Measuring Impact Is Evaluating Wicked Problems

The output of a particular activity is usually easy to measure: the number of patients who come for a consultation, the number of students who attend a particular training program, the number of sustainability reports submitted, etc. Measuring impact is usually more difficult, because what is the effect of a doctor’s visit on a patient’s health? And what impact does a training program have on a student? Do those sustainability reports also effectively lead to more sustainability, and how do you judge “more sustainability”?

Measuring impact is complex because, in addition to quantitative usually, there is also qualitative measurement. We are not only dealing with a different method, but above all with different interests and values, different opinions and individual experiences. All of which are 'true' from the perspective one uses. How do you deal with that? How do you avoid paralysis and inertia. You learn it in this topic.

Wicked Problems

We like to explain the concept using Dave Snowdon’s Cynefin model. Pay particular attention to the difference between complicated and complex.

In complex situations, the relationship between cause and effect is effect is not unambiguous; this is the domain of the ‘unknown unknowns. The complexity arises because different parties with  iffedrent perspectives are involved. Complex problems require strength and leadership to dare to go through processes of which the outcome is not controllable, and in the process to work together and learn new learning new things by doing. Solutions emerge from the best fit.

In a complicated context, there is still a relationship between cause and effect but it is less clearly to see. It is the domain of experts who, on the basis of deeper analysis to solve the problems. In many cases, there are several good solutions. Solutions emerge from good practices.

Example: sending a rocket to the moon. Not easy, but some smart scientists can figure it out and write a manual to succeed every single time.

In simple problem situations, the relationships between cause and effect are easy to describe. Solutions arise from best practices and routines.

The chaotic context is characterized by crisis. There decisive action must be taken as quickly as possible. Searching for the right reaction is pointless because everything is constantly changing and there are no visible patterns that can be managed. Situations like 9/11 fall into this category.  Solutions emerge from a powerful leader who creates order and stability.

Dealing with Complex Problems: Adaptive Management and ‘Bring the Whole Elephant in the Room’

Societal challenges are complex, wicked, and can only be solved through collaboration with other stakeholders. Stakeholders with different perspectives and values, usually members of different organizations who each have their own interests. The challenge is to hear all the voices and to streamline them to achieve the common goal.

The methodology of impact-oriented work is a great supporting tool for this, whereby:

  • All the knowledge, information and activities of the stakeholders information and activities of the stakeholders in relation to the theme all the knowledge, information and activities of stakeholders in relation to the theme are brought together into an orderly whole;
  • All noses are brought and kept in the same direction the noses are brought and kept in the same direction;
  • Concrete and meaningful discussions can be held
  •  Knowledge of and insight into the perspectives of all participants becomes available.

In this way, the group can think critically about how they can generate social impact together. This brings a clarity and overview that is often lacking to enable real collaboration on complex challenges.

Achieving impact together is not a linear but circular and iterative process. It is a process of learning together, the results of which can only be measured in the longer term. That’s why it’s called adaptive management. It is important that all participants are convinced of working together, and want to and can commit themselves in the longer term.