Develop impact thinkers throughout your organisation

managing impact Oct 02, 2020

A sense of impact can be as important to our work wellbeing as our pay.  

So why do so many people feel uneasy about the difference their work creates?  And how can your organisation enable the skills and culture for impact management?

COVID19 has made us all more aware of our everyday invisible impacts. We wear masks to stop tiny droplets on our breath from affecting other people, we touch less things, go less places and make tough choices not to see loved ones to avoid the small but lethal risk of spreading illness.

Managing intangible impact is hard, but with the right information and guidance it is something that everyone can take greater responsibility for.  I find people often miss the words and ideas that would help them organise thoughts on their job's impact.

This matters because it can be the difference between harnessing significant organisational value like greater innovation or positive customer sentiment; or it could mean exposing your organisation to major risks in your operating environment.  

Many organisations box-off the idea of impact with high-level metrics like "number of lives touched".  This approach to impact is meaningless to the majority of the workforce and contributes to a sense of cynicism.  Much like an orchestra, each part of an organisation needs to have the capability to play its own tune, making the music of impact meaningful to each instruments, while also contributing to the overall symphony.

So how can we unlock an impact mindset within an organisation?  There are two basic things to think about: (i) getting strategic buy-in from leaders; and (ii) delivering a top-notch learning and development program.

Secure buy-in from the top

The rise of the Chief Impact Officer reflects the importance organisations now place on planning, delivering and evaluating impact.  However not everyone is lucky enough to work in a organisation that leads with impact, sometimes the initiative may come from the middle.

Championing impact management when you are not the final decision maker can be like playing snakes and ladders – one minute you step up a few rungs of the ladder, but then a new strategy or structure imposed from above will see you slide back down.  

If you are a changemaker outside of the leadership ranks, do not go at it alone.  Consider starting a working group that represents and communicates with the whole organisation.  If you don't already have leadership backing, then a willing pressure group will probably make it hard for them to resist your efforts.

Build impact thinking capacity

The second step is to build competence and confidence in managing impact. To grow an impact mindset you need to first aquire some basic knowledge and then have the opportunity to put it into practice.  So, how can you use learning and development time within the organisation to embed an impact mindset?  Capacity building is central to our work, so here are a few tips :

1.      Locate your learning and development experts

·         You may have a specialist team, or the skills may be within your HR function. Meet with that team, or person, and discuss the learning need for impact measurement and management.

·         If learning and development is devolved to teams and line managers, or dispersed geographically, your working group will need to map those individuals and plan how you will engage with them.

2.      Internal or external training?

·         The advantages of using an external trainer include access to specialist knowledge and experience in impact management.   An external trainer will save you time, be able to listen and advise teams neutrally on how to put impact management into practice, and can bring broader ideas and energy into the mix.

·         The alternative is to design a learning initiative that can be led internally by people who know your organisation intimately, its strengths and its sticky points. If cash is a more important resource than time this could be the option for you.

·         The third option is to use the best of both worlds. Run a ‘train the trainer’ session and co-produce the internal learning programme with external oversight.

3.      From training to learning

·         When designing your learning initiative don’t stop at the training programme. More than ever, today’s students are learning on their feet and taking advantage of the many learning contexts. Ask yourself, how do people in my team learn best? Do they like to read books or interact? Do they enjoy developing theories or trying out new concepts in practice?

·         Consider options such as online courses, shadowing more experienced impact practitioners, mentoring, action learning groups, secondments, simulations or reading seminars. The solution should fit your own context but try mixing up the methods so there is something for every learning style.

4.      Make it personal: the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor

·         To make your investment in learning deliver, participants need to see how impact thinking is going to improve their job. As a trainer, my heart sinks every time I hear someone say: “I’m here because my boss sent me”. To take something meaningful away, participants must recognise their learning needs and the value the training offers. For most people, its realising that impact will help them explore the questions of "how can I be more effective?" and "did I make a difference today?".

Final thoughts: develop impact thinkers throughout your organisation

There is a hunger, especially amongst younger employees, to know that their work is making a meaningful contribution.  We live in a world of data but most people struggle to draw the connection between their short-term activities and the ultimate contribution their work is creating.  

Learning time is seen by most people as a reward in their job.  So why not invest it into growing impact mindsets.  A leadership mandate to roll out both formal training and continual learning practices will pay dividends both in employee fulfillment and organisational value.

Enabling the skills and culture for impact management means bringing greater precision into the way your organisation pursues intangible value.  It will mean building trust and confidence across your organisation that what people do matters.

This article is an updated version of an original post on NEF Consulting in 2016.

Alison Freeman

Alison is a specialist and trainer in social impact and sustainability valuation. She is a leader in EY Australia’s impact measurement services and has published, chaired and spoken widely on impact.