Learning As Our Outcome

You knew it would come . This week we started to see accusations and conflict peek through what had been a largely harmonious, if somewhat fragmented, response to the global pandemic. What was at first behind the scenes now took centre stage.

Governments, citizens, public health officials, and scientists are starting to point the fingers at each other for who or what caused this, how we could have known more, acted faster, and reduced the impact of COVID-19 on the world. We are seeing growing calls for relaxing restrictions and returning to business as usual (as if that’s actually a possibility under even the best-case scenario) no matter what the science says.

It makes sense. People are scared, hurting financially, and tired of doing what they are doing to cope with a systems-level disruption that is unprecendented.

Certainly, there were culpable errors in judgement, but the quest for blame or desire to ‘move on’ may also deprive us of the greatest benefit this experience brings: learning.

There is evidence – such as this CNN interview with Las Vegas’ mayor Carolynn Goodman — that learning hasn’t happened much at all.

Evaluation’s Moment

You might think much about the idea of evaluation and perhaps even less now with all that is going on. But it might be one of the few ways we can avoid going to ‘business as usual’ (that will be anything but) without additional complications, harm, and hurt.

I’ve made the case that evaluation is a key to learning through innovation. Evaluation is the means of focusing our attention on what it is we are seeing within a context systematically. With COVID-19 we are innovating — trying something new to produce value (health) and prevent harm. That’s with policies (stay-at-home orders, suspending normal business operations), recommendations (hand washing, physical distancing), and through science (vaccines, tests) and practice (medical care, containment).

While nearly all of these things have been done before in some manner, they’ve never been done on this scale, this fast, and together in this way.

So what will come from all of this? Millions of infection cases, hundreds of thousands of deaths and financial and social hardship for billions. That is staggering. But after this is done, the vaccines — once developed and deployed — will have a short life until the virus is eradicated (which is what we want from them) while the ventilators, masks, and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) will have been largely used up and the temporary hospitals closed — hopefully never to be needed again.

None of this will have any future value without real learning – and not just of the scientific kind (although that is important). What about us as communities, organizations, and even individuals?

Evaluation has the opportunity to focus our energy on what is happening how, what connections are made, and what emerges from those engagements. We can document and understand what we see, do, and decide and to what effect. Evaluation, with the appropriate sensemaking and developmental design, can help us integrate this into choices that can transform our futures.

Did you stay home for nothing?

The 2008 financial crisis provided us with a chance to learn a lot beyond the damage of sub-prime mortgages. As Tim Broadhead writes for Tamarack, we let that crisis largely go to waste. Massive social inequities were laid bare during that crisis and much of what was done to respond to it ignored them.

A crisis can make visible systemic weaknesses.

Tim Brodhead

The evidence is clear: our physical distancing, staying at home, and hand-washing has saved our healthcare system from collapse and many lives. We have ‘flattened the curve‘ through these measures. Collectively, we have done (and continue to do) what’s necessary.

But what about you? What have you learned?

Most of us aren’t infectious disease epidemiologists or healthcare workers — so the question isn’t about the disease, it’s about the practices we develop and adopt.

If we go back to whatever comes from all of this with the same mindset we had before, the same habits, or the same knowledge we will have stayed home for nothing.

This means setting up systematic means of gathering information about what are seeing, doing, and deciding on a scale or scope that makes sense for us. This might be about our work habits, our mental health, the way we communicate and collaborate, or the strategic development we engage in. All are candidates for real learning and evaluation.

Without evaluation, we are much more likely to rely on our memory, which is fettered with biases, gaps, and will frame our experience more on what was, rather than what is and will be because that will be different (even if we don’t yet know how). It also means we leave our chance to make things different in ways that are beneficial to us to others and, as we saw from the financial crisis, those ‘others’ were rather few and didn’t much help anyone other than themselves.

Time and Chance

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 King James Version

Circumstances have provided us with both time and chance to build evaluative thinking and increase our capacity to learn while distancing.

Tom Archibald and his colleagues Jason McIntosh and Jane Buckley recently published a timely piece looking at the measurement of evaluative thinking which provides evidence-supported questions we can ask of ourselves and others to advance this way of thinking about the world. These looked at three core factors influencing evaluative thinking:

  • Belief in and practice of evaluation
  • Posing thoughtful questions and seeking alternatives
  • Describing and illustrating thinking

Doing this can help us to find meaning and potential ways to move forward while recognizing that what we are dealing with is a living system that can be shaped, not a static set of relations. All three of these constructs take on new meaning when we have such massive change, it is ongoing, it is complex and the implications of our decisions now will shape much of what happens for the decade to come.

History has proven itself to be a teacher we ignore.

Let’s take up Tim Brodhead’s challenge and not let this go to waste. There’s too much to pay attention to. Let’s let learning be our outcome.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash . Thanks for sharing your art with the world.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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