AEA365 | A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators

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Hi, I’m Courtney Clingan, a Senior Research Analyst with The Improve Group, a research and evaluation consulting firm based in St. Paul, Minnesota. To wrap up our week of posts on evaluation teams, I want to share a memorable experience I had when staff from a client organization truly became part of the evaluation team.

We recently started working with HOPE Coalition, a Red Wing, Minnesota-based agency that serves people who have lived through domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and homelessness. Like other nonprofits that serve clients with complex needs and have small budgets, HOPE Coalition was looking to establish sustainable and realistic evaluation methods.

To empower HOPE Coalition staff to use their knowledge of client needs and to give them skills they could apply after our project is finished, we designed a workshop that made the staff part of the team. We started with a clear overview of logic models. Then we transitioned into a more hands-off, coaching role as we reached the critical “stepping back” point where we handed more responsibility over to staff, who took what we had taught them and designed logic models for other agency programs.

Lesson Learned: This workshop design created space for a valuable collaboration. While my colleague Stacy Johnson and I contributed our expertise in evaluation design, HOPE Coalition staff contributed their experience from working with a hard-to-survey population.

Jo Seton, Grant Writing and Communications Coordinator for HOPE Coalition, said she liked how we explained logic models by building one for HOPE Coalition on the wall with sticky notes, and kept it clear and simple, without being condescending. Then we tapped into the true experts on our evaluation team – HOPE Coalition staff – and they took the reins.

“By logic model number five we had it down to a fine art,” Jo said.

Hot Tip: We studied up on the client in a way that complemented the clients’ own experience. Jo sent us information on HOPE Coalition to read beforehand and we took full advantage of this in preparation. She said she appreciated that we had a “nuts and bolts” understanding of her agency before we arrived – even as her staff provided the deep understanding of programs and services. It meant we could spend less time on learning about the client and more time on evaluation strategy.

As a result of our work with HOPE Coalition, the agency has developed a “culture of evaluation,” one of its goals before starting the work. By engaging clients as team members, staff grew a sense of ownership in the process that will be sustainable for HOPE Coalition’s evaluation efforts.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Evaluation Teams Week. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

Hello! I am Jennifer Obinna, Ph.D., M.S.S.W., and I lead evaluation teams at The Improve Group, a research and evaluation consulting firm in St. Paul, Minnesota. Whether I am leading an internal team that reports to me or a collaborative team with clients and community partners, I look for ways to share power so that everyone can contribute their best.

My approach to leading teams has three dimensions: facilitative leadership, building on strengths, and supporting collaboration.

Facilitative leadership” is my preferred style, because it supports a collaborative environment. Sometimes people compare and contrast characteristics of facilitative and hierarchical leaders this way:

  • Hierarchical leaders assume top-down authority, know what to do, seek the “right” decision, and rely on individuals.
  • Facilitative leaders assume the power of the team as a unit, know the various “how to” methods, seek team ownership, and rely on the team’s collective ability to take action.

Facilitative leadership is important when you want buy-in, adaptability, and creativity from the team. In our work, we are seeing a shift to facilitative leadership because it is dynamic and empowered.

Lesson Learned: Build on strengths and passions

In our team discussions, we often think about how some tasks come easily to us, while others take more time and effort to master. We can liken this to using one’s dominant hand compared to the non-dominant one. Knowing what comes easily to each team member and which tasks will take longer helps us think through task assignments and what kind of support team members will need to succeed.

Similarly, we pay attention to which tasks make us feel energized and which leave us feeling cold and depleted. A team member may be competent at tasks that leave them uninspired. Others may have a passion to learn something new, but need more time and coaching as they master new skills. Paying attention to strengths and passions helps develop team members individually, shows the team how to support each other with a balanced workload, and allows teams to thrive.

Lesson Learned: Support collaboration

At its best, collaboration is a form of co-creation. Early in a project is a fertile time to collaborate. We start each workplan with a sketch. Instead of having one team member responsible for the initial sketch, we encourage all team members to brainstorm ideas to define and refine the actions together. This connects team members to the work and creates better products and outcomes.

Rad Resources

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Evaluation Teams Week. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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Hello! We are Chithra Adams, Director of Evaluations at the Human Development Institute at the University of Kentucky and Rebecca Stewart, Chief Practice Officer at The Improve Group, a research and evaluation firm based in Minnesota. For today’s post on evaluation teams, we are tackling a topic that no team leader relishes – what to do when something goes wrong.

Anyone who leads an evaluation team knows that sooner or later, something will go wrong. It could be related to managing an evaluation project (e.g., missed deadlines or underestimating the effort needed for a task) or to the evaluation itself (e.g., poor quality data or misinterpreted findings). While teams can have processes in place to prevent or minimize mishaps, it’s also important for leaders to reflect on their reaction to mistakes.

What should you do when something goes wrong?

Lessons Learned

  • Anticipate challenges and prevent them before they happen. Brainstorm possible problems you might encounter, as well as some solutions. For example, our team conducted an evaluation involving site visits all over Minnesota in the winter time. After a harrowing journey through a blizzard, we collaborated with the client on how to rearrange site visits if travel became unsafe due to weather conditions.
  • Intervene early. Sometimes there are early warning signs of a looming problem. Maybe you are not getting the expected response rate to a survey or feedback has been delayed. In these cases, having a thoughtful conversation with the team can help identify solutions before the problem worsens.
  • If the problem has already occurred, acknowledge your frustration with the situation (not the person) to the team. Remind yourself and the team that it is human to make a mistake and it is human to be upset about it. Then, move on to identifying how to prevent the situation from happening again.
  • Acknowledge the mistake to the client. This shows the team members that you have their back. More importantly, when leaders absorb the risk of mistakes, it allows teams to be creative.
  • Give time and space to reflect. Often when teams reflect together, solutions arise organically. Leaders can practice deep listening (rather than problem-solving) during team reflection. This will provide insight to the circumstance that led to the mistake and possibly uncover ways to avoid the mistake in the future.

Hot tips

  • Having a conversation early in the project about “when we fail” rather than “if we fail” helps the team prepare for setbacks.
  • Adopting a curious or learning mindset, rather than a punitive or blame-shifting one, builds trust with team members and allows for growth as a team.

Rad Resource:

Check out this article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) on learning from failure.

This article from HBR gives good tips for how to have a difficult conversation with a team member.

For resources on mindfulness for work and life, see mindful.org

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Evaluation Teams Week. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

Hello, we are Chithra Adams, Director of Evaluations at the Human Development Institute at the University of Kentucky, and Leah Goldstein Moses, CEO of The Improve Group, a research and evaluation consulting firm based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This week, we are curating a series of posts about the efficacy and potential pitfalls of working in teams. This post offers reflections on some key lessons learned in leading evaluation teams.

Lessons Learned:

  • Different situations call for different types of leadership. But some leadership behaviors may conflict with each other. For example, a leader might adopt an open and facilitative mindset during a brainstorming session. On the other hand, a task-oriented mindset might be needed to ensure that an evaluation project is implemented on time.
  • Teams adopt different strategies along a continuum to getting their work done – from full co-creation and collaboration to splitting tasks among team members. It can be useful to determine what strategy is best suited for the project at hand. If teams fall into a habit of working the same way all the time, they miss out on the benefits of other ways of working.
  • The level of team functioning contributes to both the success of a project and the experience of a project. When your team works well together, you can get more done, your team can go into greater depth by attending to various perspectives, AND the members of the team can have a great time with each other.
  • Finally, sometimes it takes a while to see the impact of evaluation. So take time to celebrate incremental successes and practice gratitude.

Hot Tips:

  • Like any skill, leadership improves with practice. Use time to reflect and foster self-awareness about your own responses and how they may influence your team’s dynamic. Remember to be kind to yourself and forgive your mistakes.
  • Likewise, extend this attitude of kindness and forgiveness to team members. Many teams adopt norms or values as they form. “Assume good intent” can be a useful motto.

Rad Resources:

Could clarifying values help your team? Try this exercise from Entrepreneur Magazine around developing your team’s shared values.

If you feel your team is in a rut, this blog lists great activities for team-building.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Evaluation Teams Week. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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