Dr Paul Duignan on Outcomes:  One of the hazards of my job is that I end up at dinner parties buried in protracted technical discussions about other people's program planning woes. Dry stuff indeed, but often safer than religion or politics if you get the wrong person!

Over dessert a while ago I got into a detailed discussion with a program manager who had found himself dealing with a new governance group. The new group did not know a great deal about the program.  

At the first meeting they started querying how the program activities were actually going to achieve the very high-level outcomes that had been set for the program. This is actually encouraging in that it is something that a governance group should concern itself with!

However the program manager's complaint was that he had a clear concept of this connection and that it has been implicitly understood by the previous governance group but now the new group was querying it.

The problem here is probably just one of communication. We are living in an environment where there is a wide-spread demand that outcomes be 'true outcomes'. As a result the wording of outcomes is being struck at a very high-level. This tends to open up the 'gap' between program activities and outcomes because outcomes are heading off into the stratosphere in the quest of being 'true-outcomes'. 

Dealing with this problem is discussed in the outcomes theory principle that All levels of a program's outcomes model should be visible

This principle holds that every program needs to work out the links between its activities/outputs and outcomes, but that just working this out is not sufficient. If the rationale for the links is buried in long text-based program documentation it's not really of much use in the cut and thrust of real-world program management. Just a few comments at a governance group can be enough to cast doubt on whether a whole program is justified. 

One approach is to refer governance groups to some detailed text-based documentation that exhaustively sets out the links between activities/outputs and outcomes. However in the middle of a governance group meeting it's usually not practical to tell people they need to read 50 pages of documentation describing the program rationale and that that will clarify everything for them!

Even if you've circulated it previously, you really can't be assured that they've all read such documentation. What a program manager usually does when challenged by a governance group in this way is that the manager tries to verbally summarize the links between activities and high-level outcomes as they see them. Depending on the time available, their eloquence, and the predisposition of the governance group members, this may, or may not, work.

A better way is to always use a full visual outcomes model of the program as the basic framework against which all discussions about the program take place. In this case the program manager could have put a poster of the model on the wall and distributed such a model to the governance group at its first meeting. They could have also presented discussion about program activities/outputs with such a visual model.

When governance groups work with such a visual model they tend to immediately see that the work has been done setting out the links between program activities/outputs and high-level outcomes.

The accessibility of the visual model also means that the governance group is in a better position to quickly query the logic of the connection between activities/outputs and outcomes if they wish. A visual outcomes model provides them with a technical working tool to trace through the logic of claims about the way in which a program will have an effect on high-level outcomes.

The fact that a visual outcomes model can be used for all aspects of program planning, monitoring and evaluation means that there are plenty of opportunities to get a governance group familiar with it and short circuit the type of problem the program manager found himself in. 

And it's not just governance groups that can be worked with in this way. Any group of stakeholders or decision-makers can be communicated with using a visual model and therefore avoiding the problem of a 'gap' opening up between lower-level activities/outputs and higher-level outcomes.  


Paul Duignan, PhD. You can follow me on or contact me here.

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