Step One

Create a cross-sector partnership committed to changing systems


We can accomplish more together than we can alone.” That simple philosophy demands a new way of thinking. Talent-focused communities create strong systems and frameworks for scaling successful work—expanding on it, spreading it, replicating it—and for continuing that work regardless of particular individuals, organizations, or funders. Your goal is not another new program or initiative; it is a fundamental redesign of the work—a paradigm shift.

“Systems thinking” does not always come naturally or easily, especially for organizations used to working in silos and protective of their turf. To make your redesign effort as effective as possible, you must build a coalition of committed stakeholders. Typically this partnership will include representatives of K-12 and higher education institutions and systems, employers, workforce development entities, policymakers, and philanthropic and civic organizations.

Healthy partnerships ensure that there is a disciplined process for building relationships, engaging stakeholders, making decisions based on data, and maintaining collective leadership for achieving common talent goals. To do this, you first need to:

Understand the current system

Successful systems change comes through the scientific process of disciplined inquiry and small, data-driven tests of change. It depends first on “seeing the system,” understanding the current situation, and appreciating how all the parts of the system interact. How do the various players connect with, conflict with, or depend on each other? As you answer these questions, perhaps with the help of a facilitator, you are likely to see that the roles aren’t what you thought they were or that people or institutions are not performing as intended or assumed. Stakeholders often find that they have been managing problems rather than solving them.

Research the current landscape

Collect and share disaggregated systems-level data. Determine what solutions are already working and which aren’t. Conduct research to determine why and why not. Consider whether or how successful solutions might be scaled.

Identify the specific problem to be solved, and develop a common language

Does each member of the partnership express the problem in the same way? To design solutions together, your partners need to speak the same language. Map out the current state of the challenge so you can see things like relationships, outcomes, and assets that can be leveraged. Define the difference you expect your work to make. Specifically, what will change because of your collective efforts?

Identify the stakeholders and their levels of engagement

Who will take responsibility for the success of the system change? It is helpful to represent this visually, with circles delineated by sector and showing degrees of relevance to the problem to be solved. Design a process for engaging all stakeholders who will be affected by the work or who will help accomplish the goal.

Create a guiding team

Designate a small leadership group that will serve as the glue for the collaboration, working horizontally across organizations, programs, and sectors.

Shift your models and perspectives

Move from a model characterized by programs to one governed by systems. For instance, in a programmatic model, stakeholders share different information; in a systemic model, they share the same information. In the former, the result is a new program; in the latter, the result is a new design for the work. Shift your perspective from structures to processes, from hierarchies to networks, from analyzing to synthesizing. Move from organizational leadership to collective leadership, from being transactional to being relational.

Measure and map

How do you know if the changes you are making are actual improvements? You will want to embed multiple outcomes measures in your work, many targeted to the demographic you are trying to reach, then track them carefully, using the data to drive your work. Take note of variation: What works, for whom, and under what conditions? Answering these questions is key to knowing how and what changes to scale.