Public sector should embrace the rapid results approach for better performance

"The Rapid Results Initiatives should become ‘the new normal’, a regular way of life." This commentary discusses how The World Bank is using the Rapid Results Approach in their Collaborative Leadership for Development initiative.

Opinion and Analysis

June 17, 2015

By Mike Eldon

It’s hard to get things done in today’s world, never mind in large organisations such as governments. Long-entrenched bureaucracies have added mile upon mile of red tape, with past excesses leading to more ways (often fruitless) of ensuring compliance with good governance.

Meanwhile, public servants the world over have always been known for their aversion to risk, on the basis that sins of omission are much more easily forgiven than sins of commission.

Not for them the mantra that it is better to have a go and apologise later than to seek permission up front (almost hoping the answer will be “no”).

These drags on progress are exacerbated by the presence of hidden agendas, from the political to the financial to all kinds of other interwoven complications. No wonder that even where political will is present it is so hard to move forward.

Development progress is at least as challenging at the grassroots, where too often conservative attitudes lead to the ready assumption that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday, except that a few more things will have fallen apart. Needless to say, politics is also not absent at the local level.

The World Bank is one of the many agencies that have been scratching their heads over how to accelerate development, and a few weeks ago I wrote about my experience in Istanbul with some of their Collaborative Leadership for Development team.

Last week I was in Accra attending another event run by this group, in which we focused on how to work with a short-term intervention methodology known as the Rapid Results Approach (RRA), through which one or more specific, measurable goals must be achieved within 100 days. Such RRA projects have come to be known as RRIs, or Rapid Results Initiatives.

I was delighted to have been invited to the programme, as when I was one of those supporting the Public Service Reform and Development Secretariat team some years ago, it was the RRIs that gained more traction than any of the other reform efforts within the overall Results Based Management programme. (Sorry about the jargon, but I must admit I find some of these terms quite useful.).

I remember being present at the launch of the University of Nairobi’s RRI, at which then vice chancellor George Magoha spoke with gusto on how serious the institution was about unblocking the serious things that had remained blocked for too long.

And RRIs continue until today in Kenya, at both national and county levels, unblocking the blocked. So how does it work? The idea is to identify an issue that is amenable to seeing measurable progress made within the specific and limited time-frame of 100 days.

An RRI team composed of around 12 people must be assembled, supported by a senior executive owner, maybe a minister, and by a coach or facilitator who guides the team through the process, ensuring progress towards the desired outcomes.

Yes, outcomes. Not mere outputs. More jargon here. In performance management terminology an output merely signifies that an activity has been completed successfully. For instance, that the desired number of people has been trained.

But are they using the skills they have learned? It is only if that happens that an outcome can be celebrated. We are not finished yet though.

For they might still be using their skills without the final desired impact being made, such as reducing infant mortality by a certain number.

Too many performance contracts stop short at the easy-to-measure but insufficient output level. I can’t resist smiling, for instance, when I see elements like “Goal: Produce strategic plan” followed by “Measure: Strategic plan produced”, with no reference to either its quality or its consequence.

As the originator of this approach Robert Schaffer put it, RRIs are about “breakthrough strategies”.

And if we are to tear down the silos between units involved in a stuck process; if we are to re-engineer that process, eliminating steps that slow things down; if we are to innovate and take risks… then we must be bold.

The RRI team must be empowered to do whatever is necessary to achieve the target set — and within the 100 days.

If they come across roadblocks they cannot remove themselves then the higher authority, the executive owner, must intervene to smooth the way. There is no room for timidity or hesitation here.

The team must act decisively, knowing that sometimes what they hope for will not turn out as expected, and that indeed there will be setbacks.

All this requires flexibility to keep focused on outcome and on impact, doing whatever is necessary to get there. And let me introduce you to another concept necessary for working in these complex, high-paced environments.

Many tasks can be accomplished by just applying “technical” expertise, where leadership is merely required to be systematic. But in tackling the kind of obstinate challenges that RRI goes after, leaders need also to be “adaptive”.

They must display emotional intelligence to deal with the political and cultural issues that lead to resistance and undermining. And they must have the negotiating and consensus-building skills to bring people together around a common goal.

Not least they must help all involved to act as a high performance team that lives by healthy values.

My dream is that RRI becomes “the new normal”, a regular way of life that assumes it is possible to be ambitious, to achieve great things in short periods of time.

A final point though. RRI grabs a particular issue by the scruff of the neck and deals with it in 100 days. Fine. But the bigger challenge is how to keep the momentum going, and how to spread the mindset of urgency beyond it.

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