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A Rapid Cycle Evaluation Approach: Implementing Micro Steps for Program Improvement by Elena Pinzon O’Quinn

Hello, AEA365 community! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. This week is Individuals Week, which means we take a break from our themed weeks and spotlight the Hot Tips, Cool Tricks, Rad Resources and Lessons Learned from any evaluator interested in sharing. Would you like to contribute to future individuals weeks? Email me at AEA365@eval.org with an idea or a draft and we will make it happen.

Hi, my name is Elena Pinzon O’Quinn, and I am the National Learning and Evaluation Director at LIFT, an economic mobility nonprofit. Back in December 2021, I shared my tips for building a culture of data for decision making in nonprofits, which covered simple and efficient ways to share data. But getting data into stakeholders’ hands is just one piece of the puzzle in continuous improvement and learning. With efficient client data management systems and real-time dashboards, program teams often have near-constant access to data. At LIFT, we have had a strong track record of using data in strategic and long-term planning but struggled with how to use data on a more regular basis to understand program performance and integrate timely data-informed program improvements.

To respond to this need, we developed a rapid cycle evaluation framework, called “micro steps,” to be used by local teams.  The micro steps framework allows teams to reflect on process and outcome data and carry out actionable, “bite-sized” (and thus manageable) program modifications in response. The name “micro steps” borrows from behavior change theory: start small to see impactful change. Teams are encouraged to implement only one micro step per cycle, to protect their bandwidth and fully engage in implementation and reflection for the chosen step.

Micro Steps in Action

We came up with the following process for teams to use when determining and implementing a micro step:

  • Brainstorm. Review data findings, which at LIFT come in the format of quarterly key performance indicator (KPI) reports; come together as a team to brainstorm the micro step to take.
  • Document Micro Step and Theory of Change. Teams describe the micro step and articulate a short (1-2 sentence) theory of change for the micro step. The micro step must be realistic and theorized to have impact on the data point of interest. One real life example:
    • Area of focus: High no-show rates at client intake meetings.
    • Micro Step: Pilot a new client recruitment process and incorporate a bookings link that allows clients to book their own meetings and sends automatic meeting reminders.
    • Theory of Change: By leveraging the bookings link, we are giving prospective clients ownership of meeting scheduling. Clients will have the autonomy to cancel and reschedule and are connected directly with their coach instead of going through a manual process for scheduling and rescheduling involving a staff person, thereby decreasing no show and cancelation rates for intakes.
  • Plan and Implement: Plan and implement the step and determine if other support is needed, such as funding or staff.
  • Evaluate Outcomes: Revisit the data, follow-up to discuss results and next steps.

We found that the micro steps process more clearly connected data to our everyday program and provided structured guidance and expectations for how to respond to data findings. Ultimately, the micro steps process built the capacity of program teams to use data to make decisions in service of LIFT’s mission.

Rad Resources

The micro steps process is LIFT’s interpretation of rapid cycle evaluation, but rapid cycle evaluation approaches are wide ranging. For more reading on rapid cycle evaluation, see these resources:

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