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The “Most Significant Change” technique: A guide to its use

Rick Davies and Jess Dart. Version 1.00 – April 2005. 82 Bishops Rd, Trumpington, Cambridge CB2 2NH, United Kingdom.

Rick Davies and Jess Dart (2005)The Most Significant Change (MSC) technique is defined as a form of participatory monitoring and evaluation. In brief, it refers to the collection of significant change stories emanating from the field level, and the systematic collection of the most significant of these stories by a group of individuals. These stories are then read and discussed in detail, focusing on the value of these reported changes.

This technique is presented as a good means of identifying unexpected changes, and as a good way of identifying the values that prevail in an organisation, or with a group of people. It encourages analysis as well as data collection, as those using it have to explain why they believe one change is more important than others.

The guide

After a brief introduction, the guide presents ten steps for the successful implementation of this technique. This is followed by a “troubleshooting” section, looking at the major concerns expressed by those trying this technique before. Chapter four then looks at the resources an organisation may need in order to implement MSC.

The next two sections look at MSC as part of a broader monitoring and evaluation framework (particularly when set up with the objective of organisational learning), considering issues of validity and potential biases. Chapter seven looks at how this technique compares to other approaches and epistemologies, such as “appreciative enquiries” and case studies. The following sections describe how MSC developed, and present some ideas for its further improvement.

The ten steps

  1. Getting started. The process starts by selecting “champions” (as those who will help with the process, and also encourage others to participate) and becoming familiar with the approach. This means introducing MSC to a range of stakeholders, and fostering interest and commitment to participate.
  2. Establish “domains of change”. It is then necessary to select the broad categories into which the significant change stories can be grouped. Unlike indicators, these categories (such as, for example, “changes in people’s lives”) are deliberately left loose, to be defined by the actual users.
  3. Defining the reporting period. A third step requires deciding how frequently to monitor the changes taking place in these domains.
  4. Collecting stories of change. The central part of this technique is an open question, such as “Looking back over the last month, what do you think was the most significant change in the quality of people’s lives in this community?” Stories can be captured during interviews or during group discussions. Most important is that all stories must include information about the person who collected the story and the time when events occurred; a description of the story itself; and the significance (to the storyteller) of the events described in the story.
  5. Reviewing the stories within the organisational hierarchy. People discuss the stories collected within their area and submit the most significant ones to the level above, which then selects the most significant of all those submitted by the lower levels and passes this one on to the next level. The task of reducing the pile of stories to one per domain can follow different criteria: majority rules, scoring, iterative voting, etc.
  6. Providing stakeholders with regular feedback. This is a crucial step, where the results of the selection process are fed back to those who provided the stories. Whether it is provided verbally or not, feedback needs to explain which story was selected as most significant and why.
  7. Setting in place a process to verify the stories (if necessary). A reported change may be even more important, or more details and wider implications may emerge.
  8. Quantification. All individual stories should try to show how many people were involved, how many activities took place, and to quantify effects of different kinds. Later on, once the most significant story has been selected, participants can be asked about similar changes they are aware of, trying to come up with a total amount.
  9. Conducting secondary analysis of the stories. This refers to the examination, classification and analysis of the content (or themes) across a set of stories. At the same time, meta-monitoring focuses on the attributes of the stories.
  10. Revising the Most Significant Change process; looking at the way the technique is implemented, and at the changes and adaptations through which the technique goes.

The authors invite readers to join the MSC mailing list, and thus learn more about other people’s experiences.

Web: www.mande.co.uk/docs/MSCGuide.htm
E-mail: rick@mande.co.uk

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