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NA Week: Ryan Watkins on Overcoming Five Obstacles to a Successful Needs Assessment

I’m Ryan Watkins and I am an associate professor at George Washington University.  Among other things, I maintain the needs assessment website www.gapsinresults.com – which collects many needs assessment resources for you.  I’m writing today about five needs assessment obstacles and tips to overcome them.

 Lessons Learned:

 1st Obstacle: “We need …”
Unfortunately, needs assessment conversations often start (wrongly) with this statement, “We need…”.  Operate cautiously when a predetermined “solution” to a problem (e.g, we need more teacher training to solve poor student test scores) is given by stakeholders.  Remember, a need is defined as the gap between current and desired results.  Learning about needs first can help you, later, to prioritize the right solution(s) to close that gap.

 To overcome the “we need” obstacle:

  • Flip the solutions-before-results mindset.
  • Focus the conversation on the results stakeholders want to achieve (e.g., improvements in student knowledge and abilities).

2nd Obstacle:  Performing is not performance

Just because a person is performing tasks (e.g., buying new textbooks) doesn’t mean that they are necessarily achieving desired the performance/results (e.g., improved student knowledge).

 To overcome this obstacle:

  • Differentiate between performance and performing in your planning, data collection, analysis, and reporting.
  • Don’t offer solutions before you have defined the need (then set criteria for comparing possible solutions).
  • Use performance standards defined in the needs assessment as guides for designing an appropriate evaluation.

3rd Obstacle: Speaking Their Language

As needs assessors, we face language and terminology challenges.

 To overcome this obstacle:

  • Identify and learn the language of your stakeholders (e.g, city planners, nurses).
  • Use their language to define your language.
  • Model your language carefully and religiously in order to communicate across professions with necessary precision.

4th Obstacle: No time, no money

Needs assessments are commonly undertaken when there is increased urgency for improved performance. But you’ll often hear the “no time, no money” mantra.

To overcome this obstacle:

  • Vary the scope of your needs assessment appropriately.
  • Focus clearly on the results that matter most to the organization, its direct and indirect stakeholders, as well as our shared society.
  • Sell the value of the needs assessment in terms of cost-saving derived from informed decision-making.

5th Obstacle: Analysis Paralysis
Needs assessments must end at some point – despite tendencies toward wanting more data or analysis.

To overcome analysis paralysis:

  • Set parameters for what information is essential to inform justifiable decisions.
  • Make a data collection and analysis plan, then stick to it.
  • Avoid “scope creep” which will lengthen the assessment beyond what is required to make critical decisions.
  • Use existing sources of data whenever possible, even if they are not “perfect”.

Rad resources: Check out www.gapsinresults.com.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the NA AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NA  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.

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