Let’s not make this more complicated

I used to have sign over my desk that said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, but it’s long since fallen off and been cleared away by the cleaners, along with a large number of stray almonds that seem to have a habit of accumulating under my desk.

For years I have struggled to convince people that striving for simplicity is useful and perhaps even ethical. I once told a group of co-workers that it was our moral duty to make safety legislation understandable for business owners and workers. After all, how could we realistically expect people to comply with legislation that they found incomprehensible?

This didn’t always land well. Over the years, many people have accused me of reductionism, of reducing complex ideas to simple one-liners, and whilst I acknowledge that many ideas are complex and nuanced, I still think that when people are being introduced to new ideas and processes you need to start from a point that is simple so that you don’t lose them too early.

I’ve never heard anyone complain that something is too simple.

Much of my current work is centred on building evaluation capability. I think it’s fair to say that many people find evaluation daunting (and sometimes a little boring, although I struggle to see why) and mostly this is because we’ve made it too hard, too complicated, too indecipherable.

We do this by using unfamiliar terminology, and by creating processes, templates and forms that are difficult to understand and hard to use. I’ve seen people going around in circles trying to work out the difference between an outcome and an output, when they should really be focussing on what their program is intended to achieve, and what they might want to know when they’ve finished delivering the program.

I’m not claiming that evaluation isn’t a complex and thoughtful field, I’m just saying that if you want to build capability and confidence, you need to start with the basics. It gets complicated soon enough.

I’m reminded of this every day as I try to mentor my co-worker in the intricacies of evaluation. She wants me to explain (as simply as possible) how things work, and sometimes it’s hard. So much of evaluation revolves around the words “it depends”. I can see the frustration on her face and I’m sure she sometimes thinks I’m trying to be deliberately obtuse, but the reality is that sometimes things are complicated.

Last week we were trying to work through the difference between outcomes and impacts. Much of the literature uses these terms interchangeably, although sometimes they are defined very differently.

In my view, outcomes might be short or medium term, whereas impacts tend to be wide-ranging, long term effects and therefore harder and more expensive to measure. Of course, I’m not an evaluation expert so I could well be wrong, but I remind myself that there are often a wide range of views across the profession and even the experts sometimes disagree.

I discuss this with my colleague. We circle round, we circle back, but rather than getting ourselves into a pickle, we decide that sometimes there’s no right answer.

Sometimes the best you can do is settle on your own definition and go with that. It serves no purpose to tie yourself up in knots by making things more complicated than they need to be.

I’m sorry if you can’t read this

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to be doing a short presentation at the Australian Evaluation Conference in Sydney.

So this week I fronted up (very nervously) and gave my five minute talk on getting past the imposter syndrome. You can watch it here. The sound is a little iffy at the beginning, but you’ll hopefully get the general idea.

I was very anxious about the whole thing so I’m glad it’s over.

But I wanted to talk more generally about the presentations and the communication styles of other presenters at the conference. I’m not suggesting that I’m good at public speaking (far from it – see above for evidence of this) but one thing that did surprise me was that the keynote speakers often seemed to have far too much content for their time-slots. I’m not sure if they were using a generic slide deck or whether they just think they will speak more quickly than they actually do, but in general lots of people ran out of time about half way through. I suppose that it didn’t matter because they were just so fascinating we were eager to hear anything they had to share, but nevertheless it surprised me a bit.

It sometimes felt as though they hadn’t really had time to think about their key messages.

There were a couple of really outstanding presentations. I was particularly impressed with a presentation by ARTD (an evaluation consultancy) who had clearly designed their presentation with the exact amount of information for the allotted time-slot. It was really interesting and really well done. They even had the key messages on a slide at the beginning of the presentation in case people had to leave to go to another session.

A notable thing at the conference was the big variations in slide decks.

The conference organisers had sent out a lot of guidance material about not putting too much details on the slides, but nevertheless some presenters couldn’t resist cramming their slides with a lot of very small text. I don’t think that I’m going to see this change in my lifetime but I would love to think that I’ll never have to hear anyone say “I’m sorry you can’t read this” again.

So there you have it. Overall it was a fantastic conference. I’m so glad I was fortunate enough to attend. Now I just need to go back to work and implement some of these great ideas.

Better Evaluation

I’ve just had an article published on the Better Evaluation website. You can read it here. I wanted to share some ideas about not being an expert while also encouraging people to think about evaluation as something useful and ‘doable’ rather than something that’s too complicated or too hard.

I’m also going to be doing a short presentation on the same topic at the Australian Evaluation Society conference in September. I’m excited but also a little nervous about that. Fortunately, it’s just a five minute “ignite” presentation. Just 20 slides and then on to the next person.

Keep your fingers crossed for me!