We are asked to evaluate our experiences regularly these days. In person by pressing a button as you leave security or a bathroom. Over email after buying something online. Filling out a form at the end of a webinar. Or sometimes simply as you visit a website. How was your experience today? Please rate our service? Would you recommend us to your friends? It can be a bit overwhelming.
The aid world is full of evaluations, mid-term reviews, after action reviews, real-time evaluations, learning reports, and so on. Lots of reviewing, not a huge amount of change.
Most of the reviews look at a project. Did we meet the objectives? What went well? What didn’t? How could we do it better? Did the people who were to benefit, actually benefit? What do they think of the project? And of course, there are lots of variations on these themes.
Sometimes, we ask ‘did we/are we doing the right thing?’ Which is a great question. And yet, when it is asked, we still tend to ask it about the project. However, to fully answer the question we need to think about how the project connects to other projects, including things happening in the context which our outside our control. That is much harder to answer.
It’s also hard to be asking ‘should we do/have done something else’ when the people in the discussion are bought into the current design. They are invested. And we find it hard to admit maybe what we are doing is not what we should be doing.
Yet, fully asking ‘did we/are we doing the right thing?’ and ‘should we do/have done something else?’ might just be the most important discussions to have.
And while we are talking about evaluations and learning, trends deserve some attention. Too often, these reviews are focused on projects and a moment in time. In some sense, they have to be. In another sense, they can’t be. Projects happen in a time and place, but they are also part of something bigger. A trend. And trends are never solo venturers. They travel with others. This is why ‘should we do/have done something else?’ is so important to discuss.
Learning reviews look at a moment in time for the purpose of changing the future. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. Learn what not to do and what to do. But when done well, we look at the project to see where we are and look to the future to see where we are going. We look at the trends, imagine how they might converge and how we need to be behaving in that future. In that frame of mind, we can answer ‘should we do/have done something else?’
Those discussions are extremely rare, but when they happen, the people involved never forget them. True learning tends to be that way.