The best nonprofit programs rely on innovation and discovery. Sure, you often start with a solid, evidence-based model. But, the key to success is the ability to adapt and evolve that model to address unique and often-changing needs.
One of the most challenging aspects of program planning and evaluation is being prepared for unexpected discoveries and unforeseen setbacks. That uncertainty increases when you’re trying to address new issues or looking for new ways of solving old, intractable problems. The more innovative you are, the more you’re going to need planning and evaluation tools that can account for uncertainty and complexity.
Lucky for you, the US Navy developed a tool way back in the 1950s that can simplify planning and evaluation of these complex programs.
Your programs may not be as complex as, say, building a cold-war era nuclear defense system. But you might be surprised to learn that while the US Navy was trying to build a better submarine missile system, they ended up building a tool that can blow your program evaluation and planning troubles out of the water.
During the cold war era, the US Navy Special Projects was given a huge directive. Develop a new weapon system that allowed nuclear submarines to fire missiles from under the water. Earlier missile systems required submarine’s to come to the surface of the ocean before they could fire missiles. That made them incredibly vulnerable, and in turn, reduced the Navy’s ability to respond to a nuclear attack.
This project, eventually named the Polaris-Submarine weapon system, was massive. To get it done, and to be able to plan, adapt and evaluate progress along the way, the Navy needed a new kind of project planning and evaluation tool. They needed a system that could account for all of the uncertainty that comes with research and development, but still provide reasonable estimates for time and resource needs. So, they developed their own: the Program Evaluation and Review Technique or PERT.
Simply put, PERT is a management tool that allows you to create a project timeline and flowchart when you have lots of inter-dependent and related activities and deadlines. It also incorporates statistical analysis elements so you can predict timelines that account for both the best, worst case scenarios.
One of the key characteristics of PERT is that it makes it possible to schedule a project while not knowing precisely the details and durations of all the activities. That makes it particularly useful when time is critical.
In the nonprofit world, time can be a critical variable when funding is tied to time-sensitive deadlines. Time is significant for programs that are built around existing, external schedules such as the school calendar or a monthly billing cycle. Individualized timelines might come into play for programs that address maternal and infant health because services and support are tied to biological “events” in child development or pregnancy.
In each of these service models, time is a key variable. You need to make sure that certain events occur at certain times. Perhaps more importantly, you need to be able to predict when those timelines need to shift or when certain activities aren’t going to get done in time. In those instances, program staff and managers have to make tough decisions and set priorities. So, a planning and evaluation system that can flag time-sensitive issues or problems is incredibly useful.
Most project planning tools allow you to create a basic timeline. But PERT takes that to a new level and allows you to create complex, interrelated, time-sensitive plans. The consultants who helped the Navy develop the technique described it as “a critical-path framework—a timeline-style diagram showing all the different activities in parallel, with the ‘critical path,’ featuring the most important interdependencies and bottlenecks, highlighted in thick lines.”
A true PERT chart involves a 3-point estimation technique. Each task is assigned three possible durations: 1) Optimistic, 2) Pessimistic, and 3) Most likely. These variables get plugged into statistical equations and allow managers to calculate a more realistic project schedule. Inc Magazine describes the value of this approach:
"Managers can obtain a great deal of information by analyzing network diagrams of projects. For example, network diagrams show the sequence of activities involved in a project. From this sequence, managers can determine which activities must take place before others can begin, and which can occur independently of one another. Managers can also gain valuable insight by examining paths other than the critical path. Since these paths require less time to complete, they can often accommodate slippage without affecting the project completion time. The difference between the length of a given path and the length of the critical path is known as slack. Knowing where slack is located helps managers to allocate scarce resources and direct their efforts to control activities.
PERT…forces [managers] to organize and quantify project information and provides them with a graphic display of the project. It also helps them to identify which activities are critical to the project completion time and should be watched closely, and which activities involve slack time and can be delayed without affecting the project completion time."
Many people believe that evaluation is about proving the success or failure of a program. They believe in a myth that the “perfect program” will run itself perfectly without having to hear from employees, customers, or clients again.
But, at Social Solutions, we know that real life doesn’t look like that. Real success is about ongoing evaluation and adaptation that keeps up with the ever-changing demands of real people with real lives. That means that good evaluation begins with good planning and continues throughout the life of a project or program. PERT is just one of many tools that can support ongoing evaluation, especially for nonprofit programs that need to prioritize time-sensitive events and activities.