04/23/2014 05:55 EDT | Updated 06/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Confronting Complexity and Embracing Ambition

John Woodworth via Getty Images

Lessons and Insights from the 2014 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship

Somewhere high over the North Atlantic, I'm safely nestled into a British Airways 747, noise-canceling headphones piping Metric into my ears, and laptop at the ready... Surrounding me are thousands of tons of steel and aluminum, countless miles of wires connecting computers that control fuel flow, engines' output, all the gauges in front of the pilot, and so much more. It's a fascinating feat of technology, cruising smoothly, 34,000 feet in the air.

Five hours ago, this plane took off from London's Heathrow Airport, which each year supports the moving of over 70 million people with their millions of cases, to destinations in 85 countries around the world on nearly a hundred different airlines. Heathrow isn't merely a case study in effective management. It's a miracle of logistics and security.

Yet the complexity of Heathrow pales utterly in comparison to the wicked problems faced every day by the 1,000 social entrepreneurs who gathered at the 11th annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

The Forum convenes leading thinkers from around the world whose projects, enterprises and organizations are working to solve the world's most pressing problems. This year's theme, 'Ambition: Fueling Opportunity & Scaling Progress,' set the stage for three days of powerful conversations about "our power... to drive the solutions we know are possible."

"Ambition, when it soars, is sublime, constructive and magnificent."

One need look no further than this year's seven Skoll Award recipients to understand the challenges being faced -- and the ambition of their founders: B Lab, for their work to "redefine success in business as best for the world." Slum Dwellers International, for their work to support the poorest of the poor through managed savings programs in nearly 500 cities. And Global Witness's work to "tackle corruption, protect the environment, prevent conflict and defend human rights."

Among their fellow Skoll Awardees, these few exemplify the ambitious aims of the social entrepreneurs that traveled to Oxford from over 60 countries, to spend three days building their networks, sharing lessons and practices and asking daunting questions.

There is always much to learn at any Skoll World Forum. This year, a number of themes stood out.

First, everyone continues to wrestle with the challenge of measuring progress and putting metrics to social impact. This has been the predominant conversation for the social sector in the past five years, and continues to drive contentious debate. Skoll delegates represent some of the most advanced and savvy social entrepreneurs in the world. They're comfortable in the nuance and ambiguity of dynamic contexts -- and they're also comfortable questioning whether measurability of any factor may distort perspectives on what success looks like: Sometimes, what can be measured is merely a proxy for what truly indicates progress. To forget this approximation is to focus on the wrong things -- on the outputs rather than the outcomes.

Along with Julia Coffman of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, Annie Duflo of Poverty Action and others, the Skoll Foundation's Ehren Reed led an important discussion on 'embracing complexity.' Collectively, they endorsed adoption of both fixed and adaptive measures--the latter being those that are renewed and revised in response to often rapidly shifting market conditions. To try to choose between either fixed measure or adaptive measures is a false dichotomy, Reed suggested. The panel also agreed that conversations sparked by the simple question 'Why?' are often more valuable than any data point.

The conversation that follows 'Why?' is more valuable than any data point.

Second, inner work is as important for social entrepreneurs as their work in the world.

Social entrepreneurs work tirelessly to resolve challenging problems that they wish did not exist in the first place. They're thorny, intractable problems, and they aren't easily or quickly resolved. This is a recipe for over-commitment, personal sacrifice and burnout.

For the first time in its 11-year history, Skoll included this year a session titled, 'Begin Within.' Presenters John Bell and Dorothy Stoneman of YouthBuild USA talked about social and personal healing, spiritual grounding and consciousness development, along with sustainable tools for wellbeing.

It's a theme that was echoed in a number of other sessions, but particularly the 'Leading with Authenticity' session. Rafiatu Lawal of Camfed talked about trustworthiness, listening and generosity -- all personal traits essential to effective leadership. And Bill Drayton, celebrated founder of Ashoka, and Sébastien Marot of Friends International agreed that time in nature, like no other respite, rekindles the spirit and preserves the energy that must be sustained for social entrepreneurs to move toward success.

"Passion" and "patience" come from the same root, which means "suffering!" Effective social entrepreneurs recognize this, and give themselves the compassion to take respite from their work, and to rejuvenate their spirits.

Third, collaboration is essential. This is not a new lesson, but I continue to note a maturing of understanding across the social enterprise sector. Beyond mere cooperation across a team, collaborations require cooperation across the boundaries of organizations and even across sectors.

Gemma Mortensen of Crisis Action spoke of identifying the need for a group that would simply coordinate NGOs, political players, and inspirateurs -- faith, community and business leaders -- supporting them in pursuit of goals none could achieve alone. Their 'listen and lead' opt in model is a great example of structured collaboration.

And there's one more takeaway -- one that grows in acceptance each year, but that is timeless in its influence: The power of a great story to lift hearts and open minds.

Sundance Institute's Tabitha Jackson led an overwhelmingly popular session on making stories count. As Jeff Skoll himself pointed out during a plenary session, "Story telling is in our DNA." It is part of what makes us human. And in the face of the wicked problems being faced by Skoll delegates, a good story, told well, may be our surest way to help find simply ways to make progress.

The Skoll Forum exists to connect and nurture visionary entrepreneurs, but the lessons from this year's Forum are applicable much more broadly. Every organization would do well to consider how it measure success -- especially on factors beyond the bottom line. Countless entrepreneurs must avoid sacrificing their own health and wellbeing on the altar of 'success.' And collaborations and effective storytelling are rapidly becoming mainstream tools for organizational progress.