Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What is a result?

...and how does it differ from an objective? These are two very relevant questions, as these concepts seem interchangeable in some projects. Some funding programmes use slightly different terminology, e.g. outcomes and outputs, which causes further confusion. Sometimes people talk about impact and relevance, and the list of esoteric words goes on and on. It is difficult to keep up with all these terms, but unfortunately they cannot be completely ignored. But once one understands the logic behind these terms, life becomes easier. When one has grasped what a project is and how it works, the terms are no longer a very big problem.

So why is the definition of result important? Because it is an indispensable piece in a logical chain which constitutes a project, and if you do not know how it differs from the next item in the chain, you cannot fully appreciate the way in which projects are supposed to bring about their effects. 

Here’s how it works:
Activities produce results;
Results enable specific objectives;
Specific objectives contribute to overall objectives.

Consider the verbs that I have used here. None of them imply a fully automatic mechanism, which would take us to the next step. All advancement from activities towards objectives requires some amount of work. Usually results follow activities with a little work, but specific objectives are not necessarily fulfilled even if the intended results are produced – even if a lot of work is put into the process. What is more, overall objectives may fail even though specific objectives are fully attained and the project is a complete success. Basically this means that a project may fail miserably although all activities have been implemented as planned. 

To further illustrate how it works, here’s a simplified example:
Project A brings together a group of experts so as to make use of their knowledge in the project (activity);
a handbook of best practices is produced based on this knowledge (result);
knowledge/ability among the target groups is increased (specific objective);
there is an increase of X % in statistics on the regional level (overall objective).

Even if the activity is successfully implemented, the book still needs to be written. The project manager, with the help of his/her project assistant and the experts, writes the book and gets it published, which is a tangible result that makes possible for the target groups to increase their skill level. But the specific objective will not be fulfilled until a sufficient number of members from the target groups have read the book. This would be the hardest thing to accomplish in this project, since you cannot force people to read books. If the project publishes the book but nobody reads it, the project has failed. The overall objective is obviously affected by a very considerable number of factors other than the project but the project is expected to contribute to it.

The idea which can be extrapolated from this example is that results are more tangible than objectives. They also do not automatically guarantee any benefit and are not ends in themselves. The book is not useful until it is read and it should not be the goal of the project. In our example above it is also easier to measure the result than the specific objective: the book either exists or it does not, but how do you measure whether people have read it? And if they read it, did they gain any insights or new ideas? What could be a good indicator for learning?

Let us leave these questions unanswered for now. If you want to hear the answers, make sure you attend our one of coming thematic seminars!

Toni Saranpää

Programme Coordinator

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