to education in “cascading levels of linked collaborative work” to change social norms and mobilize around the issue of obesity.  One of the working groups for Charting the Course focused on increasing access to fresh food for residents in Dallas.  Pepsico, who some thought to be the “enemy”, turned out to be the unlikely partner who used their expert knowledge and distribution systems to examine the possibilities of getting fresh food to people through local YMCA’s.  In another working group for Charting the Course that focused on building a supportive health system, leaders are pursuing a strategy to increase breast feeding, as this has been shown to decrease the likelihood of child obesity.  To promote the value of Breast Feeding, leaders went beyond the medical system to engage lactation consultants and peer counselors for moms to fill in the gaps in their knowledge and experience.   As John suggested, “If you want to change the system, you have to get the system in the room.” 

Mindset Shift Two: How people work together

The relational is as important as the rational

Kania reminds us that “this is adaptive work, not technical work” and solutions that emerge are not known in advance.  So not only do we need to get the “right eyes” at the table, we need to ensure that they are working together in a way that builds new relationships.  In the example of United Way’s Success By Six early childhood development initiative in Cincinnati, school officials and teachers addressing low scores in several literacy indicators reached out to daycare teachers, a group not traditionally respected or valued by the school system, to join the steering committee.  By empowering daycare staff and engaging them directly in research and experimentation, several new successful strategies emerged quickly and scores improved dramatically in the first and second years.   

Structure is as important as strategy

In Memphis Fast Forward’s People First Initiative, FSG found that CI provided a structure to create a common intent and take advantage of emergence.  For their strategy to increase college access for “partial completers” from high schools, they convened a diverse range of actors in an effort to develop “collective intelligence”: Universities and Colleges, Workforce Investment Board administrators, and representatives from business, nonprofits, and state agencies.  This provided fertile ground for “collective discovery” and led to a new joint effort to address two critical barriers.  Each partner brought unique resources to bear, and the best part is that this is being achieved by shifts in policy and organizational activity, with no new money in the system.  Kania concludes that the typical social sector mindset and behaviour has it backwards:

Current behaviour: Predetermined solutions and emerging rules of interaction

Needed for large scale change: Predetermined rules of interaction and emerging solutions

Mindset Shift Three: How Progress Happens

Think “System Strategy” not “Program Strategy”

So many of us are caught up in the rush to implement strategies that “we always want to go to the program, roll out a program.  But Kania points out that we need to focus on strategies that get to the systems level and he detailed four types of strategies that “get you to systems change and not just new programs”: 

1. Increasing coordination: finding ways to re-align existing programs and stakeholders to maximize system efficacy

2. Enhancing services: bringing in previously unnoticed practice, movement or resources to enhance existing local services

3. Policy: advocating for policy change at local or state levels to improve major components of the systems

4. Learning through a pilot: start small with willing partners, learn from the experience, and then expand

While incremental progress is important and exciting, the really exciting possibility is to achieve transformational progress.  The problem is that “most change processes don’t go deep enough in learning that actually leads to transformative change”.  Appreciative Inquiry is one methodology that supports deeper learning through dialogue and shared visioning, and Kania suggests that “mindfulness” also has to be a key part of this work.  We talk a lot about systems change in the sector, but we often don’t employ much systems thinking”.  John is currently working on a new article for SSIR with Peter Senge, best known as author of The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (1990), to explore what he refers to as “System Leadership,” which focuses on how leaders in collaborative efforts can catalyze collective leadership in others.   

In a Q&A with participants following his presentation, Kania suggested that in order to be successful in leading Collective Impact efforts, you need to have the skills and abilities to create:

Shared Aspirations          Deep Dialogue           See the system differently

John Kania remains confident that this kind of adaptive leadership is developing in the sector, and that the needed “mindset shifts” are starting to take place, with the promise of achieving fundamental systems change to solve complex problems:  This is the promise of Collective Impact, and as Paul Born would say ‘There will be much Joy!’” 

View attachment here: john_kania_at_the_collective_impact_summit.pdf

Collective Impact

Larry Gemmel

By Larry Gemmel

Larry Gemmel has more than 25 years of experience in the voluntary non-profit sector, working with United Way - Centraide organizations in Canada and internationally and as the Executive Director of several pan-Canadian organizations. He has done work for Tamarack Institute as a freelance writer. He has considerable expertise in non-profit and voluntary sector development, management, project management, governance, and specializes in building networks, knowledge transfer, and the successful application of technology.

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