Avoiding impact imposter syndrome; lessons for first class impact

(I just remembered this when looking through my files…..originally published by Research Fortnight…….still rings true)

As I write this, I’m sitting on a train. I won’t lie, I’m in first class. Admittedly it’s because I stumbled on a great advanced deal, but whatever the reason, my mum is still taking this as a measure that I’ve ‘gone up in the world’.

Around me are a lot of people in suits, lifting their sparkly smartphones to their ears and – largely speaking – impressively balancing passive-aggression with the art of barking orders at junior staff.  The main thing that strikes me is that they seem to know precisely what they’re doing. They have that clear authority, directive (read *ballsy*) communication style and the presence that says ‘don’t interrupt me, I’m overseeing the sale of a small island’.  Sitting here trying not to betray my ‘only here because I got a good deal’ status, I am reminded that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of feeling like an imposter.

Sitting with that blank page to plan impact can feel like stepping into the first class carriage for the first time; not quite knowing what to do, trying to avoid accidental faux pas, and attempting to display enough gravitas to appear native. The introduction of impact to the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) compounded this by rapidly shifting expectations for ‘real world effects’ from applied research to all disciplinary areas.  Whilst universities have been galvanised into more strategic approaches to impact, researchers still face the challenge of establishing just how impact fits with their own work. Watching how people enter the impact carriage is telling. I’ve had people in tears because they feel so completely underequipped to plan impact with something as important as a grant at stake. Conversely I’ve had others bluntly assert their personal exemption because impact is something ‘other people do’.  Generally most people fall somewhere in the middle, seeking to ‘do’ impact in a way that – quite justifiably – fits their discipline, research paradigm and overall ethos on the practical applications of their field of investigation.

In my experience, the REF-led impact-as-assessment rhetoric can taint planning at the funding stage.  It’s easy to overpromise, be unrealistic and guarantee to change the world on a single project because that’s what impact is presumed to be.  Fact: it’s not.  Of course there’s a desire to make big changes, but the smaller, direct benefits of a project (eg. ‘improved NHS staff knowledge’) are crucial milestones along an impact pathway towards bigger, longer term goals (e.g. ‘improved patient wellbeing).

One of the biggest and most pervasive errors at the planning stage is that of poorly thought out relationships between the project, activities, outputs and stakeholders. It’s so easy to accidentally ignore or mask the ways by which impact occurs, undermining the realism, achievability and meaningfulness of any plan. So if you’re facing an impact blank page, I’d suggest – alongside talking with impact specialists in your institution and using online resources (e.g. http://www.esrc.ac.uk/research/impact-toolkit/ – you take a step back and think about the following:

How does your research connect to a (the) bigger problem? All too often we assume – because we ourselves are so invested in the topic area – that the need for the research is obvious.  But it’s vital to fully outline the related non-academic problem and articulate how the project contributes towards a change.  Be clear on the direct results (which you can create) and how these may enable longer term benefits (which you can’t guarantee but you can make a realistic prospect).

How are you connected with the real world For research to escape academic captivity, you need to escape too. Build links (networks) with those who can shape, advise or use your research from early in the process. There’s no surer-fire way of annoying the pants off a potential beneficiary than rocking up at the end of the project to tell them what they need. And no, in this context, academics do not count as real world people. However lovely they are.

How do your activities connect with your impact goals? (tagline ‘lose your inner diva’) . One of the easiest traps to fall into is to name drop, jargon-drop or be so devoid of sufficient detail that you expect the panel to accept your impact will happen simply because you’re awesome. Phrases such as ‘the team are made of well respected experts’ may offer credibility to the project, but they do not deliver the realism and achievability needed for impact plans. Similarly broad statements such as ‘we will run workshops with users’ convey little more than ‘we know real people should be spoken to and we know where there’s a room available’.  All it means is that you have a context which is conducive to impact. It says precisely nothing about what you’ll actually do or, crucially, why.  The reviewer needs to be assured that you have chosen activities for a reason, so express your reasoning – ‘The team are made of well respected experts, which allows us to draw on a series of established networks’, and ‘To engage our key user demographic and gather vital feedback on implementation plans, we will run workshops with users’. Makes all the difference.

Have you connected with people who’ll challenge you? Impact needs critical friends – colleagues and stakeholders – who will force you to think beyond the academic merit of the work.  Impact isn’t about grandiose narratives, it’s about understanding what people need and designing achievable routes to get there. Find people who’ll make you justify things.

Have you connected the change to the measure Planning the evidence of impact is far easier when you know what kind of changes you’re looking for.  Think through (i) what you want to/think will change, (ii) how you will know a change has happened, (iii) how you could measure or qualify it, and (iv) what evidence you could get to prove it.  Setting this up from the start will make your life a lot easier.

Have you connected your aims with those of the funders? Don’t forget the funders aims, especially when you’re rushing to meet a deadline.  They’re crucial to connecting your project with the bigger (and often impact-focused) aims of the funder/scheme. Go check!!

Remember – impact can’t be templated or prescribed.  Go back to the reason your project is important. Your efforts in the research stage can really help improve someone’s life, even if it’s several steps in the future. And don’t worry about that first class carriage. Everyone there had to step onto it for the first time once too.



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