Phases of Collaborative Efforts to Reduce Poverty

Resource Type: Audio Seminar || Mark Cabaj
Garry Loewen, Marc Cabaj


This seminar explores four phases of collaborative community efforts using an eco-cycle lens, including implications for planning, delivery and renewal of initiatives.


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In this podcast, Garry Loewen speaks with Mark Cabaj about the four-phases of collaborative community work.

CoomplexLearning Objectives:

To explore phases of collaborative community efforts to reduce poverty

To identify the “transition traps” that prevent groups from moving from phase to phase. These concepts may increase the potential for progress on poverty reduction

Access Podcast Highlights:

The Eco-cycle Lens

Mark’s thinking on frameworks and models has evolved with the experience of collaborative efforts of initiatives within Vibrant Communities and others tackling poverty and other complex topics.  The eco-cycle framework first developed by C.S. Holling and used by Brenda Zimmerman and others has been a helpful mental model to think about how collaborative efforts develop and change. 

The eco-cycle sees living systems working through four phases:

  1. The creative destruction phase.
  2. The mobilization or renewal phase.
  3. The exploitation phase
  4. The maturity or conservation phase

Each of the four phases lay groundwork for the next phase, but they are not always linear; often different parts of an initiative are in different phases at the same time.   The concept uses the metaphor of a forest -- different parts of a forest are in development or creative destruction at the same time.  For the health of the forest, all phases are necessary and no phase should be artificially extended.

In this clip, Mark reacts to a question about “patch dynamics” to explain how some parts of initiatives may progress linearly through the phases, while different parts of the initiative go though them at a different time, or in a different order.


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Phase of Poverty Reduction

Mark explains what kind of activities appear in each phase:

Exploration - This is the creative part of an initiative; its purpose is to expand the number of ideas available, to bring the innovators together and generate possibilities

Development - This is the entrepreneurial phase.  Its purpose is to make something work at a reasonable cost.  Because the work is more focused, and is focused on outcomes and effectiveness, there is often a drop off in the number and variety of people and projects that are involved

Maturity - This phase is stable, often rhythmic and standardized, and produces lots of outcomes in a highly efficient manner. 

Creative destruction - Efforts are no long achieving the same results as they did, even with adjustments and more attention, so the initiative has to decide what to abandon to make space for something new to be born. 

Listen to Mark describe each of the phases and what this means for a poverty reduction approach:

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Transitional Traps

As collaborations move between the phases, the transitions can cause initiatives to get “stuck” in a number of traps.

1. The scarcity trap - When moving from exploration to development, people may be unable to agree on a course of action or can’t attract the resources they need to test their ideas.

2. The parasitic trap - Also known as the “charismatic trap”, this describes a collaborative initiative’s struggle to move on from the host that gave it birth. Problems might occur after a pilot project phase is complete, or if the project is dependent on a certain context, e.g. what works in one neighbourhood doesn’t work in another neighbourhood. The parasitic trap might also be triggered by scale - by efforts to move very small efforts to a larger project.

3. The rigidity trap - When projects are in a mature, productive phase, it can be hard to convince people to let go in favour of something new and unknown, especially if there is no clear exit plan.  They don’t want to or can’t let go of possible outcomes, especially if the demand for them is still high. 

4. The chronic disaster trap - Even when people try to go on to something new, they are not able to let go of the past.  They end up spinning their wheels, unable to finish old business and get on to new possibilities.

Mark illustrates the scarcity trap by telling the story of a Saskatoon initiative that had difficulty moving forward on any of the multiple strategies they developed:

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Implications for Leadership

The resource related to this seminar contains some checklists to help leaders identify and diagnose whether they are experiencing some of these traps, but the solutions will be highly dependent on their situations. The eco-cycle and trap analysis can help by identifying the problems and offering up possibilities of how to work through them.  

It takes courage to identify that something is not working anymore and to move on to something new. Thinkers on leadership and change, like Peter Senge, argue that tactics or mental models are no longer enough; we need to go deeper and talk about the emotional, psychological and spiritual space of people and organizations. 

The principles below are grounded in the eco-cycle.  They offer no guarantee, but may improve the odds that an initiative will be successful.

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Seven Principles

Form versus Essence - The essence of working collaboratively to reduce poverty is not the same as the form or manifestation that essence takes at any point in time. 

The importance of the entire eco-cycle -  All of the performance and renewal phases are necessary for the overall health of the collaborative effort.

 Resilient, Versus Sustainable, Collaborative Efforts - Continually adapting – rather than sustaining – the manifestation of the collaboration is necessary to reflect the demands of different phases and internal and external changes. 

Robust Collaborative - Not all collaborative efforts are robust enough to make it through the eco-cycle.  The challenge is to improve their robustness but to ‘let go’ when necessary in order to release energy for new manifestations.

Situational Leadership - Leadership styles and cultures that ‘fit’ the unique phase or area of work will change over time.

Patch Dynamics - Collaborative efforts are more resilient when they are partly operating in all four phases or areas of the eco-cycle.

Enabling Environment - We need a policy and investment environment that supports all four phases of the eco-cycle.

Here, Mark uses research from healthcare and business to illustrate the difference between resilience versus sustainability.

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Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent does the eco-cycle framework capture your experience and understanding of how collaborative efforts unfold?
  2. Can you identify one transition trap that you managed to get through successfully in a collaborative effort? What allowed you to move through it?
  3. Can you identify one transition trap that your group was unable to work through? What prevented you from working through it?
  4. How can we improve the probabilities of a robust collaboration?

To reflect on these and other important questions, refer to the Resources and Links below.

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Links & Resources

Phases of Collaborative Efforts to Reduce Poverty (handout) - Phases of Collaborative Efforts to Reduce Poverty.

Convening a Comprehensive Multisectoral Effort to Reduce Poverty - This 2004 document outlines the framework Vibrant Communities used in its initial years. It examines the best practice of comprehensive, multisectoral local efforts to reduce poverty and describes the key features of a convening organization. 

Edgeplace  – This website, allied with the Plexus Institute, shares insights from complexity science and showcases much of Brenda Zimmerman’s work, as outlined in her book Edgeware: Insights From Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders.

Core Neighbourhood Development Council in Saskatoon - Between 2001 and 2003, organizers in Saskatoon developed a comprehensive plan for revitalizing eight downtown neighbourhoods.  But the initiative ground to a halt at the moment of action.  Find out why.

Presence - A website from the Society for Organizational Learning, about  a book co-authored by Peter Senge, that introduces the idea of “presence”—a concept borrowed from the natural world that the whole is entirely present in any of its parts—to the worlds of business, education, government, and leadership.  

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Meet Mark Cabaj

Marc CabajMark Cabaj - Mark Cabaj is a founding Principal of Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement, an organization based in Waterloo, Ontario, focused on assisting people build strong communities through local action.

Mark’s current focus is on developing approaches and techniques for understanding, planning and evaluating initiatives that address complex issues, such as neighbourhood renewal, poverty and homelessness, community safety, educational achievement and health.  He is particularly involved in expanding the ideas and practice of developmental evaluation, a new approach to evaluation which places a heavy emphasis on learning and design in emerging and sometimes fast moving environments.

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