What would it take to achieve better and more equitable results for every child, cradle to career?
That overarching question is what guides all of our work at StriveTogether. Trying to improve educational outcomes at scale is an aim without end. Unlike learning how to bake a cake or how to build a rocket ship, figuring out how to shape and strengthen complex and adaptive systems across local communities is an unanswerable question. Communities are living ecosystems that require us to embrace emergence.
As individuals, we are generally pretty good at learning. Collaborative work requires a different level of intentionality to make the leap from insight and reflection to action and results. To strengthen the “S” in PDSAs (Plan-Do-Study Act cycles) and to create more purposeful reflexive loops from learning to action, the Emergent Learning Platform can be a helpful suite of tools and a way of thinking and working together that keeps results at the center.
Emergent Learning was created to focus on this big question:
“What would it take for groups of people working on important but challenging goals to learn as quickly and well together as we are each able to learn individually, so that they not only achieve their current goals more quickly, but also get better at achieving other important but challenging goals in the future?”
This is extremely relevant for community leaders and partners working in cradle-to-career partnerships to eliminate educational disparities. By unpacking what people know through a shared process, it’s possible to build people’s collective capacity to produce better results. The focus is on making thinking visible in a way that equalizes and values each individual experiences in service of shared results — bringing everyone’s best ideas to the table.
One of the easiest ways to get started is to use Before Action Reviews and After Action Reviews, a practice that helps groups learn in real-time from real work:
At StriveTogether, we’ve implemented these quick 30-minute prep and debrief conversations for everything from convenings and workshops to new initiatives. In doing so, we are more purposeful about what it takes to achieve our shared results.
In the context of local cradle-to-career partnerships, one of the most valuable Emergent Learning principles is the focus on testing ideas on the ground using real-time data. Instead of setting strategy in stone, the approach welcomes holding multiple hypotheses about what it might take to achieve the results you seek. As cradle-to-career partnerships work to improve outcomes and eliminate disparities, it is critical to concurrently test and work on multiple interconnected strategies. Alignment is the conscious commitment of many to a shared result — not everyone necessarily doing the same thing!
Marilyn Darling, the founder of the approach, shared one of her working hypotheses guiding this work: emergence rather than replicability likely leads to greater sustainability and scale. This is the sweet spot for cradle-to-career partnerships — helping cross-sector groups accelerate results by navigating ever-evolving conditions by testing and refining hypotheses and learning and taking action together.
As part of my personal and professional development toward being an advanced results-based leadership practitioner, I am a participant in the 2017 cohort of the Fourth Quadrant Partners’ Emergent Learning Certification Program.
Earlier this month, Parv Santhosh-Kumar and I had an incredible opportunity to gather together with 35 social sector leaders and spend three days at the Skid Row School for Large-scale Change. The experience was transformative.
For one, it came at the end of what has been a year filled with high highs and low lows. I think that we can all probably relate to this. Just when you feel like you’re making progress, you turn on the news and realize there’s so much more work to be done. So needless to say it was quite therapeutic to be able to spend time with like-minded professionals, each seeking to make the world a better place, and commiserate about our successes and failures on our respective journeys.
Next, similar to the StriveTogether approach, the leaders of the Billions Institute and the Skid Row School faculty put together a curriculum that forces participants to address both the adaptive and technical aspects of leading social change. We heard Becky Margiotta (keynote speaker at the 2016 StriveTogether National Convening and co-founder of the Billions Institute) share lessons learned from her work to combat homelessness on the 100,000 Homes Campaign, Joe McCannon (co-founder of the Billions Institute and former vice president at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement) share his work to improve patient safety on the 100,000 Lives Campaign and Nana A.Y. Twum-Danso (founder and CEO of MAZA) discuss her work to reduce infant mortality in Ghana as part of the Project Fives Alive! Campaign.
Dan Heath (2015 StriveTogether National Convening keynote speaker and co-author of Switch) provided individual coaching on getting super clear about our intervention to help mobilize others to care about the change we are trying to make and change their behavior as a result. And lastly, Christine Margiotta (executive director of Social Venture Partners Los Angeles) pushed us to uncover some of the “unspeakable invisibles” — such as fear of failure, scarcity mindset, indecision, overreliance on consensus and running on overwhelm — that exist in all of us and keep us from creating the change we want to see.
To try and distill my learning from the three-day school into some key takeaways was not an easy task, so I’m sharing a few key nuggets today and you can expect to see more from us as we incorporate our learnings into the everyday work we do with the Network:
1. If you want to spark change, feeling is the fuel. We have to generate interest in our mission to motivate behavior change. We cannot allow process to be the albatross. Most people are not motivated by static data charts. We have to match the rigor of our improvement approach to get results with an equal effort to motivate, mobilize and do a better job of telling the story about the impact on kids. That’s what humans care about. In Switch speak, this is what “motivates the elephant.”
2. Smart aims are like unicorns. Very rarely do organizations have quantifiable, time-bound objectives or aims like ours — five proof point communities (with measurable outcomes improving and evidence of systems changing) by June 2018. To set a smart aim, you have to first understand what complete success looks like for you, understand where you are in the expansion process and then set a specific time-bound goal for the next 18-36 months. As long as you are tight on aims, you can afford to be loose on everything else.
3. When you operate in fear, everything rustles. One of the primary reasons organizations and individuals do not set smart aims is because of fear. Fear often leads to blame, criticism and self-doubt. In order to do this work, according to the Billions Institute’s Model for Unleashing, you must be willing to “hug the bear,” or confront your fear head on, unpack what’s behind it and embrace failing forward.
4. Amateurs talk strategy, leaders talk logistics. Joe and Becky of the Billions Institute posit that achieving large-scale change requires organizations to operate Inside the Command Center. Teams who operate in this way put it all together — they get clear on their intervention and their aim, they embrace fear head on, they don’t get hung-up on business as usual, they do exactly what it takes to achieve results.
We look forward to continued partnership with organizations like the Billions Institute and other graduates of the Skid Row School for Large-scale Change. Changing systems to change the world is some pretty big work. We are fortunate to have great partners to learn from and grow with along the way.
Collective impact has been one of the biggest buzzwords in the social sector, and, unfortunately, the term gets used for a range of activities that deviate from the original intent: achieving results at scale. Our focus with the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network has been to establish standards for what this work really takes to achieve its true purpose. We have tried to clarify how it differs from collaboration, but that has not been enough as this beautiful concept continues to get watered down.
In order to show the true power of collective impact, we are investing in a core group of communities to become demonstration sites or “Proof Points.” One of our key insights thus far from this work is that communities need to create a culture and build the capability to use data not just to prove what works, but to improve how they support children each and every day. There is an entire field built around this practice known as continuous improvement. Most of the lessons and insight are based on all that has been learned from its application in the private sector. Fortunately, the health sector has been working over the last 20 years to help use the science in hospitals, giving us key insights into how continuous improvement can apply in the social sector in general.
We are currently on the cutting edge of understanding how this work can best work in the education sector and across community partners, and we want to capture these lessons and share them rapidly to help raise the bar on quality from the start and avoid the propagation of yet another buzzword in our sector. Back in 2008 when the flagship cradle-to-career partnership was launched in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, we worked with GE Aviation to apply one continuous improvement method — Six Sigma — to help partners use data to improve outcomes at scale. We had some significant failing forward experiences that inform our work now with the Network and can inform the field as a whole. These form a baseline of knowledge we have been building on significantly as communities including Dallas, Memphis and Spartanburg continue to test new ways of applying improvement in the field.
A few key lessons have emerged to inform the field as a whole. These include:
- Continuous improvement is not a technical tool but an adaptive process. In the work to apply Six Sigma in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, we became overly focused on the process and related tools. We provided traditional classroom lectures and over 100 pages of technical documents. This masked the true challenge of improvement: dealing with the changes in behavior those engaged in the process must consider as they learn more about what does and does not work for those they serve. So using a more simplified process — like the Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle — and applying it in real time to a real-world project is a much more effective way to learn.
- The team doing improvement work matters … a lot! We were often happy just to get participants from different systems to show up at meetings. We did not care who it was or how often they came. We just wanted the institutions represented. It is impossible to make progress with an ever-changing cast of characters. Instead, it is critical to map out exactly who needs to be involved and to make sure they stay consistently engaged based on the role they play. Leaders need to be visible champions and practitioners need to be working to interpret data at least every other week. Without this level of clarity, the significant time invested won’t lead to any significant change.
- New roles and capability are needed to embed and sustain the work in communities. Given the complexity of managing the change process and engaging the right people in the right roles, it is critical to invest in having new roles and building partner skills and capability. Having continuous improvement coaches work arm-in-arm with practitioners to help them gather, analyze and (most importantly) apply learning to their everyday work is simply critical. Simultaneously investing in training to build the capability of partners to model improvement in their organizations, is fundamentally critical to embedding the work in the community long term.
This is only scratching the surface of the lessons StriveTogether is learning to make sure communities not only realize the potential of collective impact, but bring the rigor required to the practice of continuous improvement right from the start. If we focus on quality, we can achieve better results for children and communities — and embed a critical body of work in our everyday practice to improve outcomes for kids … not just create another buzzword.