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A shift toward a collectivist mindset will more reliably address inequities and create improvements. To accomplish this, it is important to create collaborative structures, where a diversity of voices and experience can come together and create change. We are all interconnected.


At Shift, we value the input of everyone impacted by a system and champion inclusivity. To further this core principle, our structures are designed around a collectivist mentality; therefore, we believe that working interdependently yields greater benefits to more people. Improvement Advisor Theresa Todd takes this mindset when coaching people to develop targeted solutions or identify problems in their systems. Below she explains why unlearning extreme individualism and embracing collectivist culture is a critical element of improvement work.


“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

This popular saying, of unknown and debated origin, captures the essence of the collectivist mindset.

Collectivism focuses on the success of the group rather than the individual. This is in sharp contrast to the idea of working independently, which tends to value and reward individual success. The latter perspective – individualism – is the dominant culture of many western societies, including the United States. As Zaretta Hammond writes in her 2015 book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, "In America, the dominant culture is individualistic, while the cultures of many African American, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Native American communities lean more on collectivism.  What may be acceptable in one collectivist-oriented community might not be acceptable in another. What does stay the same is the focus on relationships and cooperative learning[1]”.

In this same book, Ms. Hammond compares the main elements between the two cultural archetypes, as represented in the table below:




Focus on independence and individual achievement 

Focused on interdependence and group success 

Emphasizes self‐reliance and the belief that one is supposed to take care of himself to get ahead 

Emphasizes reliance on the collective wisdom or resources of the group and the belief that group members take care of each other to get ahead 

Learning happens through individual study and reading 

Learning happens through group interaction and dialogue 

Individual contributions and status are important 

Group dynamics and harmony are important 





Those working on improving systems within a predominantly individualistic culture, like the United States, must understand the contrasting cultural elements of individualism and collectivism. This is often especially true for those with the most power who seek to address inequities – as they likely have learned to embrace individualism. In short, those with the power to change the system must work with those impacted by the system to disrupt a culture built upon individualism to realize true equitable change.

Improvement Communities (Collaboratives, Networks) as Collectivist Culture

An improvement community is an organized group that exists to create outcomes to serve the greater good. Learning that arises from an individual organization can benefit the entire community. There are various models for improvement communities – ranging from looser communities of practice to shorter term collaboratives to enduring networks. These improvement communities can embrace and strive for elements of collectivist culture by:

      • Focusing on interdependence and group success: The improvement community works towards a shared aim which relies on everyone collectively improving (not just the success of one individual organization or team). We are successful when we have an impact across our organizations, not just at one individual organization.

      • Relying on the collective wisdom or resources of the group: To reach this shared aim, participating organizations draw on and contribute to shared resources for the benefit of the entire community. When organizations learn something new, they contribute it to the collective resources to benefit the common good and advance towards the shared aim together faster.

      • Learning through group interaction and dialogue:  Improvement communities embrace the philosophy of “all teach, all learn.” There is a brisk cadence of learning (at least monthly) in which teams share their data along with what they tried and their learning. This centers the expertise on those doing the work, bringing in external expertise when needed to provide subject matter coaching for the benefit of the entire community.

      • Understanding the importance of group dynamics and harmony: Improvement communities require intentional efforts to build trust and transparency to share data and learning – and perhaps most importantly – to share what did not go well. Creating this culture starts with clear community agreements for working together when the community is formed as well as thoughtful, daily facilitation of the community to live by those agreements.

      • Embracing the spirit of collaboration: The success of the community relies on the collective ability to reach the aim, not on individual organizations. While there may be some “healthy competition” among organizations, they are not guarding their learning, but rather collaborating towards a shared goal to make an impact together. 

      • Appreciating relationships: While continuous improvement involves highly technical skills and capabilities (e.g., measurement, root cause analysis, process/systems mapping), the insights gleaned from these activities are only as powerful as the relationships. Careful facilitation and relationship building draws out learning from the diverse perspectives in the community.

Shifting towards a Collectivist Mindset

A shift to build elements of a collectivist mindset will more reliably address inequities and create improvements. To accomplish this, it is important to create collaborative structures, where a diversity of voices and experience can come together and create change. We are all interconnected.

Here are some ideas that you can use to help you nurture a collectivist mindset in your organization and networks:

      • Ask for input from diverse sources, particularly those most affected by the system. By doing so, organizations can make more informed decisions and prevent undue harm. Surveys and focus groups (with fair remuneration) are two effective ways to learn from others and to ensure that the views of multiple groups at different levels of the system are represented.

      • Reach out to those who are closest to the problem that your organization wants to address. At Shift, we actively help our clients seek input from voices that are often overlooked. This helps clients to build empathy by utilizing tools such as the perspective prism and role identifying cards, among others.

      • Develop a shared purpose centered on a common good. Our video on aim setting helps our clients get there.

      • Our coproduction toolkit offers valuable steps to move from the idea of doing something for an affected group in a system to doing with people who are affected.

      • Make it easy to share information and processes. The popular saying, “Share seamlessly, steal shamelessly,” calls on us to share what is learned and developed with few bureaucratic hassles. In a collectivist culture, this may mean being transparent about data and sharing our learnings with others in order to serve the common good.

[1] Hammond, Z. (2015) Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin, pp 25-26.

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