Matching Evaluation Strategies to Community Rhythms

Submitted by Andrew Taylor on October 5, 2016 - 7:03am
: Reflections on My Experience at The Harwood Institute Public Innovators Lab

Communities change when people work together, but working together means pulling people out of their comfort zones.  That is never easy.  Good community animators know that their approach has to be carefully calibrated to their context.  Strategies that are helpful in one circumstance may not work in another. That is one of the main insights I took away from the Harwood Institute Public Innovators Lab I attended last year.  

Harwood has mapped out five “stages of community life.”   

• In communities at the “waiting stage” people sense that things are not working right in         theircommunity, but they are unable to clearly define the problem.  

• The second stage, called “impasse” occurs when a community hits bottom with a certain issue, and decides that “enough is enough.”  It is characterized by a sense of urgency about addressing the problem, coupled with confusion about how best to act.  

• The “catalytic” stage occurs when small actions start to take place and more people, from different corners of the community get involved.   

• Clear evidence of progress, formalized plans, and strong networks are hallmarks of the “growth” stage 

• The “sustain and renew” stage is characterized by longer-term work and a focus on the deeper, systemic factors underlying the original problem.  

Harwood argues that communities can’t be pushed to a new stage before they are ready.  Strategies that work really well for a community at the catalytic stage are likely to fall flat in a community still at the waiting stage.  In fact, these strategies may do harm when applied at the wrong stage of community life.  A classic example of this kind of mistake is a community that rushes to launch a single, big, collaborative initiative with lofty goals before it is ready. In the early stages, taking time to have inclusive discussions about goals and celebrating the small successes of many different actors may be smarter than launching a big new project.  

The model includes a number of very practical tips for working with communities at each stage. I was struck by how many of these tips dealt with aspects of the learning and evaluation process. At the waiting stage, for example, it is important to let people know that there will be few signs of progress, and to celebrate small wins.  At the catalytic stage, making room for experimentation and learning from failure is important, and so is sharing authentic stories of progress.     

The implication is that communities at different stages of development probably need fundamentally different kinds of evaluation.  When we, as evaluators, try to get a community at the early stages of its development to do typical evaluation things like identify shared outcomes or agree on a consistent set of measurement tools, I think we may be making a version of the same mistake that community organizers make when they rush too quickly to a single, big, shared project.  In our work at Taylor Newberry Consulting, we often try to avoid this mistake by encouraging new collaboratives to focus on learning from readily available information before embarking on ambitious new data collection and evaluation efforts.  Since participating in the Harwood Lab, we also think a lot about the utility of evaluation for groups that are only beginning to see the value in organizing for change.  Those folks probably need an approach that is even more simple, informal, flexible and story based. 

Participating in the Harwood Lab and reflecting on Community Rhythms helped me to be more mindful of these kinds of questions.  I would recommend the experience for anyone who enjoys dancing to community rhythms! 

The Harwood Public Innovators Lab that I attended in Washington is coming to Toronto in November of 2016!  Click here for more information. 

Check out Liz Weaver’s blog for another great resource from the Harwood Institute