Evaluator as Acrobat: The Art of Flexibility

Each day I spend on the trail, walking, running, or hiking teaches me something about myself and the universe. If you know me, you know that I am a Type-A planner. I like researching background details, creating agendas and itineraries, identifying what materials are needed, and orchestrating events so they go as planned. When things don’t go as planned, I can get frustrated. This is something I continuously work on in my personal and professional life. Hiking has consistently challenged this aspect of my personality in the best way possible.

For example, this Fall I set out on a solo hike up my 22nd (of 48) 4000 footer mountains (those with summits at or above 4000 feet) in New Hampshire. I had done extensive research. I knew the weather, the hiking stats, where the closest water source was, and what time I needed to reach different junctions to stay on track. The plan was for me to hike five miles up one mountain to a backcountry campsite where I would meet my friends who were hiking 17 miles across six mountains from the other direction (overachievers!). I had an amazing day on the trail, getting to the summit in record time for me, where I enjoyed 360-degree views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. It was spectacular!

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When I got down to the campsite, the plan started to unravel. I unpacked my tent and realized it was damp. Then I learned that my friends were too exhausted to make the final steep three-mile push to the campsite. My Hallmark-inspired vision of our trio chatting and cooking dinner on our backpacking stoves while we watched the sunset over the mountains was dissipating. I realized then that 1) I did not want to camp alone in near/sub-freezing temperatures and 2) I still had time to get off the mountain in daylight. I quickly packed up, hiked out, and drove home.

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When I shared this story with friends and family, they unanimously remarked that I must be disappointed. You would think that, as a planner, I would have been. But I wasn’t. Not at all. I was proud of my friends for making the right and safe call to stay where they were. I was proud of myself for making the decision that felt true for me. And I was excited to learn that I was strong enough to hike up 3000 feet of elevation with 30 pounds of gear on my back. Yes, the plan changed. The trail has taught me to always be ready to change course – weather changes quickly, people get injured, and trail conditions can be unexpected. Sometimes the best-laid plans need to change and that is ok. In this case, Plan B ended up being pretty fantastic.

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This lesson of flexibility has also been advantageous for my consulting career. In evaluation capacity building work, often the best plans and intentions hit a bump in the road. Like people, organizations are dynamic, constantly shifting and evolving.  I’ve witnessed leadership changes, staff changes, financial challenges, disagreements about priorities, changes in funder requirements, and changes in databases. I’ve even had an organization change its mission and key strategies during the time I worked with them.

Each of these factors influences the work and requires a shift to the original plan. Sometimes these are small changes like bringing a new team member into the discussions or revising the logic model. Sometimes these are much larger changes like restructuring all of the data collection and management processes. Rigidity has no place in evaluation capacity building. As a consultant, I must find ways to pivot quickly and strategically when the plan changes. Flexibility is key.

It can be challenging to see the leaves through the trees when a consulting or capacity building project hits a bump in the road or changes course. However, I’ve found that celebrating small successes helps both me and my clients to stay focused and energized as we determine our next steps. I often ask myself questions such as, did we…

  • More clearly articulate the theory of change?
  • Collect a new data point?
  • Collaborate with a new partner?
  • Look at data differently than in the past?
  • Try a new type of data visualization?
  • Meet regularly to discuss and prioritize evaluation?

All of these steps help to build evaluation capacity and evaluative thinking. They aren’t the flashy outcomes or final report, but they do help to build the foundation and facilitate forward movement.

There are many different roads to building capacity and sometimes we have to take a detour from our original plan. If you find yourself amidst a project that’s changing course, remember to celebrate the small successes, expect and anticipate detours, and remember that Plans B, C, or D might turn out even better than Plan A. Onward!

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