Any modern company that wants to succeed in the new economy is already looking seriously at measuring their impact. They do it, of course under pressure from customers, investors and regulators, but they also do it because it makes business sense.
Unfortunately, measuring impact is not a straight forward process. Somewhere along the way, impact tracking has evolved into a rent-seeking industry, complete with its own language, business models and “toolkits”. The place is choke-block full of advisers, consultants, coordination committees and global forums, with various degrees of remoteness from the actual impact operations they are monitoring and evaluating.
A very long tail wagging a very small dog.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are 10 ways to beef up any M&E strategy.
1. Measure outputs, not inputs
What matters more? The size of the engine, or the speed of the vehicle? Obviously, there is a correlation between inputs and outputs – which is why historically it has been acceptable to measure and report inputs and processes, as a proxy for the real thing. But with time a whole industry has adapted to a reality where inputs are rewarded regardless of outputs. Number of trainings. Number of people reached. That sort of thing. It needs to stop.
2. Measure ONLY outputs
A corollary to the first point, liable to get me in trouble with industry insiders. With limited resources, measuring anything but outputs creates noise. Which obscures the signal. It also creates wrong incentives and generates work and complexity for everyone. It drives your costs up.
“Come on”, I hear you say, “measuring more stuff is always better than measuring less stuff, right”? Sure with unlimited bandwidth we should collect both inputs and outputs. But we never have unlimited bandwidth. And there is no argument to increase bandwidth as scarce resources are better used elsewhere.
That tendency you feel, to add one more question to that survey/ form? Fight it. Not worth it. Focus. Think of your bandwidth.
3. Go Back-of-the envelope
You know this scenario: large research planned out as part of big, global consortium involving academic institutions and a vast number of “stakeholders”. Agreeing on the methodology takes 9 months. Another 6 month to write the actual study design plus another 9 months to get all the formal approvals, making sure no wheel gets reinvented etc. Field work – 6 months planned but what with rainy season, etc., make that one year. Data analysis – 6 months. Results will be “disseminated as part of large event attended by stakeholders and donor community”. Try to change anything and you are back at the start. By the time any insight is actually evident, no-one really cares anymore.
Don’t over-design. Leave the 6 months committee cycles to the UN. We need more nimbleness. More quick-and-dirty. Less ambitious hypothesis, more specifically articulated and tested out in a month, tops.
4. Adjust often
The M&E industry hates this (because benchmarks!). Ignore them – you want to act on valuable data rapidly – that’s how you multiply your impact;
Adjust, then test again, a few months later. Did you stumble on a possible insight? Pursue it quickly. Redesign methodology on the go. Don’t worry about error margins – good enough is what you want here. Rapid, incremental improvements are better in the long term than radical redesigns every 5 years.
5. Eliminate Human Error
Data collection is work. Mostly, it is paper work. Filling in standardized forms is paper work. Writing and submitting reports is paper work. Filling in “M&E Matrices” is paperwork. Submitting data using that awesome app on that specially designed, solar-charging tablet is paper work. Tedious, no-fun stuff.
But all that data is needed – there is the government database, our own internal database, the donor database. Investors need to know. What to do?
Automate, for starters. Automate everything you can! Use machines/ sensors. Smartphones.
7. If you are an impact business, tracking your impact is core business
Impact is NOT a Marketing tool. Integrate measurement in your core operations and avoid setting up a “metrics team” in your organization’s Siberia. A whole new generation of customers and investors demand it. It can also be your most powerful differentiator.
8. Go real-time
If you need six months to get visibility into what is going on, you are missing on a huge opportunity to improve what you are doing. It is 2015 – go real time.
9. Communicate your impact
Make your report public. Talk about what worked and what didn’t. get feedback from your customers. Keep adjusting your thesis.
10. Trust, but verify
Set up verification processes in your operation – ideally run by machines, rather than human auditors. People are suspicious of narratives – Fake news, fake impact. They need to see evidence.
Are you part of the problem?
“Easy to say, but our donor/ investor/ regulator insists on those indicators”. “Can’t change – We work on behalf of the government, with their frameworks”. “We are just coordinating pre-existing frameworks”. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel”; “we advise and support, the government needs to implement”.
In fact there is a lot you can do, right now:
Next proposal for funding you submit, next investor letter you put out, add a section with some of the arguments above. Design your theory of change around outputs. In the notes, add a section: “Here is Why we Only Measure Outputs”. Slim down your M&E team and beef up your analytics. Share data with people in the field and give them the power to act on it. Incentivize them to do so. In your own team, link performance to outputs and link incentives to performance. Do dashboards weekly. Talk about them and make them part of the culture. Gamify. Invest in technology that automates stuff and frees up your bandwidth. Don’t over-process that next evaluation – keep it focused and practical. Don’t waste resources and bandwidth researching common sense stuff. Stop investing in gimmicky technology that creates additional complexity – more forms, more processes, more infrastructure, more training needs, more databases. Have a conversation with your government partner. Your donor. Your Head office. Your team.