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New thinking on outcomes-focused strategy

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An article stimulating new thinking on outcomes-focused strategy by Dr Richard Piper, former head of strategy and impact, NCVO.

The measurement disease

I recently played a word association game with a group of 50 people who work for voluntary organisations and social enterprises. I said a word – ‘outcomes’ – and asked them to write down another word: the first that came into their heads.

Twenty-two people wrote down ‘measurement’, eighteen wrote ‘monitoring’, five wrote ‘evaluation’, two wrote ‘qualitative data’, one wrote ‘soft data’, one wrote ‘impact’, and one wrote ‘outputs’.

In other words, 48 out of 50 wrote down a word that was directly to do with assessing or measuring how well they’re doing.

We have a serious problem here. Why? Because at the moment much of our sector automatically associates outcomes with measuring and monitoring and evaluating.

This can leave them stuck on the relatively unimportant problem of ‘how can we measure our outcomes?’ instead of focusing on the critical questions: ‘how should we achieve our outcomes?’ and ‘what outcomes do we want to achieve?’

Measurement anxiety

In others words, some people in our sector concentrate more on the technical problem of measuring outcomes, and less on the strategic problem of achieving them. This is a disease, an affliction, and we can call it measurement anxiety. It can paralyse us, and it seems to be contagious.

The argument here is not that measurement is unimportant. But it is less important than actually making a difference to people’s lives. And many people who are good at thinking strategically the rest of the time, get lost in outcomes because they haven’t been told that ‘the outcomes thing’ is primarily about strategic thinking.

Thinking outcomes

In 10 years of supporting organisations on ‘outcomes’, I have found it helpful every single time to clarify the three main things you can ‘do’ with outcomes:

  • plan your achievements, including improving them (plan and grow)
  • monitor and evaluate your achievements and failures (know)
  • communicate your achievements and failures (show).

Organisations, time and again, get by far the most benefit out of the planning and growing task. Asking and discussing the 'big six' questions never fails to propel an organisation forwards, perhaps not always smoothly, but always significantly:

  • Who/what in the world will change as a result of our work?
  • What changes do we want to make happen?
  • Why are those changes important?
  • What are the best ways to make those changes happen?
  • What other organisations are working with these people or on this cause or topic, and how do we fit with them?
  • How can we make more change happen within our existing resources?

Benefits of the Big Six questions

They will benefit from doing this, even if they already have a good strategy and are good at asking strategic questions, because these questions are about outcomes-focused strategy and need to be asked regularly.

The benefits that an organisation gains from discussing these questions will always outweigh the benefits they gain from spending time getting data that tells them whether these changes are happening. They almost certainly will get benefits from generating data, but unless they have first discussed and, hopefully, come up with answers to these questions, the data will probably be of limited value.

So the single most important piece of advice I can offer about outcomes is: don’t leap to worrying about measurement, it’s not primarily about measurement, it’s about discussing and agreeing, as an organisation, what change you want to see in the world and what role your organisation will play in achieving this.

Being specific

However, this involves more than simply coming up with a vision (how you want the world to be) and mission (your organisation’s role in creating that vision). It’s about putting down some detail in response to the big six questions.

It’s crucial, for example, to be really specific about who you exist for. ‘Young people’ is too broad. ‘Young people’ in Bermondsey is better. ‘Young people in Bermondsey aged 12 to 16’ is getting there.‘Young people in Bermondsey aged 12 to 16 who are isolated or lacking in social confidence’ is great.

The same applies to the changes you want to see in them.  ‘Happier people’ is okay, but a bit broad. ‘Less isolated and more socially confident’ is better.

The return of measurement anxiety

At this point, it’s tempting to worry that you can’t measure it, and therefore it’s no good.  Don’t worry. The most important thing is having a clear statement of specific changes you want to see in the world. Having this will move you much closer to achieving these changes. And achieving them matters more than monitoring them.  If you do also need to measure them, there will probably be a way to do that, but measurement anxiety is an unhelpful diversion when you are trying to think strategically.

Showing off?

Knowing – or monitoring – your outcomes is of course often very useful, and there is plenty of advice and support to help you do this. But about showing your outcomes?

Unfortunately, measurement anxiety has also corrupted some people’s thinking about communicating their achievements and failures. The most common mistake people make is this:

  • first, collect lots of data (because this is what outcomes is about)
  • then put all that data in a report such as a funder monitoring report or your annual/impact report.

The mistake is that the data is leading the communications, rather than the other way around. This can end up as an unedited splurge of information.

Strategic communications

Instead, I advise that you consider:

  • Who in the world do you want to know more about your organisation?
  • How do you want them to react (or change) as result of knowing this?
  • What specific information, in what format, is most likely to make them react in this way?

This is emphatically not about spin. It’s about properly valuing and respecting your audience, and, interestingly, using outcomes thinking to consider them, not just your users. Planning your communications up front will help you decide what data, if any, you need to generate about your organisation’s achievements and failures, rather than wasting precious resources collecting data ‘just in case’.

Flexibility

Of course, you will always need to be flexible, but having a simple plan of your communications and using this to decide what data to generate will save a lot of time and trouble.

‘Internal’ Audiences

This is not just about external communications, of course.  Frontline staff and volunteers, managers, and your board of trustees are arguably the most important audiences of all for information about your organisation’s successes and failures. For in the end it is they who can make changes to the way you work: from subtle shifts in the way users are supported to massive changes in the organisation’s priorities.

Conclusion

Watch out for the disease of measurement anxiety. It can strike at any time. Some of your staff or trustees may have it. They can be cured, but they will need support as well as persuasion.Keep focused on the big six questions to plan and grow your organisation’s outcomes, and have meaningful conversations about who needs to be shown your achievements and failures. Let any talk of measurement and monitoring flow from these two, not dominate them. By all means know your outcomes, but be clear what you need to know, and why.

Source: Published with permission from NCVO. Written by Dr Richard Piper.

Page last edited Jul 25, 2017
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