How to use stories to gather data using The Most Significant Change Technique

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How to use stories to gather data using The Most Significant Change Technique

The Most Significant Change (MSC) Technique1 is special in two ways. First, it is home grown, developed by two Australians for use in aid and development projects. Second, it is fun, and let’s be honest, that’s not something you hear about most ways of gathering evaluation data.

The MSC approach involves selecting just one story that sums up the experience of a project.

It provides answers to a central question about your program using stories about who did what, when and why – and the reasons why the storytellers think the event was important. It’s an outcomes-focused way of gathering information.

Note: An MSC report probably wouldn’t be the most appropriate report to meet contractual reporting requirements; you need numerical data for that. However, MSC is a good technique for evaluation if you want to get lots of clients and staff involved in your information gathering, if the program or service is complex or if you are focused on working for social change. It won’t work so well if your program is finished and you’re after retrospective information, or if you want a quick and inexpensive evaluation. It does take a bit of time to do.

Funders and funding agreement managers are likely to be interested in the final report generated by a MSC exercise as there are usually some very powerful messages that demonstrate the success of a program or project, that funders and other stakeholders can utilize and there will be lots for them to learn from such a report.  

Some of Tasmania’s Neighbourhood Houses are using MSC evaluation as its suits their community development approach. Click here to read a report by the The Northern Suburbs Social Enterprise Story on its food security project.

The MSC evaluation has also been used in the Devonport Food Security Program - click here to read a report on Changing the Way Food Relief is Delivered - Devonport’s story.

Here’s how you do an MSC process. You can include clients or others in any or all steps of this process.

Work out what you want to measure

In MSC these are called domains – they could be the outcomes you are planning to achieve. You need to choose three to five. They could be:

  • changes in the quality of people’s lives
  • changes in the nature of people’s participation in activities
  • changes in the sustainability of people’s organisations and activities
  • any other changes

Some people say that MSC has the limitation that it only collects positive information – but there is nothing to stop you asking people for stories about ‘lessons learned’ or ‘changes that show an area to improve’.

Decide how often you will collect stories

If you make the time frame too long people will forget what happened during the project, or even why you are collecting stories. Collect them too often and you’ll exhaust your storytellers and spend too much time and staff resources on it. Lots of MSC practitioners plan to collect stories frequently to begin with and decrease the frequency as the process or project continues. Fortnightly is seen as frequent, three-monthly is usual for the less frequent times.

Work out how you are going to prompt people to tell the stories

'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? Use this question as a basis to develop your own.   

looking back over the last month – you are giving people a specific time period

what do you think was – you are asking them to use their judgment

the most significant – you are asking people to be selective, not to tell you about every change

change – you are asking people to be even more selective, to focus on what has changed

in the quality of people’s lives – this is an example of a domain of change. You could also ask people to describe changes in their organisation, or in how people are participating in a program

in this community – you are establishing the boundaries of the group you are asking about. It could be the people using your service, or participating in your project.

Here are some more examples:

Thinking about the last fortnight, what do you think was the most significant change that has resulted from this group for you?

Looking back over the last month, what do you think was the most significant change in the project?

Hint: Don’t worry about what significant means. People will make their own decisions about what is significant and what isn’t. And don’t worry if there doesn’t seem to have been much change. Look for any changes at all and then ask people what is the most significant of those little changes.