Flint, Michigan continues to suffer through a devastating economic collapse that started more than 30 years ago. In the midst of this collapse, Neighborhoods Without Borders (NWB) sprung to life as a grassroots community reclaiming its neighborhoods. Community Action, another Flint-based grassroots group composed primarily of parents whose children have been murdered, works to create a zero tolerance for violence. While it is impossible to draw a tight causal connection, violent crime in Flint has been dropping, and the various collaborations spawned by NWB and Community Action have likely contributed to this reduction.

Now consider another really messy challenge: bridging the manufacturing “skills gap.” With the Advancing Manufacturing initiative in Lafayette, Indiana, manufacturers have joined with the community college and local government to strengthen the collaborations needed for more-productive job training. The initiative is now spreading across Indiana.

What’s going on in Flint and Lafayette? Neoclassical economics cannot explain it, and dividing the world into public, private, and nonprofit sectors does not help. To design practical collaborations for addressing these kinds of challenges, we’ve been developing a new approach at Purdue. We focus not on what organizations are—public, private, nonprofit—but what they can do. We call this framework “strategic doing.”

In Flint and Lafayette, people are creating new value collaboratively using strategic doing. It represents a discipline—a set of rules—to generate strategies for complex collaborations. The process enables people to form action-oriented collaborations quickly, move them toward measurable outcomes, and make adjustments along the way. Strategic doing yields replicable, scalable, and sustainable collaborations based on simple rules. 

Something else is important: In both communities, higher education institutions stepped forward to spread the new collaborative discipline. We can teach strategic doing, but it takes practice to master. That’s where universities can come in. They can teach the new skills of collaborating in open, loosely connected networks. 

In the wake of a failed federal grant application in Flint, the small neighborhood group that later became NWB turned to strategic doing. After working so hard, it wanted to stay together and find a way to make progress. Michigan State helped launch NWB by providing training and coaching. Now the group has, according to one resident, “broken their grant addiction.” Instead of running from grant to grant, it is focused on mobilizing the many assets it has within members’ networks. In a coordinated move, Community Action used strategic doing to move from conversation to action to figure out what works to reduce violence.

Bob Brown, associate director of University-Community Partnerships at Michigan State and a founder of NWB, puts it this way: “In neighborhoods besieged by complex, wicked problems, strategic doing creates hope through the power of taking action with the assets or gifts that we already possess. In that moment when we combine assets, we begin to tell a new story of opportunity and possibility, and it gives us the power to change our lives, our neighborhoods, and our communities.”

Craig Lamb, former executive director of the Corporate College at Ivy Tech, Indiana’s community college system, organized a core team to take on the challenge of filling the manufacturing skills gap. Advancing Manufacturing aligns several organizations (the community college, the workforce board, the city, the chamber, employers, and others) into a functioning unit under a single brand.

According to Lamb, “Strategic doing provided the framework for us to find common purpose. We developed a new program without adding any overhead—every resource came from linking and leveraging existing entities' strengths.” For Lamb, strategic doing integrated simplicity, inclusion, and strategic focus.

This approach formalizes a set of seven factors that correlate with successful strategies we’ve seen in more than 100 communities across the United States—the more effective the strategy, the stronger the correlation. Successful strategies:

  • Build on existing assets
  • Operate with a network organizational structure that connected those assets
  • Use an iterative planning and implementation process
  • Decentralize implementation responsibilities among multiple organizations
  • Move forward with a progression of shorter-term goals
  • Use metrics to learn what works and make adjustments along the way
  • Demonstrate high levels of trust and a readiness for change among the those engaged

There’s lots of jargon out there related to collective impact, public/private partnerships, and shared or sustainable economic value. But instead of immersing ourselves in the theory or getting hung up with definitions, the people in Flint and Lafayette show how we can learn by doing, using a lean and agile process to create economic transformation.

Is strategic doing just another fad? We doubt it. Through a growing international network of universities, we are building an “open source” foundation to replicate, scale, and sustain this approach (think Linux). Strategic doing helps us confront complex, messy situations and create new value through deep, focused collaborations—and in the end, that’s what matters most.