The power of collective action comes not from the sheer number of participants or the uniformity of their efforts, but from the coordination of their differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action. Mutually reinforcing activities ensures that the significant efforts and activities of collaborators are aligned towards achieving the common agenda and shared measures.
This element of the Collective Impact framework commences once common agenda and shared measures have been developed and launched. The focus of this element is to align the existing resources and effort in the system towards achieving the common agenda and shared measures. Many Collective Impact practitioners say that this is the ‘real work’ of Collective Impact. Affectionately, this work is often described as ‘herding cats’.
What are mutually reinforcing activities?
“not by requiring that all participants do the same thing, but by encouraging each participant to undertake the specific set of activities at which it excels in a way that supports and is coordinated with the action of others” (Kania and Kramer)
Mutually reinforcing activities do not have to be developed collectively but the efforts and activities must be aligned towards achieving the common agenda and grounded on the initiative’s shared measures of success.
Types of activities
Mutually reinforcing activities can be generally configured in three ways, meaning the collective impact initiative can organize their activities to service (1) multi-problem individuals, (2) address multifaceted problems, or (3) a combination of both.
Refers to people facing multiple issues at once, for example a homeless person suffering from mental health issues and being jobless. For these individuals, successfully addressing one need frequently entails addressing the others concurrently, and thus requires the synchronous provision of a range of complementary services. Under this arrangement, member organizations coordinate their efforts to supply a suite of heterogeneous services capable of addressing the various needs of social service seekers.
Refers to problems having multiple phases, for example ensuring a child acquires a career necessitates ensuring that he or she does not drop out of the education pipeline at various stages. Tackling multi-faceted problems requires the delivery of, often similar, services at various points in time, tailored to the evolving needs and environment of the individuals.
How to mutually align the activities of a collaboration
It is important to highlight some aspects of the work of creating mutually reinforcing activities:
- The means by which the collaborators or backbone organisation staff align the leadership and practice of others is through influence, not direct authority.
- Organisational leaders (be they government, business, philanthropy or non-profit) need to ‘opt-in’ to aligning the resources and effort of their organisation to the common agenda and shared measures. This is easiest when those leaders have been involved in the setting of common agenda and development of shared measures. Those leaders who did not have that opportunity will need time and support to understand the opportunity, benefits and implications of ‘opting-in’ to the Collective Impact initiative.
- Organisational change needs to be supported in order for the resources and effort within participating organisation to become more aligned to achieving the common agenda and shared measures. Some organisations may need to change their practice to better reflect the evidence base, others may need to change through innovation and learn by doing.
- The activities of participating organisations must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.
- Building upon existing efforts and discouraging duplication
- Supporting and leveraging each others’ efforts
- Distributing activities to take advantage of existing skills, passion & expertise
- Using data as the foundation for a learning system focused on the continuous improvement of the practice of the participating organisations
- Using data as the foundation to determine which innovations should be scaled and which should be stopped