Discovering the inherent principles that go into making ALL impact.
I think it is safe to say that we all individually, or as part of a group, participate in some sort of activity or process that is trying to make an impact. This could be through creating something, like a new great product or a new nonprofit, or through participating in something like humanitarian efforts or special causes, or serving others by providing medical care, civil service, teaching and inspiring and helping others, raising and taking care of a family . . . this list could go on forever! When we do these things, we don’t always think of “making an impact”. It may not always be a conscious effort, but either way, we are all trying to make an impact of which we can be proud. It doesn’t matter the scale of the impact, all positive impact is important. However, do any of us actually understand what goes into making an impact?
Understanding Making an Impact
I’ve dedicated the past several years to understanding how to make an impact, then implementing that knowledge. I didn’t always think of it in terms of “impact” though. I usually framed what I was doing in terms of “design” or “product”. I thought through the “why” of designing or building a product, and it always came down to making an impact. This shifted how I think about what I want to accomplish with my career and how I want to reflect on my career once it’s over. I came up with two things I want to be able to say I accomplished:
- Help others understand the most effective ways to make an impact
- Provide space for people to employ these methods to make an impact
After I landed on these two ideas, I was so excited to get started. However, once I thought through what I was going to “teach” people, I realized I didn’t know where to start. I have a lot of knowledge, thoughts, and experience around making an impact, but they weren’t organized at all. Once I started to organize them, I saw how much more I had to learn as well. Those two points above quickly turned into three:
- Understand the most effective ways to make an impact
- Help others understand the most effective ways to make an impact
- Provide space for people to employ these methods to make an impact
I Ran Into a Problem
I ran into a huge problem when starting to understand and organize knowledge surrounding the most effective ways to make an impact. The inherent principles that go into making an impact haven’t been identified, defined or organized. (At least I haven’t found them if someone has please let me know) There is no common understanding of what goes into making an impact. For example, we all learned what the scientific method was in grade school. If you search for the scientific method, thousands of results pop up that are 99% the same. No one “invented” the scientific method (though it is sometimes credited to Sir Francis Bacon). The process was discovered and refined by scientists for hundreds of years. If there is a process for studying the natural world (science), shouldn’t we be able to discover the truths that go into making an impact?
When I say impact, I mean having a direct effect on something. That could be a physical, digital, social, economic, mental, emotional, religious, or other type of effect. Your impact could affect yourself, another individual, a group of people, or other living things. The scale of effects could be minuscule all the way to life changing. Impact can go unnoticed by anyone or be seen by the whole world. At a high level, “impact” is very simple and very broad. However, the more you try to understand the intricacies of impact, the more you discover that all impact shares common principles.
What Is In This Article?
There are two main concepts in this article. I’m calling the first concept the Fundamental Outputs of Impact. I believe there are inherent principles that go into making an impact, and this is how I’ve organized what I’ve discovered. These principles always apply, whether you’re conscious of them or not. Like I said above, I haven’t been able to find anyone who has organized and defined these before. The goal of defining the Fundamental Outputs of Impact is to discover and organize inherent truths. Truths are as irrefutable as the fact that the sun exists or that we all experience gravity.
The second concept I am calling the Abductive Intervention Framework. This is a framework that helps you be aware of and intentionally create all of the Fundamental Outputs of Impact. Using the framework helps you stay focused on and intentional about the impact you’re trying to make in order to make the impact more effective.
The outputs below have to be created to make an impact. We can not make an impact without creating these outputs, even if we are not consciously making sure they are present. I do not believe I made these up, I simply organized them and put them into orange boxes. These things just naturally exist, just like the sun naturally exists. They’re observable natural phenomena. I’ll go more in-depth for each, starting with “impact” and then working backward to help demonstrate how each one is needed to make an impact.
Usually we don’t think of actions in terms of “make x type of impact”, but all actions whether large or small and whether intentional or not, end up making some sort of impact. The ultimate goal of our actions is always to have some type of impact on a system. We don’t make an impact in a vacuum, meaning we are always affecting a system that already exists. Impact is visually represented differently because we can’t control the impact we have. We can control our actions, but not what comes from those actions. However, there are methods to make the impact we want to make more likely.
To make that impact, you need to have an intervention you will implement to make that impact. I will explain why I chose the word intervention in more detail later in the article. Having an intervention defined and ready is necessary because you can’t make an impact if you don’t choose how you will add, edit, or delete part of a system you want to impact.
To have an intervention, you need to choose one from the possible intervention approaches that could have the impact you want. Sometimes we go through this so quickly that our subconscious mind picks an intervention approach from a list of one. However, whenever we choose an intervention, we choose not to pursue other interventions that could potentially deliver the impact you want.
To identify possible interventions, you first need to understand your desired impact. No one has ever come up with an intervention without knowing the impact they’re trying to have. You literally can’t come up with a plan if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish. Like I said above, we often don’t explicitly say, “this is the impact I’m trying to make’’ but it is always inherent within our actions that we’re trying to make an impact.
To be able to come up with the desired impact, you need to understand a system well enough to know the impact you want to have on it. It is impossible to come up with an impact if you don’t understand what is currently happening in a system. Again you can’t make an impact in a vacuum. You’re always affecting systems that already exist.
Before you understand the system context, you identify where an opportunity exists to make an impact. A lot of times, this is identified as a problem. It doesn’t have to be a problem though. You may also see an opportunity to improve a system even though no one has a problem with it. In sum, you can’t start understanding the system unless you have identified an opportunity to make an impact.
Again, typically we create these outputs unconsciously. However, you do have to create them every time you make an impact. Below is a visual representation of creating all of the outputs for making an impact without thinking about them intentionally. We’re not all walking around thinking to ourselves about all of the opportunities we have before we take any action in our lives. There is a lot of power in understanding that this is what we are doing to make an impact. Creating these outputs intentionally is what we’ll dive into in the rest of this article.
Abductive Intervention Framework Intro
The Abductive Intervention Framework is a way to approach creating the “Fundamental Outputs of Impact”. You don’t have to use it to make the “Fundamental Outputs of Impact”, but using it will make you more effective and intentional at making the impact you want. There could be other models to help you create the “Fundamental Outputs of Impact”, but I’ve taken the most useful parts of other models and the experience I’ve had to create the Abductive Intervention Framework.
Below is the Abductive Intervention Framework. I come from a product and design thinking background. If you’re familiar with those worlds, you will see this framework is very similar to what is used in those disciplines. I’m intentionally not using the word “design” or “product” when talking about and creating this framework. The problem with the word “design” is that there are 14 definitions for the term currently on Merriam-Webster’s site. The word has too much baggage. What I’ve been talking about so far is closer to the following definitions: “to execute according to a plan” or “a project or scheme in which means to an end are laid out”. However, most people, when they hear “design” think of these definitions; “a drawing, pattern, or sketch of” or “the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art” when they hear the word “design”. When you’re trying to talk about “a scheme in which means to an end are laid out” and you use the word “design” almost everyone thinks of the other definitions and it is so hard for them to not think about what you’re talking about in any other way. That’s why I didn’t use the word “design” when organizing this framework/process, even though it is heavily inspired by the thought leaders of design thinking. There are two main principles that are different from design thinking models. First is the addition of the “Fundamental Outputs of Impacts”. Second, the framework is oriented towards making an impact and not delivering a product.
Let’s go over the names I’ve come up with. I decided to call what you are doing through this framework an “Abductive Intervention”. So going through this framework means you plan, produce, and implement an “Abductive Intervention”. Here is why I chose those words.
To get formal here is Merriam-Webster’s definition; the act of interfering with the outcome or course, especially of a condition or process. If we want to have an impact we have to interfere with what is currently happening within whatever system we want to impact. I love the word intervention because it sounds way more intrusive and brash than design or product. Using the word intervention can help those of us who are intervening be more aware of the fact that we are interfering with other people’s lives. Most times, we’re intervening in someone else’s life or environment, not only our own. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. Hopefully, we’re doing this to help others, but that doesn’t take away the fact that we are outsiders influencing others’ lives. Even if we have good intentions, we can harm others we aren’t always aware of. The word intervention helps keep that at the front of our minds while planning, producing, and implementing Abductive Interventions.
Abductive logic is a type of reasoning like inductive and deductive logic. Abduction is a method of reasoning in which one chooses the hypothesis that would best explain the relevant evidence if true. This just means we gather as much relevant information as we can, analyze that information, then create a hypothesis that best describes the information we have gathered. The diagram below shows these steps.
Medical diagnoses are common examples of abductive reasoning. With the relevant information that they have, doctors make the best guess as to what is happening with your health. They could be wrong, but they’re probably right. Here is another example of abductive logic:
- You see a bowl of soup on a table
- The soup is hot
- There is an empty chair where the soup is on the table
- The most likely explanation is someone just got hot soup and had to leave but will be coming back shortly
With the information you have, you can’t prove that your explanation is true. The soup could be a setup for a photo shoot, maybe the person’s family had an emergency and just left altogether, but you know enough to be able to explain what is most likely to be true. (Dive deeper into abductive reasoning here: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Abductive_reasoning )
By putting these two words together, we’re saying that we know that we’re going to intervene in some system in some way. We’re not just going to intervene for fun. We are going to use abductive reasoning, which means we’ll be intentional, measured, and responsible about how we do it. We impact things every single day without noticing that we’re doing it. We should know how to be intentional and understand how we can impact things in our lives and the lives of others. We should be intentional because the intervention we make will be more impactful and efficient, and it’s our responsibility to know and be accountable for the impact we make on others.
Recap of what Abductive Interventions are:
- Understanding what is most likely to happen in a system (current state of the system)
- Determine what you want to make most likely to happen in that system (the impact you want to have)
- Produce an intervention that produces the impact you want to have
- Implement intervention
There are 3 types of components that make up the Abductive Intervention Framework; Phases, Practices, and Fundamental Output of Impact. Phases are the three main sections of the framework denoting the kind of work you’re doing. The three phases are Planning, Producing, and Implementing. There are 5 Practices that represent the skills/disciplines you use to produce the Fundamental Outputs of Impact. Then there are the 5 Fundamental Outputs of Impact that we’ve already talked about.
The structure of the framework uses the concepts from the British Design Council’s double diamond. One difference structurally is the circle at the end for implementation. The biggest difference is having “Fundamental Outputs of Impact” throughout the framework. ( Dive deeper into the British Design Council’s Double Diamond framework here: https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/our-work/skills-learning/tools-frameworks/framework-for-innovation-design-councils-evolved-double-diamond/ )
For the different “practices” names I looked at the double diamond, Stanford d school’s design thinking, Ideo design thinking, and other frameworks to see how they overlap and vary from each other. I then chose different words to represent what I thought most accurately represents what happens to create the Fundamental Output of Impact.
The diamonds are visuals to represent divergent and convergent thinking. The first part of the diamond that is opening up to its center represents divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is very open-minded and trying to gather as much information as possible. Whether that is researching and gaining as much context you need about a subject, or brainstorming as many possible interventions as possible to get your desired outcomes. The second part of the diamonds represents convergent thinking. You start this type of thinking once you feel comfortable that you have all of the information or options that you need. With that information, you’re trying to come down to a decision. (Dive deeper into divergent and convergent thinking here: https://professional.dce.harvard.edu/blog/divergent-vs-convergent-thinking-how-to-strike-a-balance/ )
This first phase of an Abductive Intervention is planning. This is really where the abductive reasoning comes into play. This is where you’re trying to understand what is most likely to happen in the system you’re going to interfere with, and then determine what impact you want to have on it. You rarely get things the way you want them on the first try. The more system context you have and understand the more informed your desire impact will be. Once you work with defining your desired outcomes, a lot of times it leads you to gaining more system context, which leads to updating your desired impact. That’s why there are arrows showing that you will cycle between discovery and analysis multiple times.
Now that you know what impact you’re trying to make, you can start producing the intervention. Interventions can be anything and everything. They could be physical products, digital products, conversations, movies, rituals, social media posts, teaching materials, etc. This phase is to come up with possible ways to make the impact you want and experiment to see if they will have the impact you want to have. Just like planning, producing is also cyclical. You can come up with intervention approaches, and think you’ve come up with all possible approaches. You then experiment to test out which one could be the most successful. Running those experiments can make you think of new approaches to test, and the cycle continues. This is why the arrows are on the framework to represent these potential cycles.
This phase only has one practice and its implementation. When you come up with your prepared intervention you also come up with how you would implement that intervention. This phase is making it happen. Ideas are cheap and interventions don’t matter if they’re not used. This is the critical phase where the rubber hits the road and impact happens.
The practices are the skills or methods you need to perform to produce the next Fundamental Output of Impact.
This is where you need to understand the system you’re going to intervene with. It’s irresponsible to plan on interfering with a system without trying to understand it as much as possible before interfering with it. Abductive logic is how you start to understand this. It entails gathering as much information as you can to understand the system and understand what is happening in that system. With that context, you then understand what are the most likely outcomes within the system.
This is where you start to determine the outcomes and impact you want to have on the system. This shouldn’t be taken lightly. Just like the mantra for the outdoors “leave no trace” (or leave it better than you found it). We shouldn’t change a system if it has negative effects on others. When analyzing you are trying to determine parts of the system that could be altered, deleted, or added to that would make it possible to have an impact. Once those opportunities are identified/confirmed, you can then determine what outcomes you can measure to have your desired impact.
There are so many ways to intervene and have an impact. I don’t believe there is ever a correct or incorrect way to intervene. However, there most definitely are ineffective and effective interventions to have your desired impact. That’s not what you’re worried about yet though. What you’re trying to do while ideating is coming up with any conceivable intervention that could make your desired impact. This is where you “think outside the box”, “there are no bad answers”, “write down anything that comes to your head”, “blue sky thinking”, etc. There are so many incredible design methods to help foster ideation.
Now that you have a lot of different approaches for your interventions, now you need to vet out which ones are the most effective at delivering your desired impact. There are a lot of factors to consider while experimenting, and those factors differ in every context. A lot of those factors boil down to do you have sufficient resources and do you have a team that can pull off the intervention. For the concepts that you do have the resources and the team for, which one is most effective and efficient for getting your desired impact? You should also be thinking through what unintentional impacts these potential interventions would have on the system. While figuring these things out you should be planning on how these different interventions could be implemented.
Here is the important part. You understand the system. You know the impact you’re trying to have. You know how you want to intervene to create that impact. Now all you have to do is execute the intervention. As stated above you should have come up with at least a general plan of how to deliver your selected intervention. Implementing could range from putting a sign up on a wall one time, all the way to having teams of thousands running customer support or leading groups across the world. Sometimes interventions happen only once, sometimes they keep being implemented dozens of times a day across the world for decades. There are no bounds to the scale of impact that can be had. Again the factors of whether you have sufficient resources and a team that can pull it off are critical to having a successful implementation of an intervention.
The Fundamental Outputs of Impact are the building blocks of making an impact. Whenever you have made an impact, you have created these deliverables, whether it was conscious or not. However, if you go through the practices and consciously create each deliverable, you’ll more effectively and efficiently make your impact. We’ve already covered these at the beginning of the article so I won’t go over them again.
This is my first time putting my thoughts online on these topics. I’m excited to be challenged and to have my thoughts grow to refine these concepts to make them simple and powerful for everyone to use. I know my thoughts will evolve and grow with more people using them, critiquing them, and all of us learning more about the best ways to make an impact.
To put it simply again, I believe there are inherent principles that go into making an impact. I think they are what I’ve started to call the “Fundamental Outputs of Impact”; Opportunity, Context, Desired Impact, Possible Interventions, Selected Interventions, and Impact. I’ve organized the best way to approach creating the “Fundamental Outputs of Impact” into a framework called the Abductive Intervention Framework. Taking from the best in the world to help organize a way to intentionally approach making the “Fundamental Outputs of Impact”. This is just the beginning, and I’m excited to continue to learn the best ways to understand and make impacts that we’re proud of. Thanks for reading if you got this far! Reach out with any questions or comments. I want to talk to everybody interested in these topics.