Moving Forward: Remarks From Karen Pittman

Karen Pittman
April 27, 2012

This is the beginning of Karen Pittman's opening plenary speech at the Ready by 21 National Conference in April 2012.  Click here to read the full speech (condensed) and its accompanying images.


"I was born one month premature, in 1952. At four pounds, I was considered a high‐risk baby. My parents were told that they were lucky that I came home healthy. Two months ago yesterday, Thaddeus Ferber (our VP for Policy) and his wife, Heather, became the proud parents of twins who were born two months early, weighing in together at not much more than five pounds. These tiny little girls are now at home and doing fine. They would have, at a minimum, experienced developmental challenges if they were born when I was.

Fast forward 17 years. I graduated from the D.C. public school system in 1969. At that time, 77 percent of the 17‐year‐old population obtained high school diplomas. This was a peak year, according to Jim Heckman, the Nobel Prize‐winning economist. That percentage then went into slow decline until about 2002. It’s now on its way back to where it was when I was 17.

How can we manage to improve exponentially the life chances of babies coming into the world early, but make no headway in improving graduation rates? Is the difference in progress related to data quality? Technology? The discipline of the hard sciences?
Probably. But the difference also reflects a more fundamental distinction. Improving outcomes for premature babies required complicated advancements in science and technology. Improving outcomes for teens requires management of complex unpredictable realities.

All of us in the room today share a common belief. The belief that we, as individuals, professionals and members of communities can and must do better to improve the odds for all young people in this country and to close the gaps between those at the bottom and those at the top of the readiness curve. We know we have to improve the return on investments already being made in order to hold on to those investments. We know we have to demonstrate not only success but cost effectiveness. We know that the only way to do this is to work together better and to work differently. What we don’t know is exactly what better and differently looks like and what it takes to get there.

Harvard Business School professors figured out that they could predict the success of company‐wide change efforts by looking at three variables: 1) the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, 2) the clarity of the vision of where they were going and 3) the specificity of the plans to get there. When all three of these conditions were met, change happened. When even one was not met, change efforts stalled. The deciding factor was neither the complexity of the change desired nor the complexity of the businesses. It was the presence of the conditions for change throughout the organization, from the board room to the lunch room.

Orchestrating change in a complex, international business is difficult. But it’s a cake walk compared with the challenge of orchestrating change in a neighborhood, community or state. Why? Because the relationships between the moving parts in these contexts are either not clear, not formal or not complete. The moving parts don’t move together and no one is in charge. Individual programs relate to multiple funders. Coalitions have overlapping members and goals. You know the story. It’s clear that we have to work together. But it’s also clear that we are not organized to achieve collective impact.

We’re delighted that John Kania from FSG will join us to explain what it takes to achieve collective impact. We won’t wait a year to reengage to share his wisdom and hear our stories. Kania and Kramer have affirmed that in our business, strong partnerships are essential but difficult to create. They’ve cautioned that most partnerships are ineffective. They’ve outlined the five conditions needed to make them effective.

The $64,000 question is, “How”? No one starts out trying to create a weak partnership. Why are the five conditions so difficult to achieve? We’re going to spend the next two and a half days sharing stories, exploring successes and failures. I want to take a few minutes to share three big updates to how we’re approaching the work, then tell you a few of the things we’re planning to do this year ..."


Read Karen's full plenary speech here.


Karen Pittman is one of the country’s top leaders on youth development and youth policy,and founder and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment,SparkAction's managing partner. The Forum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan "action tank" dedicated to helping communities and the nation make sure all young people are Ready by 21®: ready for college, work and life. Informed by rigorous research and practical experience, the Forum forges innovative ideas, strategies and partners to strengthen solutions for young people and those who care about them.