All I can ask is ‘when will it stop’? As we speak I’m burning up bandwidth on an EVALTALK (the evaluators list) discussion about the distinction between a ‘goal’ and a ‘mission’. I’m on Linkedin where people are arguing about the distinction between a ‘result’ and an ‘outcome’ and I’ve someone emailing me from Europe preoccupied about why I don’t draw a distinction between an ‘outcome’ and an ‘impact’ in my outcomes theory work.
I think that Karyn Hicks on EVALTALK has come up with the best term for these debates, calling them the Buffalo Dung Problem! This stems from her being in a meeting involving one of these endless debates and her Director hollering ‘Well #!@ we can just call it buffalo dung for all I care’! From then on she’s called it the Buffalo Dung Problem.
Most of these Buffalo Dung discussions are a total waste of time and we can think about this in terms of there being two underlying issues:
1. These terms are all used in a common sense way by stakeholders to mean roughly the same thing: ‘the stuff we’re trying to achieve’. It’s ultimately futile to try and force the rest of the world to use them in very specific ways that suit us for our technical work. If we were physicists and no one had any common sense uses for our terms – like Boson Particles and Quarks – we could define them how we liked and insist that the people using them use them in a very precise technical way. We simply do not have the power to insist that people use terms in the way we want because we work amongst a wide variety of lay stakeholders who will use terms in whatever way they want to.
2. When we insist on using terms in a particular way we are usually trying to pack into the one term a number of technical distinctions which it is better to tease apart. These distinctions include things such as: 1) where something fits within a causal pathway; 2) whether it’s measurable or not; 3) whether it’s controllable or not; 4) whether it’s going to be used for accountability or not.
For instance in one of the discussions I’m involved in at the moment, it’s being suggested that maybe the term goal should be restricted to: 1) something below a thing called a ‘mission’ within a causal pathway; 2) something that is measurable; and, 3) something that is controllable. The problem is that when we ask an unsuspecting lay person to give us their ‘goals’, they have no way of knowing from just this word that we want a very specific thing from a technical point of view. We want something which has three specific technical characteristics. It’s far clearer to forget the word goal and tell them that we want something that is measurable and controllable by them (distinctions 2 and 3 above). We can achieve our first distinction – the position in the causal pathway – much more elegantly by just doing the whole thing in the form of a visual outcomes model.
A fully visual approach gets rid of a lot of the terminological madness which stems from trying to specify a particular location within a causal pathway, e.g. having to insist that a process is before an immediate outcome and that is before an intermediate outcome and that is before an impact. When you try to do it in this way you inevitably get people then asking you where a result, goal, mission and vision fit into the schema.
You can eliminate this entire debate by simply working in a totally visual way. You can do the whole work of building an outcomes model visually just by talking about boxes within the model and the end-box(s). Being a little less extreme, I normally talk about steps and at the end of the steps there are final outcomes. But I couldn’t care less what people want to call the boxes at the end of the visual model. The visual approach eliminates the need to use words to describe particular positions within the causal pathway – you can just point at them (or if you are not physically present color them up, e.g. the green boxes).
Having eliminated this major cause of terminological stress by working visually you can then next deal with distinction 2, measurement. This is best though of in terms of a measurement being an object you put onto a visual model next to a box. It is something that measures that box. I happen to call these indicators but again couldn’t really care less what you call them as long as you maintain the idea of measuring things.
Then you need to deal with the 3rd distinction – controllability. This is best done by simply marking up the indicators that are controllable in some way. Make them red, put a letter next to them, whatever you like. But just think of it in terms of a particular type of indicator being controllable.
Lastly you need to deal with distinction 4 – whether a party is going to be held accountable for something. This is best dealt with by simply marking up the indicators which a party will be held accountable for. In the public and non-profit sector, these usually are exactly the same as the controllable indicators you’ve just marked up.
It’s as easy as that, you simply do not need the terminological madness so many people are currently involved in. I would love someone to work out the sum total of human time, effort and bandwidth (and hence dollars) which is currently going into these endless terminological debates.
William of Occam was a medieval philosopher who came up with Occam’s Razor – ‘do not multiply entities beyond necessity’. He was trying to stop the the type of madness where people in his time used to make dozens of distinctions between different types of angels. We have the same problem on our hands at the moment with the Buffalo Dung problem. I’m an Occam’s Razor fan myself – let’s just stop the madness!
To see how to work practically in this way as I do and those who use DoView Visual Planning and Management do all the time, see: http://doview.com/plan/draw.html that link shows you the 13 rules for building elegant but accessible visual models that you can use in the way described above. This url: http://doview.com/plan shows you how you can used the whole process for accountability, evaluation, reporting etc.
Want more detail and references to this thinking? The following is a technical article about this issue (read the summary referenced at the start of it if you do not have time to read the whole article): Duignan, P. (2009). Simplifying the use of terms when working with outcomes. Outcomes Theory Knowledge Base Article No. 236. ( http://outcomestheory.wordpress.com/article/simplifying-terms-used-when-working-2m7zd68aaz774-73/ ). The substance of this article formed the basis for Duignan, P. (2009) Rejecting the traditional outputs, intermediate and final outcomes logic modeling approach and building more stakeholder-friendly visual outcomes models. American Evaluation Association Conference, Orlando, Florida, 11-14 November 2009.)
And the following article talks about the different dimensions we get mixed up in our outcomes and evaluation work:
Duignan, P. (2009). Features of steps and outcomes appearing in outcomes models. Outcomes Theory Knowledge Base Article No. 208. ( http://outcomestheory.wordpress.com/article/features-of-steps-and-outcomes-2m7zd68aaz774-20/ ).
Paul Duignan, PhD. Follow me on this OutcomesBlog.org; Twitter.com/PaulDuignan; or via my E-newsletter and resources at OutcomesCentral.org.