Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is Collective Impact Project Management on Steroids?

Collective Impact is a new strategy getting a lot of buzz in educational reform, but it is also employed in urban redevelopment efforts and could be powerful in health care reform and reengineering. A useful, basic introduction to the term can be found in a recent essay from The Stanford Social Innovation Review. Essentially, the idea is that we can have more impactful change - and more sustainable results - if we can coordinate all of the different work being done toward a common goal across lots and lots of agencies, non-profits, and grass-roots organizations. This doesn't happen now. For example, if we want to arrest and reverse the rise of dropout rates in America's urban schools, we need school systems, teachers unions, faith-based social service agencies, criminal justice systems, and scores of other actors to work cooperatively. And it might need to be done in a coordinated fashion so, for example, head start can give pre-schoolers the tools to succeed in elementary school, so they have a foundation for secondary education; and after-school enhancement programs can help kids in high school have the tools to succeed in college; and all along the way, social services can support families so they can provide a foundation for children's success in school.

I find this interesting for a lot of reasons. At the Graham School we offer a program in Project Management, and this seems like project management on steroids. Normally project managers coordinate projects spanning across an organization. For example, the roll out of a new operating system for an IT company requires everyone working on the project - those writing code, the graphic designers working on look and feel, the human resource managers who may need to bring in temporary staff to meet timelines, the marketing team, and others - to work in coordinated fashion. Sometimes, when the goal is a strategic realignment - maybe a merger - project teams are composed of team members from each of the companies being fused, and perhaps outside consultants. A project manager coordinates the work of all of the project teams, monitoring workflow, identifying and solving bottlenecks, all while keeping an eye on project goals, the budget and deadline.

The idea behind Collective Impact is that coordination across agencies, governments, constituent non-profits, etc. requires "a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative." The recent essay from The Stanford Social Innovation Review that has caused so much buzz around the topic, goes on to make the case that: "Coordination takes time, and none of the participating organizations has any to spare. The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations who can plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly."

In other words, this backbone organization IS the project manager for the effort. Compared to what a typical project manager needs to do - coordinate a group of employees all dedicated to the firm's success - a backbone organization in a Collective Impact strategy faces a much more complex task. Participating agencies, non-profits, and grassroots coalitions might not agree on a common goal, are organized around very different operational and accountability models, and may deeply, deeply distrust the agencies and organizations with which they are being asked to work. Project managers will tell you similar problems exist in their work within firms, but without a doubt the degree of the challenge is greatly magnified when working with state agencies and grassroots organizations and unions to reengineer schools (as an example). This seems like a challenge to the field of project management: can it create project managers with the tools to lead these backbone organizations?

I also find it interesting because it points at something that I believe is an indisputable truth: we are stumbling in our politics and policy-making because we have depleted our social capital and we aren't manufacturing any more. As defined by Robert Putnam, a Harvard social scientist, social capital "refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." The more social capital we have, the easier we get things done, because we begin with expectations that the people we are working with are trustworthy and will reciprocate (i.e. will compromise and be mutually supportive). Social capital is manufactured in local organizations and in local civic engagement. By working together, face to face, and arguing about and settling differences, and overcoming obstacles, and sharing risks, we learn to trust others, and we universalize this expectation. The more connections we have, the more we work together, the more we come to trust one another. And in our (meaning America's) current politics and civic life we have lost this capacity to trust. Collective Impact is a partial solution to this problem, because we aren't asking suburban governments to trust their big-city neighbors, or the politicians in the state capital, or faith-based social services agencies, or community-based grassroots organizations, at first it is enough to share a common goal and trust the backbone organization. Then, by working together, we rebuild trust and manufacture more social capital. Future cooperation will be easier if we can lean on the backbone organization to facilitate the work of getting stakeholders to work together now.

I think there is a model here, too, for the for-profit sector. How do you innovate past current technological obstacles? One key example is the need for innovations in energy storage and transmission, so sustainable energy forms can be reliably fed into our energy grid. A recent report from the American Physical Society calls for an effort to achieve this that might be called a Collective Impact strategy. The APS's proposal, though, situates much of the coordination necessary with federal agencies. This might be difficult in today's climate, where conservative politicians (and voters) distrust the government's ability to accomplish big goals. Better, perhaps, would be to create a backbone organization to do the coordinating work. A project manager, ready to do the difficult work of coordinating an ambitious project.