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Bill’s Corner: The Paradox of Getting to Effective Outcomes in a Resource Starved Environment

If we are not managing to outcomes we are wasting our time and resources, but if our motivation is solely tied to successful outcomes we might not last long.

Over the past year Metanoia has been transitioning to an internal management model that is driven by monitoring key outcomes of our work. In the past, non-profits in general have been very focused on the immediate day to day activities of their work. This makes sense when one is on the front lines of a work, the needs and concerns are immediate. They beg to be responded to. But it remains an open question as to whether the activity that comes as the result of responding to people’s concerns and needs is actually generate any real positive outcomes in their lives. In non-profit speak, an activity or an output is generally some kind of engagement or task completed with someone whose life might need to change. A meal served, an after school program taught, a home worked on – these are all activities. An outcome is something different, it is a resulting change in one’s life. A student attending an after school program is an activity, that student’s grades or test scores improving is an outcome.

In the past year we have begun to manage much more to key outcomes, rather than just around activities. For example we just received students’ report cards. For our students that were struggling we discovered that they were doing alright in reading but not so well in math. These same students have been participating in computerized learning modules to catch them up in their grades. We found that the modules were working but that a few students needed to be switched from a reading focus to a math focus so we did so rather quickly. Often non-profits get good at congratulating themselves on their activities without asking whether those activities are actually generating any real outcomes. In the worst case scenario interventions without outcomes can actually do more harm than good (as when free food entrenches dependency or bad nutrition rather than encouraging self-sufficiency). Some non-profits utilize outcomes solely to report information to their funders. This seems a waste; after all the funder is just encouraging the change but it is the staff who need the outcomes to make real time changes to improve programming. Admittedly, we have spent some time in this category ourselves at Metanoia, but I’m happy to say that is changing. Staff are now getting data that help them improve their performance.
In making this transition I’ve come to believe that there is an interesting paradox around outcomes measurement in a resource starved environment like our neighborhood. I say ‘resource starved,’ because we have limited resources to do this work. Funders who love to ask for such data are slow to fund its acquisition. A couple of years ago I took Six Sigma in partnership with one of our corporate partners, Cummins. I was amazed at their ability to track and generate data in a fairly resource-rich environment. There are staff and tools dedicated to measuring paint thickness on turbo engines at a place like Cummins. Chances are we won’t ever have the resources to get to that level of detail.

Yet we still believe that unless we are managing to outcomes, our work is largely a waste of time. Or more to the point, unless we are managing to outcomes, we will waste very valuable time. Managing to outcomes means taking the time and resources to track important measurements and then working to get that information back into the hands of staff who can change their approach to spur greater change. I’m convinced that working in any other way generally wastes far more time and resources than the modest added cost of managing to outcomes.

What managing to outcomes has also shown us is that there is much beyond our control. I can tell you stories of kids that have been first generation college students as the result of their attending Metanoia (and I can introduce you to these students who will tell you they might not be alive if it weren’t for Metanoia). At the same time I can tell you the names of students who spent at least some time with us and who are now in prison. They stopped participating and the wrong influences grabbed them up and took them down a wrong path. I can introduce you to homeowners whose families and incomes are doing better as the result of their owning their own home. I can also tell you a story about how I spent a Sunday afternoon sitting on the front porch of my home talking a man away from suicide because he and his family were going through a foreclosure after purchasing one of our properties years earlier (we had done much to help them, gotten them refinancing and tried to help with budgeting but too many things went wrong at once for them).

This brings us to the second side of the paradox of managing to outcomes in a resource starved environment. While no work is worth doing if we are not able to manage it toward key outcomes, it is also true that if outcomes are our only motivation for doing this work – chances are we won’t last long. Things don’t go as planned and there are larger influences at play, not to mention the personal choices of individuals we are working with that don’t always work out well for them in the end. Disappointments will definitely occur and if we are overly tied to outcomes we might end up quitting before we arrive at true effectiveness. Indeed, as we grow I find one of my main roles at Metanoia is encouraging our staff working on the front lines of the neighborhood each day by celebrating their victories and coaching them to coax valuable lessons out of defeats that can sometimes be crushing because they have put so much energy into a given individual or circumstance in hopes for a better outcome.

So what solves this paradox? What keeps us going on a path to managing to outcomes in spite of the fact that sometimes disappointments occur? I believe it is relationships. It is our relationships with one another and with our community that keep us going. We don’t give up even on disappointing days because we know one another and we see in one another a deep value even amidst the disappointments. When I say ‘relationships’ I don’t mean the typical agency/client relationship you generally see in non-profit work where one group holds all the power and the other group is merely a receiver. I mean authentic relationships of give and take and mutual learning. It is these kinds of relationships that both keep us going amidst disappointments while also prompting us to become better through measuring the actual value of the opportunities we create with one another.

In Jim Collins’ much read book Good to Great he talks about a paradox of great companies that he calls the ‘Stockdale Paradox.’ Great companies have an ability to simultaneously confront brutal facts of their existence while also remaining hopeful that things will get better. I believe there are parallels to what I’m writing about the Paradox of Outcomes measurement here. When we measure outcomes we are confronting brutal facts. Sometimes those facts tell us wonderful things, and sometimes they tell us awful things. But our ability to remain hopeful even amidst disappointment is ultimately just as necessary as an ability to confront the brutal facts. Through our relationships with one another, and for many of us through our relationship with our Creator – we are sustained in our ability to continue to get better each day, even when our best doesn’t always succeed in a victory. As we fail to reach our goal we remain open to lessons learned and hopeful that we will not pass that way again without doing it better than the first time we tried.

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North Charleston, SC 29405
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