Evaluation Teams Week: Not if, but when: What to do when something goes wrong by Chithra Adams and Rebecca Stewart

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.

1 thought on “Evaluation Teams Week: Not if, but when: What to do when something goes wrong by Chithra Adams and Rebecca Stewart”

  1. This is a very well documented post! We want to be successful with our evaluations and at times forget that mistakes or errors can happen and we become hard on ourselves. We are only human and when we can re-evaluate we can come together with a productive solution to the problem. We just have to remember that.

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