Thursday, April 19, 2007

More Most Significant Change (MSC) - how to use for business?

In an earlier post, I introduced the concept of Most Significant Change, a monitoring and evaluation technique that was developed for international aid programs. In short, MSC gathers stories and anecdotes on the impact a program has made for its clients, then sorts and selects them through several levels until a single story is selected that represents the most significant change brought on by that program.

So, in business, how would you use it? Let's take the example of the new performance evaluation program that we discussed in the earlier post. Let's say that the company used MSC to monitor this program. HR folks at each division collect stories, then via dialogue they select the most significant in their division; it's passed up the chain, and a further selection is done, and so on, until the executive team selects one story most significant for the whole program. In our example, here's the story they chose:

The most significant change for me, I guess, is that my boss never used to talk to me about performance until review time. Then, you know, I was usually in for a surprise-good or bad. Between reviews, nothing. So, then, after the new system was put in place, it took a few weeks, but all of a sudden she started talking to me about how I was doing as part of our regular one-on-one meeting. Things I was doing well, other things I should do differently. So I could fix what I was doing right away--and not get slammed in a review months later. More than that, a month or so after the program started, she came up to me and said, "Jim, this project plan you sent me to approve, it looks OK, but when you do your project plans, it would be more effective if you put the name of the responsible person alongside each task. That way, if there's a schedule slip, I know who I might need to follow up with." That's a pretty big change compared to what had happened before.

What does this story say about the program? It says that, at least in one case, it spurred a manager to provide feedback on a timely basis. (Disclosure: like the vast majority of technology managers, I am not very good at this aspect of personnel management.)

The story doesn't say that the program spurred this improvement for every manager--or even more than one. However, its selection as the most significant story tells everyone that this is the kind of behavior that the program was intended to foster. Which has three big benefits:

  1. Clear communication - one very important program outcome is communicated to everyone in a very tangible, usable way.
  2. Enables action - Management can now monitor whether this desirable change is a trend or an isolated case, and intervene accordingly.
  3. "More like this" - The people who select the most significant stories are cued to look for stories like this as they do their selections.
And it's repeated on a regular basis, say every quarter or half-year. Over time, it shapes the organization's view of the project and its objectives, far better than a bland statement ("We intend to improve the effectiveness of management in the areas of personnel appraisal and feedback, blah blah blah"). And it brings the management teams together regularly for intense dialogue about important issues, and causes them to make a joint decision (which is rare for lots of management teams).

Pretty useful, eh?

(Illustration from the MSC Guide by Rick Davies and Jess Dart (c) 2004, via Inforesources.)