Wednesday, July 8, 2015

7 steps for developing feedback loops on a shoestring budget

It depends where you work. Which sector. If you are in the private sector, they sometimes call it voice of customer feedback. If you are in international development, or government, you might hear of feedback looping mechanisms. Ultimately, for most of the sectors I often think of, the important thing is this: people are realizing they do better work when they have participatory engagement with the people they are trying to serve. 

It's not enough to say you interviewed people and found out what they were thinking. We need to shift how we get things done. Instead of working on a logframe waterfall project management approach where we target key performance indicators that will show we are delivering on targets established at project start up, we need to be able to adapt.  (Just so you know, I got nauseous just writing that last sentence). 

Adapt means we listen to who we work with--for the social enterprise they might be customers, for the NGO, they are maybe beneficiaries, for governments, they are constituents--let's just call the participants.  This isn't just listening to record results--this is another tool in the continuous improvement design toolkit. No matter what we build, we can always make it better. We only know what to change when we hear from participants on what isn't working. 

The approaches companies often take to do this can be expensive. But in the developing world, many of the innovators in this space are not funded like an Amazon or a Barclays. With that said, here are some relatively cheap ways to gather qualitative information that can help operations on a shoe string listen more. (I pulled a lot of this from this simple but effective summary).

  1. Listen and document. Do you, or your employees, regularly engage with participants? Think about what the most important part of those interactions are--the interactions that will define success or failure for you--and ask participants about it. Ideally you want to write or record the participant (or employee), so you can tell the rest of your organization in your participant's own words what they are telling you. You want to really identify this on an emotional level, looking for what makes them happiest, most frustrated, and most fearful. If you are doing this in a developing world context, it is also important to apply tested techniques to get your participant, who often is coming from a very different perspective than you are. Check here for more on how to empower marginalized actors. 
  2. Distill the comments. After you are done collecting the comments, get out a big sheet of paper. Try to write quick summaries of the comments, and document them all on the sheet of paper. You are looking for the heart of the issue. This is good to keep in mind when you are talking to participants from the beginning, as it may help to ask follow up questions a few times around to really dig into why they think something is important.  
  3. Collate. Look for patterns in what is being said. If one person mentions something, it might be an interesting point, but if 20 people bring it up, it becomes a theme. Both are important, though individual comments should be mined more for innovative ideas, and themes should be considered for areas that really need improvement.
  4. Ideate. Wow, this word is popular these days. Identify "low hanging fruit" and "must wins". Participants usually do a good job suggesting what their concerns are, but they don't often know what needs to change. From these collated ideas though, there should be some areas where impact could be created, if we put on our design and innovation hats. Focus on the low hanging fruit when necessary, but prioritize the must wins. You have limited resources, so select where the most impact will make a difference. 
  5. Develop the business case.  No matter who you are or where you work, you live in world with limited resources. When you look at these ideas you have come up with, how can you justify the value for money or return on investment required? In other words, what is the business case for the approach? 
    • How will you define your intervention? Is it a product, a service, a shift in how you engage?  What are the feelings and emotions you want that intervention to generate for the participant? 
    • How does the participant play into all of this? What is addressed by this approach, and how does the approach improve the interactions you have with the participant to increase the performance of what you are trying to accomplish as an organization? 
    • As I often think of triple bottom lines, what is the social impact that is delivered through the proposed shift in operations? How does it affect the participants, and how does it impact the people participants engage with? 
    • Finally, how will this be structured to be sustainable, and scalable to a level that will have impact? How much will it cost? How will you pay for it?  
  6. Deploy. Ok, you now have a change you want to make, and you have consulted the appropriate people to get it authorized. As you roll out the change, be sure to establish listening posts with the participants you plan to engage. There are many ways this can be done, but some might be having employees who are made responsible for asking specific questions together further feedback. Or perhaps you build that feedback into all engagement you have with participants. But it is important that as you make shifts in activities, you are asking participants about what they think of those shifts, 
  7. Iterate. Another great buzzword. Who can disagree with taking something that is being done, and trying to fix it further? After you have rolled out a change, you can start this process again. Ideally, this is not an activity that has a start and end, but rather a process of continous improvement. We need to listen to our participants on an ongoing basis, and use that discussion to identify ways we can do our jobs better. 

And there you go. This is a process that can involve great monitoring tools, like devices that parse data on complaint lines, and automate the first parts of this process, or it can be done by a shopowner at the harvest as she tries to better understand how to better provide services. In the ICT4D space, you can find plenty of great M&E tools that help record results, or crowdsourcing products that use feature phones for changes, but what is most important, is that we are doing this in a participatory manner, making use of that extremely valuable resource that is sitting right there--our participant.