Step 1: Envision your impact
Understanding the impacts of our research is obvious for some, but it is incredibly tricky for many of us. By the end of this step, you will have a clear idea of the sorts of impacts that your research might be able to generate.
I’ll start by walking you through a series of questions designed to draw out the potential impacts of your work. Then we’ll begin to focus on your core goal and start to interrogate some of the motives behind this goal. And finally, we will break this ultimate goal of your research into less intimidating, more immediate staging posts that can keep you motivated and on track.
Ten questions to identify your impacts
So, what impact do you think your research might be able to generate? If you are working on applied, real-world issues in your research, this question might be obvious. Sadly, for most of us, it is far from obvious. So I’ve developed these questions to try and walk you through a process that should start to identify the potential impacts that could arise from your research:
Other than researchers, who might be interested in some aspect of your work?
What are those interests, why are they interested and how might they benefit as a result of engaging with your work? If you can’t answer this, go and speak to one of these people and ask them why they are interested and how they benefit from this interest.
What aspects of your research might be useful to someone, or could you (or someone else) build upon parts of your work to create something useful at some point in the future?
Going beyond your research for a moment, think of issues, policy areas, sectors of the economy, practices, behaviours, trends etc. that link in some way to your research. What problems or needs are there in these places, and what are the barriers that are preventing these issues from being resolved? Could your research help address these needs and barriers in some way?
What is the most significant area of current policy, practice or business that your research might change or disrupt?
Which are the individuals, groups or organisations that might be interested in this aspect of your research (whether now or in future)?
What aspects of your research are they likely to be most interested in, and what would need to happen for this to become more relevant to them? What could you do differently to make your work more relevant to these people? Who would you need help from?
If these people took an interest in or used your research, what would change? How would you know they had benefited? What specific things would you notice or be able to measure? In the future, what might people say about your research was transformative for them?
Might you see changes in individuals, groups, organisations, or at a societal or some other level?
Would these changes be beneficial or might some groups be disadvantaged in some way as a result of your research?
I’ll discuss how you can avoid negative impacts in the next step. So for now, please list as many benefits as possible for each of the different groups you identified in question 6. I’ll show you how you can do this more systematically using stakeholder/publics analysis in the next step, but at this point I want you to quickly get a feel for the people who might be able to benefit from your research.
Getting clear on your goal
At this point, you should have a number of different impact goals. Now, if you could only achieve one of these goals, which would it be? Which one is most important to you?
There are no rights or wrongs here. A goal may be important for you for purely personal reasons. For example, you might prioritise an impact goal that is likely to help you score highly when your research gets assessed, and will help you get a promotion. Or you might want to choose the goal that you believe will make the biggest difference to the issues and people you care most about.
The first thing that we are trying to do here, is to get really specific and focused about what it is that we want to achieve. It is often surprising how opportunities suddenly appear that help you achieve a goal when you bring that goal very clearly into focus. This is probably due to nothing more than the fact that we notice things that can help us achieve that goal, which we would have otherwise missed. When you have a clear vision of where you are going, it is possible to cut out much of the noise that has been holding us back and creating confusion. We start to see clearly what it is that we need to do.
Ask yourself what your number one impact priority is. If by the end of your career, you only achieved one single non-academic impact from your work, what would you want it to be? There will be other goals, but by singling out the one that is your highest priority, you are inadvertently flushing out some of the deeper motives behind your pursuit of impact, which will enable you to harness a deep source of motivation to achieve your aspirations for impact.
To make this easier, you can go through the benefits you have listed in response to the questions in the previous section, grouping similar benefits together and turning them into impact goals. Ask yourself, “what is the good I can do”, or “what are the benefits I can provide”. If you are struggling with this, close your eyes and imagine yourself a few years in the future, looking at the most inspiring impact you can imagine from your research. What can you see? If there is a person standing in front of you, what are they saying about the value or meaning of your work to them? Make your picture as detailed as possible in your mind’s eye, looking for evidence that you made a difference. You should now have everything you need to make a SMART impact goal: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. To explain what I mean by SMART in this context, contrast these two impact objectives:
To curate a highly successful exhibition of work discovered as a result of my research (not very SMART)
To curate and successfully market an exhibition of work discovered as a result of my research that will attract in excess of 10,000 visitors to the gallery by the end of the exhibition, and that will reach audiences across the UK and in at least 3 other countries via coverage in mass media and articles in specialist magazines (measured in column inches) and internationally via social media and online content production (measured via engagement metrics), leading to increased footfall and revenue to the gallery and increased awareness and changes in attitudes among audiences linked to the research (SMART)
What is motivating you to have an impact?
The second thing I want you to do, is to work out what is really important to you personally about generating impact. The chances are that if you really analyse why it is that you have chosen this particular impact goal, you will find that it links in some way to your personal priorities, values or your identity as a researcher. Perhaps you need to get that promotion so you can move to a larger house because you want to have children, and it is those family values that are driving your desire to engage with the impact agenda. Perhaps it is simply ego; you want a legacy you can be proud of. Increasingly, many of us are motivated by institutional imperatives to generate impact, which in turn generate funding, improve rankings and benefit our employers. If these are the sorts of values that are motivating your engagement with impact, then you need to pay very careful attention to the identification of risks in the next step.
The reality is that all of us have complex and mixed motives for most of the things we do, but if personal benefit is a big motivator, there is a danger that you may end up inadvertently creating negative unintended consequences in your attempts to generate impact. You would probably never think this consciously (although I was once in a stakeholder workshop with a senior academic who actually said this out loud), but you may be ‘using’ stakeholders to achieve your own goals, and as a result, stakeholders may well feel used.
Of course, our motives are usually mixed in everything we do, and ego and other personal benefits are usually part of that mix. We need to get a healthy balance of motivations driving our desire to generate impact, and make sure that we are not only or primarily being driven by extrinsic, instrumental motives. Being clear about our motives can really strengthen our motivation to generate impact. Bringing the complexity of our motives to consciousness can also help us to avoid some of the abuses of impact that many commentators have warned might happen if academics become more extrinsically incentivised to generate impact. And by focusing clearly on the myriad reasons why we are doing what we are doing, we are more likely to be able to pick ourselves up again when things go wrong, as they inevitably will at some point. If you want to think more about this, I've explored the power of our (often hidden) motives to empower or demotivate researchers in my book, The Productive Researcher.
Before you move to the next section, list some of the reasons why you want to generate impact, and try and put them in rank order, with your highest priorities at the top of the list.
Where can you create most value?
I personally believe that rather than focusing on what we can get personally from engaging with impact, it is much more empowering to ask what we can give that produces benefit. Rather than remaining in a place of insufficiency, by focusing on what we do not have, this second question comes from a place of abundance and strength, which builds your confidence and empowers you to make a difference. I believe that most of the people who have achieved most in academia have been those who have given the most.
Their secret is strategic giving; they give to others who, like them, also give, rather than to those who consistently only take. That’s not to say we should not mentor and help those who cannot give anything to us in return, that we should marginalise those less fortunate than ourselves, or that we should be calculating the time we give in terms of a return on investment. It does, however, mean that you might want to take a strategic look at whether some of the relationships you are investing most time in for your work are actually taking you away from spending time achieving your core goals. There may be very little you can do at this point but, if nothing else, it may be a lesson for the future (e.g. not to take on weak PhD students who aren’t working in areas that are central to your research interests).
If you want to be successful at achieving impact, then give to others. Seek out how you can add value and help, and do all this in an attitude of humility, being open to learn from those you work with.
What will you achieve in the next six months?
The problem with the sorts of goals that many of us are trying to reach to make an impact is that they are often a long way off; in some cases, a very, very long way off. We probably all have experience with long-term goals; they have a habit of not happening. Things change; we change. Other things become more important.
So in addition to whatever your ultimate impact goal might be, no matter how far off or challenging it may be to achieve, I want to bring your focus closer to home now. I would like you to try and come up with some specific goals that are no more than six months in the future, but which are still closely linked to your ultimate goal. These will be staging posts on your journey to impact, and they will keep you motivated and provide you with feedback, and so keep you on track. The more detail with which you can visualise these goals, the more useful these short-term goals are likely to be. If you can, imagine yourself having just reached that staging post and see what it looks and feels like in your mind’s eye.
Coming up with short-term impact milestones
There are a number of ways you can come up with these short-term milestones on the way to your ultimate impact goals. I’m going to suggest two that have worked for me. First, you can ‘backcast’ from your ultimate goal. As the name suggests, this is the opposite of forecasting. Start with the impact you want to achieve from your research, and then use your imagination to think of the step that would come immediately before having reached that goal. In the same way, keep stepping back, till you get to smaller initial steps that you might be able to take in the next six months.
The second approach works the opposite way around. Instead of working back from the end point, you need to look at where you are now in relation to your goal. The first thing you are doing is to identify everything you can that you’ve already done that has put you in a position to be able to pursue this impact goal, for example, you’ve got a funded research project and a team with some useful skills. Maybe you already have some really relevant relationships and have a clear understanding of what research needs to be done before you could have an impact. These are all strong foundations upon which you can build, and rather than looking at all your weaknesses, problems and barriers to achieving impact, you are moving into a more empowering place that recognises the strengths and achievements you can build on.
Build on your strengths and successes
From this position of strength then, you can then begin to see all the skills, insights and resources at your disposal, with which you might be able to add value to someone else who is on a similar journey. It can be useful to actually create a list of your skills and strengths.
Apart from being a useful exercise for building your CV, this can be an enriching and revealing process; especially if you do it with someone who knows you well. In addition to the things that come immediately to mind, for example areas of expertise in which you are highly knowledgeable or methods and equipment you can use, this exercise will enable you to identify other things that might not be so obvious. For example, do you enjoy photography or art in your spare time? Might you be able to take some of that creative flare into your impact work to add value to someone else? When you start to really look for places where these skills can add value, it is often surprising how many opportunities will present themselves to you. For example, there may be an NGO or business working in a similar area with similar goals, who could really benefit from your expertise. By adding value to others and giving in this targeted way, you open the door to powerful new relationships and collaborative possibilities that would otherwise not have been available.
If you are really struggling to come up with any sort of specific impact goal for your research, simply looking for ways to add value with what you have got, can often be the first step towards finding a tangible impact. By forming relationships with others outside the academy who are working in related areas, we often make mental connections between our research and the context these organisations are working in, which would not have been possible if we had not reached out.
Your tasks for the first step
Work through the eight questions at the top of this page to identify your impact
Chose your most important impact and be able to explain why it is important to you
Identify at least one thing you could do in the next 6 months that would help you reach your most important impact goal
Good luck with these tasks this week. I'll see you back here again next week to build on this with some tangible plans that will set you on the pathway to impact!
Have fun till then,
Read about the principles that underpin this step and find tools you can use to achieve more impact in The Research Impact Handbook. I will be publishing the second edition soon, and I am giving away exclusive free access to the majority of the new content to those who join my mailing list, if you are interested in subscribing via the link on my contact page. Also check out my resources page for free Research Impact Guides, templates, examples of good practice, my podcast, magazine and good practice library of pathways to impact from grant applications.