What Evaluators Can Learn from Improv by Maria Moeller

Hi, my name is Maria Moeller, Chief Marketing Officer at The Improve Group. We are super excited to invite AEA attendees to an event we are hosting on Friday: A Night at the Improv with The Improve Group.

You might wonder, how is improv related to evaluation? When we first considered working with an improv group for an event a few years ago, we hadn’t thought about it in terms of its relation to evaluation – we just wanted to make folks laugh! But as we worked with the group, we came to recognize that there are several tenets of improvisational comedy that can be useful in evaluation work.

Improv is all about saying yes! Can you imagine an improv show where an actor rejects the premise of a skit or doesn’t pick up on a line? One of the reasons improv is funny, is that the actors have to say yes to something unexpected and not planned. And while evaluation is a planful practice, it is important to be open to the variety of voices making unexpected suggestions. When engaging with program staff or stakeholders – and even other evaluators – think about saying yes to hearing their ideas, even if they don’t follow the plan.

Another tenet of improv is to laugh at yourself. Let’s face it – much of our evaluation work is serious and impacts real lives and thus can feel heavy. But, sometimes we need a bit of levity – and making room to laugh at ourselves helps give us perspective on the situation. Perhaps if we can find the courage to laugh at ourselves, we can…

Improv also requires actors to shift their perspective – the skits or set-up lines require them to jump into the perspective of another person (like most acting). Likewise, in evaluation, we need to consider things from a variety of perspectives. As a consultant, we might be thinking about the different perspectives of the funder and the program manager. As an inside evaluator, you might need to see an issue from the perspective of leadership as well as community members. In either case, shifting your perspective is good practice to be purposeful about the variety of perspectives.

Finally, improv depends on collaboration and listening well. Improv actors often make it look effortless, but it’s hard work to listen closely and collaborate on the fly to produce a great show. Collaboration and good listening skills are also vital in evaluation – from data collection to analysis to reporting, evaluators need to collaborate with team members and listen to all voices being raised.

Rad Resource: If you are attending Evaluation 2019, I hope you will join us. The event is free and open to all attendees. It will be held at Minneapolis’ famous Brit’s Pub (5-minute walk from the conference) on Friday, November 15, 7-10 pm. Come hang out with us and our friends from The Theater of Public Policy for “A Night at the Improv with The Improve Group!” T2P2’s policy wonk comedians will chat with attendees before performing a very AEA-themed improv set. If this opportunity to meet and hang out with other AEAers sounds like your jam, please arrive by 8pm so performers from T2P2 have time to mingle with you—that’s how they’ll get inspiration for their 8:30 pm show!

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.

4 thoughts on “What Evaluators Can Learn from Improv by Maria Moeller”

  1. Hello Maria Moeller,

    I thoroughly enjoyed the comparisons and connections you made between role of an Improv actor to that of an Evaluator. As a Visual Arts and a Drama teacher, and a student of the Program Evaluation and Design course, I appreciate your perspective and just like to further validate and justify your ideas.

    The notion of accepting the varying opinions and accommodating them. Initially, an evaluator is unfamiliar with the culture of the organization they are working for. It is their job to familiarize themselves with the program context, program staff and stake holders, observe the situation at hand and implement a program that meets the requirements of the intended users. In that they may find that different levels of the organization may not agree with the issue. For instance, stakeholders may debate the goals of the program (political context) and in some cases the goals are agreed upon, but the means to which they should reach these goals are the focus for inquiry (rational decision making context) (Shulha and Cousins, 1997). During the early phases of the evaluation the evaluator is making consultations and helping decision makers decide what they need and then later, they devise strategies to meet those needs. This collaborative inquiry helps them comprehend the situation and collectively come up with a solution.

    Similarly, an Improv actor is presented with a new challenge a new scenario every time. After understanding the situation given, each actor contributes to the scenario in their own way. However, the act comes together in the end. Each actor presents their viewpoint, feeding off from the ideas from other actors. They too engage in collaborative inquiry to generate a theme, idea, purpose or message through their act.

    One of the major commonalities between an evaluation and an improve would be how both approaches are based on the constructivist theory. Constructivism is evaluation use refers to the fact that all findings are conditional and subject to change, (Weiss, 1998). Evaluation ideally aims for objectivity; however, it is influences and impacted by the social nature of it. Essentially, the findings of an evaluation are creation of knowledge. A knowledge created through collaborative inquiry is subject to biases. People add to knowledge in their own ways. Similarly, in an improv, each time an actor performs, and through each act, a new meaning is attributed to the scenario. Much like an evaluation, new knowledge is formed. This knowledge is constructed socially, after the input of those who are a part of the context, actors and evaluators. Hence, this constructivist nature of both evaluation and improv shows the human capacity to create and make meaning. In a way both evaluation and improv can create knowledge that has an immense social impact.

  2. Hi Maria,
    Thank you for posting this really interesting blog post about the relationship between improv and evaluation. As a student in the Queen’s University Professional Masters program, I’m looking at the world evaluation and, at its core, what makes for a good evaluation. But at a certain level, your post hits on something that is so key: the ability of the evaluator to be able to entertain different perspectives and points of view — even when they are uncomfortable. I’ve been to Improv in Toronto a few times, and I also have . found some great clips of Second City online (long back when I had free time:), and it seems to me that you are correct in your assessment that the best improv actors need to have an open mindset that says “Yes!” to a new suggestion from a fellow actor or the crowd. They need to feel the energy of the room in the moment. The crowd is the stakeholder, in an evaluation sense, and as I have learned in my current study, a close, collaborative relationship with the stakeholders is critical for an evaluation’s success. I hope your show was a success, and I thank you for bringing this really interesting relationship between Improv and evaluation to my attention. Cheers! Brent

  3. I am currently a student in the Professional Master’s of Education Program at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. One of my current courses is Program Inquiry and Evaluation so I appreciate your connection between evaluation and improve!

    In evaluation, and in any collaborative scenario, one’s ability to work cooperatively with others is imperative. I appreciate how you were able to identify key elements of Improv that can benefit evaluators and collaborators alike. The ability to “say yes”, or be ready to adapt and change to unexpected ideas or findings, is not always easy in evaluation but is crucial to ensure that the evaluation reflects various voices. Part of being flexible in your evaluation plan means being open to new perspectives, like you mentioned. Sometimes when following a carefully constructed plan, it is easy to become blind to how your evaluation will impact different people in different roles. Finally, I appreciate your suggestion of laughing at ourselves once in a while to keep a healthy balance between the seriousness of an evaluation and our own mental wellbeing.

    This post has helped me as I created my first Program Evaluation Design. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

    Brooke Ludolph

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