Making an Impact

Impact, that’s a word I hear too rarely at ORMS conferences. I’ve listened to endless talks where the cleverness of the solution has been the focus, the technical details the highlight. What’s the point in solving a problem if there’s no resulting impact?

Is the fact that the opening plenary of INFORMS was all about impact a sign of change? Are we going back to the roots of ORMS to drive better decisions, to solve problems? Margaret Brandeau’s talk this morning was inspiring. To see the range of decisions and change she has helped drive in healthcare across the globe. Acceptance of the effectiveness of methadone programs, the evaluation of where best to invest funding to help prevent the spread of hepatitis. Every case study ended with an honest evaluation of the impact she had driven. That was the success measure for the projects.

Margaret shared many tips for project success. Which made me wonder is it the seemingly small but significant pieces of advice where the chance for change lies? She’s right we do need to do things like publish in non OR journals to spread the word but first we must be successful in driving impact, as she has been. In ensuring our projects have delivered success, change. I think if we follow some of Margaret’s advice on the “soft side” of delivery then we will drive more impact, and therefore more awareness and understanding of what we do, which I know so many of us strive for.

Her advice:

  • Solve a problem that really matters, to decision makers (not the one that matters to you)
  • Solve a problem where you add real value
  • Communicate as simply as you can
  • Strive to communicate
  • Don’t let no data stop you making decisions, you make a decision by making no decisions
  • Ignore the naysayers
  • Collaborate with domain experts
  • Hit the sweet spot, not the sour spot
Operations Research Sweet Spot

Operations research sour spot

(And much more but I couldn’t write it all down fast enough! I’m hoping there will be slides available, hint, hint!).

All of this focuses on the problem formulation and the engagement of the people with the problem, not the tools to build the solution. The only projects I’ve ever seen succeed are where the decision makers are engaged throughout (that’s decision makers not clients because they’re two different things, I love that Margaret talked about decision makers throughout her talk). Engagement in itself isn’t a recipe for success but it is a mandatory requirement in my view. It’s the skill to take the decision maker on a journey of discovery. It’s the skill to understand their real problem, like Ackoff said we have to avoid good solutions to the wrong problem.

That’s the research I’d like to see more of, research into what is critical to drive impact. How do you better facilitate learning and decision making? It’s the soft side of OR, too often neglected. I’ve never seen a project fail on technical grounds only on the soft side, only because it didn’t drive true impact. A project which doesn’t deliver impact is a failure.

Margaret’s final thought is one I think we should all remember. “Let’s return to our roots, practice should inform theory, which informs practice. ”

Frances Sneddon
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Frances Sneddon
Chief Technology Officer, SIMUL8 Corporation