A focus on objectives

Posted 14th September 2011

A focus on objectives

Objectives! Do we have them, are they any good and are we achieving them? All good questions. And the current enthusiasm for impact; are we investing in it, commissioning for it, or delivering it, is also very encouraging.

However there is a big danger in confusing these two. And yet discussions about impact too often start with the questions like, what are we trying to achieve or what impact do we want to have? This initial focus is dangerous because impact can be much wider than our objectives and because the wider impact could be negative. Ah unintended consequences. Yes but by starting with objectives these unintended consequences become an afterthought, an add on to the main course. It becomes too easy to miss them out or argue that they are not really significant.

Where the discussion about impact has started from the perspective of evaluating our work it is more likely to focus on an organisations objectives, at least as a starting point. Where it starts from the perspective of being accountable for the effects of our work it will be a broader conversation.

To be accountable, the starting point for impact should be what has been the impact of our work – regardless of what our objectives were. This is messier because there will now be many impacts, both positive and negative, and we will need some way of deciding which are impacts are the important ones – without falling back on our objectives as the main filter for that decision.

In a simple example of an organisation that works with people who have been unemployed for a long time and hopes to help them gain work. 30% of those they help do gain employment (and lets leave aside questions of how long this lasts, whether it would have happened anyway and how much was a result of the work of this organisation). What happens to the other 70%? If any of them feel a sense of failure that it hasn’t worked for them and have less confidence than they did, they are at best now further away from getting work than they were. How does this trade off against the 30% that are in work?

How many organisations do you know whose objectives include something about minimizing the risk of negative consequences of their work?