Moving from a “Results” to “Process” Orientation
Practical Tips for Public Sector Practitioners
Classic approaches to addressing public sector problems (e.g. in international development, public policy, public service delivery) are driven by predetermined outcomes and metrics to measure success. While these approaches to addressing complex challenges are increasingly being scrutinized, the substitutes — often dubbed “innovation” practice — unhelpfully fall on either end of a spectrum: unstructured or formulaic. It’s a far cry from what designing public sector intervention needs to create the bespoke and tailored programs required for impact.
Public sector innovation will remain overwhelmingly incremental if the basic tenant of Systemic Design practice — intentionality — is not better understood. But before getting to intentionality, it is helpful to hone into one core tension that is familiar to many practitioners: results and process.
Results and Process, not Results versus Process
Public sector practice often focuses on results. For example, practitioners tend to seek concrete outcomes from the initiatives that they manage, such as a certain amount of funding to be raised from key donors, a change in mindset or capability of a certain set of stakeholders, or a specific set of information to be shared and discussed to spark different ideas. Whatever the result desired from an initiative, the practitioners involved in designing and implementing it are influenced by every step they take toward achieving it.
An increasing number of public sector practitioners acknowledge that the journey to getting to results is messy, and goalposts will move as the conditions and parameters for reaching them do. This then has also convinced practitioners that the journey or “process” matters. Some practitioners are even buying into how the process matters as much as the results.
This realization presents useful changes in expertise and practice, but it also leaves plenty of practitioners uncertain of what to do with it, especially when results are still formally driving their work. In other words, people may value the process to getting to results, but institutions and their infrastructure still place a greater value on the results themselves.
This is what I’ll call the “Results-Process Tension”, and it is what public sector practitioners face with little support on how to practically address it. The tendency of practitioners is to either stick to what they know, or quit the old and bring in the new. Based on my own lived experience as an academic and practitioner in public sector innovation, I am introducing a way of navigating this tension by starting where public sector practitioners are (a “results orientation”), and incorporating where they need to go (a “process orientation”).
RESULTS-FOCUSED — — — — — — — — — — — -PROCESS-DRIVEN
Visual and concept created by Nicole Anand. First used in “Demonstrating Design: a masterclass to learn-by-doing for development practitioners” (2019) taught by Savita Bailur and Nicole Anand at Columbia University.
The above visual illustrates the difference between a results orientation and a process orientation. A public sector practitioner who has the former will move from A to B and achieve B with some amount of predictability and linearity. B is always the answer and the goal. In the latter, B is still the intention, but the movement toward it bounces around from the first blue dot, which leads to the next and so on. In the end, B is not achieved as predicted, but it is fair to say that the process leads to something in the range (dotted line) of B.
If being results-focused is public sector practitioners’ classic orientation, how might we meet them there to incorporate a process orientation?
Intentionality, a Driving Force for Moving from Results to Process
Imagine a public sector practitioner who seeks to build government capabilities in cutting-edge policy making. Where does this practitioner start?
Do they identify goals they want to achieve based on what they know through their own expertise and experience, write a project brief, develop a budget and begin to implement it? Does the practitioner begin by looking at case studies of similar programs if they exist? Do they organize meetings with the future “users” of the program to understand how it might work?
To abstract a bit from specific possible ways that a practitioner might tackle this: what questions does the practitioner ask themselves to make their first decisions? How do they find the information they need to answer their questions?
Take the example of an international development practitioner. The considerations they need to make to create the program are many, including their colleagues’ priorities and the desires and needs of the governments they serve.
The practitioner is required to aim for a specific set of results — for example, growth in innovative policies — but they only have certainty in the considerations they can make to get there. This is where design and intentionality comes in.
“Design is a way of making intentional change even when there is no clear and agreed end state.” Intentionality in design is decision-making through asking questions about possibilities. Intentionality means that decisions to create the program have rationale, and are based on a multitude of considerations and triangulating between them.
Practically Addressing the “Results-Process Tension”
Developing a process orientation from a results orientation is not easy, but with the understanding of what each is, how they differ, and how intentionality underpins the movement from one to another, public sector practitioners can be successful.
I will offer two practical, actionable tips to encourage an easing into addressing the Results-Process Tension.
- Move backward from results to process, but don’t attach to results, instead attach to the process considerations. If you’re running a public sector program and asking what will this result in or what do we need to achieve, you’re starting with outcomes or results. It’s understandable that you are asked for these and need them to build your program. However, since you know that the process to achieving these results is long and windy, let the results shape key parameters, principles and guideposts. For example, if a goal is to get funding for a different type of international development intervention, you might ask:
[Strategic Priority Parameters] How do we know what intervention will be the most impactful? What do we need to consider to answer this? What do these considerations imply when taken together?
[Stakeholder Engagement Guideposts] Who is already involved in this intervention (if anyone)? Who is this for? Who needs to be involved and why? How do those involved need to interact?
[Process Principles] How will we answer the above questions? What information needs to be collected? How do we make sense of this information? How do we use this information to drive our journey to getting to results?
This is a non-exhaustive “cheat sheet” that you can use to start with results, but end with a process. The key is to be guided by the parameters, guideposts and principles, and not by the results.
- Talk about results, but stay grounded in your behind-the-scenes process. It is common for public sector practitioners to feel pressured to show results and present them. This will continue to happen to public sector practitioners. Fighting a tough uphill battle to convince others of why we shouldn’t focus on results is one option, but practitioners also need to build the muscle and skillset to talk about results as they facilitate an intentional process. Public sector innovation discourse is heavy on language, perhaps because advocacy for a process orientation is widespread. While advocacy can be useful, it can also lose people along the way. Moreover, it turns a practice into a subject-matter expertise, which may defeat the purpose. By keeping results as the talking points, but process as the actions, public sector practitioners turning toward a process-orientation can buy themselves the time they need to lead a process that produces results. In the end, the intersection between the messy process, and the concrete results, appears from the haze for all to see.
By offering a descriptive summary of a key tension in public sector innovation and a couple of practical tips to begin addressing it, I hope to kick off a dialogue about public sector practice and the practical realities of acting in systems. More often than not, our discourse is about theories, frameworks and particular methodologies in public sector innovation. In this case, I am offering a practical scenario based on empirical evidence that public sector practitioners currently face in their daily work.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please chime in with your strategies, tips and tactics to the “Results-Process Tension”!