Time to Count

As the one and only person working for Strong Roots Consulting, there are many business elements I have to deal with as part of the trade. There’s various regulatory and legal requirements to fulfill, finances to manage, and – a personal “favourite” on the necessary evil list – time tracking. My general preference is to create a proposal with a set project fee, instead of charging by the hour: however, I still need to determine how much a project should cost. A simple starting point is to estimate the number of hours that I would need to complete the work and multiply that number by a per-hour rate. Time tracking then becomes a data collection method to help me assess the accuracy of my initial estimate – or in other words, the first step in an evaluation.

For many people, conducting an evaluation seems like a complex undertaking. Where do you start? Do you need to create a logic model first? What should you measure? What data collection methods should you use? Quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods? How do you analyze and present the data you collected? A search for “evaluation” books on Amazon turned up over 128,682 results, while a Google search returned “about 357,000,000 results”, so not much help from those sources (or rather, too much help).

One piece of advice I heard recently (and for the life of me I can’t remember where) is that one of the easiest first steps to take in evaluation is counting. It makes a lot of sense: we learn counting at an early age, after all, and it’s pretty easy to come up with questions that can be answered with a number. How many clients are we serving? How many referrals are we making? How much staff time was dedicated to a certain project? How many people indicated through a client survey that they were happy with our services? I bet if you took a minute right now you could come up with similar questions for your professional or personal life (how many hours of TV do I watch a day?) that can be easily answered by tallying up numbers.

Once you get in the habit of counting numbers (and recording them!), the possibilities grow from there. For example, you can compare groups – do we see more clients at a particular site? Two numbers can be connected or combined in some way, such as determining the average number of referrals per client. We can examine trends over time – is our case load growing or shrinking? Are there seasonal variations, where we see more people in the fall compared to the summer? From these starting points, we can begin exploring the reasons behind the trends and make data-informed decisions about future actions and responses.

Returning to my own time tracking example, beyond assessing the accuracy of my initial estimates, I could also take a look at factors that predict when I do my best work and determine how to adapt my working habits accordingly. As a hypothetical, if I find that Mondays are generally complete write-offs in terms of writing productivity, maybe I should try to schedule meetings and professional development for that day. Alternatively, I could examine other variables that might have an impact – perhaps I don’t get as much sleep on Sunday nights compared to other nights of the week? – and see if could change those factors so that I can accomplish more at the beginning of the week.

Evaluation doesn’t have to be a big complicated procedure (though it can grow in that direction): simply collecting the numbers and spending some time thinking about them, tasks you may already be doing to some degree to satisfy internal or external requirements, is a great first step in evaluating what you’re doing. Just to clarify, I’m not dismissing more qualitative or participatory approaches, which can help provide context and the real human stories behind the stats. However, if you’re not sure where to begin with an evaluation, a basic understanding of the numbers can provide some easily-digestible food for thought.

P.S. One more piece of advice: Counting is a habit, and like any other habit it can take some time to integrate into a routine. If you realize you’ve forgotten to record a number (like I have already a couple of times with time tracking), don’t worry about it too much! Just do what you can to prevent yourself from missing it in the future – fortunately, the act of recording and seeing the numbers start to add up can quickly become its own reward.