March 03, 2015

Article at Denise Withers

Innovation story design: Genome Canada (project overview)

Genomic researchers are under tremendous pressure to demonstrate impact. This kind of work sucks up their time and requires skills that many don’t have (or want). So, one of Genome Canada’s partners asked me to develop a way to make it easier to meet the demands of funders.

Though people don’t realize it, research and story design are essentially the same thing. You identify a problem that a hero has to solve, run a bunch of experiments to figure out the best way to do that, and either succeed, fail or die trying at the end. The other thing people don’t know is that logic models - which are widely loved by funders - are also essentially stories. You identify a problem, then do a bunch of activities that produce outputs and outcomes intended to resolve the problem. The model tests the logic of your approach; if the specified outputs and outcomes don’t actually solve your identified problem, then you’re doing something wrong and need to re-design your project. Simple and very powerful.

For this course, I decided to try pulling research, story and logic model design together into a narrative mapping process for researchers and managers. By learning to design their research projects as logical stories, they’d be able to do more than just demonstrate impact. They’d be able to use the project story map to manage the activities of their research projects, help others understand where they fit and evaluate how well things worked. The maps would also give them ready-made impact stories to share with potential funders or collaborators at any time during the project.

The first time I ran the course, we could see this approach work right away. Principal investigators were able to pull together impact stories of recently completed projects to use for their grant evaluation forms. Another researcher mapped out a $5M project he was planning to submit for a grant and discovered that his logic was flawed; he’d need to re-design his research. Though he was initially frustrated, he realized that the new approach had saved him months of work and would give him a much better chance at success.

To find out more, you can read one participant's reflections and her research story here.