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Stop Exhausting People...and 5 other tips for an energizing evaluation practice

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

Honesty time, who is actually that excited about evaluation?

A man hunched over his laptop computer rubbing his eyes in frustration

Jennica, put your hand down, I can see it from here.

It takes effort to set solid goals, map out a way to reflect on progress towards those goals, deal with the realization that maybe those goals or the steps taken to reach those goals weren't great, identify lessons learned, adapt, and try again. Effort, energy, and enthusiasm are in short supply. People are exhausted. And, fair enough.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, evaluations were hard to prioritize. Now, rallying excitement for another Zoom meeting or survey is a tall order. Right now, organizations are scrambling to finish evaluations while competing with summer. Kiddos are home from school. Staff are stretched thin covering shifts for their colleagues on vacation. People move. There is a surge in demand for services. Weather is becoming more unpredictable by the minute. And hopefully, everyone has a chance to ignore their email and relax.

There are a million reasons to ignore evaluation and hope it goes away because it's just not the right time.

And also...any time could be the right time for evaluation. The key is honouring everyone's starting points and capacity by scaffolding a reasonable evaluation around what people can feasibly do well (or well enough).

5 things we do to make evaluation fulfilling, rather than depleting:

1. Start where people are at

Not everyone loves evaluation. For some, the word evaluation can bring back memories of terrible performance reviews at work or school. Folks worry that evaluators will watch them, judge their work, and report failures to a funder.

We start our evaluations by figuring out the emotional and energetic tone of the group. Have people had bad experiences before? What would it take for this to be a positive experience? Then, we (a) bring our nerdy enthusiasm because we love what we do, and (b) make space for our clients to show up with whatever energy they have (or don't have). Over time, we work to build excitement by addressing those initial fears. It doesn't have to be all sunshine and stock images of white women blissfully eating yogurt from day one.

2. Do less

The pressure to produce and perfect is real. Funders often impose impossible metrics of success that cause people to work beyond their means, hide mistakes, and burn-out.

Rant coming...

Productivity and perfectionism are symptoms of white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism that aim to transform people (and non-human living beings) into units of labour and output. Working harder, making more stuff, and holding ourselves to impossible standards does not work and is not helpful.

When perfection is the goal, learning doesn't happen. It's not like when failure isn't an option, people suddenly get their s*** together. Have you met people? When people don't think they can fail in a safe way, they hide their mistakes. If we can't talk about messing up or what went wrong, we are robbed of an opportunity to learn, share that learning with others, fix the thing, try something else, and grow.

The only purr-fection I want is a well-timed cat pun.

Rather than impose some burn-out inducing framework, we honour what can be done well (enough) by:

  • Setting a few reasonable goals for the evaluation and managing expectations (and keeping track of more ambitious ones that we could add or not depending on how things go)

  • Asking simple evaluation question(s) (the most effective question isn't the most complex or profound. It's the one you can answer)

  • Identifying what we most need to know to make meaningful decisions (and then saving all those other curiosities for a time when there is more capacity)

  • Requiring less from people to participate (asking 1 question well is WAY more effective than burdening people with 100 meandering questions)

  • Not doing anything we won't use (if client's don't have capacity to do more things, we don't ask questions about what else they should do)

  • Prioritizing and supporting what most needs to be done right now and later on (triaging recommendations by identifying what can be done with varying resources and levels of effort to mitigate frustration/disappointment)

To help you do less, we have free resources for creating an evaluation action plan and an evaluation data inventory here. With these templates, you can plan around what already exists and minimize efforts required to do more!

3. Tune in to the team

To drain all the energy from a group, introduce something that isn't wanted or useful and then double-down.

We often find that our peers or clients are quick to identify which framework or tool isn't working, but slow to try new things. Sometimes people are afraid that deviating from "normal" evaluations will be unprofessional or lead to bad outcomes. But, the most effective and energizing evaluations are useful and meaningful to the people participating in them. That means that no two evaluations will look the same. To make sure our evaluation practice is authentic to who we are and who are working with, we:

  • Identify the values, mission, and vision of the organization and/or group involved in the evaluation and align the process with what matters

  • Ask the people involved in the evaluation at different stages (not just CEOs and funders) what would be meaningful to them

  • Get creative! Rule out what isn't working and make space for what could

  • Incorporate the unique quirks about the group into the evaluation process so it feels right to them. Is everyone obsessed with a certain TV show? Does the group have a running joke about pets? Use it. If people see themselves in the evaluation, they're more likely to participate in it.

4. Prioritize fun

Umm, who says evaluation has to be serious to be effective? Personally, I'm over the "things have to be hard to be profound" mentality. Things are hard enough. Evaluation does not need to be another thing we survive. To make evaluations fun, we:

  • Facilitate planning meetings with interactive arts-based activities that keep things fresh, encourage different ways of thinking, and make creativity the norm (something we explore in our arts-based course for evaluators)

  • Alternate between meetings and asynchronous activities to engage folks who would rather contribute at their own pace (also something we explore in our course)

  • Centre the joy, wisdom, and desire of prospective participants with the right tools that can best capture their authentic reflections (yup, something we explore in our course). This could mean arts-based methods. It could mean a well-designed and user-centred survey. Find what works for the right people and follow their lead.

At the end of the day, people are all unique weirdos with bizarre ways of expressing themselves. When we stop trying so hard to standardize people into tidy scales and categories for efficiency, we can do a better job of honouring the messy ways in which we exist. And, there is a lot of room for fun in mess.

5. Adjust

We can't know for sure what will work until we try. Creating regular check-in points to touch base, reflect on what is working or not, and adjust can bring new energy to an evaluation - especially if it has a longer timeframe.

Being receptive to the fact that things change, life gets in the way, and people can change their minds about what they want can help to ensure that we don't get stuck doing things that no one wants or cares about. We often tell our clients when we think something isn't working and we need to pause, reconfigure, and try something else. This results in renewed interest in the evaluation. When people don't feel stuck, they are more excited about what's ahead.

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