How—and why—we can do strategy and research in “these uncertain times”
I felt an immediate sense of identification when I read this recent tweet by Jara Dean Coffey:
“I am a privileged non essential knowledge worker” Sitting with this as being part of my truth.
— Jara Dean-Coffey (@jdeancoffey) April 17, 2020
I’ve found myself saying over the past few weeks, “I know evaluation is below the bottom of your priority list, and yet… I am still sending you this survey or asking for your time on this evaluative endeavor.” Colleagues of mine who work in essential and essential-proximate roles have complained that their internal evaluation colleagues are aggravating them with eager questions about how to collect data on how the communities they serve are coping. Leaders of organizations who were about to commence strategic planning have frozen in place, paralyzed by the seeming impossibility to strategize effectively when so much of our future is unknown.
When our roles as consultants do not allow us to pivot to providing medical care or equipment, it’s hard not to feel, well, inessential. But crises do produce unique opportunities to learn, and enforced periods of quiescence open up space for thinking strategically. Two methods in particular – both developed in relation to crises – are useful to recall in this moment: 1) Rapid Assessment and 2) Scenario Planning.
What is rapid assessment, and how is it helpful?
I first learned of rapid assessment (RA) methods when I was conducting ethnographic research in Bosnia-Hercegovina a few years after the war had ended. Some global health practitioners were using it to better understand the spread of HIV/AIDS and the needs of often hidden populations. Rapid assessment (which is also referred to as “participatory action research (PAR),” “rapid assessment process (RAP),” and “rapid assessment, research, and evaluation (RARE)”) emerged from the dual recognition that complex problems often require in-depth qualitative methods to understand, and, in an emergency situation, such methods (as typically practiced) just take too long. All versions of rapid assessment share an emphasis on speed. To compensate for shorter time periods, they bring affected community members into the research process, providing access to local expertise and depth that it would take external researchers far too long to achieve. RA, further, combines:
- Systematic and tested processes for rigorous data analysis by…
- Teams of local community members and “research facilitators” doing…
- Intensive, team-based fieldwork and multi-method data collection over a short period of time (a few weeks is common), iteratively sequenced with…
- Team-based analyses involving community participants
In its resource on rapid assessment, the International Training and Education Center for Health sums up this method’s merits: “This method is fast, cost-effective, and yields accurate information; it can be used in circumstances where time or resources are short, or the issues in question are yet to be clearly articulated.”
What is scenario planning, and how is it helpful?
The Royal Shell Corporation’s use of scenario planning is widely credited for the company’s ability navigate major disruptions to oil supply chains in the 1970s. Shell’s planners identified forces they knew could upend their business model, and contemplated how they might respond to them, even though the emergence of such forces was considered highly unlikely.
Scenario planning can be a process one engages in as part of strategic planning, or it can be an independently undertaken process. Thus far, scenario planning has played a much more central role in the strategic planning of corporations, but it can also be a powerful tool for organizations and foundations in the social sector. COVID-19 has rendered impossible many conditions we’ve long assumed are necessary for our work, making scenario planning an ideal tool for thinking strategically about next steps without prematurely committing to plans that could be undermined by volatile and rapidly evolving contexts.
|Strategic Planning||Scenario Planning|
|Envisions a single future (deemed most desirable, most likely, etc.) and identifies the strategic steps necessary to achieve and succeed within that future.||Involves a systematic consideration of alternative futures, each of which differs from the others in some significant way (e.g., Future A = our organization continues to deliver in-person services; Future B = we must convert entirely to online service delivery)|
The goal of identifying and exploring multiple scenarios isn’t to increase the likelihood that one’s future predictions will be accurate. Instead, it is to bring structure and discipline to the practice of identifying which forces would most powerfully influence the nature of one’s work, or the conditions in which that work could unfold. This practice increases the likelihood that planners will be able to recognize early signs of change on the horizon, and that their pre-thinking will enable them to respond more quickly, should those changes emerge.
Lots has already been written about these two methods:
Rapid Assessment Research
- Beebe, J. (2014). Rapid qualitative inquiry: a field guide to team-based assessment (2nd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Given, L. M. (Ed.). (2008). Rapid Assessment Process. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research (Vol. 2). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
- Miles McNall and Pennie G. Foster-Fishman. (May 2007). Methods of Rapid Evaluation, Assessment, and Appraisal. American Journal of Evaluation 28(2):151-168
- Kahane, A. (2012). Transformative scenario planning: working together to change the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
- Caoili, Arianne [TedX Talks]. (2019 July 3). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/G2CWqA6Vazw.
- Davies, R. (2019, November 19). Evaluating Alternative Futures. Retrieved from https://aea365.org/blog/evaluating-alternative-futures-by-rick-davies/
As always, my door – or rather, my Zoom meeting room – is always open if you would like to learn more about these methods and incorporate them into your learning practice.