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Evaluation, Learning & Innovation: How NOT to kill the cat!


They say curiosity killed the cat… but I’d say curiosity is the foundation of developing a culture of learning and innovation.


So, what is a culture of learning and innovation? 


Many people and organizations - especially community organizations - acknowledge that developing a culture of learning and innovation these days is critical. But who has the time or resources? And don’t talk to me about evaluation as a means to doing that. Outputs, outcomes, logic models, theories of change… don’t even know where to start.


But if we look at evaluation as a learning tool, and shift our mindset - it can be a powerful tool.


Let’s demystify evaluation and learning...


What are we really talking about when we think of evaluation? Yes, outputs, outcomes, logic models et al can all be part of that - but the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) and the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) are two thought leaders that are saying: ‘Whoa! It doesn’t have to be that complicated.’


The real challenge is to think smart about ‘useful’ evaluation and just the right kind of evaluation.


What does that mean? It means thinking about - what do you really need to know to be innovative in your organization? What do you need to know to not just to report to funders, etc. BUT to be better at what you do. Really, to be EXCELLENT at what you do. 

THIS is key to creating powerful organizations, AND powerful communities…


They are curious, and they want to do better - AND they know learning is foundational to innovation. ONN suggests five simple steps to creating a culture of learning (modified slightly by yours truly).


1) Build learning into the routine.

2) Have clear learning goals - what do you really need to know.

3) Ask DEEP questions, and take some time - regularly, to answer them.

4) Engage and include partners - the more people you can engage in regular reflection about what you are doing, and SHOULD be doing is key… when they say more heads are better than one, they are not kidding!

5) Have leaders who lead… still thinking about this one, but I think it means you need people who can keep their eye on the prize. What are you really trying to accomplish and what needs to happen to help you do that?


Partners vs. Adversaries


ONN also talks about the need for reciprocal respect between various partners (including funders and organizations). We’re all trying to make the world a better place here - so let’s figure out how to be partners, not adversaries in making that happen. 


Last but not least, I’d like to mention and acknowledge that none of this really is easy. Our world is sooooo complex, and there is no such thing as direct cause and effect. The question should be: what is our contribution to the change we want to see in the world? Are we using our resources in the most efficient and effective way to create the kind of world we really want?


So, don’t kill the cat. And don’t get tied up in knots trying to figure all this stuff out. Keep it simple. What do you need to know to be better at what you’re trying to do? What are the best ways to find that out? Then go from there...


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