“How do I keep my work on track?” you ask. The answer is both easy and hard. A work plan sounds straightforward enough and if I asked you if you had one, you would probably say, “Yes, somewhere. It’s pretty bare bones, though.” Well, when was the last time you looked at it? Right!
It is always our intention to have a good work plan but things get in the way, such as our own desire to get going and, of course, our client’s demand for deliverables.
Sometimes the work plan gets very cursory attention—or none at all. How then do you keep your work on track especially if you are juggling several projects simultaneously, each with different requirements, different time lines, and different intensities? The day will come when you sit down at your computer and say, “Now what was I doing on that project?” And your mind will be a blank.
If you develop a comprehensive work plan at the outset of a project, it is much easier to determine where you left off. Plan to make your work plan your first deliverable. This will let you spend the time you need on design work while still getting paid. Interview key informants to find out their formal and informal needs and expectations, increase your understanding of background and context, identify important dates to help structure your project, and get to know the players.
A work plan outline
- Project overview, goals and objectives, and key activities—from your client’s perspective. You may have to review documents such as their own proposal, annual reports, and strategic plans. Interviews with a couple of key informants can be very helpful.
- Evaluation purpose and scope, why the client needs the evaluation and what will be done with the results. This is based on your proposal but it is fleshed out now that you know more about the program. Use a phased approach to respond to emerging needs (e.g., Phase 1: Literature Review; Phase 2: Data Collection and Reporting; Phase 3: Knowledge Translation).
- Analysis of program assumptions and the program theory. As the work plan is a deliverable, you can spend the time you need obtaining input from stakeholders on the logic model.
- Evaluation framework or data collection matrix, linking evaluation topics identified in the logic model with related evaluation questions, appropriate and useful indicators, workable research methods, available data sources, and realistic time lines.
- Study tools, at least to the extent possible at this point in time. Particularly in a developmental context, this may be impossible beyond the first few months but you need to strategize for emergent data collection opportunities.
- Plans for data analysis and triangulation and for data synthesis (e.g., mapping themes).
- Outline of the final report and if other reports are planned, provide a brief description of what will be contained in each.
- Your approach as an evaluation consultant (e.g., consultative, culturally sensitive, accountable).
- Scheduled activities (by phase if appropriate). If this is a multi-year project, provide more detail for the first year and commit to consultation each year before fleshing out the specifics.
Links to other important tasks
The work plan is also a critical link to other tasks in the chain. It will lead us back to our client with the answer to the original policy question that got us hired in the first place. Here are some important links:
- Your proposal scopes out the overall plan of attack.
- The work plan allows you to clarify and explore the topics sketched out in the proposal.
- Status reports provide a brief update on task achievement. These act as deliverables and support your cash flow while at the same time keeping you on track and accountable. They mirror the tasks laid out in the work plan along with an update (e.g., completed, in progress, planned for a specific date).
- Timesheets are coded to the tasks identified in your proposal. That way you can track how much time is expended on each task and how much remains.
- Tools are coded to your logic model and data collection matrix. This helps immeasurably when data analysis time rolls around.
- The final report follows the general outline you provided in your work plan but now you know so much more!
So don’t just launch into the work. Take the time to scope out your project by developing a detailed work plan. Get your client to sign off on it. Things change because programs are organic. They respond to their changing environments and so you will need to update your work plan regularly. This is particularly critical in multi-year scenarios but even shorter-term projects suffer from volatility.
Leave a window open in your plan to address such changes as staff turnover, funding re-configuration, emergent work processes, upgraded technology, and even changes in your client’s expectations. Any one of these can derail your study if you do not keep your work plan evergreen.
Has your work plan helped you stay current or has it died on a shelf somewhere? Let’s start the conversation!
[Originally published in Ask Gail, an e-column for the Washington Evaluators, Vol. 1, Issue 2. November 6, 2013.]
Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.
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