Janet E. Jackson: Embracing uncertainty — Solving complex problems with a collective impact approach

In both the business and nonprofit worlds, getting concrete results is the key to success. In business, shareholders and customers demand results. For nonprofits, our donors, advocates and volunteers are motivated and energized by improving lives. Helping people build pathways out of poverty and strengthening our community are the results they demand — and rightly so.

At United Way, we are focused on getting concrete, measurable results, and we have a great track record for investing our donors’ gifts effectively.

Yet as we embark on a long-term effort to reduce poverty in central Ohio, the results we have achieved in the past are not enough to address this complex issue. That’s why we believe so strongly in the need for a community-wide collective impact effort with a diverse group of partners.

A shared goal

At its simplest level, collective impact happens when a core group of people or organizations come together around a shared goal with a common set of strategies and methods.

Having a shared goal and strategies might imply that the partners decide on predetermined outcomes. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Through constant communication, partners share information and learn together. Collective impact experts John Kania and Mark Kramer call this process “emergence.”

The key to making this approach successful is to create “effective rules for interaction” between partners. Once these ground rules align all the players, the stage is set for solutions to emerge.

This alignment is crucial because it may be that solutions arise from practices already being used by one or more partner, or determining new ways of working together. Once these practices are recognized and adopted more broadly, transformative change can occur with greater speed.

Accepting uncertainty

Taking the collective impact approach means doing something that makes a lot of leaders nervous — embracing uncertainty.

We all understand that some uncertainty is a factor in managing an organization, but usually we want to put management practices in place that reduce the unknowns.

However, as the complexity of an issue increases, and the number of partners engaged to address it multiplies, uncertainty is inevitable. We must embrace it and work together to maximize the opportunities that are presented with every turn our journey takes.

By adhering to agreed upon rules of interaction and maintaining constant communication, organizations engaged in addressing complex issues like poverty can create a feedback loop that allows new approaches to emerge and keeps the work linked to the ever-changing environment.

And if there is one thing we can be certain about, complex issues will evolve and our response must evolve as well.

If you are faced with a complex issue that is not getting solved by traditional management methods, consider laying the groundwork for a collective impact approach to help the solution emerge. You will have to embrace uncertainty, but the reward will be worth it.

Janet E. Jackson is the president and CEO of United Way of Central Ohio, one of the largest United Way organizations in the world. Under Janet’s leadership, United Way is working to build a community where everyone has the aspirations, resources and opportunities to reach their potential. Reach her at (614) 227-2746, [email protected] or liveunitedcentralohio.org.

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