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This Is How We Do It: Lag & Lead Indicators

July 30, 2014

[Editor's Note: Here at Plenty we are constantly meeting and partnering with organizations and companies in the nonprofit space that are impacting the sector in big ways. We are excited to bring this community of leaders, thinkers, and motivators together on our blog, and share their innovative and aspirational ideas. Below is a guest post from one of these inspiring organizations forging the path of change. Enjoy, and happy reading!] 

Your theory of change is probably pretty cool. Logically airtight and elegantly formatted, it distills your program components into a digestible yet meaningful framework. As both process and work product, a good theory of change provides a roadmap for stakeholders by illustrating how specific actions tie to outputs and long-term outcomes. Your theory of change can also be an especially helpful tool when on-boarding new staff, courting funders and investors, and reining in mission creep.

At The Cara Program, our theory of change takes the form of our Service Delivery Model, which maps our approach to the interrelated challenges of poverty, employment barriers, and chronic homelessness through (1) sourcing motivated candidates; (2) stabilizing and developing participants’ life and career skills; (3) connecting participants with quality jobs; and (4) retaining and advancing participants on their career path.

As comprehensive as a theory of change is meant to be, its work product manifestation often limits its application. A one page PDF on your website, shared drive, or intranet is the perfect bite and level of detail for an external stakeholder or new staff member. The key to unlocking the value of theory of change for seasoned staff lies in tying each programmatic component to a goal metric, to be displayed prominently on your theory of change document, and then driving down even further to determine what specific actions must be taken and sub-goals met to reach each goal. The latter, super drilled-down part should be handled offline, as to not muddle external stakeholders’ program understanding but still easily accessible to staff for whom micro-goals represent the real day-to-day work.

A helpful way to frame the various goals and sub-goals of your theory of change is to think of them as lag and lead indicators.

Lag indicators are the results you get from each component of your programming. Your lag indicators are typically the goal metrics published on your theory of change and promotional materials.

  • Some of The Cara Program’s lag indicators, as listed across the outcomes row in our Service Delivery Model, include (1) number of participants retained through the second week of training, (2) number placed into quality jobs, and (3) percent of employed participants celebrating one-year job retention.

But the goals set forth for each program component, your lag indicators, don’t just happen. There are certain preconditions that must be met in order to realistically expect to meet your, more macro, lag objectives.

Lead indicators are actions you drive that make the lag possible. Lead indicators are what program teams care about on the day-to-day, as they tie directly to their programmatic functions and activities.

  • Some of The Cara Program’s lead indicators include (1) number of participants accepted into the program, (2) number of job interviews participants are sent out on, and (3) number of one-on-one visits held with employed participants.

A way to make the management of lead and lag indicators more feasible is to have each owned by the person, role, or team that is performing the related lead action. At The Cara Program, for example, the Admissions team is accountable for the number accepted and retained through week two (lag and lead #1) and the Individual Development team is accountable for the number of one-on-one visits with employed participants and the percent of whom make it to one year on the job (lag and lead #3).

Lead indicators should be touted by the team manager as an integral element to the overall organization’s success; progress to the goal should be discussed and highlighted at team meetings; and a culture/energy is then created around how the team’s work product ties into the ultimate lag indicators and overall mission.

It’s crucial that one person, whether a team member or a dedicated data manager, owns the tracking system that allows the team to track progress to lead and lag goals. The mechanism used for tracking the results can be a basic spreadsheet or a more complex database, but in either case, this person is responsible for validating the data, updating fields and terminology as necessary, and pulling/creating reports to feed back to the team. Trust in the data system, data quality, and accuracy of metrics is crucial for maintaining energy and helping team members feel that time collecting and entering data is time well spent.

The concepts of lead and lag indicators come full circle when you notice that, with a logically designed theory of change, each lag indicator is essentially the lead to the subsequent lag! The Cara Program could not celebrate participants’ one-year job anniversaries if those individuals had never been placed into quality employment. And those placed were only able to have successful interviews and secure their jobs because they made it through key program milestones, such as week two of training.

Lead and lag indicators give meat to your theory of change, provide direction to frontline teams, and help staff see how their work fits together. It’s just like Montell Jordan sang “This is How We Do It”.

Author: Andrea Cote, Analytics and Process Manager, The Cara Program

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