"Feedback is the binding agent that holds all of the other ingredients together."

Feedback loops are one of the key elements of collective impact. This Throwback Thursday post takes a deeper look into the “flavors of feedback” needed to do collective impact. It was originally posted on July 23, 2014.

At Living Cities we think of Collective Impact as a set of principles: (1) a cross-sector partnership that has collectively agreed to a (2) shared result they aim to achieve and a (3) commitment to behavior change based on a (4) feedback loop of measures and outcomes that signals whether or not they are on track. (whew!) But anyone doing this work knows that, in application, it can be messy and confusing. To stick with the recipe analogy from my recent blog about the yummy tensions of collective impact, feedback is the binding agent that holds all of the other ingredients together. But it isn’t something that you can just throw into the mix. It has individual, flavorful elements that have to be carefully incorporated into the larger process. When done well, this creates an enabling connective tissue upon which the Collective Impact partnership can thrive.

1. FEEDBACK CULTURE

When I busted onto the social-sector scene, I succeeded admirably in one thing: pissing everyone off. I was used to speaking in terms of “accountability”, “corrective action” and “metrics”. When I didn’t hear that language back, I assumed (you know what happens when you do that) that it just wasn’t there and started to come across as patronizing. I learned the hard way that the private, public and social sectors have different languages. That doesn’t mean we don’t want the same things, we just tend to go about trying to achieve them in different ways. What I quickly learned was that, while we used different language, we were often doing similar activities. During my work in youth development, we called the sum of these activities “feedback culture.” But it wasn’t your run of the mill constructive criticism. Each young person we worked with had to sign a contract about committing to professional behavior (accountability). At the end of each week, what they did or did not do well was read in front of their peers by category (metrics). But that wouldn’t have done anything without coaching. So that same group of peers would also give feedback about what they did well and what they could do better so that the person had the opportunity to change behavior (corrective action). What my youth development organization called feedback culture, I believe most professionals would call anxiety-laden.

For the young people I had the privilege of serving, the end result was a career pathway to make a better life for them and their families. Cross-sector partners need this level of transparency and vulnerability. They need the courage to share what’s going well, what’s not going well, and why in order to improve continuously That requires building trust that everyone in the group is coming from a place of caring and that the temporary discomfort is worth it in order to reach the end result the group is committed to.

2. FEEDBACK LOOPS

It is always hard for me to hear people say things along the lines of, “it’s all about the data”. That might seem strange since I was an electrical engineering, computer science double major. But what I’ve found about data is that it is surprisingly subjective. A savvy person can make data do or say whatever they want in order to prove a point of view. Also, the data is not the point. What matters is whatever the data allows passionate people to understand and change. As Jeff Edmondson and the StriveTogether folks often say, the best data doesn’t help you prove, it helps you IMPROVE.

Although we spoke about feedback loops in my earlier blog, one thing to note is that “feedback loop” does not equal “information technology system”. Feedback Loop literally means collecting the information that is needed to know whether or not you are on track. When people start thinking about data, they often go on a mad spree trying to collect EVERYTHING…blades of grass, wind speeds, rainfall percentages. The best feedback loops are processes that are elegant and iterative. They inform you about the validity of your choices as quickly as possible. I love the blinking speedometer example; those flashing numbers inform you whether you should speed up or slow down, but the desire and choice to do so is still ultimately your own.

Another important distinction is that many organization ALREADY HAVE feedback loops. The challenge is that they exist within the boundaries of their own organization. That brings us to my last element of feedback.

3. DATA INFRASTRUCTURE

Inevitably, if your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is audacious and scary enough, no one organization will house all of the information needed to be able to assess progress toward the goal. When I was speaking at an environmental conference recently, we walked through an example using an initiative with the goal of reducing CO2 emissions in Washington D.C. by 25% in five years. I asked them, “What are you doing to drive this change?” The answers were fast and furious.

“Planting trees!”

“Engaging employers to change their polluting behaviors.”

“Burning down power plants.” (That last one was a little alarming but every room has a wild revolutionary.)

When I asked how they would know that the CO2 emissions were reduced, and if they had that data themselves, most folks scratched their heads and said, “Uhh…no.” Most of them could tell you the number of trees they planted, or the private-sector people who signed up to change their behaviors, or even their progress toward their goals. It’s not that they weren’t collecting data. It’s that the issues they are ultimately trying to impact are so interconnected with larger, more complex systems that it is easy to “achieve” programmatic success in a vacuum without seeing any improvement big picture change. Achieving a BHAG will require laying down infrastructure that gets you the right information when you need it. That’s what is so awesome about the first two flavors of feedback. If your cross-sector partnership builds a feedback culture and feedback loops that keep them informed if they’re on or off track, inevitably there will be a tension with getting the information they need fast enough so that they can change course, if needed, in real time.

A great example of what can happen when people take that journey together is what happened when Cuyahoga County, in Ohio, began preliminary research for a Pay for Success deal aimed at decreasing the average number of days a child spends in foster care. In the process of building a Pay for Success model (which, by the way, is one of the best emerging models that is naturally aligned with the principles of Collective Impact), they realized that part of the reason children were not being picked up from foster care when their parents were released from jail was because the criminal justice systems and the family services systems didn’t “talk”. Since they needed to prove outcomes to receive a financial return, they were not comfortable with convoluted paper pushing processes. The county decided then and there that they would invest in building infrastructure between the two systems so that they would automatically notify each other. This change will last regardless of administration changes, or people being promoted. And as a result, no mother will feel that it is not her right to reach out to her children and no child will wonder why her mother doesn’t care enough to take her home. When it’s all said and done, that’s when you know you’ve achieved enduring systems change.