101 | Project design demystified – the tale of a beautiful bookcase.
This article aims to demystify some of the jargon that is often thrown about in project design. An understanding of the key steps of planning a project will make sure that you are set up for success.
01 March 2023
The tale of a beautiful bookcase
Project design and evaluation can be complex, so sometimes it’s helpful to use a simple metaphor to make sense of its elements and language. Let’s look at project design in the context of home improvement.
You might be planning a simple project like buying some furniture to give a room a ‘refresh’, or it could be a full home renovation. No matter the size of your project, before you get started there are some key steps to think through to make sure you have the right tools, giving it the best chance of achieving its desired outcome.
Know what you are trying to achieve (Understanding your vision)
Jumping into a project without knowing what you are trying to achieve is usually a recipe for disaster. As a wise man once said, “when you fail to plan, you plan to fail” (source unknown, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, and also to Winston Churchill).
Take the example of buying a piece of furniture. What exactly do you want from that piece of furniture? Are you trying to make more space in the room? Create more storage? Make the room feel more modern?
These are similar questions to those you might ask when planning any type of project. What outcomes and impact would you like your project, program or initiative to have? What change do you want to see in your organisation, or your community?
Let’s say you have more books than you have space to shelve them. As a result, you are finding your bookshelf cluttered, and not conducive to encouraging reading in your family.
To truly understand your vision, you’ll likely need to understand:
- The issue you’re trying to address (I need more book storage).
- The change you want to make (I want to see my family reading more).
- What you might need to do to make that change (I need to create beautiful and functional book storage).
What are you going to do to achieve your outcome? (Planning your impact)
Now you know what you want to change, what do you need to create this change? In the case of creating more storage, this might be as simple as buying a bookcase from Ikea, or as complicated as contracting a cabinet maker to design unique shelving for a room.
The activities or actions you decide to do will be dependent on other inputs. The resources you have available (do you have help, tools, money, time?), and the scale of the change you want to make, might be some of the inputs you will need to consider.
You will also need to have a good idea of the detail of your activities, and the outputs, outcomes and impacts that you’d like them to yield. For this reason, an understanding of the difference between these concepts is of value.
Your outputs are usually described in terms of the size or scope of services and products delivered by the project. For example, in this case your key output might be that your books can be stored, off the floor.
Your outcome is the difference you expect your project to make. Think about what you would like to see happen once your project is completed. For example, in this case your key outcome might be the creation of a beautiful, liveable space, free of clutter, that encourages your family to read more.
Your impacts are the long-term changes you are hoping to achieve. You might like to think about the difference that can be made by your project in the years that follow, such as long-term personal enjoyment of your space, or an overall increase in books read by your family.
Beyond these understandings, you will also need to consider the assumptions and risks inherent in your project, to make sure you plan for any eventuality and build in contingency. What if your family isn’t interested in reading? What if the cost of building a bookshelf is more than you had budgeted?
How will you know your project has been successful? (Measure your outcomes)
With a simple home storage project, knowing you have achieved your desired outcome is often a bit easier than for a more complex social, environmental or innovation initiative.
At home you would have some simple elements that you would judge the success of your project by. Does my bookshelf fit well in the room? Do all my books fit on the shelves? Can I access them easily? Is the new space encouraging my family to read more? These are the types of questions you might ask to judge whether the project had been a success.
For more complex projects, programs or initiatives there are a range of different types of questions you might need to ask, such as, did the community we wanted to impact observe a change? Were there any unintended consequences? Was the change a little, localised change or a larger regional, state-wide, national or even global change? Did the change last for a little while, or could it be a long-lasting change?
To find the answers to these questions we need data. Data is information or facts that are collected. They can be collected in the form of numbers-based data (quantitative) or language-based data (qualitative).
There are lots of different ways to collect data. The activities you choose to collect data are called methods, and might include things like surveys, questionnaires, polls, interviews, focus groups or workshops. Some methods of data collection will be suitable for some projects and not others. Having the right tool for the job is key to ensuring the data you collect is fit for purpose.
Methods of data collection need to be carefully thought through in relation to the outcome you are trying to achieve and for whom that outcome is meaningful. For example, if your desired outcome is a beautiful, clutter-free space for you and your family to read books in, surveying your neighbours on whether they feel the bookshelf was a good purchase is unlikely to yield data that is relevant to your outcome. Surveying your family to collect data on how many times they used the space over time, how many books they read, and whether the books were easily reshelved, or using a different method like interviewing your family on whether they enjoyed using the space, might give more relevant results.
Often you will need more than one source of data to demonstrate whether your project achieves its stated outcomes. This means you will need multiple methods to build a data collection methodology.
When you pull the data together that has been collected via these methods and present it in a way that can support your claims around the change you have made, this becomes the evidence used to determine whether your desired outcome has been achieved.
Designing your data collection methodology and evidencing processes can be called your Evaluation Plan. Learn more about how to create an Evaluation Plan from the Community Impact Hub, or watch this video.
Pulling your data and your evidence together and reviewing / comparing them against your stated outcomes is your evaluation. By analysing whether the evidence you have gathered demonstrates achievement of, or progress towards your stated outcomes, you can be confident that your project has been well designed, well executed, and that your outcomes have been verified.
Often evaluation will be an ongoing and changing process and may need to be flexible over time to meet the changing circumstances of the project. For example, your bookcase might fit your current book stock right now, but if you continue to buy books, you may need to rethink its size and its structure in the future, which may highlight a risk that you didn’t consider in your design phase.
At the start of any social, environmental or innovation initiative, you should plan:
- What data you will collect, from whom, and when.
- How you will communicate your evidence.
- How you will evaluate your project.
This will allow you to embed them in your project design. That way you don’t have to find your appropriate tools and retrofit relevant evidence after the bookshelf is built!
As another wise man (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) once said, “a goal without a plan is just a wish”. Hopefully you now feel fully equipped with a foolproof plan to make your goals a reality!
Author: Gemma Bothe
Dr Gemma Bothe is the Senior Manager Data and Continuous Improvement at Lotterywest. Gemma has led the development of a variety of strategic social investment and social impact projects throughout her work across Western Australia. Gemma’s expertise in research skills, social impact and strategy has provided her with the tools to connect people and resources, to drive positive, impactful change across the non-for-profit, government and industry sector, resulting in lasting positive change.
Acknowledgement of Country
The Western Australian Community Impact Hub acknowledges and pays respect to the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are based, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar Nation and extends that respect to all the Traditional Owners and Elders of this country. We recognise the significant importance of their cultural heritage, values and beliefs and how these contribute to the positive health and wellbeing of the whole community.