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Independent Consulting (IC) TIG Week: Collectively Generating Guiding Principles with Program Participants, Staff, and Other Interest Holders by Jennifer Jewiss

Greetings evaluation colleagues,

Jennifer Jewiss

I’m Jennifer Jewiss, an independent consultant specializing in the use of qualitative inquiry to advance programs and organizations. I’m radically interdisciplinary and enjoy working with organizations large and small: government agencies, universities, foundations, nonprofits, and consulting firms.

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with principles-focused approaches to evaluation. According to Michael Quinn Patton, principles are statements that offer “guidance about how to think or behave toward some desired result.” Principles position us to put our values into action, as demonstrated by AEA’s Guiding Principles for Evaluators.

Guiding principles are especially useful for complex programs and other types of evaluands, such as networks, partnerships, and communities. Patton explains that principles can serve as “powerful rudders” when:

  • There is no appropriate programmatic manual to follow
  • Navigating uncharted territory
  • Circumstances are uncertain and evolving.

The process of generating a set of guiding principles can be extraordinarily meaningful, illuminating, and energizing for all involved. In recent years, I’ve partnered with fellow evaluators and organizational leaders to design and facilitate principles-development workshops held online with participants from across the U.S. and in-person in New York City and Tirana, Albania. Each workshop brought together a vibrant constellation of interest holders: program participants/alums, staff, volunteers, funders, and representatives from partner organizations.

Red ship with rudder
Guiding principles are powerful “language rudders”

Workshop attendees engaged in deep dialogue in a series of small and full group sessions supported by experienced facilitators. In preparation, the project team had developed a rich set of open-ended facilitation questions to elicit workshop participants’ perspectives on the program and what it aims to achieve, including what they value most about the program. Digital whiteboards, or good old post-its and flipcharts, were used to capture the insights and experiences shared. The project team then squirreled away with all the resulting materials, conducted an informal content analysis, and created an initial draft set of guiding principles that were reviewed and refined with additional input from interest holders, including some who could not attend the workshop. Does this general process sound familiar? Principles-development workshops can leverage many of the same tools and techniques evaluators use for other purposes.

Lessons Learned

  1. Workshop participants consistently raved about the opportunity to engage with others in this way. Like many evaluators, I’ve received a lot of positive feedback about workshops designed to develop various types of program models. However, the levels of engagement and enthusiasm were even greater when principles – values in action – were at the center of the discussion.
  2. In keeping with Patton’s metaphor, I’ve come to describe guiding principles as powerful “language rudders.” I recently presented this concept in a retreat for prominent public safety leaders, who are often navigating high stakes situations that are evolving rapidly. The approach resonated big time! In fact, two of the participating leaders were already engaging their respective communities in distinctly principles-focused approaches – just using different terminology.

Rad Resources

  1. Were, Crocket, McKegg, and Goodwin note that “Indigenous peoples have been drawing on guiding principles to inform why, how, what, where, and when things are done for millennia. M?ori and indigenous evaluators have long been practicing and designing evaluations in line with principles.” Check out their thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary here!
  2. To see the list of guiding principles generated from the workshop held in Tirana, Albania and reflections on the process, scroll through this 2021 open access article published in the Journal of Heritage Management.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting IC TIG Week with our colleagues in the Independent Consulting Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our IC TIG members. 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. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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