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Create Programs That Work: 3 Steps to Better Results

I started this series of articles on creating programs to tackle social problems a month ago. Over the past three articles, all of which are listed above, I have talked about how embracing accountability not only improves efficiency and effectiveness but also strengthens relationships with communities. I have also talked about the four common mistakes that prevent well-intentioned programs from delivering results.

And now, with the last article of the series, I am moving into the million-dollar question: What can be done to improve the performance of well-intentioned programs?


Step 1: Know Your Audience

Can you ever imagine Apple launching the next Mac or General Mills launching the next breakfast cereal without some form of marketing research? This idea of "test before launch" has become the golden standard of the consumer goods industry.

There is a good reason for that. If you do enough research with your audience BEFORE launching a new product, you will not have to risk investing a lot of money or resources into a product that will fail. Yes, there will be some sunk cost associated with doing the research, however, compared to the damage a failed product brings to 1) the organization's bottom line and 2) the credibility of its leadership team, the cost of research is more than reasonable.

Now let's look at the not-for-profit sector. Somehow, the effective practice of researching the audience before launching a product has not been widely, if at all, adopted by program leaders and designers. Instead, the success of a program is often assumed.

This assumption is dangerous. As I mentioned in the previous articles (here and here), there are so many things that can render a program ineffective or even irrelevant.

Therefore, the first step towards a better-performing program is: Know Your Audience. This does not necessarily mean you need to hire a consultant and spend a year researching your audience and their needs. You might already have some data at hand. Dig into the survey data collected from past programs and events; ask around to see if comparable organizations can share some insights. If none of those are available or they come out as insufficient, then work with a researcher who preferably understands both qualitative and quantitative research. For those of you who are in universities, you will find lots of good candidates in your Sociology department's graduate program.

Step 2: Set the Goals WHILE Designing Programs

A while ago, I sat down with a program creator. She wanted me to help her design a survey to assess the performance of a program she was launching. I asked her about the program and, more importantly, about the goals she tried to achieve with it.

Quickly into our conversation, we both realized that, although she had some ideas about what she wanted to do, she didn't really know what she wanted to achieve.

It is not uncommon for program creators to have an idea but do not know the desired outcomes. After all, all pieces are still moving. At that moment, she had to make a lot of decisions about the program: what format should it be (one on one or one to many), how long should it be (one-time or recurring), who the key stakeholders are and what the outreach plan is, and how much resources are still needed. As decisions are made one by one, the program becomes formed, and the potential (or outcome) of the program is determined.

Step 2 to improve program performance is this: Set your goals while designing programs. If you don't think about outcomes until afterwards, then by that time all will be set in motion, and there will be little you can do to change the outcomes if you don't like it. If you want to build a "vehicle," and you don't think about how fast you want the vehicle to be, then, with the same resources, you are likely to miss the chance to build a race car and end up building a tractor.

Step 3: Create Processes, Not Individual Programs

For those of you out there who have had any experience convincing others to adopt your approach, did it ever work after one meeting? If not, why would you ever expect to convince your audience to change their long-time practices with one program?

Like I discussed in a previous article: Rome wasn't built in a day; neither is any individual- or community-level practice or outcome you try to change.

I will use a personal example to show you what I mean.

I was hired a while ago to create career development resources for freshman international students, particularly Chinese international students. The goal was to better engage the group on campus. At the time, I had already accumulated over 5 years of experience working with Chinese international students, so I knew the key to engaging them was to show that "college education" in the U.S. is individualized rather than following a preset rulebook. I tested the program with a small group of international students, and it seemed to work.

Note that the office that hired me, so far, did everything right. They hired someone with a lot of insight into the target audience; they had established the goal before I even started to design the program; and I got to test the program before launching it.

But it was a one-time, 50-minute presentation, and I wondered, only afterwards, how effective the standalone presentation was without supporting programs that come after.

A couple of semesters later, I came across a student who I met during one of my presentations. I asked him about his on-campus involvement, hoping to get a sense of the "outcome" of that presentation. Not surprisingly, he barely even remembered what he had learned from that presentation.

Now imagine this: What if, say, after the one-time program, we match the students with an on-campus student organization. Every subsequent semester, we provide tailored, time-specific career guidance such as how to fully take advantage of on-campus student activity opportunities for career development, how to explore different career fields, how to network with professionals, and how to get internships and jobs.

Will that process work? I don't know, not without researching how compatible the ideas are with the students. However, I do believe at least it will not be a forgotten one-time program. And as someone who designed that program, I know I would try anything to improve its impact, knowing otherwise I have put in so much work for no results.

The 3rd step towards a better program outcome is to connect individual programs into a process and move individuals through it. It might look like a lot of work at first. And it is! But once you have implemented a process, you will experience much better results!

Now, here we are, at the end of the month-long attempt to convince you that program design does not simply include implementing an idea. I hope some of these ideas resonate with you and will stick. If not, I hope you will at least remember this one message: program design is a science, and when it's done right, it will save you money and improve the results.

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