Editors’ note: This piece differs from those previously published on collective impact in that the implications stem from several decades of empirical research on networks. Although collective impact is often portrayed as a relatively new phenomenon, years’ worth of network research suggest insights that may be useful to the all-important early step of determining an initiative’s common agenda. The article also elaborates on an often underexplored area of collective impact. Although some parts of the collective impact framework have gotten increased attention (the backbone organization, equity in collective impact, strategies for mutual alignment), the notion of a common agenda is often taken for granted, when in fact it poses a real stumbling block for networks in their early stages.
This article is from the summer 2016 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly magazine.
Agreeing on a common agenda is one of the chief tenets of collective impact—and one of the prerequisites for moving collaboration forward. However, our experience working with collective impact initiatives and other similar networks suggests that collective impact leaders often struggle to get buy-in from various community stakeholders in the crucial early stages. Specifically, we’ve seen that insistence on a common agenda sets a high bar, and may derail partnerships early on. More important, the common agenda may create barriers to entry for diverse partners if they hold views at odds with “mainstream” values and assumptions.
Although we agree that a common agenda is important, we suggest that collective impact leaders should treat it as an aspiration rather than a destination. We draw upon several decades of network research and exemplar networks to suggest instead that focusing on the process of creating a common agenda allows for diverse perspectives to impact the initiative’s trajectory. To that end, we identify common barriers to agreeing on a common agenda, including the “birds of a feather” tension and the “two hats” problem. We then offer suggestions for reaching a threshold of agreement that moves initiatives forward—even if total agreement can’t be achieved. There is much to be said for a principled agreement to disagree on some elements of a common agenda.
Birds of a Feather
Over thirty years of network research has demonstrated that the easiest way to form a social network is to recruit people who share a common experience based on characteristics such as race, class, gender, or education.1 This is the principle of homophily, or “birds of a feather flock together.” Because partners with similar backgrounds can relate to one another, they bond more easily than those who don’t. This means that the quickest way of building a common agenda is to rely on like-minded individuals.
This sounds dismal for those of us who value diversity and inclusion, but it needn’t be so—there is another powerful finding from network research that helps mitigate the principle of homophily: Although bringing people together in the first place is made easier through similarities, networks are more innovative when diverse partners participate. Through the interaction of stakeholders with diverse goals, expertise, and backgrounds, networks become more innovative, effective, and resilient. In other words, effective networks adopt the principles of both “opposites attract” and “birds of a feather.”
The question of which principle networks honor—and when—poses a dilemma; however, leaders should recall that dilemmas cannot be solved—only managed better or worse. Therefore, one of the most important network management tasks is balancing the need for networks to have enough cohesion to hold themselves together, but not so much that they exhibit “groupthink” that causes them to reject new ideas and practices. From the standpoint of network research, managing the “birds/opposites” dilemma is one of the keys to network effectiveness.
One way that networks manage this tension is by explicitly acknowledging and accounting for differences. For example, in research conducted on the Southern Alberta Child and Youth Health Network (SACYHN), we discovered that the network dealt with this dilemma by having two “tables.” One table included the network members in the healthcare arena who created the network (“birds”), and the other included members who had interests in education, members who had interests in social services, and members who represented diverse constituencies (“opposites”). The network acknowledged differences between the “birds” and the “opposites” by creating terms of reference that specified different obligations for the two groups. Core members, the “birds,” shared a common agenda, whereas “opposites” shared some, but not all, of those interests.
Both network evaluation and participant observation concluded that acknowledging this “birds/opposites” dilemma and creating an institutional structure to mitigate this tension was one of the keys to SACYHN’s success. Over the life of the network, SACYHN has been viewed reputationally as the most successful child and youth health network in Canada.2
In addition to creating a bias toward “birds of a feather,” the common agenda standard doesn’t address the “two hats” problem, which is a shorthand way of saying that members have interests in their organizations and the network. This tension can lead to hidden agendas, which are toxic in networks.
The “two hats” problem cannot and should not be wished away. Network members may be torn between their own organizational agenda and the agenda of the network itself. Network research teaches us that there are two fundamental tasks that every manager in a network must adhere to: managing the network, and managing his or organization in the network. One way to manage this tension is by creating a threshold of agreement, rather than insisting on a completely common vision of the desired outcome. For example, in rural Pima County, Arizona, a group of individuals created Friends of Redington Pass, a collaborative named for the public lands joining the Santa Catalina and Rinc