One of the tools within the toolkit of a developmental evaluator is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a disciplined, regular, and persistent means of paying attention to what is going on. It is a terrific means of collecting data on regular activities, particularly in complex environments where it may be unclear what is worth paying attention to.
In an earlier article on Censemaking (our sister site), Cameron Norman outlines how mindfulness and developmental evaluation work together, highlighting some of the emerging scholarship in the area of organizational mindfulness as an example. As discussed in that piece:
Mindfulness is the disciplined practice of paying attention. Bishop and colleagues (2004 – PDF), working in the clinical context, developed a two-component definition of mindfulness that focuses on 1) self-regulation of attention that is maintained on the immediate experience to enable pattern recognition (enhanced metacognition) and 2) an orientation to experience that is committed to and maintains an attitude of curiosity and openness to the present moment.
It’s one thing to talk mindfulness, but what does this mean for evaluators and organizations in practice? How can we use mindfulness practice and theory to inform developmental evaluation in a practical manner?
We present some strategies we’ve employed in our client work and offer some suggests for those seeking to bring a mindfulness approach to their developmental evaluations.
1. Introduce meditative practice through demonstrations. Let’s get the most obvious link out of the way: meditation. Meditation is usually the first thing that most people think of when hearing the word mindfulness. Meditation is a practice and while it is often linked with spiritual traditions from different cultures it does not need to have a spiritual dimension included if that’s not appropriate or useful. One of the simplest exercises to do is to walk members of the evaluation team through a short mindfulness exercise involving just sitting, closing or dimming the eyes, and paying attention to the breath and the thought patterns going through their head in a non-judgemental manner. A simple one-minute exercise can alert people to the massive amount of stimuli — both inner and outer — that is going on that they either aren’t fully attuned to or wasn’t as clear to them. Developmental evaluation is very much like this: it opens up our awareness of what’s happening in a living system on the go.
2. Build a mindful culture. While meditation is useful, it’s benefits are only accrued when applied collectively as part of the evaluation. Not everyone will take to the idea of meditating (and it needs to be introduced safely), but the idea of paying attention at regular intervals, consistently is effectively at the heart of a developmental evaluation, particularly in a highly complex context. To do this, create regular check-in’s where people answer the simple question: What’s going on? It’s like the equivalent of the “how was your day?” question we might ask our spouse or child. It allows people a momentary space to reflect on what happened within a time period and pick out what was meaningful to them? A follow-up question is: “what did you notice?”
3. Practice non-judgement, at first, and often. Evaluation is about judgement as much as anything else, but in a developmental evaluation context we may not know what benefits, drawbacks, implications or opportunities are present in a situation in the present moment. Encourage participants to simply take note of what is going on, when, and on what was observed without attributing cause and effect, judgement (“good” or “bad”) right away. Attribution is something that can be made later on through a more structured process of sensemaking.
4. Make it social. Mindfulness is generally thought of as a solitary, intra-personal activity. In a developmental evaluation you’re collecting information from across an organization or program and it involves many people and many perspectives: it has to be social to work. This is where sensemaking comes in – a critical component of developmental evaluation. The meaning of any activity won’t be readily apparent without an ability to translate individual observations and reflections into a more collective understanding. Further, because developmental evaluation is used in contexts that are usually complex, the meaning of something will be best determined by having multiple perspectives on the issue — diverse perspectives on the system — brought to bear. Ensure that teams are scheduling regular sensemaking meetings alongside regular reflections.
5. Make it visual. Mindfulness yields a lot of data. In terms of social research methods, mindfulness practice is as close to yielding ‘big data‘ as you’ll get. Lots of small observations over time will produce a lot of data. Sensemaking is a means of identifying potential patterns and meanings in the data, but even then there can be times when it’s hard to make sense of things. Using visual methods such as sketching, map making, and creative visualizations can help, tool. Visualizations allow people to abstract from one concept to the next and literally allow people’s attention to get on the same page. Tools like a gigamap can map and model a problem and potential solutions. Attractor maps can also include different elements that represent certain properties, feelings, experiences, observations and other data and put them together.
The timing of all of these activities is highly dependent upon the complexity and dynamism within the program domain. For example, a 12-week program aimed at educating individuals might have a lot of dynamism in it from week-to-week, enough that weekly check-ins and tri-weekly or monthly sensemaking sessions might be required. However, if the work being done is a collective impact model looking at advocacy for a major policy change, the activities and actions might be more long term. In that case, bi-weekly checkins and maybe quarterly sensemaking sessions are needed.
Mindfulness is a very powerful tool when employed in a developmental evaluation. Creating spaces and practices that allow people to mindfully reflect on their work, capture it and organize it can be a way of collecting data on and detecting subtle, evolving patterns of activity that are the hallmark of complex systems and programs.
Good luck. Be mindful.