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Tessie Catsambas on How to Manage Competing Agendas in Evaluations Without Getting Scorched in the Process!

Greetings from Maryland! I am Tessie Catsambas of EnCompass LLC, an evaluation, leadership, and organizational development organization. How easy it is to get lost in a client’s maze of politics, anxiety, stress, and complexities! And how easy it is to step on toes you do not even know were there! This post discusses strategies for not only managing competing priorities and sensitivities, but paradoxically, staying independent by stepping right in the winds of controversy constructively, and using the controversy to do better evaluation.

Lesson Learned: Being “independent” does not mean you are without a point of view. “Independence” means transparency about your ethics, assumptions and professional boundaries, and a commitment to honesty

Hot Tips – being “appreciative”: A client is typically made up of different points of view and agendas, and that is fine! Help everyone appreciate each separate perspective, and understand its origins. Others’ interpretation of what is going on and what things mean will make you and the whole group smarter. As they talk, they are already benefiting from the evaluation process you have created.

Hot Tip – appropriate process: There are many tools for creating appropriate participation in evaluation. I like to use Appreciative Inquiry – described in detail in the book Hallie Preskill and I co-authored—but there are many others: success case method, empowerment evaluation tools, structured dialogue, and many creative exercises. (FAQs on the application of Appreciative Inquiry in evaluation in this PDF file.) Do not get cornered fighting other people’s fight—through good processes and tools, first get issues articulated, and then get out of the way, so your client(s) can talk things through and work out differences.

Hot Tip – stay open: You, the visiting evaluator, know very little. Before you rush to create categories and analyze, stay open, and use some of the Soft Systems tools such as described by Bob Williams on his webpage to question assumptions. Open yourself up to different ways of seeing. Develop good and effective questions, because by asking them, you will enable others to perceive more expansively, and to generate more creative recommendations than you could alone.

Hot Tip – care: You can fake a lot of things, but you cannot fake caring, even if you use very sophisticated tools. People know when you care, and they engage with you and the evaluation at a deeper level, in a more trusting and productive way.

Hot Tip – be respectfully honest: It is hard to report on unpleasant findings, but if you do so respectfully, with data and context information, appreciating efforts made, and not blaming, you can provide a useful evaluation report that echoes the voices of diverse agendas and common ground, and helps to forge a constructive way forward.

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. Want to learn more from Tessie and colleagues? Attend their session “Whom Does an Evaluation Serve? Aligning Divergent Evaluation Needs and Values” at Evaluation 2011.  aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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