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Don’t Be A Cargo Cult Innovation Hub: Measuring Results and Impact as an Innovation Hub
I have always been fascinated by the anthropological phenomenon of Cargo Cults. If you haven’t heard of cargo cults before, and a lot of people have not — the story goes that during WWII in the Pacific theater, Allied troops landed on islands throughout the South Pacific, bringing with them food, medicine, Jeeps, planes, housing, electricity, refrigeration, and all manner of modern wonders that the indigenous populations had never seen. Then the war ended and the troops went home, leaving just a few scraps behind. These populations, in a demonstration of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law which states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, concluded that such a windfall must have come from the gods. They wanted this wealth of cargo to return. So they did what seemed logical from their perspective: they set about to recreate the conditions under which the gods and their cargo had come. They cleared paths in the jungle to resemble airfields. They wore scraps of military uniforms. They made “rifles” out of bamboo and marched as they had seen the soldiers march. And always they kept their eye on the sky, hopeful that the gods observed their preparations and would soon return with more cargo.
The cargo cult phenomenon is hilarious due to the comical imagery that it conjures. However, a closer look at humans and organisations will reveal that similar patterns are common across many spheres. When people try to achieve goals and objectives in an area, there is a tendency sometimes to prioritize the relatively easy, frivolous and tangible motions over the underlying, less tangible, more arduous factors that are critical to success. Popular examples in our culture include an upcoming rapper who is able to get the right hairstyle, tattoos, lingo, and bling down to a T, but is unable to produce truly good and memorable music.
I have also witnessed similar patterns in the Startup world; in my work with Ventures Platform, it is not uncommon to see early-stage startups disproportionately focus on acquiring artifacts and tangibles such as colorful company t-shirts, a fancy website/app and a fancy spot in a co-working space at the detriment of more critical activities such as idea validation, building an MVP and achieving product-market fit. Like the cargo cults, the aspiring rapper and startup might have their hearts in the right place, and although their movements and activities mirror that of their more successful peers, the underlying factors necessary to produce similar results are missing.
This is no damning indictment to anybody or group however as research shows that the human brain battles itself over short-term rewards and long-term goals.
There are multiple lessons for us here, from Cargo Cults and their likes; One is that, in carrying out activities towards achieving a goal, it is important to ensure that your approach to solving it doesn’t have you barking up the wrong tree like the proverbial dog.
To avoid employing the wrong approach, it is helpful to apply first principles thinking- which as said by Elon Musk is “to boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy”. Put simply, this means putting aside the biases that arise from preconceived notions and lived experiences and actively questioning the assumptions that you believe you ‘know’ about a given problem or scenario — and then creating new knowledge and solutions from scratch. Almost like a newborn baby.
Second, it is imperative to ensure that you prioritize carrying out the right activities and processes that are critical for success in the long term as opposed to focusing on the more tangible but frivolous ones. In essence:
Optimize your activities towards getting the best results, also consistently measure your progress to ensure that you are on track.
Finding the right way to do this can be challenging for any organization. Since formation in 2016, Ventures Platform has explored various methodologies to ensure that our activities and programs are designed and implemented to achieve their intended impact. As an innovation hub in Nigeria, your mission is most likely an iteration of “to contribute to economic development through innovation and entrepreneurship”
If you want to ensure that your work is doing this, we have the following simple recommendations as a start in helping you optimize your activities and track your progress towards achieving the results you want. These recommendations apply at a programmatic level and at an organisational level.
- Develop a theory of change
- Develop relevant indicators to measure your performance
- Develop and implement a monitoring and evaluation system to measure progress and evaluate performance.
Develop a Theory of Change
If you do not know where you are going, how will you get there?
A theory of change (TOC) is simply an illustration or description that shows the change you want to achieve and how you intend to achieve it. The TOC helps you identify your long term goals and articulate how your work connects to your goals by describing your activities, the immediate results that are achieved as a result of your activities (outputs), the midterm results that are achieved (outcomes) and the long term changes that result as a result of your interventions (Impact). With the theory of change, you are also able to spot the potential risks in your plan by describing the underlying assumptions in each step. The TOC is meant to be a flexible document and is beneficial in showing how your work leads to the achievement of your goals, it can also aid in aligning team members to the larger end goal, and help them understand their role in achieving it
Develop Relevant Indicators to track your performance
Once you have described the change you want to achieve and how you will achieve it, it is imperative to develop relevant indicators that enable you to track your performance. An indicator is a specific, observable and measurable characteristic that helps determine what progress is being made towards the achievement of an intended result. Indicators are signs of progress and there should be indicators to measure progress at every level (activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact). When developing indicators, it is important to ensure that there are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely (SMART).
Note that an indicator is a unit of measurement only. Baselines, target and actual values for your indicators show the results and progress achieved as a result of your intervention.
Develop and implement a monitoring and evaluation system to measure progress and evaluate performance.
Once you have your TOC and indicators, it is important that you develop an M&E system that will include the plans regarding who is responsible for M&E tasks in the organisation, the intervals where data should be collected, how the data is collected, who collects the data, the type of database that is used for storing the data, the standard forms and data collection tools to be used, how the data is analyzed, the evaluation questions, the frequency with which an evaluation takes place, the budget allocated for evaluation etc. The M&E system should also include how the information collected should be used to ensure better future performance. The M&E system should be tailored to fit the context of your organisation and should constantly evolve to meet organisational and environmental needs and purposes. A well-designed M&E system ‘will ensure a consistent approach to the collection, analysis, and use of information, whilst allowing considerable scope for different parts of an organisation to develop solutions in response to their own particular situations’
Putting the above recommendations in place will put you in good stead to achieving the results that you aim for as an innovation hub. Robust monitoring and evaluation of your activities and results will enable you to track performance and iterate where necessary, leading to better organisational performance and greater impact, thus ensuring that the efforts you are making are not as futile as the efforts carried out by Cargo Cults.
- “Cargo Cults — Skeptoid.” 30 Mar. 2010, https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4199.
- “Study: Brain battles itself over short-term rewards, long-term goals.” https://pr.princeton.edu/news/04/q4/1014-brain.htm.
- “Elon Musks’ “3-Step” First Principles Thinking: How to Think and Solve ….” 30 Aug. 2017, https://medium.com/the-mission/elon-musks-3-step-first-principles-thinking-how-to-think-and-solve-difficult-problems-like-a-ba1e73a9f6c0.
- “How To Design a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) System | ann-brown.” 1 Apr. 2016, https://www.annmurraybrown.com/single-post/2016/04/01/How-To-Design-a-Monitoring-and-Evaluation-ME-System.
- “How to design a monitoring and evaluation framework for a … — odi.org.” https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/10259.pdf.