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    Chris Peck: Great power in collective impact

    By Chris Peck - The Commercial Appeal -

    No silver bullet. But plenty of silver buckshot.

    It's a concept important to Memphis right now as the city tries to cope with complex problems: poverty, training young people to work, stopping blight while striving to make the city ever more livable.

    There's no silver bullet to fix all that vexes us in one shot.

    But lots of smaller efforts that can be tested, tried and measured will make a difference. Silver buckshot.

    That intriguing message comes from John Kania, a scholar and proponent of the power of "collective impact" as a strategy for tackling the big, gnarly problems that grip Memphis and many other American cities today.

    He came to Memphis a few days ago to address a packed house at the Hilton where a crowd of movers and shakers gathered to hear a five-year progress report from Memphis Fast Forward. That ambitious collaborative effort of regional business leaders in Greater Memphis has tried to bring a clear, coordinated community focus to key issues that have kept the regional economy from performing at its best.

    Much of the program was devoted to taking stock of what has been achieved over those five years of focused Fast Forward effort. It's an impressive list that includes:

    -- Violent crime in Memphis is down 22 percent.

    -- Fifteen thousand new jobs have been created, with an average wage of $40,000.

    -- Memphis and Shelby County government efficiency efforts have saved about $75 million.

    -- Fifty percent of our young children are now in pre-K early childhood education.

    -- The Shelby Farms Park and miles of bike trails have taken shape.

    Kania was impressed. He said quite simply the coordinated effort to improve Memphis has become one of the models of community collaborations that work that he cites around the country.

    Right up front, Kania acknowledged that cities all over the country, much like Memphis, can feel overwhelmed by their challenges. ''Sometimes things can look pretty bleak in cities,'' he said. As a result, it's tough to keep collaborations going. Tough to find elected officials and business leaders who want to step up and work together. Tough to keep the public from jumping to the conclusion that nothing can be done to fix what appear to be monumental challenges.

    Haven't those emotions all rolled over Memphis? Many improve-the-city efforts have been launched, only to quietly expire from exhaustion and lack of results.

    But Kania says Memphis should not despair. What we're seeing here, he believes, is a real-time success story of the power of collective impact. Memphis, he says, is showing what can happen when business, government and civic leaders actually decide to engage together, then stick with it, and test out a wide range of efforts designed to move the needle on crime, health, school achievement and more.

    What's the difference between what Memphis Fast Forward has done, and other city improvement efforts?

    For one thing, Kania notes that the Fast Forward effort isn't one-dimensional. The problem solving isn't left to one agency, or one arm of government. Instead a wide swath of leaders in different fields have committed to work together on the big problems.

    For another, Kania notes that information has been shared openly and freely. No locked doors and secret reports. Even on tough, unflattering issues, the information is shared, and better understood by those working on the problems. People working within the Fast Forward framework have a much better understanding of the thorny challenges.

    And the very fact that Fast Forward is a real organization, with a staff, measurable goals and regular meetings, has given the group a backbone on which to build. Everything the group works on is measured, documented and shared.

    ''And that's impressive,'' Kania told the Fast Forward lunch. Impressive, not easy, and an example of how a community can and must address tough issues.

    There will be moments when the effort seems unappreciated. That's because big issues, even when addressed using the toolkit of collective impact, aren't easy to address.

    The public longs for the silver bullet -- on poverty or jobs or public safety.

    Kania urges Memphis not to fall into that trap.

    ''There are three kinds of problems,'' he explained. 'There are simple problems that really can be solved by a recipe, kind of like baking a cake. Then there are complicated problems that require special expertise, where you need to get the right people in the room but the problem is solvable and people can figure it out. Then there are complex problems, where there are no formulas. In complex problems, everything is evolving all the time. There is a need to adapt to unpredictable circumstances.''

    The big issues in Memphis, Kania notes, are all complex problems. No quick fixes. No recipe that can bake the cake every time. No silver bullets.

    Instead, silver buckshot -- many examples of things that have worked elsewhere and that can be repeated.

    This insight is important for Memphis. Because it's all too easy to see that the big problems are still with us, all too tempting to hope for a silver bullet.

    Conversely, it is much more difficult to muster the disciplined approach that Fast Forward has used to leverage a wide base of community assets to generate many successful examples of silver buckshot -- the little stuff that is working and that adds up to something big over time.

    But we're doing it. And we're poised to do more if we can keep our leaders engaged and if they can keep credible examples coming of the power of collective impact.

    Chris Peck is editor of The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at (901) 529-2390 or at peck@commercialappeal.com.