Forget capacity development — focus on sustainable performance improvement

A workshop participant maps factors that impact the performance of his community-based organization. On the USAID-funded Enhancing Nigeria Capacity for AIDS Prevention — ENCAP project, the CYPRESS methodology was implemented by Deloitte Consulting LLP. Photo by: Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Banking crises, sovereign debt woes, the resulting economic downturn and subsequent government austerity drives have prompted governments around the world to shift their policy priorities and seek out new ways to achieve efficiency — to do more with less.  

This is equally true for the world’s biggest donors of foreign aid and their partners. In the context of the follow-up framework to the Millennium Development Goals, international development actors face increasing pressure not only to deliver more value for money, but to help ensure that achievements are both measurable and sustainable.

These pressures call into question the value of traditional capacity development approaches and activities, which have been a cornerstone of development programs for decades.

A shift in focus

Wendy Carr, a director in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Federal Human Capital Practice, embraces the tension that has emerged around capacity development. In the past 10 to 15 years, she said, the international development community has been relying on an “outdated paradigm” — one based on individual training and skills building — to try to achieve development goals.

This short-term approach, however, did little to address systemic organizational issues or help counterpart organizations sustain the changes being made, Carr continued. Deloitte Consulting LLP saw an opportunity to modernize its approach to development work by adapting its leading commercial human capital practices to the unique challenges in the development context.

“Even the term ‘capacity development’ is outdated because capacity alone doesn’t ensure performance. We are pushing to change the lexicon to sustainable performance improvement and move away from capacity development altogether,” Carr said.

At the same time, Molly Loomis, a manager and global health practitioner at Deloitte Consulting LLP, helped found a capacity development working group — the Capacity Development Network — to drive innovation and overcome challenges in the field. The group’s first task, in early 2010, was to develop outcome level indicators for capacity development.

According to Loomis, capacity development projects faced a dual problem.

“First, it wasn’t clear what real value we were getting out of capacity development activities, because they were only measuring outputs. We needed a model based on outcomes, not outputs,” she said. “Second, there were a lot of capacity development frameworks out there that described where we want to go. But for the most part, those frameworks weren’t operationalized beyond conducting an assessment. The international development community didn’t have a systematic way to go from A to B.”

A ‘paradigm shift’

The methodology Deloitte Consulting LLP devised to enable counterparts to focus on sustainable, measurable performance — CYPRESS, which stands for Capacity Performance, Results, Sustainability, was launched later in 2010 and provided that much needed roadmap.

It assists Deloitte Consulting LLP’s counterparts — ranging from government ministries and national aid agencies, to specialist organizations in areas such as global health, agriculture, tax and governance — in their efforts to lead and institutionalize performance improvement initiatives to achieve “tangible, long-term improvements” in their day-to-day work.

In doing so, Carr explained, the methodology treats capacity as a means to an end — not an end in and of itself.

“From our point of view, CYPRESS represents a paradigm shift that fully empowers our counterpart organizations to achieve their goals in a way that is both sustainable and measurable,” she said. “It positions counterparts to be firmly in the driver’s seat.”

Loomis piloted the CYPRESS methodology on an HIV prevention program in Nigeria that was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. “Deloitte Consulting LLP approached this project differently, because we knew that training counterpart workers in skills alone wouldn’t be sufficient,” she said.

“We had to build a new operational model for engagement — one that would focus on more than skills and more than HIV prevention. And we had to look past outputs and focus on the ‘so what’ to promote more meaningful and sustainable change. CYPRESS allowed us to do that.”  

Moving from theory to practice

The iterative CYPRESS methodology aims to meet capacity development challenges head on, noted Carr, starting with goal setting to improve performance, focusing on defining indicators that can measure broad outcomes of performance improvement, and defining a clear process — including a detailed written work plan — to help counterparts move from where they are to where they want to be.

Change management and performance management principles, Carr said, are embedded in each of the methodology’s five steps. Deloitte Consulting LLP helps counterparts use a number of tools and analytic measures — such as benchmarking against leading practices and an analytic survey to determine an organization’s readiness for change — to encourage evidence-based decisions throughout a project’s lifecycle. In turn, she said, this helps encourage long-term change to take root.

The methodology operationalizes a number of key principles to drive sustainable performance improvement in a “simple and straightforward” way, but according to Loomis, “the magic of the approach is in the delivery.”  

1. Begin with what the counterpart really cares about.

The first principle is to start the engagement with what the counterpart organization cares about, Carr explained, asking them about their performance goals or mandates — such as increasing tax revenue by 60 percent by the end of the fiscal year. According to Carr, both development professionals and the counterpart’s employees need to discover and connect with that purpose.

Indeed, Deloitte Consulting LLP’s experience working with counterparts reveals that organizations that discover their sense of purpose tend to perform better — across the board — than those which do not.

“Setting or confirming goals with counterparts encourages them to have a greater stake in the process,” Carr said. “The most important first step is therefore to ask the counterpart about their goals.”

For example, when Deloitte Consulting LLP implemented CYPRESS with South Sudan’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning in 2013, the first step was to engage a group of leaders across the ministry in a conversation about what drives their performance. This initial conversation resulted in a dialogue among leaders that led to a “shared vision” of where they wanted to be as an organization.

Developing this shared vision, Carr detailed, helped to create better reference points to measure changes in performance over time. Indeed, toward the end of Deloitte Consulting LLP’s engagement with the ministry, the director general of the treasury directorate, Simon Kiman Lado, reflected on the importance of tracking performance: “If you don’t measure your work, you don’t know where you are going.”

2. Make the current state assessment a learning event.

A good assessment tool enables counterparts to compare themselves with peer and world-class organizations, indicating where they stand on a range of accepted leading practices and benchmarks. What differentiates a great assessment from a good assessment, according to Deloitte Consulting LLP, is more than a tool — it’s a process that allows counterparts to engage in self-reflection about their performance, provoking deeper thinking than checklists and spreadsheets.

“You may know what dysfunction looks like, but you don’t know what leading edge looks like if you’ve never been there before,” said Lee Mazanec, a CYPRESS coach who has implemented the methodology with counterpart organizations in South Sudan, the Philippines, Georgia and elsewhere. “We want our counterparts to understand what leading performance looks like and to help them understand and choose where they can go and how they can get there.”

As counterparts become more adept at self-reflection and analysis, and as they have more data to drive their decisions, they become more independent, he explained.

Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Maturity Model and Benchmarking Tool — which maps performance from a basic stage through developing, advanced and leading-edge stages — is key to the CYPRESS methodology’s effectiveness. Counterparts are able to determine their current state on the model, and can look to more advance stages to identify actions they need to take to improve their performance. The tool is also structured so that performance gaps and performance improvement ideas segue neatly into a concrete, practical and forward-looking set of follow-up actions.

In Afghanistan, for example, Loomis helped to stand up a nascent directorate in the Ministry of Public Health.

“The first time we conducted the assessment, I helped facilitate,” she remembered. “The second iteration, they drove the assessment. And their views were much more objective — they were much more accurate at identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and targeting their follow-up actions to address root causes.”

3. Equip leaders with the tools and knowledge to manage change.

CYPRESS seeks to empower managers to look beyond short-term impact to long-term change. According to Meg MacWhirter, a CYPRESS coach applying the methodology in Haiti, “Rather than being the foundation of performance improvement, change management is often an afterthought — if it comes up at all.”

When organizational resources feel constrained, she said, leaders and organizations often focus more on the immediate impact, rather than thinking about how — or even if — the change will last.

“Not only does CYPRESS bring change management to the forefront, but we help leaders see the value in it and we give tools — such as Performance Sprints, which are high-impact 90-day initiatives — and knowledge to communicate, equip and sustain the change,” she said.  

Implementing a results-based financing scheme in Haiti, MacWhirter suggested, requires ongoing change management activities. Using CYPRESS, the team helps ministry counterparts to expand communication with relevant stakeholders, institutionalize required capabilities and create “feedback loops” to seek input along the way.

4. Enable counterparts to own their results.

Measuring real change in capacity, performance and results is critical to a counterpart’s ability to own the results and help ensure long-term sustainability.

“Linking activity with purpose and always keeping the end goal front of mind is a prerequisite for long-term progress,” Carr said.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Deloitte Consulting LLP helped a public health supply chain organization institutionalize key performance management activities. The organization not only built its capacity to collect and analyze performance data, but more importantly streamlined reporting and the use of data. Performance management champions in the organization began to include the presentation of metrics results, interpretations of findings and recommendations for action into existing activities within their respective departments.

On an ongoing basis, these “change champions” monitored action items informed by performance results and encouraged cross-departmental collaboration and the use of performance data for continuous improvement. In the process, CYPRESS coach Kate Donovan McNabb who has worked in sub-Saharan Africa said the organization not only captured what it learned about performance and operations, but it also institutionalized important monitoring and evaluation and performance management practices. Over a finite period, the organization realized double-digit percentage improvements of not one but several key performance indicators.

The importance of data-driven decision-making in capacity development and performance improvement cannot be understated, Carr said, but a key success factor is the counterparts’ ownership of their own results. By using performance data throughout all capacity development activities, improvement efforts “hit closer to home.” This approach aligns activities, maintaining progress against specific performance goals.

A local government authority Deloitte Consulting LLP worked with on another project in Nigeria described the way ownership of data empowers counterparts: “It was like we were in a vehicle that was going to an unknown destination. Our eyes were closed. But now we know exactly where we need to go … We see what we can do for ourselves — even without waiting for the government.”

‘Pushing the envelope’

Since 2010, Deloitte Consulting LLP has refined and customized its CYPRESS methodology on projects in the Philippines, Tajikistan, Armenia, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan and Haiti — within institutions ranging from community-level nongovernmental organizations to associations and coalitions and to local, regional and national government agencies.

But there is still room for improvement. Organizations working in capacity development and performance improvement need to “constantly adapt our approaches, test new ideas and drive leading practices,” Loomis said.

There is also a need, she said, to “continuously evolve and innovate,” to adapt to the complex situations in which such organizations work. Deloitte Consulting LLP was keen to capitalize on the experiences and successes of CYPRESS in the post-MDG era, Loomis suggested, in what is widely seen as a new direction for the international development community.

“There have been some great advances in capacity development and performance improvement over the past few years,” she said. “More people are paying attention to performance, and more people want sustainable results. The development community needs to harness this momentum, continue to push the envelope and make this paradigm shift the new normal. That’s our challenge.”

Join a special Devex webinar entitled “A new paradigm for capacity development” on Thursday Nov. 13 at 08:00 EDT (GMT-4) to learn more about Deloitte Consulting LLP's CYPRESS methodology and how it provides a roadmap to enable counterparts to focus on sustainable, measurable performance. Join us to learn what it takes to make the shift from capacity building to sustainable performance improvement and discuss what the development community can do to make this paradigm shift the new normal. Click here for webinar sign-up.

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About the author

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.