Six Tensions of Collective Impact

Posted on May 15, 2017
By Chris Thompson

collaborate connect together handshake.pngTension is inherent in collaborative efforts. Tension is created when different stakeholders bring different values and expectations to the collaboration process. During the wonderful Collective Impact 3.0 Conference hosted by the Tamarack Institute and Ontario Trillium Foundation in May several tensions surfaced repeatedly throughout the workshops and keynote presentations.

Recipe ↔ Principle

Perhaps the most foundational source of tension within collaborations is caused when some want a clear recipe for success, while others are comfortable with being guided by proven principles. Recipes are valuable because we know they work. However, the context of a collaboration varies widely from one community to the next with large ranges of power dynamic amongst players to the scope and scale of the challenges. Therefore, recipes aren’t easily transferable – just as cooking recipes developed during a beach vacation may not work well at a high-altitude resort. While recipes may not apply as context changes, Mark Cabaj of the consulting company Here to There, said “principles transcend context,” that is they are applicable regardless of the context.

Patience ↔ Urgency

This tension comes in many flavors. In the earliest stages of a collaboration, some members want to define the challenge and/or opportunity very quickly. Others want to have a deep understanding of the problem before they being to consider various strategies to solve it. As the collaboration begins to coordinate action, some will be willing to wait for results, while others will insist on rapid tangible outcomes. The board member of an outstanding backbone organization says this is the tension that causes him the most angst. He works hard to figure out when patience is necessary and when urgency is required. He is working to be urgently patient.

Best Practice ↔ Innovation

Advocates of community change often want to adapt a proven formula from another community. They are prepared to adjust for context (as noted above), but they are comfortable with a proven approach. Others, frustrated by the status quo are eager to try something completely different. Fans of best practices often rely heavily on data, while fans of innovative approaches embrace that, as Cabaj said, “innovation is ahead of the evidence curve.”

Candor ↔ Diplomacy

Coordinators of cross-sector collaborations, such as backbone staff, constantly balance the need to be candid about the cost of tolerating the status quo, and maintaining the engagement of key partners through diplomatic conversations. Where I live, there’s a term for being overly diplomatic, “Ohio Nice.” Some will do anything to avoid conflict and confrontation, including being very pleasant to someone who is acting despicably. On the flip side, my mother taught me that “saying bad things about bad people is good.” But over time, I’ve learned (sometimes) that there are kinder ways to point out counter-productive behavior than calling people bad.

Product ↔ Process

Much of the focus within the social sector is understandably on the outcomes of specific programs or projects. We want value to emerge from the products we produce – whether those products clean hair or shelter the homeless. But rare is the social product that can bring enduring, positive change at scale. Plenty of good programs can house hundreds of homeless. But house thousands? For that, we need a process for systems change. And that is what the Collective Impact framework provides. Of course, we cannot achieve system change without effective products that contribute to the disruption of the status quo. Balancing the tension between the demand for product and the need for process is critical to achieving the change we want in the communities we care about.

Accountability ↔ Learning

Some value the evaluation process as a hammer – who is to get funding and who isn’t. Others prefer evaluation to be a flashlight – illuminating what is working, why and helping us adapt to ever-changing context. While the value of learning within complex systems is very high, Cabaj cautioned against designing evaluation processes that allow us off the hook for failing to produce improved outcomes by merely saying: “Things changed, we did something else. We adapted.”

Some may view these tensions as sources of frustration and difficulty within a collaboration. But as Russ Gaskin of CoCreative Consulting highlighted in this article available on the Collective Impact Forum, we can use “polarity thinking” to leverage these tensions. Polarity thinking, coined by Barry Johnson, emphasizes that there is truth and wisdom on both extremes of the tension. Polarity thinking helps us identify and benefit from the different values and perspectives that stakeholders bring to the collaboration. Gaskin uses “polarity thinking” to identify key stakeholders that represent diverse perspectives/points of view/polarities to the collaboration. And by naming these polarities we can more explicitly assess and address their underlying issues.

Tension within collaborations is not only normal, it is helpful to achieving the outcomes we seek.

Collective Impact

Chris Thompson

By Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is president of Civic Collaboration Consultants, LLC. Chris Thompson’s goal is to help others achieve enduring, positive community change. He has worked in dozens of communities to bring change to such complex civic systems as economic development, talent development, education, health care and food security. For nearly a decade he worked for the Fund for Our Economic Future, an unprecedented collaboration of philanthropy serving Northeast Ohio.

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