Step 2: Plan for impact
In this step, you will become clear about who might benefit from your research and how you can engage with them to achieve impact.
Creating an impact plan using the template in this step is incredibly easy. It may take anywhere between an hour and half a day to come up with a first draft, but investing time in this step will save days and days of time later, by ensuring you don’t waste time on activities that don’t actually help you achieve your impacts. By taking this step, you will turn impact from a possibility into an inevitability. Follow your plan, and you will achieve impacts.
Why you need a plan
Most research funders now require researchers to articulate how their research might generate impact, as a prerequisite to funding. Getting this right can be crucial to your chances of funding success. Although it goes without saying that to be successful, the research that is proposed must be of the highest quality and novelty, and fit with the aims of the funder. However, many funding panels are faced with a limited pot of money and a choice between a number of proposals that each have the same top-quality rating. In such cases, the quality of your proposed pathway to impact can make the difference between a project being funded or not. Many funding panels include non-academic stakeholders, who may pay particular attention to your knowledge exchange plans, and it may swing a decision in your favour if your impact pathway is particularly credible.
When funded, you need to revisit what you proposed, and update and expand it into a fully-fledged impact plan. This will help you to organise, implement and track your knowledge exchange activities and impacts throughout the research process. This will also help with reporting to funders, and if you realise the impacts you set out to achieve, then this process will also help you assess the impact of your research in future years.
Pathways to impact: a best practice library
Funders provide guidance on writing these sections of proposals, but the advice tends to be quite generic, and there are few examples of good practice available. For many years, researchers have asked research funders and Universities to make examples of good practice available to help in the process of writing a strong pathway to impact. As a result, some institutions now make examples of good practice available to researchers within their own institution, but not all researchers have access to this sort of help.
When I proposed developing an open access “good practice library” of pathways to impact, I received a lot of negative reaction. Some expressed concern that researchers would be tempted to copy examples of good practice, stifling innovation and leading to a narrowing of the pathways proposed for future projects. Others pointed out the fact that no example would be faultless, and so people may replicate elements of poor practice in addition to the good parts. Others still were concerned that the impact sections of a proposal should never be viewed in isolation from the wider proposal they are linked to. And what if good practice evolves? There is certainly evidence of this already. The examples of good practice given out by the UK Research Councils when they first introduced pathways to impact in 2008-2009 are now regularly identified by researchers in the workshops I run as examples of poor practice, compared to more recent examples.
My response was to use this negative feedback to design a best practice library that dealt with each of these issues. As a result, you can find examples from multiple disciplines and funders, regularly updated as our perceptions of good practice evolve, accompanied by the summary and objectives of the research they relate to, with feedback from grant reviewers on their impact (where available) and a narrative I have written identifying elements of good practice and areas where I think they could have done better, so you can learn from both the successes and limitations of the examples provided.
Contrary to the view that sharing good practice stifles innovation, I would argue that open access to good ideas enables the best innovations to spread widely and be improved upon rapidly. Pathways to impact are so specific to individual projects, that anyone attempting to copy these sections of a proposal wholesale will inevitably reap negative consequences in review, based on the ill fit to the research, even if no-one spots the plagiarism. There are certain knowledge exchange mechanisms that have now been shown clearly to deliver impact better than other mechanisms, such as the Stakeholder Advisory Panel. If these mechanisms have been proven to work, why are we trying to keep them a secret from others? Are we more motivated by institutional competitive advantage or learning from each other to generate impacts that work?
My best practice library is still small, but you can help by proposing examples to me. I will evaluate your example and if I think it is good practice I will include it in the library:
What does a top pathway to impact look like?
I can boil down my advice on writing the impact sections of your grant to the following: be goal-driven and specific. Proposals that seek to achieve a clear impact goal are more likely to inspire reviewers and be believable, rather than falling into the trap of simply communicating research findings, or listing numerous activities that have no clear point. For me, specificity equals credibility. A proposal to work with “policy-makers” requires a far greater leap of faith on the part of reviewers than a proposal to work with a named policy team within a specific Government department. The fact that you know the names and positions of key people who are in a position to enact change, implies that you have a credible plan that will work. Specify your goals clearly, with specific indicators that will tell you when each goals has been met. Explain how you will complete each activity in credible detail and why this is the best way of achieving a specific impact e.g. instead of social media, identify the platform you will use, who you will target that is on that platform, and what impact goals you will be able to preferentially achieve via this medium.
You can read detailed guides to writing the impact-related sections of your next grant proposal tailored to the needs of specific funders here:
Identify your publics and stakeholders
It is just as important to identify individuals, organisations, groups and publics who might be disadvantaged by the outcomes of our work, or who may block our research, as it is to know who our beneficiaries are, and who can help us. Knowing about potentially problematic or hard-to-reach stakeholders or publics at the outset can give us the necessary time to adapt our research so that it no longer disadvantages those groups, or work out ways of mitigating negative impacts before we run into opposition or achieve bittersweet impacts for one group at the expense of another.
It may seem self-evident that all the relevant publics and stakeholders should be identified prior to any attempt to engage with them. However, it is surprising how often this step is omitted in research projects that need to work with non-academic partners. In many cases this omission can significantly compromise the success of the research. For example, the project may miss crucial information that could have been provided, had they engaged with the right people. In cases where very few stakeholders are identified or engaged with, this can lead to a lack of ownership of project goals, which can sometimes turn into opposition from certain stakeholders. In cases where a single important stakeholder has been omitted from the process, that organisation or group may challenge the legitimacy of the work, and undermine the credibility of the wider project. Public/stakeholder analysis helps solve these problems by:
Identifying who has a stake/interest in your work
Categorising and prioritising stakeholders/publics you need to invest most time with
Identifying (and preparing you for) relationships between different stakeholders and publics (whether conflicts or alliances).
Try it now...
Develop your impact plan
Whether or not you need to submit your impact plan to a funder as part of a research proposal, it is important that you have a clear plan that can guide your own progress towards reaching your impact goals. I use an impact planning template to organise my thinking clearly. You can see the template I use here:
As a “logic model”, the template is driven by the impact goals you established in the previous step. If you are still not convinced by your goals, dive into the rest of the template and revisit your goals at the end. In my experience, the process of thinking through your pathway to impact in this structured, detailed way, usually brings the clarity you need to reframe your impact goals and make them convincing and powerful.
Based on your public/stakeholder analysis (see previous sub-section), my template specifically encourages you to identify which parts of your research each public or stakeholder is interested in, so you ensure that the pathway you develop derives impacts from your research, rather than from other sources of evidence (columns 2 and 3 of the impact planning template). You can of course include these wider impacts, but you should be aware that these impacts may not be research impacts (depending on the nature of the evidence they build on), or they may not be your research impacts.
Based on columns 2 and 3 of your impact planning template, you can now identify activities that are appropriate to use with different groups, to communicate or (if possible) co-produce messages from your research. Tailor these activities to the needs and preferences of each group, recognising that there may be different sub-groups within any single public or stakeholder group who may want to engage in very different ways with you. Pay particular attention to activities you may need to develop for influential and/or hard-to-reach groups, as these may take more time and effort, so you may want to start engaging early with these groups.
Identify indicators or targets that you can use to track whether or not your activities are actually taking you closer to your impact goals. Use this information to adapt or change your activities, so that you ensure you achieve your goals. To make this more powerful, I like to identify activity indicators that specifically tell me how each of my activities is working, providing me with formative feedback on my practice. I then separately identify impact indicators that will tell me whether or not my intended impacts are happening as expected (e.g. milestones have been reached) or I have actually achieved the impact. Before doing these two things seperately I used to find that I had often only identified activity indicators (because they were easier to develop) and I had no way of knowing whether or not I was actually achieving impacts. I have also asked you to provide a “means of measurement”, so that these indicators are concrete and feasible to evaluate (whether in quantitative or qualitative terms). Prior to this, I was finding that many of the indicators I developed, while highly accurate, were too costly or time-consuming to be put into practice. This attention to detail at this point in the impact plan can also really help bring impact goals into sharper focus, so consider revisiting your goals once you’ve developed indicators, to see if you can further improve them.
Consider the risks associated with achieving your intended impacts, and the activities you have chosen to reach them. What might not work or go wrong? Might there be unintended consequence? How can you mitigate these risks? I have seen research proposals being sunk at funding panels because they did not seem to be aware of some major risks that appeared obvious to the panel. If the researchers had identified the risks and explained how they would mitigate them, they might have stood a chance of being funded. However, appearing to be unaware of the risks can undermine confidence in a team’s experience and credibility. It is better to identify risks yourself and explain how you will mitigate them, than it is to hope that the reviewers and panel members won’t notice them.
Ask what resources or help might you need to achieve your impacts and mitigate these risks. Consider who will be responsible for each activity and when will you time these activities in relation to your research programme and the priorities and agendas of your stakeholder community. Some activities and impacts may be impossible to realise before certain research tasks have been completed. Sometimes it is possible to identify a key date before which preliminary findings could be put to particularly good use (e.g. as part of a policy consultation), and it may be worth considering whether your research schedule could be adapted to provide results in time to be useful for that purpose.
Decide who is doing what and when. Decide if there are any deadlines or target dates for any of your activities or impacts, and assign responsibility for activities to relevant team members. Talk to your colleagues and get their feedback on your plan for impact, and if you can, get feedback from stakeholders, so that they can tell you if there are particular points at which certain findings could have greater impact. Then make a habit of checking in with these people. Regularly update yourselves as a research team on your progress towards impact goals as well as updating yourselves on the progress of the research itself. Put it on the agenda of any regular meetings you have with colleagues. And consider how you can create an accountable and collaborative ongoing relationship with the stakeholders who help you make this plan, for example, through a bi-annual stakeholder advisory meeting.
Finally, it is worth noting that there is a danger that impact plans can become too prescriptive. Targets and indicators can help keep your impacts on track, but they shouldn’t become a straitjacket that prevents you from adapting your objectives to meet changing stakeholder needs, or exploiting new opportunities as they arise.
Be strategic to save time
Once you have an impact plan, you are able to see that there are multiple different groups of publics and/or stakeholders who will be easier or harder to reach. You will be able to see the different pathways to impact mapped out in front of you. Some will be quick, easy and likely to work, while others may be more expensive, time consuming and uncertain. This knowledge empowers you to choose which groups you want to work with first, and which pathways to impact you will prioritise based on the time and resources you have available. Rather than trying to achieve your dream list of impacts for every group who has a stake in your work, you may prioritise particular impacts that are significant and far reaching, but that are quick and easy, and tried and tested. If your chosen pathway to impact doesn't work, you may want to prioritise some of the other pathways you mapped out as a plan B. And if you circumstances change and you end up having time, resources or expertise, you can move onto the other impacts and groups.
Your tasks for this step
Turn your impact goal from the last chapter into an actionable impact plan. The first step is to identify publics and stakeholders who are likely to be interested in your work, benefit from engaging with you and/or who can influence your ability to generate impact.
Identify activities you can use with different publics and stakeholders and tailor your activities to their needs and preferences.
Identify indicators or targets that you can use to track whether or not your activities are actually taking you closer to your impact goals.
Consider the risks associated with achieving your intended impacts, and the activities you have chosen to reach them. What might not work or go wrong? Might there be unintended consequences? How can you mitigate these risks?
Ask what resources or help might you need to achieve your impacts and mitigate these risks.
Consider who will be responsible for each activity and when will you time these activities in relation to your research programme and the priorities and agendas of your stakeholders and publics.
Good luck with your tasks this week. I'll see you back here again next week to start thinking about how we can put your plan into action!
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.