Melanie is CEO of SPEC Associates, a nonprofit program evaluation and process improvement organization headquartered in downtown Detroit. Melanie is also on the faculty of Michigan State University, where she teaches Evaluation Management in the M.A. in Program Evaluation program. Melanie holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology and has directed evaluations for almost 40 years both locally and nationally. Her professional passion is making evaluation an engaging, fun and learning experience for both program stakeholders and evaluators. To this end, Melanie co-created EvaluationLive!, an evaluation practice model that guides evaluators in ways to breathe life into the evaluation experience.
Why is it that sometimes meetings with evaluation stakeholders seem to generate anxiety and boredom, while other times they generate excitement, a hunger for learning and, yes, even fun!?
My colleague, Mary Williams, and I started wondering and defining this about eight years ago. With 60 years of collective evaluation experience, we documented, analyzed cases, and conducted an in-depth literature review seeking an answer. We honed in on two things: (1) a definition of what exemplary stakeholder engagement looks and feels like, and (2) a set of factors that seem to predict when maximum stakeholder engagement exists.
To define “exemplary stakeholder engagement” we looked to the field of positive psychology and specifically to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (2008) Flow Theory. Csikszentmihalyi defines “flow” as that highly focused mental state where time seems to stand still. Think of a musician composing a sonata. Think of a basketball player being in the “zone.” Flow theory says that this feeling of “flow” occurs when the person perceives that the task at hand is challenging and also perceives that she or he has the skill level sufficient to accomplish the task.
The EvaluationLive! model asserts that maximizing stakeholder engagement with an evaluation – having a flow-like experience during encounters between the evaluator and the stakeholders – requires certain characteristics of the evaluator/evaluation team, of the client organization, and of the relationship between them. Specifically, the evaluator/evaluation team must (1) be competent in the conduct of program evaluation; (2) have expertise in the subject matter of the evaluation; (3) have skills in the art of interpersonal, nonverbal, verbal and written communication; (4) be willing to be flexible in order to meet stakeholders’ needs typically for delivering results in time for decision making; and (5) approach the work with a non-egotistical learner attitude. The client organization must (1) be a learning organization open to hearing good, bad, and ugly news; (2) drive the questions that the evaluation will address; and (3) have a champion positioned within the organization who knows what information the organization needs when, and can put the right information in front of the right people at the right time. The relationship between the evaluator and client must be based on (1) trust, (2) a belief that both parties are equally expert in their own arenas, and (3) a sense that the evaluation will require shared responsibility on the part of the evaluator and the client organization.
Feedback from the field shows EvaluationLive!’s goalposts help evaluators develop strategies to emotionally engage clients in their evaluations. EvaluationLive! has been used to diagnose problem situations and to direct “next steps.” Evaluators are also using the model to guide how to develop new client relationships. We invite you to learn and get involved.