The why, what and how of collaboration for systems change

4 April 2022 | Collaborations

how to collaborate

“Systemic” is a word you’ll hear often in our movement. Catalyst 2030 is committed to enabling and upscaling collaborations to achieve systemic change. But what is a systemic collaboration? Why is it necessary? And how can we achieve it?

To shed light on these questions – we invited Cynthia Rayner, co-author with Francois Bonnici of the recent publication The Social Work of Systems Change to share her insights. Cynthia and François’ research focused on how specific organisations were able to create systems change. They used specific case studies to illustrate the practices organisations could employ to achieve systemic change. Thinking through the unique dynamics of Catalyst 2030’s approach to systems change, Cynthia applied her findings to inter-organisational collaboration (organisations collaborating with other organisations).

Why do different organisations need to collaborate to achieve systemic change?

The social challenges we face are complex, large scale and deep. Throughout history, those with the power to enact change have viewed social challenges as isolated parts that could be viewed outside of their greater context. Think of a machine. If one cog isn’t working, a repairer would simply remove the damaged cog and replace it back into the machine to make it run again.

Through the lens of systems change, we know this isn’t how most social challenges behave. Social challenges are complex because they emerge and remain in relation to several factors and to each other. Rather than operating like a machine, they’re more like a living ecosystem. There are many formulations to the problem and everyone can view it differently depending on the part of the system you’re focused on. Depending on your understanding of the problem your solution to it will differ.

Viewing social challenges through the lens of systems change allows us to humble ourselves and know that our solutions are neither true nor false because the problem itself cannot be pinpointed and isolated. This perspective is essential to addressing the great social challenges of our time.

What is collaboration in a systems change context?

Just as the social challenges we face are systems made up of relationships, the solutions are too. In its essence, collaboration is also a system. The collaborators are all complex beings with their own understanding of the problem, working to shift both their relations to each other and the broader relations within the system they’re trying to change.

At its simplest the meaning of this work can be defined as follows “collaboration occurs only when we’re more than the sum of our parts”. This definition of collaborative work brings us beyond a process-oriented definition. Collaboration is about leveraging collective intelligence and working with a “we” mindset for a purpose larger than ourselves. Collaboration is more than a simple exchange of knowledge or information, it’s when those elements are shared freely in order to shape the ecosystem in which we live.

Testing whether or not your collaboration is more than the sum of its parts requires deep reflection. As a means of prompting such reflection, Cynthia invited participants to self-assess using the following framework to help them think about developing their own collaborations:

On a Scale of 1-5, how well is your collaboration doing in these 5 areas?

  • Shared Understanding: Developing a mutual understanding of the system you’re working to shift is step one of collaboration. Coming to this understanding in discussion with your co-collaborators also creates a humble mindset – conscious that you won’t have a complete understanding without the input of others.
  • Shared Purpose: Having a common purpose among collaborators enables a values-driven system to emerge.
  • Shared Resources: Resources could be anything from knowledge and money to programming and labour. Pooling collective resources of all involved is essential to leverage the power of the collective.
  • Shared Power: To avoid reproducing the systems we’re trying to shift, redistributing decision making and influencing power is essential.
  • Shared Experience: Moving towards a “we” mindset necessitates valuing collective input. We all come to the table with different experiences that may ultimately be beneficial to shifting systems. Sharing and valuing the experiences of others is essential to a collaborative process.

In summary, collaborations seek the outputs of shared understanding, purpose, resources, power and experience. The outcome of this process is that the collaboration is more than the sum of its parts.

How do you design a systems-change collaboration?

To form collaborations that are capable of facing the complexity, depth and scale of the challenges we face, we must create our systems with two aspirations at their core: responsiveness and representation. To build responsive and representative systems, there are three necessary principles:

1. Cultivating a collective identity

Instilling a collective identity among collaborators allows for more opportunities for growth and inclusion. It ensures that once you’ve come together to collaborate, that you’ll stay together.

2. Embracing context

Because there can be many solutions to one problem, it’s important to understand and respond to the context in which you’re collaborating. Silver bullets (i.e. a one-size-fits-all solution) tend to be unsuccessful, as they don’t respond to the environment in which they’re implemented.

3. Reconfiguring power

The practice of collaborating necessitates that participants are granted agency and autonomy in their actions. Without this principle, collaborations run the risk of replicating the power systems that caused the challenges we’re working to address in the first place.

This was a brief exploration of the principles of Systems Change in relation to collaboration, but it barely scratches the surface. For concrete examples and the specific tactics you can employ to practice the principals, be sure to check out Cynthia and François book The Social Work of Systems Change.

To conclude, collaboration is a complex process withs its fair share of challenges. However ultimately provides many opportunities for systems change. Those seeking to shift systems through collaboration should be prepared for their organisations, mindsets, and even individual selves to change, as collaboration is ultimately a deeply reflective process.

The Collaborations team within Catalyst 2030 is continuously looking for ways to foster deeper and more meaningful connections within our community. One of the ways to achieve this is through a series of workshops that allow for peer-to-peer learning and sharing on systems-change collaboration creation and success: Learning for Collaborations. In January of 2022, Cynthia Rayner presented her perspective on collaboration. Her session, alongside previous and upcoming sessions can be viewed on our collaborations resources page. We’d love to see you there!

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