Collective Impact

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Integral Strategy Network works with organizations and communities to tackle complex challenges where multiple stakeholders need to collaborate. The Strategy Roadmap defines how a desired future will be realized. It also provides a framework for coordinating collective effort. Capitalizing on stakeholder diversity, distributing accountability, and maintaining a shared focus on outcomes, has a collective impact far beyond what could otherwise be achieved.


The term ‘collective impact’ was coined by John Kania and Mark Kramer in an article of the same name in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2011). It describes the contribution made by multiple stakeholders in tackling a social challenge.

When challenges are systemic, a whole system needs to mobilize. Complex systems have numerous leverage points. Aligned interventions at multiple points in a system can have a combined effect that goes far beyond what an individual stakeholder can achieve by working alone. Unfortunately many change initiatives are patchwork efforts. Resources are often used ineffectively, work is duplicated, actions conflict, or something essential is overlooked. The hoped-for impact is never achieved.

Harmonizing Collective Efforts

When interventions are harmonized, every actor makes an important contribution, just as each instrument adds something essential to an orchestra. In the orchestra, strings carry the melody. Woodwinds add color. Brass instruments create drama. Percussion instruments keep rhythm. Every instrument contributes its own voice. When the whole orchestra plays together, a concert hall is filled with music that is rich and complete.

Actors in a complex system can harmonize their efforts in the same way. Let’s use community food security as an example. In our prosperous society, many people still go hungry, including low-income families and children, seniors, disadvantaged groups, and the homeless. Food insecurity is a problem that defies simple solutions. Real change requires that a whole system get involved – farmers, food processors, food distributors, food warehouses, gardeners, grocers, restaurants, food banks, social service agencies, schools, foundations, local government, and volunteers.

When these stakeholders work together, neighborhoods experience visible change. Local gardens, seed libraries, farmers markets, food cooperatives, and community kitchens appear. New relationships are created between the community and food producers. People learn new skills in gardening, nutrition and food preparation. Food spoilage is reduced. Food that would otherwise be wasted is redirected from grocers and restaurants to people in need.

A Change in Perspective

Transformation demands more from us. Change catalyst Steve Waddell compared incremental, adaptive and transformative change in his book Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together. Incremental change, he says, requires that we act and behave differently; adaptive change that we think differently. Transformative change requires that we alter the way we perceive reality. Our relationship to the change shifts from I am acting on the problem, to others are the problem, to I am part of the problem and ‘we’ are in this together.

If we hope to make transformative change, we need to shift from acting independently out of self-interest to acting together out of shared interest. We also need to find more effective ways of organizing ourselves. Kania and Kramer identified the need for a backbone organization that can help to orchestrate action, but it would be a mistake to interpret ‘backbone’ as being in charge. Experience has shown that command-and-control fails when contributors are peers.

Chaordic Organization

Dee Hock pioneered a new form of organization in the 1970s that he called ‘chaordic’ – combining elements of chaos and order. It was highly decentralized and at the same time highly collaborative. VISA International was designed based on this model, and Dee Hock became its CEO. He believed the new model could be applied much more broadly in a world where we are struggling to cope with complexity. In his book One from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization (2005) he said self-organization is key.

“We now live in a world of such complexity, diversity, and multiplicity of scales that there is little possibility of achieving constructive, sustained governance with existing concepts of organization. People everywhere are growing desperate for renewed sense of community. Deeply held, commonly shared purpose and principles leading to new concepts of self-organization and governance at multiple scales from the individual to the global have become essential.”

Steve Waddell summarized six design principles for systemic collaboration in Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together, based on Dee Hock’s chaordic model:

  • Multi-centric and distributive – Decisions are made and activities are performed at the level closest to those being affected and engaged.
  • Participant-owned and owner-governed – Members govern themselves, and collectively own the parts of the network in which they participate.
  • Self-organizing and self-evolving – Participants can form new organizational units based on shared purpose and principles. Participation is voluntary.
  • Diverse and adaptive – The organizational structure facilitates innovation, experimentation, and adaptation in diverse settings around a common purpose.
  • Tied by purpose and principles – Numerous independent organizations are joined by a shared purpose and principles.
  • Enabling – Participants provide the motivating force, and are supported rather than pushed.

He added one more principle of his own:

  • Reflecting principles of fractals – Each sub-group has the same core structures as other groups, allowing connections to be made easily between groups.

Self-Organization at Every Scale

Fractals are found everywhere in nature – in rivers, mountain ranges, craters and coastlines; in plants, sea shells and snowflakes. Patterns repeat.

In nature, every system is comprised of other subsystems. The resulting repetition at different scales is described in the child’s nursery rhyme, “The Siphonaptera,” adapted from a poem by Jonathan Swift: “Big fleas have little fleas, Upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum.”

That is how nature organizes itself.

Hierarchies are fragile. We are unwise to depend on them to manage complexity. In the introduction to Dee Hock’s book One from Many, systems theorist Peter Senge described the gap between how we think and how nature works as the source of our most challenging problems.

“We face a mounting range of insoluble problems because the DNA of our dominant institutions is based on machine age thinking, like ‘all systems must have someone in control’ and change only happens when a powerful leader ‘drives’ change. Yet, we all know that in healthy living systems control is distributed and change occurs continually.”

We need a new a way of organizing human systems that works at every level, Dee Hock says: “One that also allows self-organization and self-governance to ensure effective action at any subsequent scale right on through to the global. An organization within which coherence, cohesion, and order could emerge on which every part could rely without need for knowledge or control of others.”

That is how we will truly achieve collective impact.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on complexity, collaboration, and the challenges of transformative change. It was first posted on April 24, 2018, 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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