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Using Data for Decision-Making

When you get in the morning, how do you decide what the weather is likely to be? Often, we look up the weather forecast on our phones. But we also look out the window. After all, sometimes the weather report tells us there is a 10% chance of rain at the same time as the rain is falling down all around us. You’re making the decision off a mix of someone else’s data and analysis (thanks!) and our own experiential knowledge as we rush to close the windows before the rain gets in.

I have a family member who is a Ph.D. and loves fantasy baseball. I think if you asked him, he’d tell you he crunches the numbers, looks at the data, and assembles the best possible team. But fantasy baseball is a predictive game – you can’t really know what will happen – which means you rely on a mix of the numbers and your “gut” about what is likely to happen, for example, what you believe about each individual player, the game itself, or the teams playing. He’s making his decisions off a mix of someone else’s data that he analyzes along with his intuition about what is possible.

Fantasy Baseball Perception v Reality


I’m a thrifty person. When I go to the grocery store, I compare brands, taking time to look at the price per unit and assess sales, before putting something in my cart. But I do not always pick the lowest price because I also consider things like brand, flavor, and how I might want to cook with the item. Then I make my choice. That garlic hummus may be less expensive, but if I’m planning to eat a hummus wrap in close quarters, I may decide to go with the more expensive roasted red pepper version. I’m making my decisions off an informal return on investment analysis – I’m paying attention to the quantitative (the price), while considering the quality of the experience I’m going to have and its impact (in this case, on those around me!).

What’s the point of all these examples? We are all very good at using data for decision-making. We do it constantly. We also know how to combine data with intuition and experiential knowledge. Most of the change agents we work with have the core skills already in place to leverage data for decision-making. But, often, we lack two critical things in our jobs to make this happen:

  • The right data at the right time.
  • The right process for applying the data to the decision we’re making.

Our new toolkit on using Data as a Tool for Change is designed to take what we are all already good at and bring it into our work as agents for change. It gives concrete advice about how to find and collect the right data given the decision you are making and provides some specific processes to incorporate that data into your decision-making process.

Next month we are going quite a bit deeper, exploring how to engage in real-time strategic learning as an ongoing, comprehensive approach to integrating data into the DNA of your program, project, organization, or collaborative. Sometimes, however, you just need data for a specific decision. Do you have one of those decisions coming up soon?

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Summertime, and the Thinking is Slow

JL in VII had the good fortune in June to find myself in the Virgin Islands facilitating a strategic roadmap session focused on addressing food systems issues, followed by a few days on the beaches with my family. The wonderful thing about a beach vacation, other than watching the absolute joy on your child’s face as they splash in the waves, is the space it creates for thought: unrushed, deadline free, wide open thinking. The combination of vacation and an inspiring conversation about the Virgin Islands food systems left me with a lot of room for deep thinking.

Thinking Fast and SlowHave you heard of the book “Thinking Fast and Slow”? It explores how our brains have two modes of thinking – instinctive, automatic thinking (fast) and deliberate thinking where you formulate arguments, solve problems, create plans, etc. (slow). Basically, slow thinking is where you exert mental energy. And because we are always operating at high speed these days, it can be easy to get caught up in fast thinking and avoid putting the energy into a more purposeful thinking process.

It’s not always a bad thing to do this though. Because we all have such rich experiences to draw from, we can intuitively read many situations quite well and act with confidence even if we haven’t had time to stop and assess more carefully. However, being away from the rush of getting things done created room for me to recommit to slow thinking, not just for major decisions or turning points in our work, but along the way to prepare for the many opportunities to catalyze meaningful change.

When we think too quickly, we make up patterns, see stories in what is otherwise random information. With slow thinking, we find underlying causes and investigate to find meaningful solutions. Have you ever watched a young child try to understand how something works? They use slow thinking, only without the benefit of all the technology and relationships we can use to track down new information. Instead, they puzzle over something new, pull it apart (and yes, occasionally break it in the process), sometimes manage to put it back together, and have the most entertaining observations along the way, like this interpretation of how to grow a pumpkin: “first dig a hole in dirt, cover the seed, then you have to water it, and wait for Halloween to come!”

Logo 1I want to bring that sense of openness, wonder and thoughtful investigation back into how we do our work every day, not just in approaching the major decisions. This might be why I’m such a fan of developmental evaluation, as it gives me an opportunity to wear the slow thinking hat when I’m working with innovative groups who are tackling important challenges.

So, here’s my summer 2015 resolution: I will take the slow, deliberative thinking that is core to developmental evaluation and integrate it more fully across many different types of change strategies. More importantly, I will help others create that same space for thinking, building our collective capacity to catalyze change based on more than just intuition, based on the best we can devise about how to improve the world. I hope you’ll all join me in a commitment to taking the time for slow-thinking this summer and go deeper and – hopefully further – in catalyzing change.

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Leading Social Change in the Context of Political Change

Election2014This month’s election results were hyped up in a lot of ways – a tsunami, a landslide, a bloodbath, a tidal-wave. Throughout the country, power dynamics shifted and Republicans replaced many Democratic incumbents, protected their own seats, and won open seats. Here in Colorado, where Spark is based, we may have had more of a tropical storm than a hurricane, but we have plenty of political changes to contend with as well.

When the political environment shifts, the changes that happen aren’t just about the party in control – they are changes in the individuals who have power, the influencers over those individuals, and the stories and issues that will resonate with them.

Many of the social innovators we partner with around Colorado and the nation are now in the process of assessing what the political changes mean for their work. What are the new opportunities? What opportunities are now lost? Who do we need to engage and what does it mean for our strategies and tactics?

The work we do after elections change the players in the system is part of our “adaptive capacity.” Adaptive capacity is a critical element of being an effective advocate for any type of change, from local community changes to statewide policy to moving the needle at the federal and international level.

Adaptive capacity benefits from:Blog Pic

  • A culture of “inquisitiveness” with the skills to assess the environment and make decisions in response.
  • Flexibility in resources, allowing for adaptation of strategies in response to external changes.
  • Permission to adapt from leadership, including non-profit boards.
  • Experience with innovation and risk-taking and willingness to fail.
  • Partnerships with organizations who have all of the above: adapting together is often more effective than adapting in a silo.

Which of these does your organization have?

We’ve worked with organizations over the years that have some of these characteristics, but few of us have all of them. However, building theme into your organization’s DNA will allow you to respond quickly and thoughtfully when shifts in the environment occur.

We have a couple resources in mind if you’re looking for more about this critical capacity and how you can build it and assess how to improve it:


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Introducing Spark Policy

At Spark Policy Institute, we are dedicated to helping communities and policymakers solve complex problems.  The Spark blog will focus on concrete strategies and actions you can take as you seek to make a meaningful difference on issues that are challenging, complicated, and critically important to you and your community.


What are complex problems?

Called “intractable problems” by some, complex problems have a mix of stakeholders at all levels of government, each of whom have different funding sources, mandates, and expectations; these problems also have private stakeholders, consumers, and communities that cannot be left out.

What are some examples?

  • As regards the obesity epidemic, finding the policy and individual behavior change solutions that can reduce obesity and its associated illnesses;
  • With healthcare access and reform, moving beyond playing politics and into making a difference;
  • With water policy in the arid west, finding solutions that balance environmental, agricultural, and population needs;
  • Healthy food access and its intersection with transportation infrastructure, water, land-use planning, nutrition education, and schools; and
  • Behavioral health and its intersection with all aspects of our lives, from workplace productivity to juvenile justice involvement to physical health outcomes.

Spark’s work is dedicated to the challenge of addressing complex problems such as these, bringing together a combination of research, engagement of all stakeholders, and information dissemination to help find solutions.


What do we know about these complex problems?

We recognize that regardless of which policy arena a problem emerges from, common issues are often present:

  • Policy solutions identified in one arena are likely to cause unintended consequences in others;
  • Money talks – part of identifying any policy solution is understanding how public and private funding operates, what the limitations are, and where to find opportunities to leverage;
  • Sustainable solutions and change in the status-quo are only successful when a wide range of stakeholders are involved in identifying both the problem and the solution; and
  • Finding solutions is only the beginning – implementing change is a long, slow process that requires commitment, resources, regular evaluation and feedback, and engagement of all the stakeholders.


How do we solve these complex problems?

As Spark has grown, we have built skills and expertise to tackle complex problems in a wide variety of arenas: human services, health, behavioral health, natural resources, agriculture, housing, juvenile justice, criminal justice, education, early childhood, and diversity / disparities.

The Spark team we have assembled over the years now includes a mixture of:

  • Researchers who are adept at working in messy, complex settings and bring a wide variety of methodologies to their work including fiscal and legal research, evaluation, network analysis, q-methodology, focus groups, and many other quantitative and qualitative approaches;
  • Facilitators who understand how to inform dialogue with external information and input, and can create a safe environment where all stakeholders, including community members, consumers, and even youth, can participate fully in complex policy dialogues;
  • Project managers whose approach reflects the needs of their clients, and who can remain flexible as the policy environment changes; and
  • Product developers, who specialize in ensuring reports, white papers, presentations, and other materials are rich in information and attractive in presentation, but more importantly, are committed to making sure no product becomes yet another report that sits on a shelf.


What does a “solution” look like?

Every problem has a different solution, and we know that the solutions that are first tried often fail to address fully all the complexity of the problem.  What does a solution look like?  There is no single answer – every system is different.  Maybe the solution includes changes in how funding is utilized by government agencies.  Maybe it includes changes to policies related to access to care.  The solution might be about how non-profits mobilize and educate their communities.  It may also include new voices having a say in the decision-making process.  Sometimes a solution is about changing how existing policies are implemented and sometimes it requires an overhaul of laws and regulations.


Join Us

Join the Spark Team in our dedication to solving complex problems.  What are the issues facing your community?  How can you tackle them?  Each week, the Spark blog will release new tips, tools, research, and information to help you find those solutions.

Do you have any questions you want answered?  Please let us know the topics you want to learn more about!