What is on the menu...Context!

January 18, 2023

Understanding context is extremely important to assist with decision-making when providing implementation support. On an average day, people make hundreds of decisions. We must understand that, in order to make the best decision, we must always consider context to help us differentiate which options will lead us to the best outcome. To simply state it - “Context Matters.” This blog will take you on a journey of understanding what and why of context as well as how it informs our planning and delivery of support for implementation.

What is Understanding Context?

So how does one define context? “Context is a set of characteristics and circumstances that consist of active and unique factors within which the implementation is embedded. As such, context is not a backdrop for implementation but interacts, influences, modifies and facilitates or constrains the intervention and its implementation” (Pfadenhauer et al., 2017).

Thus, context plays an important role within implementation and influences how we make decisions, which may lead to positive or negative outcomes. Did you ever experience the reflective moment of “Darn it, if I had considered X, I would have done Y” in your implementation work? It happens to all of us and when it does, it reinforces the need to step back and look at the bigger picture of the implementation work as well as think of strategies to prevent that moment from occurring again for that particular implementation effort. The goal of understanding context is to recognize the various factors influencing implementation and consider or use them in our planning to optimize the outcomes we are striving for.

Why is Understanding Context Important?

When we have a lay of the land or an understanding of the context, we can truly recognize our partners’ various assets and needs to determine the best path forward. Recently at an advisory board meeting for a project, state and local education agencies, community partners, and researchers were asked to brainstorm solutions or guidance on several problems of practice being experienced within delivery of technical assistance to support implementation of various state initiatives. Several leaders throughout the discussion reiterated the importance of being aware of what is happening and to “know them.” Examples referenced included knowing inside and out the strategic plans, current legislation priorities, the funding streams and requirements, the various state organizations or networks and how they influence or interact with the initiative, and how their population being served is shifting over time. Without this context knowledge, we may unintentionally make decisions in our implementation that lead to inefficiencies in use of our partners’ time and resources as well as hinder attainment of desired outcomes. Underlying all of this is the criticalness of building trusting relationships. Understanding context helps us to build and strengthen relationships with our partners! 

Real Examples of Understanding Context

So how does the application of understanding context look? How does it smell? How does it taste? Let’s first examine this connection through something that we all partake in daily. What's that you say? Well, every day around 5-5:30 in the evening something happens, and you know what that something is…DINNER! We all struggle with the decision around what to eat for dinner or, in this example, where are we going to have dinner? This one question has so many contextual factors that you have to consider as well as understand in order to make the best selection for dinner. Initially, you have to determine what type of food you would like for the meal. American, Italian, or Indian? This gives a general idea of your options. Now is this all that you have to consider? No! You have to think about what you have eaten during the day because, let’s be honest, if I had a chicken salad earlier, would I really like chicken salad again? This is just a simple way to narrow down the options for what meal you would select at the restaurant. Are there any dietary restrictions to consider? You have to determine if you can find items on the menu that are acceptable based on a specific dietary goal/challenge or allergy. You also have to consider the cost of the meal, the location of the restaurant, and whether you want a sit-down experience or takeout. These are just a few of several contextual factors that you must consider when determining where you are going to have dinner and what’s on the menu.   

An educational example is something that so many practitioners have experienced. Someone goes to a conference, discovers a new innovation, and brings it back to a school district. Let’s say the innovation supports literacy outcomes for grades 3-4. The individual is typically really excited and feels very strongly that this practice can support achievement of significant outcomes. The question that comes to the majority of the individuals in the room is “Is this what we need?” In theory, it's a great idea, but do we consider the contextual factors? Does it meet a need? If we are currently reaching our desired outcomes for literacy in grades 3-4, is this something that should be considered? Does it fit our population and align with our current pedagogical values? The outcomes could come from a population that doesn’t match the demographics of our students. If this innovation is considered, do we have the capacity to support this innovation? Do we have the resources for a strong professional learning plan that will support the implementation of this literacy innovation? These are just a few of the contextual factors that must be considered. In order to understand context you must have the willingness to ask tough questions, but also a willingness to listen because all of the information is welcome when trying to make the appropriate decision to support all learners. The Hexagon Discussion and Analysis Tool is a tool that can be used to support the understanding of a context for the adoption of an innovation. It supports creating a shared understanding of the need and how the potential innovation could support, thus helping to strengthen readiness.

Tips and Reminders for Understanding Context

To understand context, the practitioner must have the ability to gain information through observation, data collection, and relationship building. The ability to gather this contextual information is highly important because it determines the present level of performance and what factors are the most influential in implementation efforts. You can glean this information via review of published documents and resources, listening to current members of the community via listening sessions and/or empathy interviews, and reviewing current available data (e.g., outcome data, programmatic data, and fidelity/integrity data). Recognition of areas that require support can lead to outcomes, while ignoring/avoiding the areas of concern can stall or even halt implementation efforts. It is also even more important to recognize and leverage the areas of strength within a context for implementation efforts. A gentle reminder is to have a clear lens for implementation but not become too rigid. Remember to pay attention to details because all details are important factors to successful implementation.


Understanding context matters! Understanding contextual factors is a skill that all Implementation Support Practitioners should possess. The goal of this blog has been to help you understand the importance of this competency. Understanding how to assign values to different factors and using data-based decision-making to build an implementation plan ultimately will help lead to the desired outcome of the innovation. Please also remember to take it easy on your friends who are indecisive about selecting a location for dinner, but rather support them and use the contextual factors for a wonderful dining experience.

Are you still hungry? Has your appetite been fulfilled? We here at NIRN want to ensure that everyone is well-fed and nourished. If you would like more information about understanding context, visit the Understanding Context Lesson. The lesson will provide additional nourishment to feed your hunger for understanding context. Always remember that context is on the menu!



Pfadenhauer, L.M., Gerhardus, A., Mozygemba, K., Lysdahl, K.B., Booth, A., Hofman, B., et al. (2017). Making sense of complexity in context and implementation: the Context and Implementation of Complex Interventions (CICI) Framework. Implementation Science, 12(21). doi:10.1186/s13012-017-0552-5