Whether you’re an entrepreneur, executive, expert or an educator, we’re all increasingly being asked to make decisions about our impact – and the impact of the companies and organizations we work or interact with. More and more companies and organizations are talking about impact and aspiring to create it. Yet, our shared approaches to systematically collecting impact data and making decisions based on it – are still inadequate or confusing.

From accountability to impact
The term impact has often been defined to refer to significant or lasting changes in people’s lives, brought about by a given action or series of actions. Since the early 1990s, the requirement of accountability has been ascendant. A more recent manifestation of this discussion has centered on impact, or demonstrating evidence of how much difference you’re making.

Metrics & alignment
Harvard Business School professors Ainoor Ebrahim and V. Kasturi Rangan argue in their article that it is not feasible, or even desirable, for all organizations to develop metrics at all levels of a results chain, from immediate outputs to long-term societal impacts. Their claim is that the more important challenge is one of alignment: designing metrics and measurement systems to support the achievement of well-defined mission objectives. According to them, impact is better measured at the higher, systemic level, leaving the individual organizations to do what they do best — focus on their more specific missions.

Two types of impact
There are however two different types of impact that we need to take into account: Program-level impact is the impact that individual services have on the people who directly participate in them. Community-level impact is the impact that many different partners, working in collaboration, have on a specific population (community, town, state. etc.) Individuals and organizations can only be held responsible for the performance of the programs and services that they manage.

Impact for learning
When it comes to learning, it is important to try to grasp the impact of your efforts on a program-level. Let’s say you organize a series of coaching sessions aimed for all the managers in your company. The usual way to follow up on this kind of initiative is to focus on the numbers: i.e. how many of all the managers have participated the coaching. Now, this is all well and fine, but instead of settling for the reach in numbers, we should also be able to get an idea of what changes after the coaching. Did the managers adapt newly acquired skills to practise? Can the team members or colleagues tell the difference? It is precisely these kinds of questions we need to address in order to gain insights on the depth of impact for our learning efforts.

Impact tools & frameworks
While this may sound like an overly complicated a task, there are tools and frameworks that can help you better understand and accomplish this.

With the help of technology we can collect data from end users more efficiently. We can then extract insights in ways that allow us to better serve our customers and achieve more impact.

Another possibility that can help in our impact efforts is systems practice. It is an approach that can help to gain clarity about your environment as a dynamic system. It also provides an approach to effectively learn and adapt your understanding of your system and the impact your trying to achieve.

Impact analysis frameworks have also evolved from assessment of immediate results to measuring longer term outcomes and impacts. While these include various different philosophies and approaches from expected return methods to theory of change and lean data, they are not mutually exclusive. In many cases it is good idea to figure out which approaches are most suitable to your project and then combine several of them accordingly.

Ultimately learning about impact is grounded in a simple activity: listening to open and unbiased feedback from our customers and end users. Rather than a separate project, impact is something to be continuously pursued. It is also a key to finding sustainable solutions and designing growth – be that on a business, community or individual level.

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