Systemic change comes from introducing and experimenting with novel ideas that have the potential to improve the system. Over time, novel ideas become proven ideas that can scale and be adapted in other settings.
We would have already solved the complex problems facing our communities if the ways of thinking and partnering that we’ve always done were enough. To find truly new solutions, not just compilations of what has happened in the past, you need new ways of thinking. You also need new ways of supporting innovation and learning from it. Most innovative ideas are not ready for prime time right away. They need to be piloted and improved before they are ready to be scaled. This can be a critical backbone function.
If you look around a workgroup and realize it is the same people using the same type of dialogue as before, chances are the same answers are going to emerge. To get to different answers, you need to change up some mix of the:
- Expectations; and/or
The engagement section talks about the opportunity to change participants, and while this is critical, often it is not enough to change the results of the dialogue in a substantial way. It can be hard for new ideas from a new participant to triumph if the same implicit decision-making is happening.
Changing expectations can help. For example, if participants believe they are in the room to come up with a plan for aligning programs and services across agencies, they might approach it similar to every other alignment conversation they have had for the last ten years. However, imagine what looks different if you narrow the problem and ask participants to:
- Find one specific change that one agency can do that will disrupt the current pattern of how most or all agencies work together;
- Identify one activity that all agencies can agree to do the same way, even if it’s at the periphery of their work; or
- Identify two agencies who can tackle a set of alignment challenges together, regardless of what everyone else is doing.
The pressure is no longer on finding the solution. Instead, partners are finding experiments to test. They are finding the lower risk/lower cost ideas that can be tested, refined, and (if they work) scaled.
You can also change the process. Innovative design processes like human-centered design, storyboarding, hackathons, or other planning processes focused on prototyping can create a completely different dialogue, even if the people and expectations are the same. These processes engage people through visual techniques, rapid thinking activities, draw in parts of the brain that aren’t usually engaged in a formal planning process, and result in very different outcomes.
Not only can the targeted use of innovation processes help untangle problems and take the work to the next level, they can also create youth, family, and line staff friendly environments by expand participation in finding solutions. Inviting a youth into a storyboarding session is fundamentally different from inviting them into a strategic planning session!
- The D.School at Stanford University has a website with a section on design thinking experience/training that uses an online video and materials to help you implement a designing thinking experience in-person.
- The SIDELab, which looks at systems, integrative, design and evaluative thinking, also has a great set of design thinking resources.
- IDEO, a global design company, has created a toolkit that looks at how human-centered design can impact the social sector.
- Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ publication Building Collaboration from the Inside Out looks at the environments and internal conditions necessary for organizations to be effective collaborators.
When workgroups come together to identify possible solutions, backbone organizations can do so much more than just coordinate the logistics. The backbone can help the workgroups to be a dynamic environment where they not only identify innovative, emergent ideas, but they also have the support they need to implement them quickly, use data to understand whether they worked, refine them, and try them again.
Using the previous example, if the workgroup decided to have two organizations attempt to align their efforts as an experiment in what alignment could look like, the backbone might facilitate planning meetings with those two organizations, document the decisions made and why, collect data on which decisions were implemented and the barriers to implementation, and collect data on the impact of the changes.
This type of information can be brought back to the workgroup, where a strategic backbone has an opportunity to share the learning and facilitate a dialogue about how it can be done differently next time and even whether the group feels the experiment is worth continuing.
As the initiative works through which ideas appear to be worth scaling, or as big ideas that can only be done on a larger scale are identified, the backbone has a new charge – helping the collaborative go big.
Solutions at large scale are higher risk, higher cost, and hopefully, higher impact. A strategic backbone can help ready the collective to make decisions about these higher scale changes, including documenting evidence about how similar changes have worked in other places, how smaller scale versions of this change have worked in the current environment, who supports the change, what the risks and benefits could be, and what the cost may be to implement the change.
Sometimes the change is a new piece of infrastructure such as a data system or a shared screening tool. Sometimes the change is a major alignment of activities across agencies, deploying the location and eligibility of services in a coordinated way to ensure all children are served, for example. Sometimes the change is a shift in policy or funding, such as expanding funding for prevention dollars by pulling funding from safety-net services.
Large scale changes come not only with significant impacts on the issue and upfront challenges and costs, they also include compromises. Organizations may have to give up part of their mission or a piece of their work or infrastructure they have invested in and are committed to. Sometimes they may even have to give up funding or a work with population they are accustomed to serving. These types of changes are very difficult and can derail the work if not managed well.
A strategic backbone can not only help the collective get ready for a decision, it can also support the collaborative to manage the change by:
- Ensuring there is active support from key leaders across relevant organizations, and keeping them up to speed as the work progresses;
- Building buy-in from others in the organizations, including engaging them in shaping what the change will look like.
- Clearly articulating the impact that the change will have and who will be most affected, both positively and negatively.
- Communicating regularly and with great transparency about why the decision was made, how it is being implemented, and what is happening.
- Want to learn more about change management? MindTools has a straight-forward introduction that can help you think about your backbone’s role.
One piece of the puzzle in creating systemic, sustainable change is understanding how a strong policy agenda can make change scalable. Everything from passing (or defeating) legislation to shifting budget priorities or organizational policies is a part of moving the needle on intended system changes. As a backbone, you have the power to engage the collaborative in meaningful dialogues around public policy, either helping to set a proactive policy agenda or respond when a critical policy opportunity emerges A shared agenda created and owned by the partners and communicated by the backbone can also help bring the momentum needed to actually make the policy shifts happen. There are many different ways this change can be effectuated: for example, some collaboratives might have a policy workgroup while others might work with a strong partner already engaged in the policy process and with access to the lobbyists and fiscal experts needed.
Examples of using policy to scale up efforts include:
- Collaborating with local, state, and federal agencies and organizations to create permanent support for the initiative (at each level);
- Assessing local, state, and federal barriers and opportunities associated with the initiative (and develop policy guidance for each level accordingly);
- Offering policy guidance, such as legislative scans, national legislative trends, relevant briefs and reports, and initiative FAQs with stakeholders at the local, state, and federal level;
- Drafting or editing proposed legislation to support the initiative at the state level as informed by local barriers, supports needed, and lessons learned; and
- Recruiting and engaging a broad array of stakeholders including representatives from relevant state agencies, and working to further institutionalize the initiative’s priorities by making initiative participation a part of agency job descriptions.