The language around Collective Impact is continuing to evolve, which frankly, for some practitioners, might seem like a pain in the butt.

If you look at the language describing Collective Impact on the FSG website, what Living Cities uses, what Strive Together uses, and what many other Collective Impact practitioners use, you might throw up your hands and give up trying altogether.

Before you decide we’re a bunch of crazy people who just can’t get it together, it might help to check out this great video from the Lean Startup Conference (minutes 8-15) which talks about what it takes to transition an organization to lean startup principles.

Cindy Alvarez and Ethan Gur-esh at The Lean Startup Conference 2013 - 12/10/13

Here are a few concepts that are similar to what we’re seeing as we implement Collective Impact on the ground.

1. Meet people where they are

The presenters in the video were from a company acquired by Microsoft and were struggling to get Microsoft bought into the concept of Lean Startup. No matter what they tried (force feeding, flash mobs, bribery) they couldn’t seem to get people to buy into the concepts. Until they realized that what mattered most was behavior change. Similarly, we may feel that we need to go around advocating for Collective Impact. If we just teach people enough of the concepts, they’ll surely get it, right? Instead, we need to understand where people are and what we need to do to support behavior change. My colleague Alison Gold has written extensively about the messiness of cross-sector partnerships, and one thing she says is that you need to take time to “form” your partnership so that it is strong enough to survive the “storming” that inevitably comes with developing shared results. Without meeting people where they are and building strong relationships at the outset, it’s difficult to have strong cross-sector parnerships down the road.

2. Use language that resonates with your audience

It’s easy to fall into the trap of being patronizing when you’re trying to support changing behavior. “Sigh, I just don’t know how many times I can explain the same concepts to people to get them to understand me.” Before you gallop off on that high horse, remember that changing behavior is just difficult overall and is more about changing hearts and minds than drilling definitions. I recently presented to a group of our sites from The Integration Initiative (TII) about Collective Impact. My team and I made several (painstaking) iterations to the presentation to ensure the language fit the audience. Of course, I got a lot of feedback after that presentation and I will continue to iterate on how I talk about Collective Impact. (If you want more information on how we talk about Collective Impact at Living Cities, see below for a copy of my slides from that presentation.)

3. Recognize culture

The folks at Microsoft rejected the Lean Startup language, but jumped at the concepts behind the scientific method: hypotheses, assumptions, and experimentation. You’ll note that at Living Cities, we’ve focused more on the “Build-Measure -Learn" concept of the Lean Start Up methodology, but why not just use the scientific method? When we work with our innovation partners, the concept of social experiments is rife with baggage. Our mission is to improve the lives and economic well-being of low income people. The people we are privileged to serve are not lab rats or something to be done to; they are actually part of the problem solving process. Build-Measure-Learn has worked for us because the language helps provide guidance without triggering negative perceptions. In the end, what matters most is that the language we use is sensitive to the culture of the people who will be using the tools.

4. Recruit credible translators

You’ve often heard that change moves at the speed of trust. One critical piece with catalyzing change is to have trusted people on your side who can serve the role of translator. For Microsoft, these were people who had experienced the good, bad, and ugly and could share how changing their approach could help make the team stronger. Similarly, the team in Albuquerque leading the current TII efforts was involved in a similar Collective Impact initiative to end chronic homelessness. While that effort was ultimately successful, that team built credibility in their community by pushing through even when the path was difficult. If Collective Impact efforts are not grounded in concrete experiences, it begins to feel too theoretical and abstract. It’s not about the tool, it’s about what the tool allows you to achieve together.

5. Iterate to find language that works

The Microsoft folks continue to iterate not just with the products they’re developing, but with the language they’re using to shift their culture to Build-Measure-Learn to produce change more rapidly. Similarly, our language at Living Cities hasn’t evolved in a vacuum. It started in our immediate team, moved to the organization through brown bags and staff meetings, was tested at external conferences, vetted by TII Initiative Directors in a webinar, and then shared with TII sites during a learning community. Every iteration helped us make the discussions more about the changes we seek and less about the tool we’re using.

Have any more thoughts on language and catalyzing change? Love to hear it in the comments!


View Ty’s slides from the June 2014 TII Learning Community