By Elizabeth Sweitzer, CIAT
Often in the realm of research for development there is a tendency to focus on results. Indeed, this is the focus of results-based management (RBM), arguably the leading management methodology for international development. In an effort to uphold accountability and transparency (especially in the face of fiscal austerity), RBM defines clear results and products and demonstrates how interventions achieve those results.
But results are just the beginning. Results tell us what products and services the project provided. In order to tell the full story, we also need consider how these results generate and sustain impact. Impact on the other hand explains the changes in behavior we see as a result of those products and services, and how they contribute to holistic improvements for individuals, communities and landscapes.
Why measure impact?
Simply put: we want to tell the full story.
It’s one thing to report on the number of farmers that participated in EcoProMIS trainings – a result. When we measure or forecast impact, we explain how those farmers used those trainings to improve their productivity and livelihoods. We learn about how knowledge services shared on mobile applications help to improve on-farm management decisions. We can estimate how financial savings amongst farmers help improve gender equity, household nutrition, and education outcome.
And that’s where I come in. I’m Elizabeth Sweitzer, the Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist for EcoProMIS. Known by most as an “M&E Specialist”, my work revolves around assessing performance. I am based at CIAT in Cali, Colombia. I help EcoProMIS measure the progress of interventions, the efficacy of knowledge services we provide to farmers, and more to help tangibly understand results and impact.
My work also helps us understand the nature of results, for example were they positive or negative? Intended or unintended? What was learned in the process, what will we change moving forward? In doing so, I help to understand, forecast or even measure the impact of the project.
How do we measure impact?
During the project, we keep robust monitoring systems verified by a ‘logframe’ (logical framework) to test the attainment of our results. Process evaluations keep track of how we are doing, and provide opportunity to pivot course where needed. Learning questions are defined and keep us on our feet, helping us reflect. We also plan to be able to tell the “happily ever after”, by developing plans to measure the sustained impact of our interventions, how people change over time and what practices they truly adopt and make habit of.
EcoProMIS team conducting interviews with growers
Measuring impact with EcoProMIS
Working alongside a team of researchers, implementers, managers, extension agents and more, we work to find dynamic tools and mechanisms to measure this impact for a number of different stakeholders. As EcoProMIS is made up of a dynamic team of specialists with backgrounds in socio-economic, environmental, business, and management backgrounds, we possess dynamic ways of measuring impact.
Our metrics come from a host of different qualitative and quantitative studies, and are promoted by an idea that iterative monitoring and evaluation is essential throughout the project lifecycle and even after. We look forward to measuring lasting impact and helping farmers develop sustainable, profitable, and productive lifestyles.
Sam Adams, Agricompas Head of Programmes
At EcoProMIS, we are well aware that our project is both exciting as well as full of demands, requiring careful planning and communication. In my last blog article I explored how we are managing the complexities of a five-year international agri-tech project.
I mentioned in that previous article that to help manage complexity, we have implementing a new cloud-based project management system. Today I share a bit more about that process and how we have introduced ‘Gantt’ to clarify roles and responsibilities, manage expectations, and design a robust and logical workflow.
Cloud to the Rescue
The EcoProMIS team is spread over seven organisations, based in multiple sites in both the UK and Colombia. There is a six hour time difference. Because of these logistical realities, we have chosen to work with cloud-based digital communication and project management.
So, like most of us during this time of global working-from-home, we have been extensively using digital communication tools. How grateful we are that these tools are widely available! It would have been a very different picture just a few years ago.
In practice, this means that for daily communication we use a mobile chat app, the usual email correspondence, and we are slowly getting used to Microsoft Teams (having previously used Slack for years, this is a bit of an adjustment).
In addition to these daily conversations and regular team meetings, there is still the need for an advanced system of project management. For a project of our size, this is a gi-GANTT-ic need. So over the past weeks and months, I have been setting up a Gantt chart system for our EcoProMIS project management.
For those who are unfamiliar, a Gantt chart is a way of seeing a project’s lifespan in a single image. It shows all of the tasks in chronological order. Further details can be added, such as who is responsible for each task, and which tasks are dependent on others.
Most projects have a timescale of 3-6 weeks. EcoProMIS however, is a five year initiative, so the scale and detail required in our Gantt is significant. I have certainly enjoyed the challenge of creating it.
Open Source Trial
In order to choose the most appropriate and affordable Gantt software, I tested six different products. Most have the same features and similar pricing, so it was difficult to navigate the options.
Initially I settled on Open Project, an open-source product that can be self-hosted. Having access to our own servers and our own world-class IT team meant this seemed like an easy option, and the open-source values resonate with our vision to make positive change in the world.
Unfortunately, the maintenance for this self-hosted option was excessive and beyond the availability that our team had. I made the reluctant decision to start again and transfer to a paid system hosted in the cloud.
Remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic means we are working from home.
Leaving Open Project behind, I settled on a dedicated and affordable product called TeamGantt. It is a responsive and clean-looking Gantt chart, with all the features that we required. In early June I rebuilt the entire project plan from scratch on this new system. This was frustrating but ultimately served to refine the end result, which is now working well.
The EcoProMIS Gantt structure is based on quarterly tasks and milestones. This is because each quarter we deliver tangible outputs and report on these to our funder, the UKSA.
A Dynamic Map
It is an important point to state that the Gantt chart is not a static document that once created is filed away somewhere. Part of the purpose of the chart is that it is alive, a tool or dare I say ‘friend’ of the project. It is used as a dynamic and responsive communication and management resource.
In practice, this looks like using the Gantt chart in a screen-share during our meetings, to communicate expectations around each others’ roles, and to plan timelines and scheduling.
A Gantt chart is also a reference point for everyone in the project to use. At any stage and any time zone, our team can login in to the website and see their own tasks, their colleagues’ tasks, and how the entire five year project fits together.
Likewise, it can serve new arrivals to our team. For example, recently I met with Rodrigo Gil, our new Crop Modeller, to look at the Gantt and show where the project has come from over the past three years. This forms an essential part of new colleague induction.
Effective Project Delivery and Culture Change
All of this work and technicality is ultimately to aid the smooth delivery of a complex multi-faceted project. Our new cloud-based Gantt chart is a great asset to the team, and I believe will improve our ability to reach the demanding goals and cutting-edge targets of EcoProMIS.
The colourful and clean digital interface is appealing and immediately gets attention. The details of the task interdependencies and scheduling of roles and timeframes, means that all partners are better equipped and more accountable in their work.
I also note that by introducing an effective Gantt chart, it can bring an organisational culture-change. Using an accessible Gantt chart contributes to a change in mindset from loose project delivery and inefficiency; to a much tighter project, with greater cost and time efficiencies and hopefully a happier, more connected workforce, better able to deliver our mission to support the Colombian rice and oil palm growers.
Sam Adams, Project Manager, Agricompas
It was six weeks ago that I joined Agricompas, becoming the EcoProMIS Project Manager. It was also exactly six weeks ago when the COVID-19 lockdown began here in the UK.
For all of us, these are unfamiliar times and starting this role has been a surreal experience. While I have engaged immediately and enthusiastically, social distancing has meant that I have not been able to meet any colleagues, let alone collect my new laptop! Instead, the last six weeks have been a constant roll of virtual meetings, Skype calls, and digital file sharing.
An Exciting and Demanding Project in Colombia
The Ecological Production Management Information System, or EcoProMIS, is an exciting and complex project, bringing with it great opportunities as well as unique challenges. Spanning two continents, time zones and languages, and working in remote rural locations, our work is full of management and logistical challenges. Add to this our use of cutting-edge technology, collecting vast amounts of satellite and UAV (drone) data, crop modelling, and IT architecture, EcoProMIS is a demanding initiative.
Sam Adams joins EcoProMIS from ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute
We work in a diverse consortium, which is a major strength of the project and also requires ongoing and clear communication and project management. The consortium includes the national federations of rice (Fedearroz) and palm oil (Cenipalma) in Colombia and CIAT, a scientific centre. Pixalytics work with the satellite EO (earth observation) data and IWCO with IT. Solidaridad provide socio-economic expertise, while Agricompas provides management and leadership.
The context of lockdown has added to the complexity of our work at EcoProMIS. The corona pandemic has been a huge shakeup for our whole planet and I know that we are all facing increased complexity in both our personal and professional spheres.
For a Project Manager, I believe that one of the key functions is to help bring structure and clarity to complexity. That has certainly been a big part of my work over the last six weeks. To help deliver this clarity, while ensuring we meet our milestones on time and to budget, I have prioritised four tasks that will benefit the optimisation of our project:
Information Gathering and Project Management
My first task has been information gathering. The time difference between the UK and Colombia means that the mornings are frequently used for research and learning. Each afternoon, as my colleagues in Colombia start work, I look forward to regular phone calls to build connection and hear each other’s priorities, needs and challenges.
Secondly, the complexity of our project and its layers of work packages, milestones and tasks, are benefiting from a new and improved project management system. Based on the cloud, this is being shared with our entire team so that there is clarity over each other’s tasks, responsibilities and schedules.
Increased Internal and External Communication
The third task to help manage complexity has been to introduce a new system of internal communication and reporting, ensuring it is regular and sustainable. I am pleased to say we have a new and clear reporting schedule that mitigates the challenges of complexity through maximising transparency.
This updated communication schedule will both connect us professionally and connect us personally, as we create space for listening and for cultural exchange. Another way I am doing this is by using more Spanish in our meetings (¡Estoy haciendo lo mejor que puedo!).
Finally, we are engaging in more external communication. A new communications plan is being developed and this blog has been kick-started with a regular schedule of stimulating content to look forward to. Likewise, our social media channels have been revamped to further aid our storytelling. You can follow the EcoProMIS Twitter account here. By the end of the year we aim to launch a movie telling the EcoProMIS story.
A Time of Hope
Coronavirus has certainly added to the complexity of all of our lives. At the same time, it presents a forced slowing down and with this, an opportunity to take a breath, to catch up with backlogged tasks, and to reorganise and improve systems.
I feel that I have joined the EcoProMIS team at a golden time, not at a time of hopelessness, but one of reflection and hope. In this period of lockdown, it is a gift for us to bring new systems of management and storytelling, and by doing so navigate our way through complexity so that on the other side, we are stronger.