Five Things Cities Need to Know About Change and Problem Solving

Smart city leaders know collaboration isn't just a buzzword but a dynamic way to change the systems that can improve economic inequality in urban areas.
October 18, 2013 AT 12:00 PM

Today, there is no one superhero leader, institution or sector that can singlehandedly solve our seemingly intractable social and economic problems. And, traditional collaboration won’t be sufficient either. This consensus has led to the emergence of a movement where cross-sector leaders come together to think strategically about how their differentiated, but coordinated activities can achieve significantly better results. It’s called collective impact for systems change: long term efforts by diverse partners to align towards a large-scale [solution] driven by data and shared accountability. This movement holds great promise for propelling us into the next generation of problem-solving, but getting there requires significant discipline and rigor. 

Collective impact, as a form of dynamic collaboration, has been transforming systems in cities across the country. Urban leaders are putting aside self-interests and collaborating over the long term to build new, civic, problem-solving infrastructure. They are working to re-engineer interconnected, but broken systems to ensure that people are prepared for 21st century employment, that places can connect them to opportunity, and that opportunities to grow income and reduce income inequality exist.

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These efforts and others help us to hone our understanding of how best to support and drive collective impact in places, including how to ensure that the partnerships at the core of these initiatives are as strong as possible from the outset.  Indeed, our body of experience suggests that organizers of a collective impact effort would increase their chances of success if the core partnerships can answer these five questions: 

1.    What are the specific results you are trying to achieve?

To make a lasting change through collective impact, city leaders must agree to and regularly measure specific goals to which they will hold themselves accountable. For example, since 2011, a network of more than 80 cities in 34 states are adopting a shared vision for fixing education from cradle-to-career and are using a combination of data-driven decision making and public accountability to achieve results and move funding to programs that work. Washington State’s The Washington Families Fund is a cross-sector partnership that articulates a very focused and specific result:  End family homelessness in the state of Washington, with an interim goal of reducing it by 50 percent in the next 10 years.  This approach allows for continuous learning and innovation around clear outcomes, while the use of real-time data helps participants understand what is and isn't working.

2.    What ‘job’ are you hiring the collective impact effort to do?

Even if results are agreed upon, it’s not always clear what the collective impact effort’s role is in achieving them.  We’ve seen that some efforts are ‘hired’ to think; others to do; and others to both think and do.  Thinking partnerships recommend solutions to a problem, but aren’t responsible for implementing them.  Doing partnerships implement an agreed upon strategy.  And thinking and doing partnerships work to develop and implement a course of action through learning and experimentation.  For example, Minneapolis-St. Paul's Corridors of Opportunity, part of the Living Cities’ Integration Initiative, was set up to “think and do.”  It integrates efforts around transit planning and engineering, land use, affordable housing, workforce development, and economic development with particular focus on unlocking employment opportunities for low-income people.

3.    Where is the effort’s authority coming from?

Authority is the effort’s ‘right to do the work’, either powers granted to it by another body or ones simply self-assigned by the participants.  Interestingly, collective impact efforts making a significant difference generally are not the ones granted authority by the government, but those that seize the day and are only constrained by the limits they set upon themselves. 

In the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, The Itasca Project is a cross-sector partnership working to strengthen economic competitiveness and quality of life.  When asked about its authority to do this work, their former director noted, “No one’s telling the CEOs what they need to work on.  We want it to be high-impact initiative, so we look for the intersection of what’s going to move the needle on our issue areas and what the CEOs are excited about.” 

4.    Is the effort populated by the right people for the desired results?

In looking across an array of cross-sector partnership efforts, we have seen some that are trying to do ‘big things’, like change long broken systems, with people who lack the power needed to accomplish them; and others trying to do ‘little things’, like identify core problems, with people who have a lot of power.  The more ambitious the results, the more critical it is to have leaders at the table who have a "balcony view" of the core issue, understand the inherent limitations of their own organization's approach and, are able to put aside their own organization's short-term interests in pursuit of the goals of the group. 

Greater Cincinnati’s Partners for a Competitive Workforce, focused on achieving gainful employment for 90 percent of the labor force. The effort consists exclusively of executives who can mandate change, redirect funding streams and change hiring and training practices in their own organizations to align with and advance the cross-sector partnership’s goals. 

5.    What is level of intervention needed for the desired results?

In many cases, the level of intervention applied by collective impact efforts aren’t commensurate with the desired results.  More often than not, the intervention is a project or program delivery, an analysis, activity or set of activities to achieve a specific aim. However, what cities really need is a systems change, or an effort to realign a set of behaviors, interactions, projects and programs, often from many different systems.  That’s why our collective impact efforts are testing new models for systems change in community, economic and workforce development through The Integration Initiative and education with the Strive Network of cities.

In a world with many problems, and limited resources in terms of intellect, energy, time, and money, a collective impact effort that is not built right from the start can cost a lot in lost opportunity.  Following these five steps could go a long way towards addressing that risk.