We’ve all been there. The time when the client seemed to forget the project ever happened as soon as the final check was cut. The time when your report stuffed full of creative recommendations got buried by risk-averse leadership. The time when the stakeholder group really did seem engaged by the findings, had lots of conversations, and then…nothing changed.
These stories happen with remarkable frequency. In fact, based on the evidence, there’s ample reason to believe they are the norm rather than the exception. Among more than 120 evaluation and program executives surveyed at private foundations the US and Canada, more than three-quarters had difficulty commissioning evaluations that result in meaningful insights for the field, their grantees, or the foundation itself, and 70% have found it challenging to incorporate evaluation results into the foundation’s future work. A survey of over 1600 civil servants in Pakistan and India found that “simply presenting evidence to policymakers doesn’t necessarily improve their decision-making,” with respondents indicating “that they had to make decisions too quickly to consult evidence and that they weren’t rewarded when they did.” No wonder Deloitte’s Reimagining Measurement initiative, which asked more than 125 social sector leaders what changes they most hoped to see in the next decade, identified “more effectively putting decision-making at the center” as the sector’s top priority.
This problem affects everyone working to make the world a better place, but it’s especially salient for those I call “knowledge providers”: researchers, evaluators, data scientists, forecasters, policy analysts, strategic planners, and more. Frustrating as is, though, the cause is simple. All too often, we dive deep into a benchmarking report, evidence review, or policy analysis with only a shallow understanding of how the resulting information will be used. It’s not enough merely to get a general sense of the stakeholder’s motivations for commissioning the project. If we want our work to be useful, we have to anticipate the most important dilemmas they will face, determine what information would be most helpful in resolving those dilemmas, and then explicitly design any analysis strategy around meeting those information needs. In short, knowledge providers need to be problem solvers first, analysts second.
If you’re a knowledge provider who wants to see your work have greater impact, my “wrap-around” decision consulting service is designed for you. The service has three phases as shown in the diagram below. In the initial phase, I work with the client to create an inventory of upcoming decisions that might be informed by the knowledge work and sorts those decisions into categories by stakes. Then, we help the client “rehearse” the highest-stakes decisions by analyzing them in advance. Rehearsing the decision is an important step because it is very difficult to pick out which factors have the most potential to sway the decision one way or another using our intuitions alone. Only by trying to make the decision without all the information can we determine what information we actually need.
The goal is not to actually make the decision at this stage, but rather to set up the framework the client will eventually use to make that decision. Depending on the client’s resources and comfort with numbers, this might involve a simple, purely qualitative approach to understanding the decision or the creation of a more complex formal model. The decision consultant facilitates this process with the knowledge provider present so that the latter can be in the loop as the client identifies key sources of uncertainty.
After the initial framing, the analysis — still the centerpiece of the project — gets underway. I will serve as a thought partner to you at the beginning and end of this phase, contributing suggestions and feedback on research questions, analysis methods, and data collection instruments as appropriate to help ensure alignment with the client’s learning objectives. Otherwise, the knowledge provider owns this work and you can proceed as you normally would, including offering key takeaways or recommendations to the client.
A normal engagement for a knowledge provider would close out there, with crossed fingers that the end product will have a useful life. With the wrap-around service, by contrast, the decision consultant comes back onto the stage for one final act: helping to make the actual decisions. The client, decision consultant, and knowledge provider all convene to make sense of the new information in context with the work that was previously done to analyze each decision, tweaking assumptions and adding new options as appropriate to the context. Then, the client makes the final choice with the decision expert and knowledge provider on hand to answer any questions that come up at the last minute.
Moving Forward Together
Not all decisions are rocket science. Sometimes you may get lucky: the implications of, say, a literature review or feasibility study will be so obvious that they don’t require any deeper consideration once the analysis is complete. But banking on that luck is a foolish proposition. How many times have you run into scenarios where, for example:
It isn’t clear whether a proposed change is worthwhile because the evidence for the benefit of the new strategy/tactic is weak or inconclusive?
A proposed change makes sense assuming that the underlying environment remains stable, but upcoming or potential shifts in the environment throw that assumption into question?
A proposed change appears to be beneficial on its own, but carries other implications for the organization and/or third parties that may make the overall impact negative?
In situations like these, a facilitated decision analysis can help stakeholders assess the wisdom of proceeding with the change while thoughtfully considering the alternatives.
Adding a decision support offering to your work is a great way to add value for your clients or employer. But remember, this service is most impactful when it can directly inform the planning of knowledge-gathering efforts; therefore, the earlier the decision expert can be brought into the process — ideally, while the project is still in the scoping stage — the more useful they can be.
If you’re interested in exploring a partnership of this nature, please get in touch.