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?

Cabaj, M. and Weaver, L. (2016). Collective impact 3.0 An evolving framework for community change. Tamarack Institute: Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. (Online):

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): (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.

Achieving transformational change

Community member post by Steve Waddell

Steve Waddell (biography)

Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals presents probably the most audacious human organizing challenge ever. Their number, global scale, range of issues, timeline, and number of actors involved is surely unparalleled. They require transformational change. But what is transformational change? How does it differ from other forms of change? What’s required to achieve it?

Colleagues and I have created the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum to address these questions. In this blog post I first explore three types of change: incremental, reform and transformation, summarized in the figure below. I then briefly explore how they interact and their roles in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. To tip the balance towards transformational change, I introduce the idea of social-ecological transformations systems and seven emerging guidelines for designing them. Continue reading

Twelve ways to kill research translation

Community member post by Lewis Atkinson

Lewis Atkinson (biography)

Want to reduce the likelihood that your research will produce policy and practice change? Here are 12 anti-rules to prevent research translation.

Anti-rule #1: ONLY FOCUS ON YOUR PART OF THE PROBLEM. Avoid seeing the problem as a whole to limit the intervention possibilities. Acknowledge the translational “gap” but be ambivalent about who owns it. Contest it with others and perpetuate confusion with a range of definitions for what research translation means.

Anti-rule #2: CLOSE OFF THE FLOW OF INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE. Keep a tight lid on who is involved and what knowledge is seen to be relevant. Do not share your data or allow access to your sources of data. Minimise the rate of data exchange within and among various research and non-research partners. Continue reading

Assessing research contribution claims: The “what else test”

Community member post by Jess Dart

Jess Dart (biography)

In situations where multiple factors, in addition to your research, are likely to have caused an observed policy or practice change, how can you measure your contribution? How can you be sure that the changes would not have happened anyway?

In making contribution claims there are three levels of rigour, each requiring more evaluation expertise and resourcing. These are summarised in the table below. The focus in this blog post is on the basic or minimum level of evaluation and specifically on the “what else test.” Continue reading

Producing evaluation and communication strategies in tandem

Community member post by Ricardo Ramírez and Dal Brodhead

Ricardo Ramírez (biography)

How can projects produce evaluation and communication strategies in tandem? Why should they even try? A major benefit of helping projects produce evaluation and communication strategies at the same time is that it helps projects clarify their theories of change; it helps teams be specific and explicit about their actions. Before returning to the benefits, let us begin with how we mentor projects to use this approach. Continue reading

The university campus as a transdisciplinary living laboratory

Community member post by Dena Fam, Abby Mellick Lopes, Alexandra Crosby and Katie Ross

How can transdisciplinary educators help students reflexively understand their position in the field of research? Often this means giving students the opportunity to go beyond being observers of social reality to experience themselves as potential agents of change.

To enable this opportunity, we developed a model for a ‘Transdisciplinary Living Lab’ (Fam et al., forthcoming). This builds on the concept of a collaborative test bed of innovative approaches to a problem or situation occurring in a ‘living’ social environment where end-users are involved. For us, the social environment is the university campus. We involved two universities in developing this model – the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University. We aimed to help students explore food waste management systems on campus and to consider where the interventions they designed were situated within global concerns, planetary boundaries and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Transdisciplinary Living Lab was designed and delivered in three largely distinct, yet iterative phases, scaling from individual experiences to a global problem context. These phases of the living lab, which work to integrate personal and professional knowledge and practice, are also shown in the figure below:

1. Entering the living lab was the phase where students were introduced to collaborative teamwork processes, expectations of joint problem formulation and critical reflection on their own position within the system being explored: ‘digging where they stand’. This meant helping students consider their relationships with the food waste system as consumers of food and producers of waste, as well as their potential impact as designers of interventions in that system.

2. Transdisciplinary learning was the second phase where students were introduced to the concept of research as a process of system intervention, as well as skills for co-producing and integrating knowledge in collaboration with diverse partners in the food system. For the Transdisciplinary Living Lab at the University of Technology Sydney this meant listening to, questioning and collaborating with relevant stakeholders in the system to investigate historical and current approaches to the issue, and exploring precedents for dealing with food waste in other parts of the world. Central to this phase was ensuring the sharing of knowledge among the students as it was produced. This meant organising a publically accessible class blog that can be viewed at and weekly debriefs and discussions on insights gained.

Dena Fam (biography)

Abby Mellick Lopes (biography)

Alexandra Crosby (biography)

Katie Ross (biography)

Continue reading