Producing reports and measuring indicators is not the same as creating value 
Written by Anna B. Sabhaney 
As a civil engineer I have spent a lot of time producing reports, presentations, sketches, calculations (…and the list goes on) with the belief that detailed records, measurement of success indicators and descriptions of proposals in multiple formats are essential to ensuring all information can be understood by target audiences and used. 

Mark Twain once said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”. I can’t help but feel that our current communication methodologies in the development sector leave us stuck writing long letters. The cost of this is that our information and hard work, do not always have the impact we hoped for and our audiences loose sight of the key information amidst the lengthy “other” information provided.

During my time working on a policy project in Tanzania, I noticed piles and piles of wasted abandoned lengthy reports that must have taken years and thousands of pounds to produce. These reports likely contained essential information which local organisations did not have the time or were not able to use and process. How many of the reports that you produce do you or your clients actually read? When participating in the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, I reflected on the length of the New Urban Agenda, and to what extent its format was conducive to joint coordinated allocation of responsibilities and action across international organisations.

Why do we spend so much time and effort producing reports instead of implementing and refining solutions? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that communication, monitoring and evaluation are futile. On the contrary I believe these are critical to driving successful change. However I do believe the effort that is currently needed to satisfy our communication requirements is disproportionate to the results it achieves.

Producing reports and indicators is just not the same thing as achieving tangible powerful change and impact for real people, it is merely our representation and interpretation. Mistaking the two, by telling ourselves that all this information is necessary to validate our propositions and ensure accountability sometimes feels like a diversion, distracting us from the fact that we are unable to select the key information, processes and interventions that are essential and that will enable our target audience to achieve their goals. In some cases, we indulge in the form of our reports and production of solid outputs to reassure ourselves that we are making progress and prove that we have something to show for our hard work. However the challenge lies in the dissipation of knowledge and its application, not merely in its production.

As the UN organisations are emphasising, we need to shift from an output based approach to an outcome focused approach, and this thinking must be applied to the way we spend our time as well as to the way we define, communicate and measure success.

So how do we do this? I think we need to revolutionise the way we store and communicate information. We need to broaden our means and ways of communicating so that our message captures our work more effectively in ways other than written text. With many things getting lost in translation sometimes literally, given the wide number of languages and cultural connotations used, we should not underestimate the power of simple visual messages and of storytelling. Systems practice is a good example of a tool that enables us to distil complex interconnected issues into simplified stories of change that have focus and only provide the key components and processes that are needed to take the required action. New forms of communication such as graphic novels, as shown in FIRST HAND 2, can also be very powerful in engaging people and should be explored more when it comes to promoting the impact of community development and livelihood improvement projects.

We also need to refocus and become more effective and aware of what we spend most time on to ensure that this is serving our greater goals. As The Human Capital Report states “Globally, nearly 35% of our human capital potential remains undeveloped, due to lack of learning or employment opportunities or both. The Human Capital Index reveals specific gaps in each country and points to the future outlook for major economies. It finds that many of today’s education systems are disconnected from the skills needed to function in today’s labour markets.” (World Economic Forum, 2016)

To harness more of our collective capital, organisations will need to develop a broad range of new skillsets. I believe that a large part of these will centre around the ability to be more effective, focused and agile.

I am convinced that developing a greater awareness of how we spend our time and why, and by developing new forms of communication that enable us to represent complexity and powerful messages in ways other than text will bring us the effectiveness, the momentum and clarity we need to drive change across development issues.

By doing less better, and saving huge amounts of energy and effort currently invested in reporting and monitoring we will free up more time for understanding exactly which specific problems we want to solve and how that would get us better overall results.

Goodbye slow, ineffective, wasteful report writing, hello lean, exponentially impactful communication processes and thinking.

Anna B. Sabhaney

I help non-profit Founders and CEOs get funders and stakeholders listening
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