Four things we’ve learned this year about shifting to a better world

Over the last year, SHIFT has been busy in the field, working on over 30 projects with many organizations and collaboratives. As we look back over our first year, four key themes are getting our attention and stretching our learning:

1. EVALUATION: Moving away from a “fear of failure” towards a “hunger for learning”

Over the last year we have had the opportunity to work on several evaluation projects, assessing everything from social impact to collaboration to leadership and systems change. We are noticing that while organizations want to produce bigger and more lasting results, they are also challenged by increasingly complex and dynamic problems with no clear path to a solution. In many cases, organizations are ‘building the stairs as they climb them‘, testing solutions, abandoning the ones that aren’t working, and detecting what’s emerging in response to their efforts. Sure, organizations want to know if they are hitting their desired outcomes and targets, but more importantly we are seeing a genuine hunger to learn about what is working, what is not, and how to adapt along the way.

We are noticing a shift from organizations only asking “are we doing it right?” (which implies success or failure) to asking “are we doing the right things?”. This requires a new approach to evaluation that bakes strategic learning right into the work, rather than only assessing at the end of a project timeline when it’s often too late to use insights to adapt. SHIFT has been building our toolbox in evaluation methods that not only measure impact, but also embed real-time learning right into teams, organizations and collaboratives.

2. RESILIENCE: Putting social connection at the centre of community resilience

Whether we have been working on climate change adaption, seniors aging-in-place, or community food systems, we are continually reminded of the fact that social connection is essential to building communities that can respond, adapt, learn and transform in response to change. Resilience is often taken to mean the ability of communities to respond and build back quickly after a disaster or crisis (e.g. storms, economic downturns, etc.). Indeed it is this, but increasingly it is being recognized that for resilience to be effective, our approach needs to include efforts to build stronger and more connected communities. These connections serve us not only in responding to extreme events and emergencies, but also to everyday chronic stresses. While there are many characteristics and capacities (PDF) that make a community resilient, we are seeing social connectedness as a critical leverage point for resilience-building. We are hard-wired for connection as humans and there is increasing evidence of how important this is for our health and well-being. Could social connectedness be the “secret sauce” that improves health and builds resilience?

3. SYSTEMS: Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants

We are all familiar with the story of the blind (wo)men and the elephant: Each person feels a different part of the elephant, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their partial experience and they can’t agree on what the elephant is. At SHIFT, we are seeing some inspiring work to tackle some complex systems–climate change, food systems, poverty, or health inequities. These are some BIG elephants. In fact, they are so big, it’s tempting to reduce the complexity by: a) dividing it up, analyzing each issue separately, and/or b) keeping it simple by only engaging a few sectors or actors. But, in our work supporting collective impact, innovation labs, and developmental evaluation, we are seeing that the groups that engage with multiple perspectives, going beyond the usual suspects, really are able to see more of the elephant (i.e. the whole system). It doesn’t mean they address everything at once, but it means they stay aware of the whole by inviting the diversity of the system into the room. This means they are able to address individual issues while also attending to how these issues interact to produce patterns and dynamics of the whole system. It doesn’t mean they address the whole elephant all at once, but at least they know it’s an elephant!

4. SOCIAL INNOVATION: Honing discernment for what is needed vs what is familiar (or what is the ‘new cool thing’)

There has been an explosion of ‘social innovation’ approaches, practices and tools over the last few years (i.e. innovation labs, systems mapping (PDF), etc.). For those of us in the field trying to support novel systemic solutions to social and environmental problems, it’s encouraging to see more of these practices become more accepted and mainstreamed. However, as Maslow said, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. There’s a danger in getting prematurely focused on new social innovation tools and approaches before we have a handle on the type of situation we are facing. At SHIFT we are continually trying to hone our discernment for situational analysis. For example, bringing a complexity frame and innovation tools to every situation we face is dangerous and counterproductive. Some challenges are technical, some are actually quite straightforward, and some are indeed complex.

We have been learning how to support groups to discern when they’re facing a complex situation and when they aren’t and how to be strategic about which tools to use on different challenges. So, while we are excited by social innovation approaches, we are seeing their power is knowing when to use them and in which context!

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