Go Slow to Go Fast – A Mantra for Getting Started with Collective Impact


Dawn O'Neil AM
Kerry Graham

As the field of Collective Impact grows in Australia many communities and causes are grappling with the challenge of getting started, writes Dawn O’Neil and Kerry Graham, Principal Consultants at Collective Impact Australia.

As the field of Collective Impact grows in Australia we are seeing many communities and causes grapple with the challenge of getting started.

What we observe is that social leaders are so conditioned to ‘taking action’ that, for many, taking the time needed to create a broad groundswell of support for collaboration, of building trustful relationships, of working through a deep discovery process to really understand what the problem is, to getting baseline measures and developing clear outcome measures to track progress seems excruciatingly slow.  

Yet, Collective Impact initiatives are courting failure if they try to skip over this process.  The international field and our emerging experiences in Australia teaches us that we must learn to ‘go slow to go fast’.

The experience of STRIVE Together, one of the early pioneers of Collective Impact in the US, was that they met together, monthly for almost three years before they had finally agreed their common vision of “From the Cradle to a Career” and had their 52 measures agreed by more than 100 partners.  This was difficult work with many false starts and often deep disagreements about what the priorities should be, but the energy was maintained by the strong determination of a group of skilled leaders committed to a process of developing a common agenda and agreed set of measures across the system.

Looking to Australian examples, early in the life of the 90 homes for 90 lives initiative tackling homelessness in Woolloomooloo in Sydney the collaborators asked: “How many rough sleepers are there in Woolloomooloo?”  While they had already worked out that there were 52 service providers (and that took some time), neither the service providers nor the collaborators knew how many rough sleepers they were actually providing services for.

In response, the collaborators mobilised volunteers to go out on the streets between 11pm and 4am to survey and get to know the rough sleeping community.  They learnt there were 90 people.  With that data, they then knew the size and scope of the issue they were tackling and were able to create a plan around it.  This novel approach took time, but they knew they couldn’t solve the problem until they fully understood it.

We observe a number of entrenched practices within the Australian social system that present barriers to the essential collaborative practice of ‘go slow to go fast’.  One we have already flagged above -  jumping straight to a solution without developing a shared understanding of the problem.  

The current default is to do a quick analysis of available data, make a decision and act.  Most often, the quick analysis is poor as it is based on poor data; the decision is usually to focus on a (yet another) project or program instead of the whole system, and the action does not yield community-wide change.   To be very frank, one event or a handful of 2 hour planning meetings won’t get you where you want to go.   Related, a compounding disabling practice is the unrealistic expectations of funders (both government and private) that doing a few ‘activities’ will make a transformative difference. It won’t.  This must be challenged as its profoundly misguided.

The process of gaining commitment towards transformative change takes time – lots of it.  Systems change work is profoundly different to the way we current approach social change.  The type of processes and actions needed are ones that co-define the dilemma, co-design processes for working together, develop the common agenda and measures. This is a process of building the capacity of the collaborative effort BEFORE the collaboration action begins. It means sitting in the trenches of uncertainty month after month asking questions, probing, listening, and discovering to try to understand the problem from every point of view.  

While there is understandable frustration about the amount of time taken, the trust built by this process cannot be valued highly enough.  It is this trust among collaborators that allows the collaborative effort to have higher chance of being an enduring solution.

Otto Scharmer and the team at the Presencing Institute have worked on numerous initiatives seeking profound innovation and change in business, health, and education, and on sustainability issues. In all of these large system change processes they have found that:

“the biggest roadblock to moving from institutional paralysis to profound systemic renewal is the same: it’s the missing collective leadership capacity to draw together all key stakeholders and involve them in a process that begins with uncovering common intention and ends with collectively creating profound innovation on the scale of the whole system” (Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, 2009).

This work requires time, commitment and critically a new kind of leadership to emerge.  That leadership must be committed to earnest discovery, observation and synthesis with deep reflection before acting.  Most change processes don’t go deep enough in the learning phase to lead to any kind of transformative change.  In our next blog, we explore the leadership needed for collective impact in more detail.

About the Authors: Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham have just undertaken a Collective Impact study tour in the USA on behalf of the Centre for Social Impact. Their vision is to translate Collective Impact into the Australian context.

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