Most of us spent last year adapting to massive change, and we still are. Often that adaptation has been rapid and feels like a split-second decision. Occasionally we’ve had time to stop and think for a bit before deciding what to do.
To plan anything, you need to assess the current situation. You need to know where you are now before mapping out where you’d like to get to. You might call this ‘problem definition’ or ‘situation analysis’.
NPC’s Theory of change in ten steps recommends that situation analysis is Step One in any theory of change process. Starting with situation analysis helps you develop a good understanding of the issue you want to tackle, what you bring to the situation, and what might be the best course of action. For us, this includes:
- Agreeing a short problem statement that enables you to focus.
- Taking time to think about that problem. Who is affected? What are the consequences? What are the causes?
- Thinking about what you bring, or what the solutions could look like.
So, we know the questions we need to answer. But how do we answer them well when the situation keeps changing?
I’m currently working with the Health Foundation’s Young People’s Future Health Inquiry team and the five organisations that they’ve funded to work on policy projects over the next three years. These five research and policy projects got underway in September 2020 but were designed before the pandemic hit. The first thing the five project leads had to do was re-scope their plans to take account of the changes in the external environment.
Based on their experience, I’d like to share three things we’ve learnt about how to take the first step of assessing the situation you are in when everything is changing.
1. Discuss with other people
Start with people in your team who are working on the same thing, then widen out to other stakeholders. It might help to think about people who could be shortcuts to answering some of the situation analysis questions. The key here is to make these discussions fairly open-ended and free flowing, while making note of the conclusions you draw.
Remember that when doing a situation analysis you should try to suspend all thoughts about your own services or organisation and focus on the ‘problem’ itself. Whatever you do, don’t jump into defining impact, outcomes etc. until you are sure there’s a reasonable consensus about the problem.
When I first started thinking about my project, I can’t hide that I felt overwhelmed – tackling youth [un]employment is no easy task. I realised I had to take stock of the landscape and analyse the situation to understand what aspects of this issue my research could address most effectively. Talking to experts seemed like the natural next thing to do – they held the knowledge and first-hand experience I still didn’t have.
I started by reaching out to senior researchers in my organisation, ranging from those working on youth transitions to careers education and the therapeutic benefits of work to health, I then spoke to the experts they introduced me to in other organisations, and finally I branched out to services working all across the UK on the issues surrounding youth employment.
My conversations were informal, with minimal structure beyond a few key questions aimed at keeping the focus on my overarching research question. This allowed me and the interviewees to freely explore the topic and make wide-ranging connections, which were essential to understand the full context and far-reaching implications of the issues I was trying to address.
Thanks to these conversations, I gradually started to develop a clear picture of what my research could and should be focusing on and this allowed me to develop a realistic and coherent project plan that addressed the issues that mattered the most.
Cristiana Orlando, Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Studies
2. Look for any new or updated data or research that has emerged since your original plan
Your original plans are likely to have been informed by what was known within the social, political, geographic and economic context of the time. The pandemic has probably disrupted that context, and the scale or severity of the issue you are working on.
As part of re-assessing your plan, closely examine what existing or new datasets and research are reporting. Consider whether these changes are likely to:
- Have a direct causal link to the situational changes that have occurred as a result of the pandemic.
- Be temporary or persistent (i.e. will we return to the pre-pandemic situation or is there no going back?).
By exploring these questions, you will be better able to prioritise the areas where your work is most needed. It’s also worth asking questions that current data and research are not able to answer, as this is likely to reveal which areas are less well known that may need attention. This will help you fill in any gaps in your knowledge and may highlight things you hadn’t already considered.
Research or policy projects often rest on a gap within the evidence-base, an unanswered question or a problem to solve – meaning the scope falls naturally out of the missing part of the puzzle. For a topic such as health inequalities, we know what the issue is and, arguably, already have the recommendations and tools for how best to solve it.
In order to scope this project, I had to examine the existing knowledge on the topic and ask a lot of questions about whether it was relevant to young people (the set age group for the project). To aid this process, I used an NPC template which focused my thinking on the unknowns, through helpful prompts such as ‘what do you need to go away and find out?’, ‘where are the gaps?’, ‘how are young people affected’?
This process provided a valuable opportunity to define the project scope and bring clarity on the value my research can add to the existing body of work on health inequalities.
Rachael McKeown, Inequalities Policy Fellow, Association for Young People’s Health
3. Decide where to focus, then keep checking your assumptions
There’s a limit to how much time we can spend thinking and talking about the situation. At some point, we have to get on with it and do something. So make your plan, and make sure you document the assumptions that came out of your situation analysis. This could include assumptions about your organisation (e.g. there is strong buy-in for this project), the wider system (e.g. problems affecting youth employment will be exacerbated by the pandemic and Brexit), or the socioeconomic or political context (e.g. employment will remain high on the political agenda). Reviewing and adapting your plans when an assumption needs to change will keep you from getting stuck advocating for or delivering a solution that is no longer relevant.
What I’ve learnt from the last year is that these situation analysis tips aren’t just useful in times of huge change. Too often we’re tempted to ditch curiosity and presume that our first plan is the right one. Perhaps this is because change can be annoying. Perhaps it’s because sometimes it’s easier to avoid a difficult conversation about why a problem exists, or why so little progress has been made. But to see real progress on social and environmental issues, we all need to get more comfortable with taking a long hard look at the situation.
Learn more about how to do a situation analysis using our popular Theory of Change in ten steps. We’ll soon be adding to our theory of change resources to include complex and changing situations. Stay up to date with what we’re leaning from our work with the Health Foundation and other projects by signing up to our newsletter and following us on social media.