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Results Chains for Problem-Solving: The Best Thing Since (Toasted) Sliced Bread

A few weeks ago, I was on a flight from New York to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. 

I was going on vacation.  We were about two hours into the flight, and I’d already endured several comments from my friends about my selections on the in-flight entertainment system.  While they were well into some newly released movies, I’d already watched two episodes of a satire show on the political status of Washington, D.C. and the US territories and was moving on to a Ted Talk called “Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast” by Tom Wujec (I know that all of this doesn’t help the perception of M&E people as nerds, but let’s just move past it).  When I saw this Ted Talk on the list of video options, I was drawn to it because 1) I like toast… who doesn’t?, 2) I was trying to figure out what making toast had to do with problem solving, and 3) I was on vacation and could watch anything I wanted as long as it didn’t have to do with M&E.  Well, number 3 is where I went wrong… the Ted Talk got me thinking a whole lot about M&E.

Wujec looks at systems modeling and how people process information and solve complex problems, all through the simple exercise of having people draw how to make toast.  He explains that it “seems trivial at first, but under deep inspection, it turns out that it reveals unexpected truths about the way that we collaborate and make sense of things.”

 A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post here on Democracy Speaks about how we use sticky notes to create results chains to map our programmatic approaches in groups, namely in the program design phase.  While I work with our program teams to make sticky note results chains on a regular basis, I’ve never given much thought to why this approach works so well (yes, I realize this was “bad M&E” on my part).  The Ted Talk gave me some answers, even though it isn’t explicitly about results chains.

The Ted Talk first addresses the question: why make a results chain at all? Wujec explains that “we intuitively know how to break down complex things into simple things and then bring them back together again.” This makes sense. Breaking down a democracy and governance approach into a series of individual steps makes the intervention, the environment in which it is occurring and its expected results cognitively easier to process and understand. 

Around minute 3:35 of the Ted Talk is where things got really exciting. Wujec looks at why using a tool like (maybe you can see where this is going) STICKY NOTES to facilitate a group modeling process works so well. At IRI, we like to create sticky note results chains because we can put individual ideas on paper and then move them around as we think through relationships and the sequencing of results. Wujec explains that this “rapid iteration of expressing and then reflecting and analyzing is really the only way in which we get clarity… systems theorists tell us that the ease with which we can change a representation correlates to our willingness to improve the model.” Moving around sticky notes is a whole lot easier than reconfiguring a drawing or digital image.

The final lesson I took from the Ted Talk speaks to why it’s helpful to work in groups to create results chains as opposed to creating them alone: the results chains produced are more comprehensive. In the case of IRI’s work, group models also allow us to consider and debate different approaches and come to consensus.  Wujec says that “group notes produce the most comprehensive models because we synthesize several points of view…when people work together under the right circumstances, group models are much better than individual models.”

After the nine minute Ted Talk was over, I got on with my vacation. But now that I’m back, I’ve stocked up on sticky notes.  To my colleagues at IRI: don’t worry, results chains aren’t going anywhere.

Want to watch the whole TedTalk?  You can find it here.


Posted by

Elizabeth Lewis

Deputy Director, Africa Division