By Deb Halliday & Melissa Passarelli
The adage, “You can never step in the same river twice,” is a good reminder to collective impact practitioners who strive for systems-level change. Systems change takes persistence, adaptability and grace. How might we intentionally build those qualities into our work?
We explored this challenge in a workshop at the Help Me Grow (HMG) National Forum Week. HMG has a national network of communities implementing the HMG Model, a collective impact approach to early childhood system building. We were joined by Jen Juster of the Collective Impact Forum as we dove into key findings from the Tamarack Institute’s recent paper, A Guide for Building a Sustainable and Resilient Collaboration. In this blog, we share some key insights we gleaned from our discussion on resiliency.
Tamarack defines resiliency as the “ability of collaborative groups to navigate dynamic shifts and changes that occur in organizations and communities.” These shifts can include changes in leadership at partner organizations; changes in state law or funding that open up or shut down opportunities; or environmental changes, like a natural disaster or a pandemic.
Resiliency focuses on the internal conditions related to collaborative health and well-being, and includes our mindset as well as our practices. Tamarack identifies 10 “really good” resiliency practices. During our workshop, we explored four and provided examples from HMG.
- Build from the bottom and top: Foster a coalition that includes participation and perspectives from across the community. As Deb wrote in her blog, The Elephant in the Room, “Inviting in people with different perspectives is central to community building. Left to our own devices, we each create an understanding of how things work, what’s wrong and what will fix a particular challenge… It’s precisely when we pool our perceptions and surface our assumptions that we can begin to build a more complex and accurate understanding.”
HMG works with the community before launching a local initiative, and regularly hosts community networking events, as well as cultivates system leaders’ participation and support.
- Engage with the unknown: Increase partners’ capacity to tolerate ambiguity and navigate uncertainty. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Systems change requires us to work within complex, interconnected, dynamic environments. Our ability to discern and anticipate every potentiality is simply too much to ask. And that’s okay. We take our best step forward and we learn as we go. For folks who like scenario planning, Liberating Structures’ Critical Uncertainties can help a collaboration think through options.
HMG systems engaged with the unknown during the start of the COVID pandemic, and pivoted to leverage system infrastructure to help disseminate basic needs and provide virtual support to families via the Centralized Access Point and developmental promotion and screening.
- Develop “good enough” plans: Our workplans should help us take action and should evolve as the work unfolds. Corralling partners into a unified effort can often be rather process-heavy work, as we seek to build a culture of collaboration and to align our work. Sometimes, initiatives get bogged down by process and planning, and are at risk of running out of steam before they get to the fun part: taking action. By adopting a culture of learning while doing, and understanding that trust often comes from doing things together, collective impact efforts can grow into impact.
HMG Affiliates often launch in pieces, building upon existing assets and “building out” towards local gaps and needs. A Structural Requirement of the HMG Model is Continuous System Improvement, with the expectation that everything is an opportunity to learn and do better.
- Surrender control: Recognize that it isn’t possible to predict or control the outcomes of work in a complex system. As Deb wrote in her blog, Expanding Your Circle of Influence, “When so much is beyond our control, it can be difficult to focus on what we can influence.” But when we play to our strengths, play the long game, and hold on to the narrative of what’s possible when we work together, we find we are able to grow our capacity to make meaningful change.
HMG regularly grapples with conditions outside of its control, including changes to funding and staffing. HMG Affiliates regularly utilize shorter term work plans and community-based work groups that can help the system be adaptive to change. Similarly, conducting continuous quality improvement allows systems to move in the right direction while adapting to change in real time.
During our workshop, we explored additional tools and resources for navigating systems change within a collective impact framework. They include The Water of Systems Change by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter Senge; and the sustainability section of Tamarack’s guide.
Donella Meadows observed, “We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!” Attending to building a culture of resiliency is a good step forward on the dance floor, and we wish you grace and courage as you navigate the dance of systems change.
Deb Halliday, MPA is a community builder and transformative facilitator based in Montana. She regularly speaks with groups about how, working together, we can have an impact on the communities we live in and the lives we share. She blogs at debhalliday.com.
Melissa Passarelli, MA is the Associate Director of Implementation & System Building at the Help Me Grow National Center. She uses her experience of early childhood system building in her home state of New York to support states and communities across the country in improving outcomes for young children and their families.