Six Words To Live By

If you followed my previous dispatches from the 2014 American Evaluation Association conference in Denver (or my rapid-fire tweeting during the conference), you can guess that I really enjoyed the experience. It was great to meet some evaluation social media celebrities in person –Chris Lysy, Sheila Robinson, and Kylie Hutchinson, to name a few -, re-connect with friends and colleagues including Sarah Farina of Broadleaf Consulting, Elizabeth McGee, and my co-conspirator Chi Yan Lam, and of course build new connections with people around the world doing neat work in the field of evaluation. There were tons of great sessions and plenary discussions and the visit to the Women’s Bean Project provided great inspiration and ideas for social enterprises (as well as a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans to keep me going through the long days!). Although I returned to Saskatoon physically and mentally exhausted, I feel inspired and excited about the developments in this field.

One common thread for the conference was the sharing of six-word stories, inspired by a challenge to Ernest Hemingway (his response: “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn”). At a session on the last day of the conference, we were challenged to come up with a six-word story describing our personal experiences with the intersection of systems thinking and evaluation – the following (slightly modified) is my contribution:

Bring open mind
Open heart

On further reflection, I realized that these six words encapsulate the approach that I aspire to live out in my practice. Open mind, for new ideas and perspectives that could provide new insights, as well as new partnerships and resources to draw on to create community change. Open heart, to listen to and share stories, to be attentive to values and the ways in which research and evaluation can privilege or disempower individuals. Mindfulness (inspired by a great session on Mindful Evaluation!), to be aware of my own background and ways of thinking and doing, and to be able to step back from over-analyzing and just take in what I’m seeing and hearing.

(Orignally, the last word was “Aspirin”, to reflect that too much systems thinking can lead to headaches – I think “Mindfulness” is a more positive approach to the issue, though my first choice of words brings a bit more humour).

If I take nothing further away from the conference that those six words, I would still be satisfied. As it is, I have many resources, business cards, and sparks of ideas to pursue – stay tuned!

If you were at AEA2014, what were some highlights for you? Share in the comments below or via Twitter!

Three quick insights from #eval14

This is my second time attending an AEA conference, which should theoretically have prepared me for the size and sheer energy that comes with these events: that being said, I’m still a bit overwhelmed! After a great workshop yesterday on systems thinking, the opening plenary provided a insightful keynote by AEA president Beverly Parsons introducing the theme of Visionary Evaluation For a Sustainable and Equitable world, together with a panel discussion including 14-year old Indigenous activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez of Earth Guardians. I didn’t attend any further presentations after that, but did connect with colleauges from the Community Psychology, Systems in Evaluation, and Evaluation Use Topic Interest Groups (TIGs) at a social event last night.

In this whirlwind, I’ve consistently noticed three key points:

Evaluators need to look at the bigger picture

From the systems thinking perspective, inter-relationships between elements of a system can have large impacts that are often difficult to control for. While we need to draw boundaries around what’s in and what’s not for an evaluation (else we would quickly run out of time, money, and sanity), we need to recognize that a program supporting high school students is affected by factors including families, neighbourhoods, schools, and public policy.

Evaluators need to think about design

I attended a great session this morning, which included presentations by Cameron Norman and Chi Yan Lam on the intersection of design and evaluation. The creativity and tools used by designers to understand their users and create applications to meet their needs fit well with the evaluation focus on articulating models of change and determining impact. During the session, I came up with an equation – Design Creativity + Evaluation Rigour + Vision and Principles = A More Sustainable, Equitable World – does this ring true for you?

Evaluators need to reflect and be critical

By critical, I don’t mean focusing on shortcomings exclusively, but asking hard questions about program purpose, who benefits, who has access to resources, and whose knowledge is valued. The workshop yesterday introduced the Critical Systems Heuristic tool which I look forward to introducing to clients, as well as turning inward on my own work as a consultant and change agent.

I’m about to head off on the field trip to the Women’s Bean social enterprise, but keep an eye on Twitter for the latest insights and ideas from the conference!

Why Conference?

Among the things I’m thankful for (note to my American readers, we celebrate Thanksgiving a bit earlier than you!) is the opportunity to attend the American Evaluation Association’s conference this year. As Chris Lysy pointed out in one his evaluation comics, the reasons for bringing upwards of a thousand people together is constantly evolving, especially since we can easily share information and insights online with a much larger audience on a much smaller budget. So, aside from having the chance to see new locales – this will be my first trip to Denver – what are my reasons for going?

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