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.

Outcome mapping is the centrepiece of our approach, and the cornerstone of our software OutNav.

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.

Deeper dive

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). 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, 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.