Friday, May 1, 2015

Evaluating Collaboratives - Exploring the Symphonic Metaphor

In my previous Blog, I mentioned that I would be visiting the symphonic metaphor again in the future.  Well, welcome to the future!...

At the time of my writing this, we still don’t have flying cars or jetpacks.  What we do have is a focus on collaboration of multiple sectors to affect positive change in communities.  There are many brands for this type of work, but in reality, it is just organizations of many types (nonprofit, business, civic, etc) and individuals (concerned citizens, elected officials, etc) coming together to try to solve an issue.  To affect this work, there are many steps - and of course, evaluation can offer support to each step.


Identifying and Agreeing Upon an Issue

To get there is no easy task.  There are many steps and much can get in the way.  The first issue is identifying what is important.  I’ve a bit of experience with this and you would be surprised at how difficult it is to come to an agreement about what constitutes a community issue.  While not considered a specific evaluative domain by many people (how often have I heard, “there’s nothing to measure yet, we don’t need you), many of the skills evaluators engage can be of use.  Some of the methods I’ve used include:

  • Visioning exercises - These are great for getting people to present issues in a positive manner and often also can be used to establish the goal(s) of the collaborative.  Some prompts have included:
    • It’s 20 years from now and CNN, CNBC, Fox News (whomever) is talking about the major change that happened in your community, what was it?
    • You are being interviewed for the newspaper about what you accomplished, what was it?
    • You are met with a genie and given 3 wishes for your community, what are the things you wish for?
  • Service overlap mapping - This is great for starting the conversation around what people/organizations are bringing to the table.  This is like a heatmap versus a geographical map.  Here we often follow with additional questions:
    • Why are you providing the service?  (And you can’t just say there is a need.)
    • Where are there gaps on the map (service deserts)?  Why are they there?
    • What do the services have in common?

The neat thing about the two above methods is that you are attacking the problem from two different directions.  In the first case, you are just aiming for the result (impact, outcome).  In the second, you are looking at what people are doing and allowing them to weave it together into a meaningful result for the group.

Incidentally, you are also starting the set up of your program theory and evaluation framework as you are establishing the long-term outcomes they are collectively shooting for and then working backward to individual organizational outcomes and activities.


Identifying and Agreeing Upon What the Collaborative Is Doing (Or Will Do)

As an evaluator, you want to know what the activities are.  As a community activist, you want to know what your partners are going to do to support the cause.  This is another sticky issue as many organizations/individuals might not recognize the contributions of others as relevant or appropriate.  This is where I like to help by using the results of the previous work.  We have our agreed upon impact - we now need to agree upon what outcomes predict success.  We often rely on the organizations and individuals to provide us with their theories of impact (we can talk about this another blog post in the future).  When drawn out and discussed, the map can look something like this:











A fantasy author, Michael Moorcock is the originator of the design idea - his symbol for chaos.  And it is chaos that can occur if there isn’t “alignment” of the efforts - in essence, the community’s impact goal is never achieved because everyone is pulling hard, but in different directions.  The evaluator, through the clarity of the theory of impact can help the organizations and individuals involved see can happen and with data, may be able to articulate it.  This service helps the group agree upon efforts.


Note of Caution

Please note, I’ve simplified this.  In reality - we are about 2 or so years into a collaborative’s work and if we are lucky, we now have agreement on what we are trying to accomplish.



So we have agreement on what we are trying to accomplish and we are in theory pulling in the same direction.  As part of this process, you are going to be talking about definitions and clarifying indicators of activity and outcomes.  Well - now the evaluator moves to a more traditional role, tracking activities and outcomes.

Much like any individual program, there are changes that occur.  All are often focused on the impact on the community as measured by these changes.  However, there are other impacts that seem to accompany collaborations.

  • Changes in relationship and collaboration among the partner organization and individuals
  • Individualized organizational change

When thinking about these collaborations, we really need to attend to all of these.  There are shifts that occur in capacity.  While I’m plugging the work of my organization here - the TCC Group has a fantastic paper on what we call Capacity 3.0 -  It speaks to how we need to build capacity thinking about the social sector ecosystem and how organizations need to understand, respond to and structure themselves to adapt to changes in the ecosystem.  Well - this informs some of my own thoughts, not just from one organization’s standpoint, but across a collaborative.  Partners need to see those changes and calibrate to collaborate effectively.  The evaluator can provide that data, if they are tracking all three change arenas (not to mention also looking at the other environmental factors).

And So On To the Symphony

As a collaboration forms, we are able to see how the symphony is a good metaphor.  Prior to the curtain going up and the conductor taking the stage, we have sounds of music.  As each instrument tunes, their individual melodies of practice float through the air.  In combination, they are sometime discordant and chaotic, but there are also moments were they seem to flow into a strange synergy.  These are those accidental combinations that can occur in the field.  But with the conductor (not the evaluator - we just are the critical friend/listeners), we can help the orchestra practice.  Issues such as:

  • Choice of music
  • Selection of instruments for the piece
  • Sheet music to follow
  • Parts for the instruments to play
  • Timing and pace of the piece

Can be addressed.  And like the orchestra, this work takes practice to improve.  The evaluator helps by providing the feedback to the conductor and the other partners in the piece - providing feedback to the key council or leadership of a collaborative and partner organizations.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.  Please post comments, suggestions, or questions about what I’ve shared.  I’m interested in learning from you as I share my own thoughts here.  Please feel free to post comments.

Oh - one more thing…  While I did allude to my employer - the TCC Group.  Please note that these are uniquely my thoughts and do not necessarily represent the thoughts of the organization.


Best regards,

Charles Gasper

The Evaluation Evangelist

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