Thursday, April 12, 2007

What in hell is Most Significant Change?

Let's first pose a problem. You've put in place a new performance evaluation system and spent a year conducting reviews using it.

How's it working out for you?

Your program will have target objectives like improved employee satisfaction, perhaps, or increased personnel retention. But the first indicator is difficult to baseline and measure, and the second requires a long time to discern a change.

Complex initiatives...vague indicators of success...the hunger to know whether something costly and labor-intensive was worthwhile.

International aid programs face this problem every day, and from that domain has emerged a new method for monitoring these types of programs.

It's called Most Significant Change. (Here's the official guide, written by Rick Davies, the creator of the approach, and Jess Dart.) At its most basic, this deceptively simple approach asks field workers (or first-line managers in the business context) to elicit anecdotes from the people affected, focusing on what most significant change has occurred as the result of the initiative, and why they think that change occurred. These dozens or hundreds of stories are passed up the chain and winnowed down to the most significant, as determined by each management layer, until finally one story is selected.

It's not numbers, or graphs, or ROIs. It's a story, with an explanation, and behind it a collection of other significant stories. A story that describes a real experience, reviewed, defended, and selected by the people charged with the success of the program.

Why can this monitoring method work for programs like our performance evaluation system? I'll discuss that in another post.


Rick said...

Hi John

You and your readers might also like to know that there is an international email list, of 750+ people, who share information about the use of MSC. The members are mainly those using MSC in Africa and Asia, but there are also people from Europe, Australia and USA. People can join the list via this link:

I have also recently posted details about a related method of constructing stories, using a participatory process, called "Evolving storylines: A participatory design process?" at

regards, rick davies

John Caddell said...

Rick, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I will put your comment into a new post so it will be more visible to readers. I haven't had the chance to use MSC yet, but I am eager to do so.

Regards, John

Anonymous said...

Since this is a relatively new technique, and yet being experimented by people, where could we find a critical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the MSC?

John Caddell said...

To anonymous (I get a lot of comments from him!):

Thanks for commenting. I have not come across any critical studies likely because, as you said, the technique is relatively new and has not been used much outside the NGO realm.

That being said, I would recommend joining the yahoo groups list that Rick referred to in his comment. That would be a good place to start in learning more about MSC. The group members may even know of studies assessing strengths/weaknesses.