Linking Research and Evaluation To Decision Making and Planning

9 Oct

Making a decision is the sum of some form of analysis. Fast, slow, statistical, intuitive or any combination of factors leads a person to reach a conclusion and make a decision. Since making a decision means letting go of other options, it is a process which frequently becomes bottlenecked. Fear of letting go of the wrong option, of making a mistake, or simply trying to find the perfect answer can trap a person in permanent analysis, or even worse, permanent data collection. This situation can become particularly acute when a person or group that designs plans is separated from the people who deliver and receive the consequences of plans. The relative isolation reduces feedback loops with the environment and increases guess work, stress and uncertainty.

And so, when carrying out research aimed at improving a service, the task is to increase feedback between planners and implementers. This means not only avoiding presenting pages of statistics and graphs which increase a person’s cognitive load (Rugg et al, 2013) and are difficult to make sense of, but presenting realistic recommendations which are easy to contextualise and implement.

Easy to contextualise and implement means that analysis attempts to separate needs from wants, so someone is not left staring at a wish list. In terms of organisational behaviour, it’s relatively easy to collect wants, play the nice guy, and present a utopia to a senior management team. Naturally, the senior management team aren’t going to able to implement a utopia, and so become easily cast as the bad guys. The whole exercise only ends up alienating people, and creates conditions for decision making which is hostile, fearful and likely to lead to blame if senior management make a passive response. A passive response from senior management to these conditions is to collect more data, delay the decision, or bury the whole exercise. This example significantly blunts feedback between planners and implementers.

I’ve written before about the Beliefs, Barriers and Control (BBaC) Model (Suckling et al, 2009) I designed for research and evaluation projects. Part of the logic behind the model was to separate the realistic from the unrealistic by increasing feedback between stakeholder groups. Here is an example-

The model operated on three stages. Stripping it down to its components, the model would address a service evaluation (health and wellbeing improvement) from the perspective of a manager running the service by asking five simple questions- How do you believe the service is running? What is preventing the service running better? What realistically could you do tomorrow to improve the service? What is stopping you? What realistically could be done to help you improve the service?

The five questions were designed to get a general picture of beliefs, the barriers a manager faced in delivering a service, their level of perceived personal control over events, and the perceived level of external control over events. When these questions are asked across (for example) a sample of service users, service providers, and senior managers you create a picture of the different perspectives about the service along with an overview of how the sample views various levels of control and resources. Quite often there is a mismatch in how much perceived control people believe they have or other stakeholders have; the ability to allocate resources or make changes which seem realistic to one group but are unrealistic to another. The questions also throw up ideas, especially around the question what could be done tomorrow. Quite often these can be linked to permission, or feeling initiative wouldn’t be supported.

The five questions are able to problematize areas where there are either unrealistic perceptions (expectations, budgets, and resources), unrealistic barriers (which can simply be removed) and unrealistic expectations about the service and available resources. Frequently communication is the answer, as the perceived beliefs and intentions across the three sample groups (service user, service provider, senior management) are simply not on the same page. Using an adapted version of Weick and Sutcliffe’s (2007) model of communicating intent, based on the collected BBaC data, can improve this situation quickly. To implement you would present the following situation report and questions to a mixed group of senior managers, service providers and service users

This is the area we are trying to improve (context)

This is why we are trying to improve it in this way (resources, philosophy, operations etc.)

These are the barriers in the way (this is where things could go wrong)

This is what we need to focus on (so we know if the context has changed)

Now talk to me (feedback)

During the “Now talk to me” statement, feedback from the groups is requested. This feedback should be focused on how to improvise around the perceived barriers, given the resources which have been presented, and what barriers could be present but haven’t been considered so far. Collectively examining ways to improvise around barriers, in the context of limited resources, provides opportunities to think innovatively as people look for cross links between different areas from different stakeholder perspective.

The above evaluation\research> decision making link is designed to improve the decision making process. The aim is to quickly move through analysis in a way which doesn’t alienate the people who make the plans from the people who deliver and receive the consequences of plans.

Reading

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

SUCKLING, S., RYAN, P., & DENT, M. (2009). Beliefs, barriers and control: a model for research into social exclusion. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 22, 5, 423-431

Rugg, G. (2013) Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us: How Finding a Solution to One of the World’s Greatest Mysteries. Harperone. With D’Adnese. J.

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