PART 1: Evaluative Thinking should be a critical leadership competency

I’m an evaluator by training and I have worked in leadership development for decades. There are a lot of competencies that are important for doing well as an evaluator and as a leader.  Years ago I wrote a blog post about evaluators thinking more about themselves as leaders and their leadership development. As part of my work with the Luminare Group I was lucky enough to collaborate not only with the Luminare  team but also with the Johnson Center on Philanthropy, at Grand Valley State University on a project funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. That work deepened my appreciation for how critical is it for leaders to think evaluatively. In this series of posts (part two will be published on October 22), I encourage leaders and leadership developers to focus more on evaluative thinking – going so far as to recommend evaluative thinking as a critical leadership competency. Sound crazy? Hear me out…

Evaluative Thinking is related to, but distinct from evaluation.

Evaluation focuses on the tasks of gathering information to make a judgment while evaluative thinking is being strategically curious and thinking critically in service of stated aims and values within a specific context. Nonprofit leaders would benefit from developing their evaluative thinking; in fact that is often more important than evaluation activities. Without evaluative thinking, evaluation activities are unlikely to be worth the effort and expense. There, I said it.

While conducting evaluations is one of my favorite things, when it comes to making a difference in the world I think it is more important for leaders to think evaluatively than for an organization to conduct evaluations.

Ideally, both are happening because they reinforce each other. For evaluations to be accurate and useful, they have to be developed with input from stakeholders. The clearer the stakeholders are about what they are doing and why (as well as what assumptions they are making), the better the evaluation and the more likely the results are to be useful (and to be used). Is there a place for external evaluation – yes, but to do that work well there needs to be clarity about the context, stakeholders, criteria, standards, and proposed use. While an evaluator can provide that clarity, if that clarity already exists within the program or organizational team, everyone’s time and resources are much better spent.

Developing evaluative thinking within organizations allows the technical skill of evaluation to be more meaningfully implemented and utilized because organizational members understand and value the practice of inquiry, gather and use relevant information, and focus learning on moving towards and demonstrating impact (There, I said it again)

The continued reliance on external experts can focus evaluation efforts on measures and frameworks that may seem useful, but are not actually providing relevant, credible, and useful information; at least not in a way that makes sense to those most poised to use it. Leaders who think evaluatively are focused on creating impact; they are clear about what they seek to accomplish, the values by which that work is done, as well as different perspectives and influences on that work.

Leadership is generally considered to be the process of setting direction, aligning effort, and generating commitment to accomplish shared work (Van Velsor, McCauley, & Ruderman, 2010).

The ways in which people and groups enact leadership vary (by context, by culture, over time, etc) but central skills include; working with stakeholders to define a goal, the desired change or impact, understanding what is needed to achieve that goal or impact, engaging in systematic and structured inquiry to collect information about impact along the way, and communicating and making decisions based on that information. To do those things well, one needs to think evaluatively. Developing evaluative thinking involves building mindsets and skill sets to understand contexts, define impact and what is needed to achieve it, engage stakeholders in systematic and structured inquiry to collect and make sense of information about impact, and make changes. These should be core competencies in nonprofit leadership development efforts, but often are not.

We invite those of you who invest in, participate in, and deliver capacity building and leadership development to reflect on ways you can weave evaluative thinking into your leadership development efforts.

In my next blog post, I’ll share a few thoughts about what this all means in terms of how we think about (and therefore conduct) evaluations.