Evaluation is Reflection

Water Reflection Lake Mirror Sky Brightness

Those of us who are in love with the field of evaluation have a tendency to get lost in the jargon. We love to debate the finer points of approaches and provide graphics to illustrate the complexity of models. My clients, when faced with applying evaluation both for internal and external audiences, often feel overwhelmed by what they think are the expectations of proficiency in the complexities of evaluation.

At its foundation, evaluation is simply reflection. It is a systematic process for considering:

What of our endeavors have gone well?

What have not gone well?

What changes or next steps are needed?

Remembering this simplicity of evaluation is key when reporting to funders. It is easy for organization and program leads to panic when they notice that they are not meeting proposed targets. Evaluation though, is not a “gotcha.” It is not a pass/fail. Ultimately, what your staff, volunteers, funders, and community fundamentally want to know is what is working and how do you keep it working, what isn’t working and how do you tweak it.

Next time you are working on reporting around your program or initiative, start by asking yourself these simple questions. You can then look at addressing the answers via whatever evaluation model you find yourself using:

  1. What is going well? Why do we think it is going well? Can it be sustained? If so, how? If not, what are the barriers?
  2. What is not going well? Why do we think it is not going well? Can those barriers be addressed? If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. What is the big picture? Beyond the individuals who may not have followed through or the frustrations with a particular curriculum, or the missing data from an assessment instrument distribution method, what are the systemic issues? Can they be identified? Can they be explained? Can they be addressed?

Balance Requires Others

Goal setting, whether it is in strategic planning or for personal/professional growth requires stretch and limitations. Too much stretch and our goals are unrealistic. Too much emphasis on limitations, and we don’t reach.  Some organizational leaders view the limitations as key to safe steady leadership. Their goals tend to be more tactical, tangible. They are typically not inspirational, but they are doable. Other organizational leaders think big and leap without too much concern for limitations. Their goals are bold but not always attainable. The strongest organizations I have worked with have a mix of leaders who think big and act boldly and leaders who are cautious and plodding.

Depending on whether we typically view leaps as exciting or scary, determines how we react when those to whom we are accountable perceive of us as out of balance. For some of us,  it is easy to double down on our risk. For others it seems more comfortable to decide some goals are unattainable and to quit.  Very few of us take a step back and look at the data. When we do, we often find that goals and the pathway to attaining those goals can be modified. If we have been intentional in developing a diverse leadership team, we will have the potential middle way of modification voiced by our team.

I encourage you to think about a current goal that seems impossible. Is it possible to modify it, to chunk it, to create an alternative path to achieving it?  Who approaches goal setting differently than you? Who on your leadership team can you call upon to brainstorm alternatives? What data do you need to help make modifications to your goal or to your approach to attaining the goal? Schedule a walk-and-talk or other creative meeting setting to simply discuss the barriers and the opportunities with your team. What new steps emerge that make the goal less of a leap?


Off Balance

A few weeks ago, I was on fire. I had just re-launched our Smile Minded Smartbits blog with a series of posts. These posts were an outgrowth of a survey I conducted of non-profit and agency leaders I know and have worked with as a consultant and as a community volunteer. The blog was starting to pick up steam, particularly on LinkedIN with a growing readership that had a reach beyond those in my circles.

Work with clients was also picking up with new projects and strong conclusions to projects wrapping up. I had shifted more of my attention to how to build Smile Minded as a strong resource both online and face to face.

Then life hit. First, the time table on travel with my high school daughter to explore potential colleges moved up when there was an opening in my client schedule of meetings and deadlines. My daughter was sick during the trip so naturally the upper respiratory infection hit me shortly upon return. A few days later, my son lost a dear friend to suicide. My priorities shifted.

Many of us struggle with what we have come to term “work-life balance.” It was one of the many issues that kept those non-profit and agency leaders I interviewed up at night. It is one of the issues I am asked about by both beleaguered leaders who have worked in their respective field for decades and younger leaders who are just hitting their career stride. Whether you are a parent, married/partnered, or single. Whether you are in your 60’s or 20’s, you have faced at some point priorities that seem to compete with work. Work-life balance (and the debunking of it) are popular search terms in Google and there are hundreds of articles, Ted Talks, and books addressing language and models around work-life balance. Grappling with our competing priorities is a part of our modern world.

I lean toward envisioning life as a process of ebb and flow. In a few weeks, this blog will continue the exploration of collaboration, but we will also look more closely at the myth of balance and some ways to deepen our understanding of and align our lives to match what matters to us as individuals, organizations, and communities.

In the meantime, take a moment today to breath deeply and notice five things. One for each of your senses. What are you seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting right now? Be present for just this moment. In doing so, your next few moments may be just a tad easier.

Is it bad that I can’t think of 3 things about work that get me up in the morning?

When I asked organizational leaders, what are the top 3 work related things that get them up in the morning, one respondent answered, my question with a question: “Is it bad that I can’t think of three things…?” Others, gave glib answers like coffee, knowing it is a Friday, etc. You are not alone if you find yourself struggling. Struggling to be motivated in the morning to go to work, if you dread that commute, your tasks, your coworkers, the stress. But does it mean that your current position and current organization are a bad fit? Maybe. Maybe not. How do you determine if it is? And if you determine it is a bad fit, how do you determine what’s next? If you determine it is not a bad fit, what’s next? How do you reengage?

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Typically, when our decisions are fraught with strong emotions, we fall into a fight or flight pattern.  We may be tempted to make a quick angry decision to quell our negative feelings or we may shut down and find ourselves disconnected from our work or our organization; overwhelmed by apathy.

One of my clients found himself feeling disconnected from his organization. Every morning was a struggle. After years of working his way through his organization to roles with increasing responsibility and influence, he found his current role lonely and frustrating. He was no longer working directly with clients, but he also found it difficult to make the systemic changes required at his level of leadership.  He wasn’t sure if the barriers were surmountable and he had started to question if he was the right person to address them. His organization faced resource constraints. Those constraints and some changes in leadership had stirred up some smoldering tensions among the staff. Those tensions left him drained at the end of each day and dreading the drama each morning. One day, he was unable to find a good solution to an issue a staff member brought to him that impacted several client families. That afternoon, he overheard staff grumbling about a policy change he had instituted to address the resource constraints. His frustration bubbled over. He was ready to simply throw in the towel and move on to another endeavor. It was tempting to use the situation as a catalyst to start looking for his next venture.

Another of my clients found herself feeling combative.  Every morning was a struggle.  She and the organization were bumping up against barriers to serving their stakeholders that included competition with other organizations who could have been partners.  This feeling of frustration had been mounting for some time but came to a head when she found herself in conflict with another organizational leader at a community meeting. The meeting had been heated and had left her angry and agitated. She was ready to take that organization on head first – to call them out on their unwillingness to work with others and collaborate. She was ready for a fight.

The trouble with making decisions when we are emotional though is that high emotions cloud our thinking.  We only see exits and battles. Emotions shouldn’t be used as a decision-making process.  We don’t need to discount emotions entirely, especially for personal decisions. But our emotional responses to a situation should be treated as evidence or information that goes into decision making and not the decision itself. In order for my clients to use their strong emotions in their decision making, they needed to first shut down their fight or flight response.  To do so requires a new perspective.

Shawn Achor in his second book: Before Happiness, argues that beyond IQ, beyond even Emotional and Social Intelligence, happiness and success are dependent on “the ability to see a reality in which success is possible.”  This is not to say that we all need to ignore a negative reality. It does not mean that either of my clients should have ignored their anger, frustration, apathy, and feelings of unease. These emotional responses are real and are evidence that a decision needs to be made. What Shawn Achor argues though is that in order to move forward (in our current positions or in new endeavors) we need to know that we have agency in changing that reality (or at least our role in it).  Success, according to Achor, is “not just about how much intelligence you have; it is about how much of your intelligence you believe you can use.” It requires us to use our IQ, our emotional, and our social intelligence, but in order to do so successfully, we need to change the frame through which we see possible realities. There are many ways to change our frame: meditation, exercise, engaging in new learning opportunities, etc. One of the most direct means though is to develop our first sight and our second thoughts.

As was explained to Tiffany Aching in Terry Prachett’s hilarious book: Wee Free Men:  “First Sight is when you see what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there.” Tiffany later gives an example of second thoughts: “But she was aware of hundreds of nervous faces in the shadows. How you deal with this is going to be important, said her Second Thoughts.” As a leader, you are good at providing first sight and second thoughts for others. You see the possibilities for your stakeholders, your staff, your community. You step back and think about your approach before you act. It is what has gotten you to where you are in your career. What can be tricky is seeing those possibilities for yourself or when yours and others’ emotions are running high.

Find some time this week to take 10 minutes to have a cup of tea, coffee, a glass of wine, a beer…(whatever your favorite beverage is) with yourself. Reflect on (and jot down) the times when you have experienced negative emotions, what options did you see? When you were experiencing positive emotions, what options did you see? Was there a difference based on your mood in the number of options you perceived, the quality of the options, the creativity in the options?

Observing Emotions Worksheet

Next Monday, we will explore asking questions as a means to shift our perspective and the options we see as available to us.