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Collaboration Pattern #1: Critical Shifts

We use what we call "Critical Shifts" all the time in our work. They are the most effective and inclusive way we’ve found to help a group define the “problem space” (the space in which a solution needs to be developed) before jumping to generating ideas and making solutions. By defining the problem space rather than jumping to solutions, we get solutions that are more powerful, more appropriate, and more effective.

A Critical Shift is simple to define and very powerful as a strategy tool, but takes real discipline to do well. People often mistake a Critical Shift as problem-solution statement, but they are instead the step before solutioning and shouldn't contain solutions themselves.

A good shift is a statement with two parts: (1) A first statement that succinctly describes one specific part of that current strategic picture that isn’t working right now, and (2) a second statement the succinctly describes how that part of the strategic picture should look in the future when we’ve succeeded in our work. An effective network works to make multiple shifts happen concurrently, and when those shifts are added together, they should represent a whole picture of the system change strategy.

As you can see in the farming example, good shift statements provide focus and clarity. We can start to generate more concrete ideas and “get to work” on those shifts. But a statement like “Local farms are producing key products” instead leaves us confused and kind of hamstrung (we’re just not sure what to do about it because it’s too vague).

In the teaching example, we see that someone has tried to insert their favored solution in there as the future state. That clearly doesn’t work because it stops any creative solution design and, in this example, will cause people to immediately start debating whether we should expect teachers to work longer hours. However, in the good future state example, the statement makes us curious, as in, “Okay, how might we make that happen?”

So a good shift statement creates that invitation to start generating and designing ways to make the shift happen. A bad shift statement either confuses people, shuts down the creative solution design process, or leads to polarization.

Next time your group needs to solve a problem, have them first define the Critical Shift. Once they have a clean and compelling shift, only then have them generate ideas for how to make that shift happen. If you feel that open, engaged, generative energy, then you’ve got a shift that’s really working!

For more details on each of the 8 Patterns in Collaboration, see below.

  1. Critical Shifts

  2. Diverging & Converging

  3. Checking Back

  4. Creative Tensions

  5. Focus & Frame

  6. The Design Squiggle

  7. Working Concurrently

  8. Spiraling


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