How to solve collective problems – without waiting for a crisis

Liz Cameron-Smith Founder, The Impact Assembly, PwC Australia 29 July, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded swift and decisive action. We’ve seen government, business and society work together to address the challenges being faced worldwide.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that almost anything is possible in a crisis situation. Healthcare systems have been scaled up in days, policies have been implemented at breakneck speed, and the largest work-from-home experiment in history was launched almost overnight. Throughout the pandemic, businesses have stepped up their role in society, working with governments to find creative solutions and adapt to disrupted markets and supply chains.

The pandemic has been a painful reminder that our health, economy, environment and society are deeply interconnected. Disruption in one causes a ripple effect across all. But it has also shown us how strong society is when we all work together. Businesses and economies are actively addressing a global health challenge and the complex societal needs arising from it – the very ambition articulated in this Global Solutions Summit. But that begs the question: Why should it take a crisis for us all to work together for the common good?

The short answer is: It shouldn’t, and it doesn’t. The truth is that our global society already has the necessary elements in place to address not only this challenge, but the many others we face as a society– from climate change to rising inequality. Elements including compelling evidence, smart and creative people, innovative ideas and emerging technology provide a strong foundation. What is lacking is the collective will to bring these elements together because we choose to, and not because a crisis forces it upon us. 

The challenge is that the economic system no longer provides strong incentives to use these capabilities to drive social progress. For decades, market incentives were enough to drive individuals to take actions that moved us collectively toward a common good. That link is now weaker and so it takes a crisis to shift the calculus.

Collective solutions should be encouraged and nurtured, in the way that innovative start-up businesses are incubated. The seed of an idea can build into a large-scale response with the right leadership and approach. Instead of incubating a single product or business in response to a problem, incubating collectives is about nurturing new ways of working beyond boundaries that traditionally divide organisations and sectors.

Through our work at The Impact Assembly (TIA),  we have learned some important lessons about the essential ingredients to creating collective solutions:

  • Involve people with ‘lived experience’ of the issue you want to address. They know where the system lets people down, how it can be improved, and whether any particular solution will work in real life.

  • Understand the landscape. Learn about the problem from a wide range of perspectives. What solutions have been tried before? If they failed, why did they fail? Who has a stake and how might they be impacted? This knowledge is not static; collectives that succeed are open to continual learning.

  • Create a strategic frame, together. The strategic frame reminds people why they are collaborating, what they want to achieve together, and how they plan to do it. It anchors everyone in the collective – who might have competing priorities – on a common journey to the same destination.

  • Take the right people with you, at the right time. Not everyone needs to be involved at the start of the journey. An effective network of people typically grows in three phases: the first begins with the pioneers of the vision for change; the second phase brings in early adopters and influencers; and the third expands the collective to a broader mix of people to increase the diversity of knowledge. 

  • Bring method to the madness. Collaborative problem-solving needs order, and that means an established method for solving problems. At TIA, we use the social labs method to bring together diverse groups of people to  prototype, test and scale systemic solutions. Whatever process is used, it needs to be informed by evidence and continuously evaluated to ensure the process leads to intended outcomes.

  • Use stories to fuel progress. Stories unite people, enabling networks of diverse individuals to understand what they are trying to achieve collectively, why and what has resulted in change. But the stories that dominate our society can also deceive us or mask the truth. These social narratives must be carefully understood and tested because stories can create a powerful lever for change.

  • Design the right vehicle. A collective doesn’t look like a traditional organisation – rather than an entity with boundaries, clear activities and lines of accountability, it is often a continually expanding network of many individuals and organisations. The ultimate change doesn’t come from the core team; the core team enables others in the network to achieve that change. A small, carefully designed core has the power to create a strong ripple effect.  

The pandemic has caused unimaginable suffering. As our society recovers, we should not lose sight of the fact that we can make choices about how we want to shape and rebuild the world. We have the capacity to nurture collective solutions to shared social problems, and shouldn’t wait for the next pandemic to put these unique human talents into motion. We learn faster when we learn together.

This blog was co-authored with Martin Stewart-Weeks, Policy Advisor, The Impact Assembly, PwC Australia , Lisa Main, Strategic Communication Lead, Social Impact, PwC Australia and Joanne Bowen, Facilitator, The Impact Assembly, PwC Australia .



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