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Ideas to make impact a priority

Idea 1: Engage researchers in a coaching process to identify forms of engagement and impact that they might find intrinsically motivating

Start by engaging with the person in charge of the group or unit you want to engage with, so you design a process that contributes to their goals and you can understand the broader context and pressures the group might be under. Get them to co-design the process with you as far as possible. It will have to be about more than just impact, and you will need to draw on the help of others in your team to meet these wider needs.


Consider who you will reach out to:

  • Ask if you might do this for the staff you line manage. I offer coaching to all my new starters, both academic and professional services staff, though I am careful to point out the power dynamic and make it clear that this is not something I require or expect if it feels uncomfortable (as a result, only around a third of my staff take me up on this). The first session is designed to test the water and see if they want to proceed, and I emphasis all the good reasons why people prefer not to enter this sort of relationship with their line manager, to try and make it easy for them to back out if needed. I usually give them a copy of my book, The Productive Researcher, beforehand, and structure our early discussions around things that arise for them as they read. But the key thing about coaching is that they set their own goals, and you enable them to reach these goals themselves, with you primarily in listening and questioning mode. I usually agree six sessions (I schedule them once a month) which we review at the end in case people need more. It is worth getting some training or reading a book on coaching, if you want to avoid slipping into a mentoring role, though there will often be moments when it is appropriate for you to provide specific guidance.

  • Alternatively, you might want to identify opinion leaders within different research groups and career stages, from early career researchers to the Professoriate. You will need to consult carefully to identify these people, but if successful, this approach increases the likelihood that any changes in attitude and behaviour around impact might influence others around them. Of course, the drawback is that you end up working with the “usual suspects” and may work with more senior than junior colleagues, who may already have more privileges and opportunities than their colleagues around them.

  • Instead, you might prioritise a cross-section of staff from different career stages and groups who you think have most potential


Justifying why you are doing this if you are not part of their group might be tricky. You may be able to refer to a role, if you are a director of impact, an impact champion, or in a professional services role linked to impact (though in this case it will be important to stress that the process is designed to enable them to achieve more than just impact). Additionally, you might agree to create a wider initiative with the head of unit, which could be about raising the profile of the University coaching system across the group while trialling some more local coaching with you, with a cross-section of colleagues being selected to have the opportunity to work with you (which of course they can decline if they wish).


Proceed with one-to-one engagements with researchers, in listening mode to understand their priorities and passions, whether or not these include impact. Seek to understand the pressures they are under, the challenges they face and the barriers preventing them achieving their goals. Consider subtly structuring your conversation using a coaching model such as GROW, identifying Goals, assessing the current Reality including strengths/capacity as well as issues, identify alternative Options that could get the person from their current reality to their goals, and decide what they and you Will do first to achieve change.


Provide help and build trust by doing what you can to report and address concerns with the head of their group and anyone else you can draw upon within the institution to provide help. Check on the actions the researcher agreed to do themselves and support them to do these as far as you can. Aim to deliver at least one tangible benefit per person, where relevant getting them to bring in others with similar issues so you can help their colleagues too. Focus on addressing the issues they care most about, where you think you can both make progress, rather than necessarily privileging solutions that could enable impact.


As you make progress with initial actions, start to identify impact opportunities that would contribute towards their priorities or connect with their passions, for example unlocking new funding or data collection opportunities, engaging with the creative arts for public engagement or joining a stakeholder event. As part of the process, listen to concerns about impact and allow push-back; maybe now is not the time for this individual or group to engage? Alternatively, you may be able to provide support or training as needed for your colleagues to engage in the opportunities you identify.


Keep encouraging the researchers you are working intensively with to draw others with similar issues or interests into the activities you are facilitating. Consider convening a group meeting to share experiences and opportunities more widely in the group. Finally, provide long-term, light touch support, checking to see how activities are working long-term, and helping them adapt and trouble-shoot where things are not going according to plan.

Idea 2: Organise internal impact-related events that will engage researchers with varying levels of interest and experience with impact

Impact or challenge-themed workshops and sandpits to stimulate cross-institutional collaborations are increasingly common but can have unintended negative consequences if not run well. If you are running a sandpit event to allocate seed-corn funding to new teams, you either need to run an intensive vetting process or design the event to enable people to evaluate each other carefully before committing to a team. Without this, you can end up with perfectly matched teams of experts who are unable to work with each other. If you have an application process for your sandpit event, you need to go beyond expertise to understand people’s epistemologies and underpinning values and beliefs, if you want to avoid endless arguments about the why and how of the research. Alternatively, you need to enable teams to form more organically, so people have time and space to evaluate whether they get along and might enjoy working together. While you can create these sorts of spaces through team-building activities in an event, there is something artificial about the speed you get to know people, which is why I personally avoid sandpits whenever I can.


I will admit that my perception was coloured by a horrific sandpit experience where we all had to do a painting, swap with our neighbour and then rip their painting in half (they didn’t force us to do this, but the moment they told us to do this and we all froze has never left me). I then got stuck in a group with one of those unbearable people who doesn’t know what they’re talking about and covers up their ignorance by talking pompously about themselves all the time. I was group leader but there was no mechanism for choosing who was in or out of our team. We won the funding, but the thought of working with this researcher was more than I could bear, so I withdrew and handed leadership to someone else in the end. Life is too short to collaborate with people who make you miserable.


Instead, creating a regular safe space in which people can discuss ideas and get to know each other is, in my opinion, a safer way of building new relationships. After all, that’s what teams are meant to be about. In the same way I don’t commit to any kind of personal relationship with someone I’ve just met, I think we should have the time and space to get to know potential collaborators before diving into any kind of commitment.


I personally like the idea of a monthly internal impact seminar series focussing on methods for generating impact illustrated with case study examples, with the promise that attendees will leave with new methods they can use to generate their own impacts. University of Auckland recently launched a monthly webinar series called “impact through culture change”, which includes external speakers, integrating experience from both academics and professional service colleagues. You might also want to include sessions on impacts that have failed or led to unintended consequences to facilitate conversations about ethics, avoid mistakes being repeated, provide support and help to those negatively affected by “grimpacts” and build capacity for better future practice.


Alternatively you could speak to whoever organises your departmental seminar series to ask if they can include at least one impactful project in the next semester, with a reflection on the process of generating impact from the speaker (ensure you attend this session if you can to make yourself identifiable to colleagues and exploit opportunities for discussion after the seminar).


Another idea is to use monthly impact seminars and annual events as an opportunity to collect information others might find useful or inspiring for communications (see below) or an online repository, moving beyond case studies to identify lessons about what worked or didn’t work, methods used and tips for others who want to generate similar impacts.


Finally, many Universities now have an annual impact showcase or award ceremony targeting different career stages and different types of research and impacts, to celebrate and inspire colleagues. Beware however that only a certain type of researcher is likely to be attracted to the idea of applying for a prize or being celebrated so publicly, and there is a danger that the selection process further embeds the idea that certain types of impact or researcher count more than others. For me, if you are going to run an event like this that contributes to a healthy impact culture, you will want to think about how you might use it in a more disruptive way, for example to highlight the sorts of researchers and impacts that are rarely celebrated.


University College Dublin has run an impact competition for many years (part of the prize is a day doing impact training with me). However, when I talked to the 2020 prize winners, many felt deeply uncomfortable about the idea of entering the work they had done to help vulnerable groups into a competition. They feared that by focussing on their role as researchers in generating impact, this could come across as exploitative. David Bennett, who now leads on the prize for UCD explained to me how he was tackling this issue. He said:


“Ultimately, it all comes back to empathy: in some ways it's great that researchers have these anxieties, because it shows that they genuinely care about those who are affected by their work. To allay fears like these, I think it’s crucial that researchers are open with stakeholders about the competition and its purpose.


“In recent years, we've published several case studies whose beneficiaries could be described as vulnerable, including survivors of abuse and people suffering from poor mental health. Some might perceive these stories as exploitative, but we always try to frame them as a way of raising awareness. We also ensure the beneficiaries are listed as collaborators in the case study, and are invited to the competition’s prize-giving ceremony. We want it to be a positive experience for everyone, and so far it has been.”


David went on to tell me how the competition had helped shift attitudues towards impact at UCD:


“The case study competition has played a significant role in embedding an impact culture across UCD. It is elective, and culminates in an event that showcases research that has made a difference. So researchers can see that engaging with the so-called impact agenda needn’t be arduous, and can in fact be positive and celebratory. 


“Every year we publish ten excellent case studies – one winner and nine runners - up – and we are always struck by the variety of stories we have to tell. Last year, for example, each published case study was from a different school, which helps researchers across campus realise that impact is incredibly diverse: it can take myriad forms and arise from any type of research.


“The competition is supported by a series of workshops, where we help researchers think more deeply about impact, including how to identify and work with beneficiaries, how to evidence impact, and ultimately how to write a compelling case study. These events are critical to the competition’s success.


“But the competition is only one way that we try to instil an impact culture. We also organise tailored seminars for particular schools or groups of researchers, host masterclasses with external speakers, and develop resources for our online Impact Toolkit. It’s the sum of these efforts that’s changing how we think about impact at UCD.” 

Idea 3: Harness the power of your communications in creative new ways

There are many creative ways you can use communications and events to draw people into impact in ways that connect with their intrinsic motives and existing priorities.


Seek and celebrate otherwise “unsung” impacts that colleagues would never normally talk about, let alone submit to a research assessment or a questionnaire from their funders. I will talk more about this in Chapter 16, but it is often the small-scale, personal impacts that have most power to reframe impact as something that can be inherently rewarding, rather than about some kind of performance that has to be polished and placed on a world stage. For example, I heard of a colleague who used their research to help a professional violinist who had been injured in an accident learn to play the violin again. Whether they played on a stage again was irrelevant; seeing their joy as they were able to reconnect with their instrument was all that mattered. For many colleagues, transforming their students’ lives is the thing that matters most to them, whether they can link that directly to their research or not, and despite the fact that their funders are rarely interested. Perhaps the most inspiring thing you did all year was give a talk to your child’s class at school, and part of the impact was seeing the look in your own child’s eyes as you spoke to their friends, and they formed an ambition to do something as inspiring with their lives as they felt listening to you that day. Can we seek out those stories?


Moreover, can we seek out our most unsung colleagues whose work is rarely noticed, let alone celebrated, to pro-actively offer them funding for impact rather than just allocating funds to those who ask, who are often the same people every time. Can we find ways of raising their profile and building their confidence, for example by featuring them in newsletters or creating stories online with the press office, and helping them write about their work for outlets such as The Conversation?


Talking of the media, can you stimulate conversations between your press office and professional services staff working on impact to enable both groups to work more effectively together to support impact? Currently press offices tend to get involved at the end of the research cycle and push the reach of our research, missing important opportunities to build awareness and engagement with research earlier in the process and deliver more targeted and significant benefits for the most relevant groups. To find out more, do an Internet search for my Media Impact Toolkit and Guide, which I co-wrote with The Conversation in 2019.


In relevant disciplines, it may be possible encourage and resource the collection of impact evidence in ways that can enable findings to be published in the peer-reviewed literature, further raising the profile of the research and impact, increasing the quality of the evidence you collect and building the CVs of the researchers who engage in the work. It is possible to write up evaluation papers for top journals that provide important new insights. If you want to see examples, look at Professor Lindsay Stringer’s paper with some colleagues and I from 2017 in Land Degradation and Development, or my 2018 paper with Ros Bryce and Ruth Machen in Evidence & Policy.


Finally, you might try and identify colleagues who are already playing knowledge broker roles to key non-academic communities, and enable them to share their knowledge, connections and experience with the wider academic community via seminars, training and mentoring. Provide them with additional resources and support for impact in return for their efforts.

Idea 1: Engage researchers in a coaching process
Idea 2: Organise internal impact-related events
Idea 3: Harness the power of your communications in creative new ways
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