Getting Beyond the Plan that "Sits on a Shelf"

After 20 years of consulting, I have dedicated a lot of time to developing action plans and reports. Like me, thousands of people have devoted countless hours of meetings, research, and writing to develop plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, implementing a sustainability strategy, etc. You know the reports with goals, specific recommendations, nice graphics, and a signed letter from a high-level official about how important this is and how committed they are.

But let’s be honest: what happens after the announcements go out, the reports are printed, the pdfs are downloaded…after the project team winds down, people go back to their jobs, and the consultants and funders move on to new projects? Some work gets underway, yet more often than we want to admit, the senior officials change and the new ones have different priorities, the institutional memory of the initiative fades, the internal champions are no longer rewarded or encouraged to work on it, and the plans start to gather dust on shelves in offices.

For the complex, long-term challenges we now face, we must break this cycle. We have to find ways to sustain the commitment, action, measurement, and follow through on long-term goals. We need to ensure that action and commitment continue despite changes in political administrations or individual organization’s CEO’s.  And, we need to create the capacity to take action, learn and problem-solve, and adapt as conditions change…in line with long-term goals.

Shifting to work in larger networks of organizations focused on common long-term goals, with robust and transparent tracking of progress, holds promise as one way to overcome the chronic cycle of commitment/leadership change/no follow through. The institutions of civil society (e.g., non-profits, foundations, advocacy groups) serve a critical role in creating and sustaining the joint collaboration, focus, and accountability to meet long-term goals because government and business are driven to short-term focus, with the turnover of political terms for government and profit-pressures on business.

Promising examples are emerging where civil society, government and the private sector come together to plan and then coordinate their work to achieve ambitious long-term goals within a complex large system. For example, the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati brought together over 300 leaders of local organizations with a common interest in improving student achievement, including schools and colleges, city government, foundations, and education-related non-profit groups. They had a joint mission “to coordinate improvements at every stage of a young person’s life from “cradle to career.”

Strive facilitated this community of 300 organizations in defining a single set of goals, measured in a consistent way, as John Kania and Mark Kramer describe in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article Collective Impact. Student Success Networks on various topics such as early childhood education met for three years to define performance measures, align their efforts, and learn and adjust. Funders aligned their grants to line up with the Strive goals and measures. By measuring the same activity by the same measure across many organizations they could see patterns and trends and implement solutions across the system. The Partnership is getting results: for the 34 measures of student achievement it focuses on,  in 2011, 81% were trending in a positive direction versus 74% in 2010 and 68% in 2009. See example below.

With a diverse community of organizations all focusing attention and action on reaching common goals, the commitment can move beyond a one-time Blue Ribbon Commission-type set of recommendations into an ongoing system to ensure mutual accountability and joint progress. Our recent work with Vermont Farm to Plate Network and the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Project is focused on building similar networks to enable coordinated action to achieve system-wide goals.

Sample of Strive 2011 Partnership Report

Strive scorecard

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