Turning strategic goals into successful projects
the logical framework approach
Terry Dean Schmidt, MBA, SMP, PMP
This paper describes the Logical Framework Approach (LFA), a highly effective methodology that builds a strong structural foundation for project success. Originally developed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), this rigorous, but flexible framework helps to plan, implement, and evaluate projects of all types.
The LFA can help to design and communicate a complicated project on a single sheet of paper, clearly and understandably. It is based on a set of interlocking concepts, which organize project information in a specific way using standard management terminology.
The LFA is especially valuable for project design. The approach features causal logic, which helps teams to organize project objectives into four distinct levels and design projects as a testable strategic hypothesis.
This document describes the Logical Framework background, benefits, core concepts, four critical strategic questions, and illustrative uses.
The common language, and step-by-step process accelerates the Initiating and Planning phases of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013) to help project teams to collaboratively design projects rapidly and effectively.
Most project managers can relate to NASA Rule #15 that states, “A review of most failed projects and project problems indicates that the disasters were well-planned to happen from the start. The seeds of problems are laid down early. Initial planning is the most vital part of a project.”
Sound familiar? This occurs, in part, because there are relatively few simple, but comprehensive methodologies to assist at the “fuzzy front end” of projects. But, progressive project managers and teams are discovering that the Logical Framework Approach offers a systematic way to design projects that avoid the “premature activity trap” and link project deliverables to strategic intent in a clear and testable manner.
Think of the “LogFrame” as a mental workbench that consists of four columns and four rows, in a 4 x 4 interactive matrix (Exhibit 1). Each box in the matrix contains specific project information organized by principles of good science and good management. The boxes interact with each other and changes in one box can affect the others. The LogFrame is not a form to be filled out, but a flexible planning and action system. The power is not in the matrix per se, but in how the multiple embedded methodologies and internal logic forces teams to think through all of the critical issues early in the game.
Exhibit 1: The basic logical framework matrix.
The matrix structure clearly captures answers to the standard “interrogative questions” – Why, What, Who, When, and How. Goal is the big picture program Why, the rationale for this and related projects; Purpose is the project-specific Why, the reason for this project; Outcomes are the What teams must produce; and Inputs capture the How, Who, and When of implementation.
Using the LogFrame helps:
- Improve communications among key players,
- Sharpen and align project objectives to the overarching strategy,
- Identify interfaces and linkages,
- Clarify what success looks like,
- Design a sound solution approach,
- Reduce risk and eliminate problems in advance,
- Build effective teams, and
- Start faster and finish sooner.
Proven in multiple settings, the LogFrame approach readily scales and adapts to projects, strategies, and issues of every type and size in virtually any environment. The LFA adds particular value to projects involving intangibles, information, and change. It is actively used in R&D, change management, process improvement, systems development, technology, talent development, and other important topics. Using the LogFrame simplifies planning, accelerates start-up, and offers a strategic road map for smooth execution.
The Logical Framework Approach
Origin of the Approach
The US Foreign Aid program is delivered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This multi-billion dollar government program funds hundreds of projects in developing countries for political, humanitarian, and economic reasons.
In 1969, Congress asked USAID, “Do these projects achieve their intended goals?” Surprisingly, USAID could not answer the question. They evaluated 150 projects and discovered that objectives were vague, measures were missing, stakeholders disagreed on what constituted success, and there was no practical way to determine their effectiveness.
Leon Rosenberg, president of the consulting firm PCI, developed the Logical Framework in response. This planning and action framework provides an integrated methodology to design, implement/monitor, and evaluate projects through their life cycle (Exhibit 2).
Exhibit 2: The project action cycle.
Terry Schmidt was recruited by the original LogFrame development team and taught it in 24 developing countries worldwide. He recognized that these concepts would also benefit a wider audience including project managers, engineers, SMEs, and business professionals. He then wrote Strategic Project Management Made Simple: Practical Tools for Leaders and Teams (2009), which featured the Logical Framework Approach.
Initially, multilateral donors, regional development organizations, NGOs, and the World Bank used the LFA. Today, this emerging best practice is used in diverse private and public sector organizations including Boeing, Symantec, DirecTV, Timex, the US Department of Energy, and the national research laboratories (Los Alamos, Sandia, Pacific Northwest, and Lawrence Livermore).
The Logic Model, often used in research and social service delivery, is a spin-off of the Logical Framework Approach.
Causal Logic Drives the Logical Framework
The LFA recognizes that every project consists of four distinct levels of objectives, defined as follows:
Goal = big picture strategic intent
Purpose = change expected from completing the project
Outcomes = necessary deliverables to achieve purpose
Inputs = tasks and resources required
These distinctions become meaningful in establishing project team accountability, evaluating project impact, and creating alignment of the project with the larger corporate goals.
The logic between levels is not random or accidental; there are definite causal relationships or “linked hypotheses.” These can be expressed as a cause-effect strategic hypothesis using if-then language. Stated simply:
“If Inputs then Outcomes;
If Outcomes then Purpose;
If Purpose then Goal.”
The logic is causal, not sequential. Project plans typically depict sequential logic (B follows A). But, causal logic (B is caused by A) lets us think strategically to identify the drivers that cause the higher objectives to occur.
The classic phrase, “if we build it, they will come” from the movie, Field Of Dreams, illustrates the causal logic embedded in the LFA. Project managers can build a baseball field (outcome), but the higher intent is that “they come” (purpose), and there is an even higher objective (goal) to “save the farm.” Understanding these three levels of objectives is helpful before laying out the tasks (inputs) to get there.
This cause-effect perspective helps build a deeper understanding of the strategic initiatives among key players. These logical if-then linkages form testable strategic hypotheses that promote collaboration, communication, and coordination to achieve critical goals.
These if-then linkages form an easily communicated mental model of how our hard work will produce results that ripple up the causal chain. The causal linkages among objectives offer a “project backbone” that connects activities with desired results and builds a foundation for success.
Four Critical Strategic Questions
To simplify usage, the author developed four critical strategic questions, the answers to which populate the matrix (Exhibit 3). Design teams will find that answering these in order avoids the common tendency to prematurely develop the work plans (Question #4) before understanding the big picture.
Exhibit 3: The four critical strategic questions.
1. What are we trying to accomplish and why?
The first question illuminates project Objectives, and we recognize that every project consists of four distinct levels of objectives as previously defined (Exhibit 4).
Projects are instruments of change. The desired change and benefits occur at the purpose and goal level. But, we cannot directly control these levels - they are “hoped for” objectives. What we can manage/control is the inputs and outcomes level. Purpose level objectives describe the changed conditions expected after deliverables are in place. Purpose is the linchpin that connects what we can make happen (outcomes) to strategic intent (goal). This strategic line-of-sight helps keep our eyes on the prize.
Exhibit 4: The hierarchy of project objectives.
The critical design questions are these: How can we ensure that the outcomes to purpose relationship happen? What is the necessary and sufficient set of outcomes and valid assumptions needed to achieve a purpose, which contributes to a goal?
2. How will we measure success?
The second strategic question sharpens the definition of objectives by establishing success measures (metrics) and means to verify objectives at each LogFrame level. These are captured in the middle two columns. Measures describe the expected level of accomplishment using quantity, quality, time, and cost indicators. The verification column sets up the basis for monitoring implementation (input to outcome) and measuring impact (purpose and goal). By setting separate measures at each level, we can monitor progress and evaluate achievement at each level.
3. What other conditions must exist?
Risks exist in every project. The third strategic question illuminates critical assumptions and risk factors. These can include dependencies, interfaces, policy considerations, resources, market factors, and other important conditions needed to make the if-then logic valid. Captured in the fourth column, assumptions are a jumping-off point for further risk analysis. Uncovering these early lets us outsmart Murphy and his infamous law.
4. How do we get there?
Answering the first three questions provides clarity for developing the work plan. The input row captures tasks, schedule, resources, and responsibilities. Conventional project management tools (e.g., WBS) and processes flesh out the input to outcome linkages. (During early stage design, inputs and resources may be illustrative).
Putting It To Use
Here are some high-payoff ways in which project managers in every industry have applied these methods to build a strong foundation that leads to predictable success:
- Review and refine core strategies. This method supports a broader strategic planning process to periodically review and refine your strategic plan and portfolio.
- Develop execution plans for key initiatives. Prioritize activities for a rapid, smart start on your key strategic initiatives.
- Strengthen teams across work functions. Bring together new teams and task forces and ramp up quickly for immediate productivity.
- Reinvent the department. Take a fresh look at where you are and develop strategies to get to where you want to go.
- Develop information technology solutions. Integrate technology solutions with core processes to deliver customer value.
- Design and launch marketing or sales initiatives. Identify and execute initiatives that support strategic sales goals or balanced scorecard elements.
- Take a high-level first cut. Apply up front for high-level scoping of super-sized projects.
- Develop recommendations and make decisions. Set decision criteria, identify alternatives, collect information, conduct the analysis, and make recommendations.
- Improve critical processes. Identify the “low-hanging fruit” where a modest process improvement effort yields big returns; analyze and redesign any process that needs an overhaul.
- Handle emergent issues. Manage projects that arise suddenly and need quicker solutions than your organization's formal project management protocols provide.
- Structure project evaluations. Organize insightful interim evaluations of ongoing projects, as well as completed projects at any project stage to think, plan, and execute the future phases.
- Organize learning and development. Sharpen learning and development programs at all levels to identify and develop future competencies.
- Manage outside-the-box projects. This approach provides a refreshing, practical tool for projects that don't naturally fit traditional project management methodologies.
Multiple Systems of Thinking
Exhibit 5: Project management in a broader context.
The Logical Framework situates project management in a broader context (Exhibit 5). Project management traditionally focuses on the input to outcomes linkage. But, producing outcomes does not guarantee purpose and goal. The LogFrame incorporates key concepts from other scientific and management methodologies, including:
- Systems Thinking – a project is part of a larger system, which we must understand and link to. The assumptions column connects us with relevant factors outside the project boundaries.
- Management by Objectives – projects have multiple objectives that must be measurable and verifiable. Describing in advance what each objective means (using indicators and quality, quantity, and time targets) makes evaluation possible and strengthens confidence in our design.
- Scientific Method – every well-articulated project strategy is based on an underlying set of if-then hypotheses or “educated guesses.” Thus, each project constitutes an experiment with implementation testing the validity of those hypotheses.
- Team Building – actively engaging the key players in up-front planning creates buy-in and stay-in.
- Risk Management – outside factors always operate. Identify and test your key assumptions early and be alert for deal-breakers up front.
The flexibility of the Logical Framework structure accommodates additional methodologies such as return on investment (ROI) analysis, lean, and agile.
Testing the Project Design
Users can test their project design and work out the kinks early by applying the Implementation Equation™ (Exhibit 6).
Exhibit 6: The complete project hypothesis.
“If Inputs and valid Assumptions, then Outcomes;
If Outcomes and valid Assumptions, then Purpose;
If Purpose and valid Assumptions, then Goal.”
Put it to Use
This approach yields powerful benefits when used by individuals, teams, and cross-functional task forces to collaboratively design and communicate project plans. The best results occur when you actively involve and engage other key stakeholders because people support what they help create.
This methodology resonates well with knowledge workers of all types. It is not software dependent. The common language and logical structure helps teams get going fast. These concepts smoothly dovetail with existing corporate systems and tools, fill in the missing gaps, and improve the overall effectiveness of leaders and teams.
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© 2015, Terry Schmidt
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA