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Sometimes going forward means taking a step back

We aim to make lasting, positive changes in the world, and through the years we have improved the lives for millions of people across the world. However, even with the best intentions, things don’t always go as planned. By challenging ourselves and our partners to think innovatively to find improved solutions, we might triumph with one thing and nose-dive with another. It’s a learning process. “As so often, the biggest insights seem obvious once you reach them,” says Maria Bystedt at H&M Foundation.

Maria Bystedt, Strategy Lead at H&M Foundation
Maria Bystedt, Strategy Lead at H&M Foundation

With a background in the development sector, Maria Bystedt joined the H&M Foundation in 2013. As the second person in the team, she participated in building the organisation, setting the strategy and direction. “It was like jumping on a train at full speed,” she recalls. “We drew strategies on the back of envelopes and met with potential partners all over the world.”

Today the team at H&M Foundation consists of twelve people. As Strategy Lead, Maria Bystedt initiates and manages programs to create inclusive societies for all and to accelerate the realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This requires well-designed ecosystems, mutual goals and a holistic approach – addressing the broken systems that underlie social issues and breaking barriers for innovative solutions.

Changing the direction for better impact

Seeing a project completed with all the goals met is truly satisfying. But sometimes the result can be both expected and unexpected at the same time. It can expose other problems. For example, a water and sanitation project, where schools in rural Africa got access to safe drinking water and toilets, was carried out exactly as planned, as was a different project for access to age-appropriate education material in South East Asia. But what was missing was the holistic impact of providing all to the same group of people: water, toilets and education.

As the Sustainable Development Goals drew closer and the realisation that the progress globally is too slow, we decided to take a close and honest look at what had not turned out as expected and why – to speed up the change needed to improve the future for both humanity and our planet.

“We realized we were asking our partners the wrong questions.”

Maria Bystedt

“One of our most important insights was that we realized that we were asking our partners the wrong questions and implemented projects focusing on specific topics in silos. But to solve social challenges, we need to see and address the entire system, which is incredibly complex. This requires broad cross-sector collaborations as well as patience as results can be slow. But when they start to show, they are well grounded and long-lasting,” says Maria.

Unintended silos

The team at H&M Foundation engaged experts on the Collective Impact Approach, a structured method to solve complex social challenges. The method starts with an initial assessment of needs, followed by identifying and engaging cross-sectoral partners like schools, local government sectors and NGOs. A so-called backbone organization is assembled and employed to coordinate and oversee the project. It is a more time-consuming and demanding strategy, but social challenges are complex and can’t be solved by single targeted solutions.

In 2019, we put the theory in practice by launching a pilot project in India to improve the quality of life for waste pickers and their families in Bangalore. It was a first of its kind where a larger group of partner organizations joined forces to address the urgent needs of this marginalized group. Undeniably, there is a myriad of details to consider when designing large-scale projects and sometimes the missing pieces are not evident until the project is ongoing. This can be discouraging.

“Once the needs were identified and our partners had started working within their areas of expertise, we soon noticed we had missed something; Bangalore is a vast area and waste pickers are not a homogenous group, isolated in a few distinct localities. We realised that while our partners were working with waste-pickers in Bangalore, they were spreading themselves out in different areas of the city, which means we were potentially missing out on the holistic impact we wanted to achieve by reaching the same individuals with multiple interventions,” says Maria.

It was clear that our communication hadn’t been good enough. “We were back to working in silos!” So, we had to go back to the drawing board with our partners. “It can be frustrating as we are losing a lot of time, but at the same time you need to be humble before the fact that we are creating a completely new path as we go and inevitably there will be bumps along the way,” says Maria.

Accepting mistakes along the way to reach larger impact

“The high-level goal, which is breaking the negative spiral of collective poverty, is possible if there is a coordinated systems change approach,” says Maria. “This means simultaneously pushing for improvement in several areas around an individual, and every organization involved has to work together. We have learned to acknowledge that there will always be blind spots, and to not be afraid of making mistakes along the way. As long as you keep your focus on the overarching goals it is okay to adjust the road map on your way there.”