Five Program Design Questions for Impactful Change Initiatives

When funding, implementing, or being involved in an important program or project, asking five key questions will increase your chances of success. Regardless of your project’s focus—digitizing, innovation, sales, or HR—or field—social services, policy, or business—these questions work for all change efforts. The questions follow the ROI Methodology,  a practical evaluation framework that improves design and measures five types of project outcomes. The ROI Methodology has been used and refined over 30 years with more than 6,000 organizations and is the most used program evaluation method globally.


1: Why?


“A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system.”

– W. Edwards Deming


You may be surprised to see this obvious question listed as number one, but unfortunately, the “why?” question is not used enough in implementation. Programs often start with a “why?”, but most professionals forget to revisit the question, which loses the program’s guiding North Star.

For example, say you plan to implement a people development portal in your organization. The portal will have knowledge and skill-building options, projects, and cross-functional placement opportunities. But, why do you need this program? Maybe because exit interviews showed employees left for organizations with more professional development opportunities.

Or perhaps you are planning a new, fully digitized customer onboarding process. Why do this? Maybe your legacy customer onboarding process lags the industry in time, quality, or experience and is riddled with errors.

Or maybe you are starting a community of runners trying to run 10K under an hour. Why did you create this community? Maybe because some runners found it frustrating and difficult to improve without a group to run with, and this running group fits well with your organization’s employee wellness campaigns.

Whatever you are working on, remind yourself every so often why it started. Your task is to keep asking why?. Use “why?” as a North Star throughout both planning and implementation.


2: How will we know we have been successful?


“Measure what’s important and set a standard.”

– Andy Grove

If your program’s “why?” is clear, it is time to ask the second question; practically and in real terms, what indicators will tell you that you have been successful?

A people development portal may be viewed as successful for various reasons. For example, if employee surveys indicate people feel optimistic about development opportunities, or if employees rate the organization as a “great place to work,” or if you attract exceptional talent easily, if regrettable turnover falls, or another improvement in related metrics that matter.

What will tell you that your customer onboarding process has been successful? Clearly, better performance on time, quality, errors, and improved customer experience ratings will indicate success.

Your community of runners? If people who join the community can better meet their goals and new trusting connections are made, the program is viewed as successful.


3: What actions and behaviors will change?


“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

– Albert Einstein

All programs and change efforts rely on successful behavior change. There is no other way to translate a program into real change.

For example, if you successfully implement a people development portal, employees will start to sign up for programs, ask to be put on skills-based projects, or interview more often with other parts of the organization.

If you successfully implement your digitized customer onboarding, sales, customer service, and the client will begin to follow the new steps and use the latest tools for onboarding.

In the running community, a successful implementation means members will meet regularly, celebrate success and learnings, and set new targets with their cohort.


4: What must people know to perform the new actions expected from them? Are people able to do what is required of them?


“There is no substitute for knowledge.”

– W. Edwards Deming

It is easy to see how this question helps with skills-based activities, like driving a car or operating a machine. However, asking this question for other programs and projects can uncover deficiencies early on.

In your people development project, do employees know how to enroll for the development program or what is expected of them? Do the managers know how to coach employees in the program?

In your customer onboarding project, does Sales know when and how to initiate the online onboarding process, who to involve, or where to get help if there are problems?

What about the running community? Do the members know when and where to meet or the rules of engagement? Do they know the running strategies that work best for them?


5: How will those the program is targeting perceive the program?


“Fix Problems when they’re small.”

– Andy Grove

The earliest opportunity to improve outcomes is when you first introduce the project to its stakeholders. Those are key moments to understand how important stakeholders perceive the initiative, how relevant or valuable it is for them, or if they are excited to support or participate in this program.

For example, in the people development project, will employees see it as relevant to their success?

For the customer onboarding project, will Sales view the new process as immediately applicable?

Will the runners see the community as fun and supportive?

Asking the five questions makes a project or program stronger and more impactful. If you can answer clearly, your program or project is built on a solid foundation. It is then a matter of executing well on your plan.

However, if you cannot answer the questions clearly, it is time to return to the drawing board. Consider the specific answers before jumping in with your precious time and resources. You will find that your program’s probability of success will go up significantly.


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