Five principles for achieving impact

By Mark Reed

Mark Reed (biography)

What key actions can help research have impact? Interviews with 32 researchers and stakeholders across 13 environmental management research projects lead to the five principles and key issues described below (Reed et al., 2014).

1. Design:

   • Understand what everyone wants. This can help in managing expectations of different stakeholders and project members and identifying potential issues/problems early on.
   • Understand the context of the project. Use local characteristics, traditions, norms and past experiences as a starting point for planning the project.
   • Take your time. Knowledge exchange is time consuming if done properly.
   • Design your knowledge exchange activities carefully. Spend time researching the context, the stakeholders, and possible approaches. Design for flexibility, get feedback, and adapt your plans to suit changing circumstances.
   • The early bird catches the worm. Ideally planning and research into the context and stakeholders should begin prior to project commencement.
   • Get buy in. Ownership and ongoing commitment can be formal (eg., monetary investment or contracted time to the project) or informal (eg., regular engagement via social media).
   • Independence. Ensure that the management of the research is seen as independent and neutral, so you can build trust with stakeholders. This can be achieved through a neutral organization leading the process or an independent facilitator running sessions with stakeholders.
   •  Mix up your methods. Plan to use a variety of methods for engaging with stakeholders and the public to suit different people’s preferences.
   •  The process is as important as the outcome.
   •  Resource your impact. Generating impact takes significant time and resources. Budget for a well designed process, which includes social events, staff time, professional facilitation, refreshments and (in some cases) financial compensation to cover time and expenses for participants.
   •  Use knowledge brokers. Identify individuals that play a significant role in your stakeholder community and may be able to act as a champion.
   • Visualise your research. Tools that use maps, illustrations, cartoons, drawings, photos and models are particularly successful.

2. Represent:

   • Involve the right people. Make sure power dynamics between individuals are considered and attention is paid to selecting individuals who have the power to make a difference. If there are people or groups who doubt the value of the process keep them informed and give them the option of joining in later.
   • Not just the usual suspects. Those of different ages, gender, backgrounds and cultures bring different knowledge, concerns and perspectives to the table.
   • Understand and create networks. Understand the people’s social networks and spend time creating connections both vertically and horizontally within and between relevant organisations.
   • Personal initiative. Many impacts are based on one individual’s initiative, perseverance and hard work; you need at least one individual who is willing to push the process through and maintain momentum.

3. Engage:

   • Away days. Put time aside at the start of the project for the research team and key stakeholders to get to know one another’s expertise, background and languages.
   • Be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is infectious and can help maintain momentum and achieve long-term involvement of participants, even when outcomes are delayed or mistakes are made.
   • Find out what motivates people. Motivations can include: academic interest, to learn, fear of missing out, financial gain, professional duty, personal promotion, and to support or promote causes they care about. Be honest with participants about what they will gain through participation.
   • Build capacity for engagement. Include basic training activities to improve knowledge exchange and co-production.
   • Build personal relationships. Impact is all about relationships. Taking time to socialize is important.
   • Build trust.
   • Multiple modes of two-way communication. Whether face-to-face or via social media, use the widest possible spectrum of communication media available to you, so that everyone who is interested in your research can engage with you via their preferred mode.
   • Keep in people’s comfort zones. Have meetings in the local area and in a non-threatening, neutral environment. Choose activities (at least initially) that people are comfortable with.
   • Enjoy! Make sure the process is enjoyable and interesting for everyone involved.
   • Keep it simple. A stakeholder steering group may help in ensuring the language and approach is suitable.
   • Work around people’s commitments. Consult with those you want to work with to match your process to their commitments.Manage power dynamics. Recognize that power dynamics play a role in the process; plan for and manage this appropriately.
   • Record. In order to ensure transparent, trustworthy processes make sure that your process is properly recorded.
   • Keep your goals in mind. Reiterate research and impact goals throughout the process and keep to deadlines.
   • Respect cultural context. Consider local attitudes to gender, informal livelihoods, social groupings, speaking out in public and so on.
   • Respect local knowledge. Respect local perceptions, choices, and abilities and involve all types of knowledge when setting goals and planning for impact.
   • Share responsibilities. Share out responsibilities and credit in order to help build relationships, trust in the process and foster ownership for those involved.

4. Early impact:

   • Deliver quick wins. Delivery of practical outcomes early can help build trust and relationships, keeping people engaged for the longer-term.
   • Work for mutual benefit. Spend time finding out what people want from the process and try hard to deliver this.

5. Reflect and sustain:

   • Get participant feedback regularly. Use it to adapt techniques and deal with problems as they arise.
   • Make time for reflection.
   • Learn from others who have achieved impact. Visit other projects that successfully delivered impact and speak to people who have carried out similar work to what you are planning.
   • Continuity of involvement. This is especially important for projects dealing with controversy.
   • Maintain momentum. Review sessions, feedback forms and good facilitation can ensure that momentum is maintained.

These principles and issues are summarised in the following figure:

Do these ideas resonate with your experience? Are there other issues that you have found to be important?

References and more information:

Reed, M. S. (2016). The Research Impact Handbook. Fast Track Impact: Aberdeenshire, United Kingdom (details at:

Reed, M. S., Stringer, L. C., Fazey, I., Evely, A. C. and Kruijsen, J. H. J. (2014). Five principles for the practice of knowledge exchange in environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management. 146: 337–345. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.jenvman.2014.07.021.

Biography: Mark Reed is a Professor of Social Innovation at Newcastle University UK, in a HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) funded Chair as part of N8 AgriFood. He is based at the Institute for Agri-Food Research & Innovation and the Centre for Rural Economy in the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, and is a Visiting Professor at University of Leeds and Birmingham City University.

6 thoughts on “Five principles for achieving impact”

    • Thanks for the great feedback! Worth checking out Julie Bayley’s recent work on institutional impact health-check (she is @JulieEBayley on Twitter and very responsive there). My own definition of an institutional impact culture is “the shared values, beliefs and norms of an academic community that support the production of (significant and far-reaching) non-academic impacts based on excellent research, which then define the collective identity of that community and distinguish the strengths and foci of one institution from another.” Interested to know what you think of this as a definition?

      • Hello Mark: I am less clear about the last part about”… distinguishing strengths and foci of one institution from another”. In my experience doing community engaged scholarship (I was an academic for 2 years), a challenge was who owned the research agenda and budget, who dictated times… The principles you gathered emphasize a lot of “engagement care”, transparency and horizontal communication, which I appreciate. In our work with collaborative evaluation, we refer to this as “readiness”: the review of the conditions that need to precede the partnership to ensure there is sufficient balance of power between the researchers and those seeking evidence to inform their work. The Cdn J of Programe Evaluation will include an article of ours on this later this year; of possible interest.

        • Good point – implicit in my definition is that this is about creating an institutional impact culture, for example in a specific University. Overall, what I want to try and contribute towards is a broader culture of impact that is about academics owning impact for their own diverse reasons and engaging because they want to for these reasons, not just because their institutions/funders/Government tells them to. So I agree with you.

          I also love the idea of “impact readiness”. Even without a specific impact goal, you can make sure you are in the right place at the right time with the right people and significantly enhance the chances of getting opportunities for impact and being ready to turn those opportunities into real benefits for real people.

          I’d love to see more of your work! Please email some to me…


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