Stone Soup

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ISN has seen again and again the power of collaboration, when stakeholders come together to create something new. In the beginning there is often nothing more than an idea. This small seed of possibility is enriched by what each stakeholder is able to contribute – creating something much greater than the collection of individuals. We have seen this play out in every sector, through our work with industry, government, communities, and NGOs.


An Old Folk Tale

You likely already know the story of stone soup. Versions appeared in France in 1720 and 1771, in England in 1806, and in America in 1808. Many countries have their own variations, and the tale has been told and retold in many children’s books. The story is universal. A search for ‘stone soup’ on Google returned 487,000 results.

As the story goes, hungry travelers arrive in a small village. They have no food, and the villagers are unwilling to share their own scarce supplies. Filling a pot with water from a nearby stream, the travelers add a stone and place the pot on a fire. When a curious villager asks what they’re doing, the travelers say they are making stone soup. This quickly becomes a source of wide amusement. More and more people gather around. The travelers offer to share the soup when it’s done, and the villagers become intrigued. The soup will taste better the travelers say if it just had some seasoning. A villager volunteers salt. It would taste even better the travelers say if it just had some onions, a cabbage, some carrots. One by one each villager adds a missing ingredient. When the soup is done it is hearty and there is enough food to feed everyone.

Community Collaboration

Stone soup is a parable that reveals some deep truths about community collaboration:

  • When we begin the pot is empty
  • Everyone adds an essential ingredient
  • No contribution on its own is sufficient
  • In the end there’s a hearty meal

I have seen results improve dramatically when we honor these truths in communities hoping to improve opportunity and quality of life; in governments tackling complex systemic challenges; and in companies confronting the need to transform.

When We Begin the Pot is Empty

Start with a challenge. People may be hesitant. Many may not even have met before. A challenge seeds the discussion, and offers a way for a community to self-organize. While the goal may be vague at the start, people are drawn into a deeper conversation. Naming a challenge begins to create a coalition for collaboration.

Everyone Adds an Essential Ingredient

Take advantage of every gift. Everyone offers something unique. People will come from different organizations and have different roles in the community. They will bring different perspectives and life experience, and solve problems in different ways. Every contribution magnifies what is possible.

No Contribution on Its Own is Sufficient

Make change a collective effort. Something vital is lost when we rely only on a small group of experts to solve a complex problem. Critical competencies may be missing, without which the desired change will be unsuccessful. Changing a system depends on the collective efforts of multiple stakeholders.

In the End there’s a Hearty Meal

When a community works this way, people are more invested. Collaboration has a multiplier effect. Nothing essential is missing. Change is more consequential, more transformative, and more deeply systemic. We could call this deep change. The outcome truly is ‘collective impact.’

Flash Mob

I like to use the flash mob celebration of Banco Sabadell’s 130th anniversary in public talks and presentations to show what happens when everyone contributes their own unique gifts to achieving a higher collective goal.

In this video, every instrument plays its part, but something miraculous happens when they play together.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on November 28, 2017, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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