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Create Programs That Work: Common Mistakes (Part II)

In my last article Create Programs That Work: Common Mistakes (Part I), I started to discuss the common mistakes that undermine the performance of well-intentioned programs and services. In this article, I continue with two additional common reasons why programs do not deliver desired results.


Mistake 3. Overestimating the impact of short-term programs

For those of us who focus on reducing unequal outcomes, including me, it's important to remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither was inequity.

We all have experienced both of them on a personal level. Think of your high school or college class. Isn’t it incredible how a group of relatively similar individuals can have such drastically different life outcomes over time? You might have entered the school with similar academic standing and life aspirations, but over the course of four to six years, life trajectories differentiate.

These differential life outcomes cannot always be attributed to the lack of resources, which short-term programs tend to try to resolve. Take most programs and services in higher education as an example. These well-intentioned programs genuinely try to help students by providing them with resources and the knowledge of how to locate them. These programs, however, tend to make the assumption that as long as students have access to resources, they will use them. That is not always true. In real life, it is often what happens before and after students seek out or are given resources that determine the impact of these resources.

Short-term programs can reach their full potential only if those served will act upon the resources, knowledge, and skills delivered by these programs. The audience's motivation, and more importantly, commitment to incorporate these newly-obtained resources into their life is key to program success. Quick solution: try to focus on what could prevent the audience from fully and effectively engaging in the resources delivered through these programs, and you will see the differences instantly.

Mistake 4. Overlooking the benign and mundane

As humans, we are trained to see things in categories. It's a cognitive and evolutionary advantage. Imagine how exhausting it can be if, say, every time you meet another person, you have to start by assessing "what" this "form" is. As we grew up, a key aspect of learning is to learn to sort and categorize the individual and unique. Instead of seeing literally thousands of different things everywhere we look, we have come to learn to see categories such as humans, dogs, tables, and houses.

As program designers, this unconscious tendency to see things in categories can be a disadvantage. For example, if the population you serve is homeless individuals with substance abuse problems, it's tempting to classify their practices into "problematic" (e.g., substance abuse, lack of work experience or desired skills) and "harmless." This is tempting because it frees you from analyzing each of their practices and habits and instead allows you to focus on correcting the "problems."

There is nothing wrong with focusing on the "problems." What is alarming is the accompanying assumption that, as long as we correct these problematic habits and practices, the situation will improve. In reality, once again, that rarely holds.

This idea that mundane practices play a key role in sustaining and reproducing social problems has been proven over and over by sociological studies. One such study is the widely-cited book Unequal Childhoods by Professor Annette Lareau at the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. In this book, Lareau compares the childrearing practices of middle-class parents and working-class parents. She notes that benign childrearing practices such as telling children "No means no" or "Because I said so" are tied to children's underdeveloped communication capability in the long term.

The outcome of a program becomes increasingly uncertain when we exclusively focus on problematic practices and overlook what we perceive as mundane. The mundane practices are easy to overlook, but they tend to hold the key to the solution.

So far, I have discussed four common mistakes that prevent well-intentioned programs from delivering results. To sum it up, program performances are affected when a program is transplanted to a different audience without a compatibility test, when a program is designed for an isolated problem without accounting for the bigger picture, when short-term programs are not accompanied by other supplemental programs, and when mundane causes are overlooked. In the next article, last, of this series, I will discuss how we can improve program performances.

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