What is Evaluation? (And Why You Should Care)

Evaluation is a term that requires some rehabilitation. The term isn’t incorrect or outdated, just poorly understood and not much appreciated. That is unfortunate because it is a field, practice, and habit that every innovator and change-maker could benefit from knowing intimately.

In this article, I’m going to outline why and what we might do to change how we think of a term that I (only half) jokingly refer to as the longest four-letter word in the English language.

Evaluation: A Definition

Evaluation is both a verb (an action, process and activity) and a noun (a product and profession).

As an action, it is defined as:

Systematic inquiry and learning about what people create, value and do.

This definition comes from more than 25 years of working with evaluation as a consultant, researcher, educator, and consumer. This is not the standard definition, of which there are many and often include mention of merit, significance and worth, but it is how I see something that is too often misunderstood, under-appreciated and often feared. Evaluation is too often done to people instead of being in service of people.

If we break the term down we see that…

evaluation is systematic, not haphazard, arbitrary, or undisciplined. That’s not to say it can’t be adaptive or dynamic, but it has to be methodical in how it does that. Pivoting is OK, just not as an excuse for being sloppy.

inquiry is at its core. Evaluators ask questions, are curious, and seek answers about the role a product, service, policy, or activity has on the world and the value it creates. This means being open to possibilities and willing to question assumptions we have about our work and the context.

learning is what comes from this inquiry. If we are not learning we are not evaluating. This might be controversial to some, but learning is a means to innovate, develop, and better account for our actions and effects on the world around us.

people are the focus. Evaluation is a human endeavour. Evaluation is not about things, it is about people. If people aren’t involved, it’s not really evaluation**.

create (creation, creativity) is what comes when humans design solutions for problems. We evaluate to understand what we create, how we do it, and what comes from our creations once they are put into the world.

value is part of the word itself. Evaluation allows us to make meaning from what’s meaningful to us. We evaluate things we value. If we don’t care about something we don’t evaluate it.

doing — taking ideas into the world — is what evaluation focuses on. Unless something encounters the world and is made manifest in some way (even an idea) that affects something, we don’t evaluate it. Rocks sitting on a hill are not evaluated, but our movement of rocks into a hedge, a wall, or a home is something we might evaluate.

Evaluation as Noun

Evaluation is something that is done both by amateurs and as part of a profession. There are many people who evaluate that have never heard of the profession of evaluation, but it exists and is large. Professional evaluators might belong to a voluntary organization like the American Evaluation Association (the world’s largest and most globally subscribed of such organizations) or a topic-specific organization such as the Ontario Public Health Evaluators Network.

Evaluation can be a role that someone plays as well as an activity that they engage in. Evaluators can design projects, collect and analyze data, and help design and re-design projects based on what we learn from the evaluations.

Evaluation is what you do, it doesn’t require a title, certification, or specific degrees. Such things matter only when the evaluation requirements and stakes are high and the needs are complicated. They can help, but they aren’t required. We all evaluate. The question is whether we do it well.

Evaluation activities can be done solo, collaboratively, or as part of a team (even an entire community), and are done with people, not to people, and always for people.

Evaluation is done with people, not to people and always for people.

Why Care About Evaluation (What does it do?)?

Evaluation makes effort and impact visible.

Evaluation documents what we do, how we do it, and what is produced as a result of our work. By being attentive and systematic we actually make design visible. We are able to connect our intentions with our designs to our outputs and outcomes.

Evaluation is also the means of providing critical feedback to organizations looking to develop, evolve and grow.

Evaluation is our compass. The data from evaluations help us locate ourselves and determine whether we are on the right path.

The quality of our innovations and change-making is tied to the quality of our evaluations. It is an evaluation that confirms or challenges whether any effort to ‘change the world’ or ‘create impact’ actually does. Evaluations hold us all accountable for our claims and help to make us better at what we do by pointing out what is working well, what isn’t and what outcomes (intended or otherwise) results from our actions.

Data itself won’t do it alone so evaluation requires some sensemaking and care as well as attention to how we’ve designed what it is we’re doing in the first place.

Evaluation does not need to be something we fear. It need not be something we avoid, either. Evaluation is the lifeblood of change, innovation, learning and great design. Learn to love evaluation and the value you’ll get back is more return than you put in.

Want to learn more? Need help putting this into practice? Reach out and let’s do coffee. I can help.

** Even with inanimate things like computers, machines, or natural environments we humans need to initiate something for it to be evaluation. That something we do might involve automation, but if it is not important, ignored, or not valued it isn’t of concern to evaluation. We don’t evaluate the effectiveness of a STOP sign as a means of influencing traffic behaviour independent of the humans that interact with it. Without the humans, it’s not of interest to evaluators.

A human has to care about something to evaluate it.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash and K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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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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