The logical framework is a key to success

The logical framework planning method has been around since the 1960s and has a long and well-proven track record of creating excellent project plans in a wide range of settings. It started as a method for planning complex aid interventions in emerging economies but has been adapted to do all kinds of jobs since then. Matt Staton trained in log frame as part of goal oriented project planning training in the early ’90s and at that time spent quite a lot of time in Luxembourg working with DG 13 (as it was then called, a measure of how long ago that was…) on using log frame to plan their programmes and with teams bidding into the competitive funding that was available to companies at that time for R&D work.

I think you can see the skeleton of log frame and goal oriented planning sitting behind the ERC proposal structures and that is partly the reason why it seems to me to be such a powerful technique for very quickly testing ideas for suitability in this context and for rapid project planning and project writing – I think it speeds up the work very considerably and cuts the amount of time it takes to write well in half at least, and often by a lot more than that.

While it might have fallen out of favour a bit for planning and managing aid programmes and projects in recent years because it is, apparently, a bit too linear in its approach that doesn’t really bother us here at all because linearity and simplicity are exactly what a B1 is all about! and claims that ‘it is actually a bit more complex than that’ are mostly a result of an unwillingness to take the time to get on top of the issues at hand and to discard anything but the really essential core of the work. Mistaking sloppy thinking for complexity is a tendency that can be seen commonly in nearly all project planning in all contexts and the ERC is just a slightly more compressed version of this problem given the space constraints of the critical five pages of the B1.

A complete planning process using log frame as part of a goal oriented planning method can take some days, often as long as five days of hard work to get from complete confusion (not of course on the part of the facilitator…ever…) to a strong commitment to a transparent project plan by all participants. Most revealing in the initial contact with the group involved is the fact that everyone assumes that someone else knows what they are supposed to do, usually the person nominated as coordinator and that in fact they all have very different stories, often very divergent stories about what they are going to be doing and why. From the first phases where we take the project back to the bare metal to avoid presuppositions through the ‘groan zone’ where it appears that we’ll never get out alive to a finished project plan which people agree with and understand and which can win money is a gruelling process but incredibly valuable and it tends to make unrecognisably better proposals.

But the ERC proposals are not consortium actions (as we have already discussed) and they are not actually very complex projects as projects go…or shouldn’t be at least, if you want to win. And so, a pared down version of the log frame is going to do a great and very quick job at sketching out the project and putting in the details and to give the researcher a clear picture of whether it is an ERC project and how it can be tweaked and adjusted to fit if it is not.

This job can be done in an hour or two using the basic logical levels that projects share and which I have discussed with researchers in very great detail and very often over the years always to good effect. There are five layers to the project cake and as ERC is a particular kind of an activity it might be best to start at the bottom with the ‘resources’ level. I should hasten to add here that this is the briefest of outlines of the log frame and more flesh will be put on the bones in later posts.

In the real world, of course, the people, the things and the cash that will allow the project to take place are hotly contested and often critical to a successful application for investment or funding support – everything needs to be costed in detail and at competitive rates and frugality and efficiency are rewarded very often. I have no evidence that this is the case in the ERC programmes where it is not clear if proposing work for less than the maximum is a competitive advantage – I have seen some people go in under the maximum and win but have no sense that it was a factor in their success and the system doesn’t really seem set up to put much emphasis on the question of value for money or return on investment.

So, in my experience, for a number of reasons, the strongest of which is simply perhaps ‘why not?’ most projects add up as if by magic to the maximum time and maximum budget in the same way that proposals tend to add up to the maximum number of pages. And this means that the resources section of the log frame is not difficult to complete i.e., a small team and the budget to the limit and the time pushed out equally.

The next level up the logic is ‘activities’ and this is where most projects really shine – long experience suggests that if you ask a researcher what they are going to do then get ready for an interesting, always high quality and invariably very long response. It should come as no surprise, of course, that scientists know how to do science and like to speak about it; it is what they do all day and every day and I have yet to meet a researcher I wouldn’t give the project funding to safe in the knowledge that excellent science would result. In fact, logically, we’d all be a lot better off in Europe if anyone applying from the public sector universities and research centres of all kinds were simply given the cash – the quality and work ethic is so high that all the money would go on research and very little management would be needed to get a very wide range of highly beneficial results. Enough money is poured down the drain on trying to solve yesterday’s problems or simply to meddle in stuff in Europe it wouldn’t actually take much to be diverted from various dead ends to help move the EU economy forward a bit by dropping it from aeroplanes over universities and research centres. So, suffice it to say that proposals generally contain clear and excellent descriptions of activities – if they are the right ones of course, for this competition and linked up to the rest of the proposal, is the more important question.

In fact, too many proposals don’t progress much beyond a description of the resources and activities levels and read, more or less, as ‘I need this much money to do this stuff, please’. Although this might sound like an exaggeration it is not and I still see lots of proposals that are based in activities descriptions and don’t go much beyond this and it is never enough to win. Some projects do get up to the next level of the log frame logic which is ‘intended results’ which are, very briefly, the deliverables that the project will have created at the end of the work. Here we have all the databases and algorithms, the new machinery and tools and the things that they allow the researcher to do, the new models and descriptions of this and that – the list is endless here as each project produces many results and all are different depending of what the project is about.

A good number of projects set these things out but all too frequently they are mistaken for the project ‘objectives’ (which are one step up the logic) and we see a list of ten or more of them all proudly announced as the objectives of the project when in fact they are what they are i.e., a list of milestones and outputs and deliverables and intermediate steps on the way to the objectives. Which is not to say they are not important because they are vital to the project but not actually what the ERC are interested in buying – they wouldn’t have to pay so much money or go through such an elaborate selection in the vast majority of cases if they were buying the results of the work rather than the objectives of the project, they could devise a streamlined and more competitive way to get their hands on this new stuff if that is what they were after, but it is only really half of the story (at most) of any ERC project.

The intended results of the project can be clustered up into groups which together are sufficient and necessary to bring about changes, breakthroughs, benefits, differences, effects, the results of having the results in other words and in the words of the ERC vocabulary the clusters of results lead to the ‘objectives’. The B2 headings in the guide are very clear about this, they want to see objectives set in the context of the state-of-the-art and explained well enough so that the ERC can see that they are buying big breakthroughs in knowledge that will impact future research by opening up new frontiers and horizons. Results don’t really get much of a mention and so it is critical not to try to sell the results as the objectives but to think what the effects of having these new results in the world will be. And then write them down with some clear indicators of how we’ll know it when they arrive, how much better than the state of the art they will be, how accurate, how quick, how much smaller and cheaper and how much more powerful and more wonderful in all respects than the hopeless state-of-the-art and the work of the poor souls struggling away in it.

So, at the end of the project (or before as the objectives can be phased, of course) for the first time (it has to be for the first time as there would be no point otherwise) you will be able to control, predict, evaluate (there are many ‘objectivey’ words to use here) the systems and events you have been working on to a measurable and verifiable extent (otherwise we’ll never know if you are delivering on your promises) and this new power should be important and attractive enough to make a difference to the field and to be saleable to the ERC: easy!

It actually is easier than most researchers make it and the objectives can normally be pulled out of the swirling mass of many proposals quite quickly in discussion if you know what you are looking for. Anyway, this will have to form the basis of many further posts as it is a massive subject and the most important one: suffice it to say at the moment objectives are not results or activities (there are exceptions to this, very, very rare exceptions in some emergent basic science fields) and that they are the benefits you are going to deliver when the work is done and they can and must be described in detail.

And this in turn will contribute to the top level of the project logic which is the ‘overall objective’, the ‘greater why’ as it is sometimes called to differentiate it from the project purpose which is described by the objectives which are the simple statements of why the project is important. Here, in practice, for ERC projects we are speaking about the high level problem that the researcher and colleagues across the world are working on and which this project alone won’t solve but rather make a significant contribution to. It is about locating the work for the reader and is generally set out in the introductory paragraphs to grab the reader’s attention. It is a critical part of the scoping and strategy of the work as it is necessary to choose a field and an apparently intractable problem so that it is easy for the reader to see and important to get to grips with. This links back to a previous post on the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ and the pushing and pulling of the project idea to best fit the rules of the game that is going to be played here. The longer term impacts that should be set out in B1 in outline and in B2 in detail will, of course, link back to this high level overall objective as the project should have moved the community one step closer to the solution to the fundamental problems it contains.

The logic of the plan should flow both up and down very easily i.e., the overall objective will be caused by the objectives which and caused by the results which are caused by the activities and the resources and the resources are the right ones and sufficient to lead to the activities and the activities to the results etc. etc. It is possible to make a very robust and crystal clear plan very quickly using this method and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Those colleagues I have worked with on ERC assignments will know that this is where we spend a lot of time and where it is possible to make a big beneficial difference quickly, really force the project forward and make it ready to write quickly.