Linking collective impact to the characteristics of open living systems

Community member post by Lewis Atkinson

Lewis Atkinson (biography)

How can communities most effectively achieve collective impact, moving from fragmented action and results to collective action and deep, durable systems change? In particular, what can those seeking to understand the characteristics required for collective impact learn from the characteristics of open living systems?

In this blog post I link five characteristics for collective impact, based on Cabaj and Weaver (2016) with 12 characteristics of open living systems drawn from Haines (2018, building on the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy).

The five characteristics for collective impact are each necessary, but on their own insufficient to achieve impact because they are all parts of the same method of systems change:

  1. Common agenda and shared aspiration
  2. Shared measurement systems as part of a larger system of strategic learning
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities, especially focused on high leverage opportunities for change and allowing different pathways when necessary
  4. Continuous communication and inclusive community engagement
  5. Backbone support, including strong containers for inner change.

The 12 characteristics of open living systems are: holism, feedback, open systems, input/output, boundaries, interrelated parts, equifinality, multiple outcomes, hierarchy, entropy, dynamic equilibrium, and internal elaboration.

Linking common agenda and shared aspiration with holism

A common agenda requires collaborators to create common ground despite different values, interests and positions. This is significantly strengthened by a clearly articulated shared aspiration.

Holism overcomes silos where there are different understandings of the problem and the ultimate goal. A system that is optimally effective is one that has an overall purpose and transformational synergy among the parts.

The link: Collective impact is related to ‘holism’ through a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.

Linking shared measurement systems as part of a larger system of strategic learning with feedback, open systems and input/output

Shared measurement systems provide agreement on ways success will be measured, ensuring that efforts remain aligned. These are most effective when they are one part of a larger system of learning and evaluation.

Accepting “feedback is a gift” is a way to hold each other accountable and share in lessons learnt.

Collaboration across parts of the system to be changed requires access to the resources (inputs) needed to operate. Actions are required to combine and transform the inputs into outputs that other parts of this system want or will accept as inputs.

The link: Collective impact for successful adaptive systems occurs by the parts operating as ‘open systems’. They are capable of strategic learning from their changing environments by accepting ‘input’ and generating ‘output’ to and from other parts of the same system. Information accompanying the inputs is called ‘feedback’ (which can be either positive or negative) and generates learning that leads to more effective future outputs.

Linking mutually reinforcing activities, especially focused on high leverage opportunities for change and allowing different pathways when necessary, with boundaries, interrelated parts and equifinality

Mutually reinforcing activities allow the whole to be more than the sum of the parts. In addition, activities need to focus on areas that offer the greatest opportunities for results. Particularly when the nature of the problem is unclear, allowing different pathways to be pursued can be very productive.

All systems have boundaries that separate them from their environments. Recognising the systems and their boundaries is essential for working with and changing the system of interest.

By definition, a system is composed of interrelated parts or elements in some kind of relationship with one another. The whole idea of a system is to optimize the fit of its elements in order to maximize the whole. If we merely maximize the elements of systems, we end up sub-optimizing the whole.

Equifinality suggests that desired results can be achieved with many different initial conditions (eg., inputs) and transformed in different ways. It offers a basis for the flexibility, agility and choice needed to achieve collective impact.

The link: Collective impact across the ‘boundaries’ defining the multiple causes of social problems is not necessarily about scale but rather more about coordination of high leverage activities (eg., big output relative to scale of input). These outputs demonstrate ‘equifinality’ because they come in a variety of forms and from a diverse set of stakeholders all of which are ‘interrelated parts’ of the same system.

Linking continuous communication and inclusive community engagement with multiple outcomes

Continuous communication is required to mobilise stakeholders, build trust and structure meaningful activities. Change is most likely when there is authentic and inclusive involvement of a broad spectrum of stakeholders, especially those most affected.

Because multiple outcomes are characteristic of all systems, it follows that a common, detailed vision and desired outcomes for any community are crucial to coordinated and focused actions by its members.

The link: Any collective impact initiative will have multiple outcomes or purposes based an assortment of goals and values derived from a diverse set of stakeholders.

Linking backbone support, including strong containers for inner change, with hierarchy, entropy, dynamic equilibrium, and internal elaboration

An investment of resources, plus governance structures and leadership styles (collectively constituting backbone support) are required to manage the day-to-day activities underpinning collaboration and change. Containers for change refer to the environment that supports the building of commitment, as well as the personal change required among changemakers.

Hierarchy in open systems means that it can be conceptualized only after prior conceptualization of the higher-order system that it serves. Any living system has a hierarchy of components and subsystems.

Entropy is the tendency toward disorder, complete lack of resource transformation and death. Most change efforts fail because there isn’t enough follow-up, reinforcement and new energy to prevent disorder. In systems terms, it takes negative entropy—or new energy—to make change occur.

The notion of a dynamic equilibrium is closely related to the concept of negative entropy. An open system may attain dynamic equilibrium in ‘steady state’ whereby there is continuous inflow of materials, energy, information and feedback. Over time open systems also tend to move toward greater differentiation, internal elaboration and detail. This can lead to complexity and bureaucracy in their worst forms.

The link: Leadership of sustained collective impact and durable systems change requires a very specific set of adaptive leadership skills to maintain ‘dynamic equilibrium’ by addressing ‘entropy’. In practice, this is observed as processes being delegated to the right levels within the system to ensure effective decision making and eliminating complexity that would stifle agility.

What do you think? Are there other ideas that would strengthen a community’s ability to achieve collective impact?

References:
Cabaj, M. and Weaver, L. (2016). Collective impact 3.0 An evolving framework for community change. Tamarack Institute: Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. (Online): http://www.tamarackcommunity.ca/library/collective-impact-3.0-an-evolving-framework-for-community-change

Haines, S. (2018). The 12 natural laws of living systems – Life’s laws rediscovered: A universal thinking framework and guide. Haines Centre for Strategic Management: Chula Vista, California, United States of America. (Online):  https://hainescentreaustralia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2018_07_18_a12laws-update_on-_2013_0-1.pdf (PDF 1.6MB)

Videos that explain the twelve characteristics of open living systems:

Biography: Lewis Atkinson PhD is a global partner at the Haines Centre for Strategic Management LLC. He is a systems thinker and architect of strategic and social change built on a foundation of systems thinking.

Improving the i2Insights blog: Your ideas are welcome!

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer and Peter Deane

As a reader, are there aspects of this i2Insights blog that you would like to see changed? Do you have specific suggestions for improvements? Are there things that work well and that you would like to see continue?

We are currently reviewing how to improve the blog and how easily the resources it provides can be found. Your input will help us think about changes to incorporate and how to use our time in producing the blog to maximum effect. We briefly set the context for the blog and then pose a series of questions that outline the changes we are considering. All input is welcome. You can address one or more of the questions below or raise other issues. You can post in the comments section or contact us privately via: https://i2insights.org/contact/.

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Peter Deane (biography)

What the blog aims to achieve

The primary aim of the blog is to connect disparate groups of people for the purpose of sharing concepts, methods, theory and processes – referred to collectively as tools – for research on complex societal and environmental problems. The tools cover research integration and implementation, broadly defined.

The rationale is that there are many networks and teams who have no central point of connection, which results in:

  • no mechanism for passing on useful tools
  • no easy way to learn from each other
  • much reinventing of the wheel
  • reduced chances that existing tools will be improved
  • reduced chances that adaptations of tools to particular circumstances will be documented.

The blog also provides a venue to share lessons from case studies, as well as to share ideas about educating the next generation to tackle complex problems. Finally, there are occasional blog posts on how to get research on integration and implementation accepted into the academic mainstream, referred to as ‘institutionalisation’.

The i2Insights blog is one project under the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) umbrella and we are currently reviewing how to better integrate the blog with a resources repository on the i2S website. That repository not only provides tools and case studies, but also showcases relevant journals, professional associations and networks, as well as conferences, all of which provide ways of linking with others interested in researching and addressing complex real-world problems.

Our current review of the i2Insights blog

Now that we are in our fourth year of operation, we are reviewing the following aspects of the blog:

  • the ability of readers to connect with like-minded researchers and practitioners
  • the ability of readers to find useful tools, both on the blog and on the i2S resources repository
  • our blog ‘house style’
  • blog content.

A. Connecting with like-minded researchers and practitioners – would you like:

  1. a more detailed bibliography provided by the blog authors, eg., referring to their education and/or citations of key work?
  2. anything else (please specify)?

B. Finding useful tools – would you like:

  1. more specific links to related blog posts?
  2. changes to the tags we provide (please specify; note that tags are the words listed under a blog post title)?
  3. an improved search capacity?
  4. links to related tools on the i2S website (https://i2s.anu.edu.au/resources/tools)?
  5. anything else (please specify)

C. House style – would you like to see changes in:

  1. the length of blog posts (currently limited to 500-1000 words)?
  2. the policy of minimal references (only those directly cited)?
  3. the policy of opening and closing with questions? Do you find the questions engaging?
  4. anything else (please specify)?

D. Blog content:

  1. are there topics that you would like to see covered or to see more coverage of? (If yes, please specify)
  2. are there topics that you would like to see less coverage of? (If yes, please specify)
  3. anything else (please specify)?

Final questions

What are the key things you get from reading the blog? Would you like to be involved in producing the blog or in disseminating blog posts?

We will report on how we have incorporated your suggestions for changing the blog in a future blog post.

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. 

Biography: Peter Deane is a Research Officer on the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) team at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

Ten things to know about how to influence policy with research

Community member post by Helen Tilley, Louise Shaxson, John Young, and Louise Ball

Helen Tilley (biography)

How can research influence public policy so that it is based on the best-available evidence? What different ways of working are required of researchers? Here are 10 things researchers from the UK’s Overseas Development Institute have found helpful.

1. Know what you want to influence

Being clear about the policy issue, theme or process you want to change is the first step to effective policy influencing. Are you looking to influence legislation, or a change in government policy? You might want to encourage greater investment in a certain programme or approach, or a change in practice. You might want to influence perceptions or attitudes, or the language people use around an issue. Continue reading

What every interdisciplinarian should know about p values

Community member post by Alice Richardson

Alice Richardson (biography)

In interdisciplinary research it’s common for at least some data to be analysed using statistical techniques. Have you been taught to look for ‘p < 0.05’ meaning that there is a less than 5% probability that the finding occurred by chance? Do you look askance at your statistician colleagues when they tell you it’s not so simple? Here’s why you need to believe them.

The whole focus on p < 0.05 to the exclusion of all else is a historical hiccup, based on a throwaway line in a manual for research workers. That manual was produced by none other than R.A. Fisher, giant of statistical inference and inventor of statistical methods ranging from the randomised block design to the analysis of variance. But all he said was that “[p = 0.05] is convenient to take … as a limit in judging whether a deviation is to be considered significant or not.” Convenient, nothing more! Continue reading

Adaptive social learning for systemic leadership

Community member post by Catherine Hobbs

Catherine Hobbs (biography)

What’s involved in developing human capacity to address complexity, taking a mid- to longer-term viewpoint than is usual? How can we create the conditions in which people can cope with the daily challenges of living in a complex world and flourish? What form of leadership is required to inspire and catalyse this transformation?

Framework for adaptive social learning

The need for systems thinking is often referred to, but rarely considered, as a rich and comprehensive resource which could be developed further and applied. Continue reading

Building a research impact culture

Community member post by Louise Shaxson

Louise Shaxson (biography)

What sort of research culture underpins effective research impact on policy and practice change?

As part of a research program on inclusive economic growth in low-income countries, we commissioned four case studies to help understand how researchers had engaged with policymakers and practitioners and what happened as a result. We were particularly interested to understand whether specific types of knowledge activity (simply providing the information, translating knowledge, brokering it within the policy environment, or facilitating innovative approaches to engagement) led to different types of impact.

We found no clear links between the type of knowledge activity and type of impact. Instead, five cross-cutting issues emerged that we think speak more to how getting the research culture right can foster different and sometimes unexpected types of impact. Continue reading