In December of 2016, I presented a poster on a STEM-C education project at the Restore America’s Estuaries National Summit, co-hosted by The Coastal Society. Having a social science background, I assumed I’d be “out of my depth” amid restoration science topics. However, a documentary on estuarine restoration projects along New Jersey’s Hidden Coast inspired me with insights on the importance of evaluation in helping projects achieve effective outcomes. The film highlights the vital importance of horseshoe crabs as a keystone species beset by myriad threats: Their sustainability as a renewable resource was overestimated and their ecological importance undervalued until serious repercussions became impossible to ignore. Teams of biologists, ecologists, military veterans, communication specialists, and concerned local residents came together to help restore their habitat and raise awareness to help preserve this vital species.
This documentary was not the only project presented at the conference in which diverse teams of scientists, volunteers, educators, and others came together to work toward a shared goal. I began to reflect on how similar the composition of these groups and their need for successful collaboration was to contributors on many projects I evaluate. Time and again it was revealed that the various well-intended interdisciplinary team members often initially struggled to communicate effectively due to different expectations, priorities, and perspectives. Often presenters spoke about ways these challenges had been overcome, most frequently through extensive communication with open exchanges of ideas. However, these only represented successful projects promoting their outcomes as inspiration and guidance for others. How often might lack of open communication lead projects down a different path? When does this occur? and How can an evaluator help the leaders foresee and avoid potential pitfalls?
Often, the route to undesired and unsuccessful outcomes lies in lack of effective communication, which is a common symptom of GroupThink. Imagine the leadership team on any project you evaluate:
- Are they a highly cohesive group?
- Do they need to make important decisions, often under deadlines or other pressure?
- Do members prefer consensus to conflict?
These are ideal conditions for GroupThink, when team members disregard information that does not fit with their shared beliefs, and dissenting ideas or opinions are unwelcome. Partners’ desire for harmony can lead them to ignore early warning signs of threats to achieving goals and lead to making poor decisions.
How do we, as evaluators, help them avoid GroupThink?
- Examine perceived sustainability objectively: Horseshoe crabs are an ancient species, once so plentiful they covered Atlantic beaches during spawning, each laying 100,000 or more eggs. Perceived as a sustainable species, their usefulness as bait and fertilizer has led to overharvesting. Similarly, project leaders may have misconceptions about resources or little knowledge of other factors influencing capacity to maintain their activities. By using validated measures, such as Washington University’s Program Sustainability Assessment Tool (PSAT), evaluators can raise awareness among project leaders on factors contributing to sustainability and facilitate planning sessions to identify adaptation strategies and increase chances of success.
- Investigate an unintended consequence of project’s activities: Horseshoe crabs’ copper-based blood is crucial to the pharmaceutical industry. However, they cannot successfully be raised in captivity. Instead, they are captured, drained of about 30 percent of their blood, and returned to the ocean. While survival rates are 70 percent or more, researchers are becoming concerned the trauma may impact breeding and other behaviors. Evaluators can help project leaders delve into cause-and-effect relationships underlying problems by employing techniques such as the Five Whys to identify root causes and developing logic models to clarify relationships between resources, activities, outputs, and outcomes.
- Anticipate unintended chains of events: Horseshoe crabs’ eggs are the primary source of protein for migrating birds. The declining population of horseshoe crabs has put at least three species of birds’ survival at risk. As evaluators, we have many options (e.g., key informant interviews, risk assessments, negative program theory) to identify aspects of program activities with potentially negative impacts and make recommendations to mitigate the harm.
Horseshoe Crab-in-a-bottle sits on my desk to remind me not to be reticent about making constructive criticisms in order to help project leaders avoid GroupThink.