Can Evaluation Be about Soap and Cookies?
It was Tuesday evening and the living room of the quaint older home in the city center was filled with a diverse and lively crowd. They had gathered to see each other and express their frustration and hardships through artistic expressions and spontaneous testimonials. A young man introduced himself, suggesting I should see another place where people had rediscovered a long-lost sense of freedom and empowerment.
“Bring laundry soap,” he said and smiled, “and if you plan to stay for a while, bring cookies.”
I had arrived in this sunny but severely restricted (and therefore unnameable) landscape with a mandate to examine different approaches to promote increased information flows. Sending an evaluator into a country where all data were state property and where collecting data could land you in prison was risky, and the notion of evidence-based evaluation an inherent contradiction. Although a formal evaluation was not required, very little information was available on performance indicators and targets. Even worse, reporting on implementation was scary thin. Thus the challenge: how could I contribute anything of value without my usual evaluation playbook?
Several days later, I found my way to a rural setting. My new friend walked me down a grassy path to a laundry room, where women and children were gathered next to a sunny porch set with traditional rocking chairs. “Did you bring soap?” he asked. I handed over the soap and cookies, soon realizing this laundry room was the distribution center of the farming enterprise, convening its most vested shareholders—the women. The gifts leveled the playing field, encouraging and empowering participants to engage each other in discussion intended to influence decision-making. The daily engagement of these women in their new shared space provided tangible evidence of change, advancing the collaborative growth of their families and communities.
Finding Appreciative Inquiry in an Unexpected Place
My brief association with this laundry room happened many years before I learned the principles of Appreciative Inquiry and its strengths-based approach. However, I vividly remember how sinks and lather enabled each woman to “shape an evolving construct”* by drawing from the group’s rich collective imagination. I was uneasy about collecting data, but the laundry-room conversations were building quantitative and qualitative evidence of change. Stories around the rocking chairs became a group construction, whose bricks were unexplored potential, innovation, opportunity, high points, lived values, and acquired skills.
Rather than impose the interview protocols from my infamous evaluation playbook, I took a step back to watch success become evident through lived experiences shared among the rocking chairs. Rhythmically, the storytellers defined success as a group—a Greek chorus of sorts—reflecting on causes and contributing factors.
Four Phases in a Bubble, among the Bubbles
In the years that followed, I became more familiar with Appreciative Inquiry as a four-phased process—inquire, imagine, innovate, and implement. I often considered how to move from that natural inquiry process in the laundry room to the other three stages. As development advocates, we can become weary of the obstacles people in non-permissive environments face when imagining a way forward. Where can they find the freedom to shape their systems and relationships differently to move toward their vision? Moreover, when implementing activities in such restrictive environments, can we realistically anticipate taking action on the provocative propositions that are central to innovation? We can encourage linking of “what is” with “what might be,” but we remain cognizant of daunting risks and perils in these environments, and high personal stakes.
As time passed, I realized I had actually witnessed all four phases in that laundry room. Its very existence was the product of participants’ action to realize their vision. Appreciative interviews happened every day, fueling new visions with imagination. The women exercised innovation stretching across their households. Ultimately, implementation was reflected in the soap and the sinks, kept in motion by the sway of the rocking chairs.
“What are you thinking?” my host asked, smiling again. “I am glad I accepted your invitation,” I said. “It would have been impossible to understand what actually happens between the sinks inside and the rocking chairs out in the porch … and just for today, my soap and my cookies were part of the magic!”
Photo by Georgie Sharp, via Creative Commons
* Quoted material in this post is from the seminal book on Appreciative Evaluation, Reframing Evaluation through Appreciative Inquiry, by Hallie Preskill and EnCompass CEO/CFO Tessie Tzavaras Catsambas.