6 Steps to Move from Talk to Action

Homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, disparities in educational outcomes. We hear about these community problems on the news and read about them online and in the papers. We talk about them over coffee and in board meetings. And still, they persist. It’s one thing to hear, read, and talk about these problems, but it’s another to try to actually solve them.

It’s time that we as a community do a little less talking, and a lot more solving.

Understanding what type of problem you are trying to solve is the first step in determining the most effective way of structuring the development and delivery of your solution – moving from talking about it to action.   In an earlier post, Problem Solving and Collective Impact, I differentiated between categories of problems:

  • Simple – There are not many variables and you don’t need much collaboration in the development or delivery of your solution.  You just need to find a solution that has worked before and then implement it.
  • Complicated – There are a lot of variables and understanding them requires expertise in multiple fields.  But the variables can be controlled and once you have created a solution, you can achieve success.
  • Complex – Just because someone has successfully solved it once, or even multiple times, does not mean it will be successful the next time. There are just too many variables and it is impossible to control them.

With the depth, breadth, and interconnectedness of the social issues we’re talking about, I’d submit that these are all “complex problems.” Yet we try to tackle them as if they are just plain “complicated,” or reduce it down to a simple problem when it’s not.

We go at it in full force, developing a pilot project within our organization or sector, prove it is successful and then replicate it, yet we do it alone, in a silo.  Or, we may recognize the need to bring in experts in various fields to study the problem and develop a solution, so we convene cross-sector groups to develop a complicated plan, assign roles and responsibilities, and then reconvene periodically to listen to a report on how things are going. Our success, and many times our funding, is based first and foremost on whether we implemented the plan, rather than the results of the plan.

Solving our most complex community problems requires a shift in our thinking: we must move from simple (or even complicated) solutions to creating strategic and productive collaborations. Yes, I know, many of us participate in collaborations that end up feeling more like “coblaboration” then successful ventures.  Perhaps this why collaborating may sound ineffective, or even old school to some. They lend themselves more to talk than action.  More meetings than impact.   But, we can change that. “Coblaboration” can be avoided through a properly structured and led collaborative effort. We still need to talk, of course, but we can use the talking to drive towards action and ultimately impact.  

6 steps to achieving an effective collaborative approach:

1. Develop common goals and make sure everyone if focused on achieving them rather than taking credit for successes or assigning blame for failures.

2. Select stakeholders to participate who are interested in and able to generate value, not just people who want to stay connected.

3. When making decisions, push for data to be the driver, not opinions.   Don’t assume one person’s experience or knowledge is the only reality – check for diversity of information sources.

4. Stay flexible to change.  An emergency strategy is key to success.  Sometimes, the best laid plans or innovative ideas simply don’t work.  That’s ok.  If you are staying focused on the goals and driven by data, the plan and activities can change to realize greater impact and success.

5. Talking should lead to action.  As a matter of protocol, develop an action list after each meeting with designation of who is responsible for moving ideas/commitments forward and by what deadline.

6. Make sure the collaborative process is intentional, rigorous and guided.  Moving the collaborative forward needs to be the responsibility of a person or group of people who agree to lead from behind, staying neutral but driving the work forward.

I’ll unpack each of these elements in future blog posts, but to provide a bit of inspiration in the meantime, take a look at Three Community Projects that are Transforming Austin.  You’ll read about strategic collaborations that are incorporating the elements listed above and seeing real success in moving the needle on complex problems.

Solving complex problems can be intimidating, but the beauty of collaborative efforts is that you don’t have to do it alone – in fact, you shouldn’t!  By aligning your efforts with a diverse set of stakeholders and developing a strategic collaborative initiative you can start to move the needle and realize lasting impact.

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