Another Way of Engaging in Evaluation

By Angela Hill, Early Childhood Development Support Services

Looking back on my experience of EvalLab so far, I can’t help thinking of a concept from a book I wouldn’t have read without being a part of this group, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton. The concept is “let it find you”, and without getting into too much detail (you really should read the book if you haven’t), the idea is that often things like innovation, learning, and change are bigger than individuals and are the result of interactions between numerous elements, many of which happen outside of our control. Essentially, if the right people are in the right place at the right time doing the right things and magic happens. It still requires a lot of planning and effort, of course, but when the right people find each other in this way things that seemed impossible only a short time ago are suddenly possible. Thus, sometimes, the best thing we can do is follow our instincts, do our best work individually so we can be a good element, connect with others when we can, and trust it will all fall in to place when the time is right. As I’ve been reflecting on this journey so far, I have been able to see how many elements were involved in EvalLab and developmental evaluation “finding” me and how it has been providing me with exactly the elements I need to make change in my own small system and, hopefully, in the wider system as well.

As anyone working in the nonprofit sector fully knows, there has been an ever-increasing requirement for organizations to adopt evidence-based practices and engage in evaluation to provide evidence of the impact of our work. Despite the fact that I agree with this need for evidence and accountability (I am often the stick in the mud asking for sources and proof of information and claims), I found myself feeling increasingly restrained, often protesting that there was more to our work than what can be neatly measured, analyzed, and reported on. I knew I wasn’t alone in these feelings, they were being echoed in conversations with colleagues and friends working in human services, education, and health, but the conversations never went any further than wishing things were different. Maybe one day, we thought, we would have the time to find a way to balance the need for rigorous evaluation with the one for contextualized solutions, but the thought was quickly lost in the whirlwind of the work we were already doing.

The notion that another way of engaging in evaluation already existed first became apparent to me while I was participating in a Massive Open Online Course on early childhood development last year. The final module was focused on the future of early childhood development, especially the work of reducing, and hopefully eradicating, disparities between children. Using a host of case studies from around the world, the overarching message of the module encompassed the need to evaluate our efforts for effectiveness and accountability while still leaving room for context and innovation. They argued that change efforts have had the least impact on the most disadvantaged children because the problems those children face are the most complex, requiring new ways of thinking, not solutions we already have. In the midst of this course, I attended the Community-University Partnership Annual Celebration Event, where Mark Cabaj presented on complex social issues and developmental evaluation. I ate up every word, frantically scribbling notes, and excitedly talking about it with my colleagues afterwards. This was definitely something that resonated with me, I knew it was important, but I couldn’t quite see how I would learn the pieces I needed to be able to engage in the process effectively. Developmental evaluation had found me, but all of the elements hadn’t come together quite yet.

Over the next few months these ideas percolated in my brain. I occasionally scrawled ideas on sticky notes, filing them into the “Future Work” section of my desk drawer that I reserve for ideas I don’t yet have a plan, or the time, for. Finally, the last element came into place. I received an email inviting those working in human services not-for-profits to apply to participate in EvalLab. As I read the description, it all clicked. Without my knowing it, an emergence was happening in my own small system.

It’s hard to narrow down what I’ve learned in these past few weeks as an EvalLab participant. My work with these concepts is just beginning and there is still so much to learn. However, I have begun to apply some of these concepts to my work in small ways and a few key pieces stand out in this particular moment. Perhaps most importantly, I am finally seeing how it is possible to be strategic and accountable while also being flexible and innovative. The fact that we don’t have to be one or the other is incredibly freeing, though when I think about the possibilities it creates, also a little daunting. This seemingly simple idea has allowed me to think in a slightly different way, starting to see a path towards solutions to complex problems where before there was only dense forest. I am also finding myself with new knowledge and tools that I will be able to put to use as I continue on this journey past the end of EvalLab. I now have a more solid grasp on systems thinking, both seeing how I can better work within a system and more effectively work to disrupt it when needed. I am equipped with strategies for finding leverage points and developing theories of change. And I am starting to understand the nature of complex problems and how different kinds of thinking can impact how we approach dealing with them.

Of course, this is all in the very early stages, we are only two sessions into the EvalLab process, but small changes in my thinking are already turning into conversations which are creating plans that will turn into actions. The opportunity between sessions to reflect on what I’ve learned, wrestle with it to put it into my work context, and discuss it with my colleagues has been instrumental in my actually learning what EvalLab is offering. My previous brushes with developmental evaluation excited me, but I couldn’t seem take the vital step of actually engaging with the ideas. I needed the framework of EvalLab to be able to both make the information accessible to me and provide me with dedicated time to begin to use it. Without that I know this valuable information would have ended up in the back of my brain still waiting for its opportunity to be used.

On paper this may not sound like much, but in practice these concepts and new understandings have made a world of difference. In a few short weeks I have made connections with incredible people engaging in work parallel to my own, but facing the similar struggles. I have been provided with vocabulary and frameworks to have conversations with my colleagues that are shifting the way we engage in our work. And best of all, I have been shown a new way of approaching complex problems that makes me excited for the work to come. Knowing what I do now about complex problems, emergence, and the art of “letting it find you”, I can only guess as to what this work will look like, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I know it’ll be something incredible.