Achieving change through other people: the laws of physics do not apply.

Newton's Cradle executive toy

Newton’s Cradle executive toy

I have just been in my first days of Outcome Mapping training and very enjoyable it was too.

Outcome Mapping was conceived and developed by the Canadian International Development Research Centre and it is:

  • a participatory method for use in planning, monitoring and evaluating
  • a framework for clarifying intent
  • an orientation towards adaptive management and organizational learning
  • a focus on changes in behaviour related to development interventions

I very much like the way it identifies boundaries to what we can conceivably do on our own and helps identify other people to focus on because what they do is key to us achieving what we need to achieve. It applies concepts from systems and complexity thinking so you can imagine how happy I am. One way it does this is by making the assumptions it rests on explicit:

  1. Sustainable well-being depends on human behaviour
  2. There are limits to your influence
  3. Women and men contribute to their own well-being
  4. Differing perspectives co-exist
  5. Resilience depends on interrelationships

I woke up this morning with two strong thoughts in my head coming from these principles…

1. Our research-for-development interventions are not like Newton’s Cradle. Do you remember that executive toy with the suspended steel balls? As one hits the other the kinetic energy is passed along to the last one which swings out. Et voila! Input-activities-output-outcome-impact and the ball swings out.

What doesn't happen in our work

What doesn’t happen in our work

But people are not like that. If I want to get a rock into the far corner of the room, all I need is a good aim and the right amount of energy and I can deliver. If I want to get a bird into that corner, things are much more complicated*. And people are birds not stones. They bring all their past baggage (Grandma’s warning “Never go in the corner”) so you can make that corner light and warm and tempting, add food and money and other incentives but the only way you can guarantee that your bird will go in that corner is to close off other options. And that is unethical so it is not an alternative.

Spot the difference: rock or bird?

Spot the difference: rock or bird?

2. People don’t progress in straight lines. Terry-our-trainer presented a useful idealized figure of how during a project lifetime project influence should go down while community ownership should go up.

The focus of Outcome Mapping (from Terry Smutylo)

The focus of Outcome Mapping (from Terry Smutylo)

It is a good reminder of a general principle but not to be taken at face value. We know that change is often cumulative with tipping points. So you could have a situation where ownership remains consistently low, and then one day, someone in the community suddenly has a flash of inspiration and says “We can use what these researchers are doing to improve our lives. And here is how!” From that day on, the ownership line starts to soar.

No change then it finally takes off

No change then it finally takes off

sporadic and uplannable change

Sporadic and uplannable change

This could be at the end of the project. Or even after the project has finished, in which case it would look like your project had failed. Conversely, the ownership line could progress as ‘planned’ gradually incrementing in a neat line. But maybe there is a tiny but necessary contribution from the project without which the ownership can’t be sustained and shortly after the project ends the ownership plummets. Or, since ownership is talking about people, you could have a situation where it goes up and down: one of the main champions is sick or has to travel, someone comes in with unbridled enthusiasm then loses some energy as she goes along.



*The bird and rock metaphor is attributed to Richard Dawkins in Plsek (2001)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: