Hi, I’m Jen van Stelle, Co-Founder & Principal of Actionable Insights, LLC. As program evaluators, my business partner, Melanie Espino, and I help nonprofits and government agencies discover and act on data-driven insights.
I was a fan of Survivor, arguably the first successful reality show in the U.S., from about 2003 to 2011. For those who might not know, the show strands two groups of strangers in isolated locations; they have to build shelter, start and maintain a campfire, and find and cook food for themselves. There are challenges in which they initially compete in teams (“tribes”), and later individually, for rewards and to keep from being eliminated. People are voted out one by one until there is only one “Sole Survivor.”
Teamwork and leadership are key. In general, the tribes that did better in the early team-oriented challenges had a leader emerge who was both able to direct others AND able to listen to and adapt ideas from team members. The teams that did poorly were often very dysfunctional.
Strong teamwork is just as important in research and evaluation as it is in any other setting. A good leader sets the tone for their team. By making it clear that everyone’s insights are welcomed and encouraged, I find we can nearly always generate better solutions than any one of us could have developed alone.
Alliances require trust. Tribe members have to decide, on very little information, whom to trust. In a game only one person can win (unlike evaluation), there is a lot of fierce competition; in Survivor there have been many occasions of back-stabbing and betrayal. The strongest alliance I ever saw was between Amber and Boston Rob (who ended up marrying, and have stayed married for 16+ years so far). Why was their alliance so strong? They trusted each other and never betrayed that trust.
Similarly, I see our work as evaluators as being in an alliance with our clients. We each have to trust each other to be honest and forthright about what’s going on, what we find, what we can do (and not do), and so on. When clients truly know we have their backs and are working for their best interests, they are much more willing to reveal what’s really happening in their organization, and we are much more able to support their growth and improvement.
- For more on teamwork and leadership, I recommend: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, by Patrick Lencioni.
- For more on trust, consider this one-pager, Building Trust as a Consultant, by Mike Kelly, and this more scholarly take, Whom Can We Trust? How Groups, Networks, and Institutions Make Trust Possible, from The Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust, edited by Karen S. Cook, Margaret Levi, and Russell Hardin.
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