At our convening last September, we talked a lot about “failing forward” in the work to build civic infrastructure. The idea resonated with communities because this is such challenging work to complete, and partners have to be willing to make mistakes along the way. We’re finding that this is no different on the national level as we work with communities to help them build civic infrastructure faster. We are learning a lot from our successes and from our failures.
For example, we’ve been supporting numerous sites as they begin to bring together partners from across the community, and we’ve seen consistent challenges arise when setting expectations about the nature and timeline of this work. Because we in the social sector have searched for the “silver bullet” for so long, it’s hard for people to fully understand and accept that no such solution exists, and that we may need to take our time to identify what really works as a way to guide our investments.
Based on this learning, we now know the importance of distinguishing between technical solutions and adaptive solutions when setting expectations about the nature of this work. Technical solutions can be associated with the silver bullet. For example, the concept that we could just scale one program to have impact across an entire community is really not something that is consistent with the concept of civic infrastructure.
The challenge that communities face is this: how to identify the practices within successful programs, and adapt and scale those within existing structures. For example, if a specific practice being used in a tutoring program is recognized as getting results, the work won’t be to simply grow that individual program – it will be to work with other programs and systems to see how they can adopt that practice effectively to best serve their target population.
While this way of scaling is much more difficult (because it impacts the funding streams and mental models for how to drive improvement that have been pervasive for as long as I can remember), it is the work we know must be done to have real and sustained impact.
The key is that when you chose to take on this work, and when you bring people together to set expectations, you’re shifting the focus of the entire community from technical to adaptive solutions. And what that means is that you’re shifting from the eternal search for the silver bullet, to realizing that the best work may already be happening in your community, and finding ways to scale that work in nontraditional ways.
Our commitment is to help communities do this better, because in the end, taking on adaptive challenges really will require an acceptance that we all have to be willing to fail forward.