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.

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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

Grant proposal writing for teams: Avoiding Frankenstein’s monster

Community member post by Lauren Gee

Lauren Gee (biography)

Writing a grant proposal as a team has many pluses—a plenitude of viewpoints, a wider wealth of knowledge to pull from, and a larger pool of resources to help edit and finalize the proposal. Too often, however, a team-written proposal turns out as “Frankenstein’s monster”: a mess of disparate parts, thrown onto the page. Agreement is missing throughout, with no consistency in terms of vocabulary, style, or even tense. So how can a team work together, from day one, to write a successful, cohesive proposal—how do we avoid Frankenstein’s monster? Continue reading

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Community member post by L. Michelle Bennett and Christophe Marchand

L. Michelle Bennett (biography)

What are the key lessons for building a successful collaborative team? A new version of the Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide (Bennett et al., 2018) provides ten top take aways:

It is almost impossible to imagine a successful collaboration without trust. Trust provides the foundation for a team. Trust is necessary for establishing other aspects of a successful collaboration such as psychological safety, candid conversation, a positive team dynamic, and successful conflict management. Continue reading

Toolkits for transdisciplinary research

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

If you want to undertake transdisciplinary research, where can you find relevant concepts and methods? Are there compilations or toolkits that are helpful?

I’ve identified eight relevant toolkits, which are described briefly below and in more detail in the journal GAIA’s Toolkits for Transdisciplinarity series.

One toolkit provides concepts and methods relevant to the full range of transdisciplinary research, while the others cover four key aspects: (i) collaboration, (ii) synthesis of knowledge from relevant disciplines and stakeholders, (iii) thinking systemically, and (iv) making change happen. Continue reading