Uncovering the DNA of what works

- Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell, CMP Founders and Lead Partners

Your mission is clear, your integrity strong.  Your operations are tight.  Your programs, curricula, or products are solid and well received. Your outreach is clear and aggressive.  Your staff is terrific. The people who evaluate the work of the organization: accreditors, regulators, funders, or shareholders all give your organization excellent feedback.

But your impact is stagnant. You seek a wider reach for your strong offerings, and however you measure impact, that’s not happening. Why?

Sometimes, you just haven’t uncovered the DNA of what works for your programs, curriculum, or products.  

Human DNA defines a particular biological system at the level of some of its tiniest parts and most specific characteristics.  The DNA of what works illustrates specific aspects and characteristics of effective strategies, programs, curricula, products.  

Understanding biological DNA requires particular research techniques and processes undertaken in a science laboratory.  The laboratory for uncovering the DNA of what works is the organization and its environment. The process requires inquiry, synthesis, and articulation.

Inquiry: Two Core Questions

The first level of inquiry in this process is answering the question, “what works?” Often organizations can answer that quickly. They know for example that a particular program has consistently positive outcomes, that a particular marketing strategy yields results, or that partners comment often about how much they appreciate a particular aspect of the work of the organization.      

Sometimes failure teaches an organization what works. Coca Cola Company famously abandoned their original recipe, introducing “New Coke”  in 1985 only to see sales plummet.  Arguably, what Coca Cola Co. lost in sales that summer has been more than made up for since in what it learned about the fundamental DNA of their signature product. Classic Coke’s DNA wasn’t so much in the recipe, it was in familiarity and nostalgia.  Coca Cola Co. has been making hay on that understanding ever since.(1)

For Coca Cola Co., impact is measured in increasing profit and market share.  Mission-driven organizations measure their impact differently, but they can still benefit from a process of uncovering the DNA of what works. Once they identify what works, the next level of inquiry explores what employees and stakeholders believe happens to create the positive response and impact you’ve achieved so far.   Not only what works, but why and how it works.

The second level of inquiry often requires interviews with employees and other stakeholders to get at what’s behind their belief in this particular aspect of the organization’s work.  One of our non-profit clients identified a specific strategy as “what works”  because when they neglected that strategy, things fell apart.  To find out how and why that strategy worked, we conducted interviews and focus groups with staff members responsible for the strategy, and with partners outside the organization who appreciated the strategy.

Synthesis: Reflection and Analysis

The next step in a process of uncovering the DNA of what works is to synthesize the results of that second level inquiry. That happens at two levels also:  First level synthesis engages the organization in reflection about the results of the inquiry. In the case of our non-profit client, that meant bringing their outside partners’ feedback back to the focus groups.

A researcher or consultant usually undertakes the second level of synthesis, analyzing the information generated in the second level of inquiry and first level of synthesis to identify common details and patterns of practice that had not been previously understood in the organization.  

Articulation: Conceptualizing and Staff Development

The final step in uncovering the DNA of what works is articulation.  Often this requires new conceptualizations:  new processes, images and diagrams, and even new names to describe what works.  The most important articulation, though, is at the level of staff development.  Understanding the DNA of what works will do no good unless that understanding is translated to implementation, and staff (paid or volunteer) are usually the ones who need to implement that new understanding.  

    Uncovering the DNA of What Works

  Uncovering the DNA of what works is essential to many approaches to increasing impact, especially replication and increasing public understanding. We think, in fact, that it’s wise to understand the DNA of what works before embarking on either replication or public understanding strategies without exploring the DNA of what works.   In later blogs, we’ll continue to explore those connections.


(1) To read Coca Cola's version of this story, click here