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The art and science of evaluation

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8th Jul 2013
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Hilary Briggs gives us some valuable advice about getting the most out of the evaluation experience.

We’re all likely to have been on the receiving end of some form of evaluation in our professional lives - perhaps by the attendees of one of our sessions, by the manager who sponsored the session, or from our boss. If you’re anything like me, I’ve found that people who can give really valuable feedback from any of the above perspectives are pretty rare.

Since working in various management roles in large companies, I’ve worked hard on my evaluation skills. I've developed a workshop programme to put across what I see as the art and science of evaluation which also builds on my practical experience in management.

Understanding the key elements that make up truly valuable feedback will help to draw it out of those who might still be on the journey to excellence, as well as making it easier to impart the knowledge to those who really want to improve their skills.

Let’s start with the science and the five key elements of giving an evaluation:

Input

There must be something or someone that you are evaluating, and the input will be in the form of your observations – what you see, hear or feel. The more specific and factual this evidence is the better.

Knowledge

There needs to be an understanding of what 'good' actually is. This might have personal elements – for instance your own learning style being accommodated on a training course – but the more this can be expressed in neutral data rather than opinion the better.

Analysis

There is a processing step that compares the 'input' with the 'knowledge'. How well does the person being evaluated stack up with best practice? What’s working and why? What’s not working so well and what might the person do to improve? This piece determines the content of the feedback.

Output

The summary of the analysis stage will get presented back to the person being evaluated – this is the feedback received – either as written material (e.g. evaluation form), face to face (e.g. an appraisal), or over the phone (e.g. follow-up survey). What is important in the delivery of the message, how it will land and whether it will be accepted or rejected are things such as your choice of words, your voice tone and body language.

Mentality

This covers core values such as supportive, professional and continuous improvement. What are the intentions of the person giving the feedback? Ideally they should be aimed at helping the person being evaluated to improve. Too often they can be more about showing how clever the person giving feedback is (or not), focusing on what’s wrong or giving attention to some personal opinions. Being able to stay calm and keep to the facts even if something has been frustrating takes mental discipline.

If you are the receiver of the evaluation then understanding these five elements can help you probe the feedback and gain a better understanding of it, and also allow you stay calm should you feel the feedback is too critical.

I've found in my evaluation journey that using checklists to ensure I covered all the key elements of a good speech (the knowledge and input parts) was fine up to a point, but on struggling in one contest I realised I needed to jump to another level. And this is where the 'art' of evaluation comes in.

To be a great giver of feedback, you want to have the best practice knowledge so embedded that it pops up without effort. The analysis – and in particular the prioritisation of what will actually get fed back and what won't - becomes more based on feelings. How do you actually feel about what the person has done? What is it that this person is doing that’s having a positive impact, and what not?

I had a breakthrough when I once found I’d lost concentration whilst listening to a speech. Rather horrified, I suddenly realised that this was actually great feedback for the speaker – they’d not managed to hold my attention. I was then able to check with the audience as to whether anyone else had had the same experience (some had) and give suggestions to the speaker on how they might improve. It was the most valuable feedback I could give.

The keys to developing the art of evaluation are a thorough understanding of the science, and practice – lots and lots of it. Which is why the mentality element is crucial. If the underpinning core values are missing, it’s unlikely someone will find the motivation to improve. Hence developing the sense of purpose about feedback and the benefits it can bring, that can then sit above and drive the values, is fundamental .

If you are running courses on giving feedback, the above elements help to provide a framework that can structure people's learning and isolate the areas to practice. If you are on the receiving end of feedback, use the elements to set the context and questions on the feedback form, or to guide exploratory questions if you’re in an appraisal or conducting a survey.

Feedback is essential to improvement, and the better the quality of feedback the faster the improvement: lead the way and become a master giver and receiver of feedback yourself.

Hilary Briggs is a profitable growth expert with over 15 years of industrial experience, having held senior management positions at Rover Group, Whirlpool Corporation and The Laird Group plc. For the last 10 years, she’s worked with SMEs to improve their profitability. Hilary is lieutenant governor Education and Training for Toastmasters International in UK and Ireland. Hilary is also managing director of profitable growth specialists R2P Ltd

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