tidy adjective ti·dy | \ˈtī-dē
My boss told me that I needed to travel urgently to help a program team who was struggling. They had recently submitted a cost extension for a 5-year project to add two additional years. The extension was approved by the donor, and now the donor wanted to see their updated M&E plan. The team didn’t realize that they needed to update it, and they had no idea where to start. Their indicator table had become overloaded with indicators and tasks, but the reports rarely included relevant data. The program director had gone through multiple M&E officers, unsatisfied with the performance of each one. As we looked at the program budget and the tasks assigned to the system, it was clear that there wasn’t really enough money or staff to carry out the original plan.
Fast forward to a small group of us in a meeting room. We were ready for the task, but unsure how to start.
I found myself thinking back to reading Marie Kondo’s book Sparking Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. Kondo’s books about tidying have been international best sellers, and she's recently launched a Netflix series. She is a Japanese organization guru whose books provide wisdom and guidance on how to tackle personal decluttering challenges around the house. Her books provide very practical guidance on how to get started. She focuses first on an individual's mindset when it comes to the art of organizing and tidying up.
“The responsibility for mess and clutter lies 100 percent with the individual. Things do not multiply of their own accord, but only if you buy them or receive them from someone else. Clutter accumulates when you fail to return objects to their designated place. If a room becomes cluttered “before you know it,” it is entirely your own doing. In other words, tidying means confronting yourself.” Marie Kondo
If something is in your M&E system - even if it's cluttering things up - it's because someone put it there. So it's going to take someone cleaning it, fixing it, or getting rid of it to solve the problem.:
Using the KonMari Method to Declutter Your M&E System
Step 1: Commit yourself (your M&E team) to tidying up
First, identify who owns the M&E system. This person or team must commit to having a tidy M&E system and to maintaining a tidy M&E system. It’s essential that this commitment is owned locally – staff coming in and out cannot help your team tidy as often as you’ll need it. It’s critical to start with some tough discussions – there may be some misunderstandings about who ultimately can organize and tidy the system, to say no to new requests for data or studies. Support the M&E team or M&E leader to own this responsibility.
Step 2: Imagine your ideal (M&E system) lifestyle
Once committed, it is essential to first review the functioning of the full team – not just the M&E team, but the full stakeholder team (so program team and M&E team). What type of M&E “lifestyle” would the team like to have? Are they really interested in and skilled at data collection, analysis and use, and do they have enough time and budget to do it well? Their M&E “lifestyle” might look different than a team who is still asking “what is M&E?” Determining this first will help guide the following steps effectively.
Step 3: Finish discarding first
Often, the team knows which parts of the M&E plan cannot be done. They know that certain indicators don’t make sense, a particular study design is really not relevant, and the monitoring forms that sit completed but unanalyzed. However, the discarding process is usually stuck for two reasons. One is because the team in indecision limbo. If so, repeat Step 1. Second, it's because the team has absolutely no time to effectively discard. The team may receive more requests over time on top of the items they’d like to discard, further complicating the discarding effort. Ultimately “weeding” the M&E system of these layers is essential to improving the quality of the system and data.
Step 4: Tidy by category, not by location
First, put it all components of the M&E system in one place, so you can see it holistically. As the KonMarie methods suggests, it is better to take a specific category first as a whole. In an M&E system, the best is to start with an overview of the whole system. Other times it’s easiest to first review all data collected at one timeframe, starting with the first like the baseline evaluation. Or all data collected through an annual household survey. Then, review each component with the aim to cut back to the essentials. Everything in there should have a defined purpose and use. Why do we need it? How will we use it? Another layer of reflection questions include considering if the team has “space” for it. For example, do we have the right people to do this type of work correctly? Are we “living within our project resources means?” Do we have the adequate time to complete it well? If not, and it is not needed for other reasons, cut it out. If it is required, then it cannot stay without ensuring that the resourcing needs are adequately increased.
Step 5: Follow the right order (easiest to hardest)
The easiest processes in an M&E system might be different per project. I tend to think that actually starting with your logic model like a logical framework is the best way to start. It’s easier for me, because it provides a clearer, more focused road map for each individual monitoring or evaluation process. What happens if the project you’re supporting doesn’t have a LogFrame, logic model, or M&E plan to start with? Now might be a good time to propose that the team consider using one. Larger evaluations or studies can be the hardest M&E processes to tidy up. When we develop M&E plans or when we are decluttering, I guide teams to avoid overwhelm by not worrying about fully designing all evaluations yet, but that they are included in the work plan and that the overall strategy for how evaluations and studies will be included is thoughtfully developed.
Step 6: Ask yourself if it sparks joy
It is really interesting that Marie Kondo uses the word joy in this final step. In contrast to happiness, joy invokes a sense of purpose. In essence, when applying the KonMarie method to an M&E system, we are asking teams to ultimately keep pieces in the system that helps the team learn and grow to fulfil the purpose of the project.
How the Story Ended
Using these steps, we cleaned up the M&E plan significantly. We focused on key indicators for the donor and areas in which the team wanted to build their knowledge and skills. We reviewed previous years’ data and analyzed it, realizing that some of it was of poor quality after all. We drafted an explanation and request to the donor, and got in touch with their M&E specialist as we worked to improve our system. He was excited about our efforts and even sent us some guidance and tools to help. We learned more about a third-party evaluation that had been conducted by the first phase of the project, and connected more with that third-party evaluation firm. The program director hired a new M&E officer, changed his job description, and shifted the way he managed him.
How To Do It
“All good evaluation starts with a utilization focus. We need to ask who needs to learn what, for what purpose, by when, and to what level of certainty?”
However, in an era of big data, machine learning, and data analytics, and with rapid decreases in the cost and speed of data collection, data clutter seems almost inevitable – and possibly unavoidable. Anyone who has ever sat in front of a massive Excel spreadsheet filled with dozens of indicators, cross-checking them with the original proposal, separate work plans, monitoring reports and Evaluation SOWs may experience the same feelings as individuals facing an overwhelmingly physically cluttered home: anxiety, confusion, disarray, stress. When looking at a needs assessment design, a logical framework, an M&E Plan, a full M&E system, or tackling routine monitoring or evaluation design, you may recognize the signs that a particular project or program might not just have some organizational issues, but data clutter issues.
5 Signs of a Data Clutter Problem
We might have a problem. How do I convince my team to reduce data clutter?
The best way to harness big data and new data analytics opportunities is to first bring focus to your project’s current clutter. In order to harness the power of exciting analytical and evaluation methods, we must first have the ability to develop the right questions to produce usable, actionable insights.
Practically, reducing data clutter will help your project save money, save time, and improve the focus and quality of the fewer pieces done.
How to Recognize a Data Clutter Problem
Davidson, E.J. (2012). Actionable Evaluation Basics. Real Evaluation Ltd.
Merriam Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clutter