Outcome mapping – or impact mapping, depending on your preference, is an approach that helps to set (or ‘map’) out the steps that link the activities of a project, programme or organisation to the outcomes that are important. It has a lot in common with other ‘theory of change’ approaches.
A theory of change is not as grand as it sounds – it’s just a term that refers to making explicit the thinking behind why a programme, project or intervention will make a difference to the people or communities it seeks to serve.
Why ‘outcome mapping’?
We call our approach to understanding change ‘outcome mapping’ for a few reasons:
Outcomes are a good way to visualise and work towards the change you seek in the world. Many organisations or projects have outcomes expressed in their mission or are working to outcomes determined by funders.
We work with organisations or programmes to map how the activities they deliver reach the outcomes that are important to them. Outcome mapping is a simple way of describing this process.
We use the terms ‘outcomes’ and ‘impacts’ interchangeably as we find that different sectors have their own preferences on this. Some just use outcomes, some impact and some use both.
Where does outcome mapping come from?
For many years, Ailsa and I have been working with a variety of organisations with a mission for social change to help them understand and work with outcomes and we have developed a distinctive approach.
Scotland is a great place to be pioneering this approach because the Scottish Government has promoted an outcomes approach to service commissioning and delivery for over ten years, which means many people are grappling with outcome evaluation challenges.
Outcome approaches are also gaining traction globally through the Sustainable Development Goals, and governments in other parts of the world also adapting an outcomes commissioning approach.
We have built our outcome mapping approach on strong foundations, and we like to think it has great pedigree!
I first developed the approach for research impact assessment (see my 2015 article Progressing research impact assessment: A ‘contributions’ approach – here). Ailsa and I have since refined and reworked it through experimentation and learning with many different kinds and sizes of project, programme and organisation over the last ten years.
We built on work by Steve Montague who had taken the basic ideas of contribution analysis and turned them into practical approaches. (See Montague, S., (2012) Theory-based Approaches for Practical Evaluation – pdf.)
We also brought a strong understanding of outcomes from Ailsa’s work, (See Cook, A. (2017) Outcomes-based approaches in public service reform – pdf, and Cook, A. & Miller, E. (2012) Talking Points Practical Guide – pdf) as well as experience and commitment to participatory approaches, knowledge to action and action research.
How we map outcomes
For us, outcome mapping is an interactive approach to setting out a theory of change based on a framework we express using our headings:
We believe that the plain language approach helps to refine thinking about the programme or project in question. We separate out outcomes into different levels that help understand the change mechanism that underpins people-based work. We think about outcomes at the level of reactions, knowledge skills and capacities, changes in behaviour policy or practice, and at the level of longer-term social change.
We have another insight post that explains the rationale for our headings and how they work.
Straightforward and clear
Some ways of representing theories of change can result in complicated diagrams, which can make it difficult to get a good understanding of the change processes and are challenging to evaluate.
Our approach to mapping outcomes provides a clear and accessible way of breaking down and understanding the change process. It is important to note that whilst it is possible to show an overall change process in a progressive way, we recognise that change doesn’t happen in simple, linear ways. Many organisations we work with use their outcome maps to tell the stories of these complex and often circular change journeys
Outcome mapping on different scales
We usually work with organisations to create one or more outcome maps that set out how they reach outcomes. We have held outcome mapping workshops for more than 40 organisations and partnerships.
In some cases this has been for simple projects and community groups, such as Reeltime Music. However, we specialise in supporting complex organisations and partnerships where external facilitation and a very conceptually robust process is essential to make progress. That would include the Scottish Government Public Health Reform team, to map how different people contribute to improving public health in Scotland; or mapping whole policy areas, such as Self-Directed Support; and organisations, such as the ihub in Healthcare Improvement Scotland and the Thistle Foundation.
Find out more about who is using our approach.
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