Expanding Perception Through Evaluation

Creating an Innovation Panopticon?

One of Evaluation’s greatest contributions to innovation is its ability to expand the vision of the innovator and attend to matters of perception. What we look at it is not always all we consciously see, nor is what we see the sum of all we perceive. Humans have many conscious and unconscious biases in what they perceive and how they interpret what they perceive. Evaluation can help add clarity to that perception and expand it. 

Evaluation can help distinguish reality from illusion. In this latest in our series on Evaluation: The Innovator’s Secret Advantage we look at the secret of perception and how evaluation can help change what is seen (and reveal what is not) in the journey of innovation. 

Seeing More

The image above is of a jail modeled on the Panopticon, an ancient architectural design to allow someone to see all that is going on at any one time. While its use within prisons is not one that’s particularly comforting or attractive, the model or concept of creating a design that enables a vantage point to see what is happening within an innovation context is a useful metaphor. 

Evaluation can enable innovators to see what is happening from a single vantage point at considerable depth or, as we will discuss, provide an alternative means by seeing the phenomenon from multiple perspectives. Both of these have advantages for innovators looking to assess the performance of a product or service in areas of high complexity and uncertainty. 

It is by reflecting on the vantage point (perspective) that we can determine whether what we are seeing is real or just an illusion and take the appropriate action based on that assessment. 

Seeing Differently

Consider one of the most famous of these visual illusions: the Young Girl / Old Woman Illusion (below). The history of this illusion has been traced back to the late 19th century and has been replicated many times since then to be considered a staple of any introductory psychology text. 

Young Girl/Old Woman Illusion

What’s interesting about this illusion is that you can’t hold both the image of the young girl and the old woman in your mind’s eye at the same time. You can only see one, not both even if you can switch back and forth. The same situation can occur within an innovation where it is difficult to see two ideas at the same time. By asking the right questions, an evaluation can help innovators to see what others see, what they default to, and whether or under what conditions do they see something different (e.g., seeing something as a product or a service). 

Other illusions are more about perceptual shifts that, once made, are difficult or impossible to ‘unlearn’. These can be found in such things as the FedEx logo and its embedded arrow (check the link if you’ve never seen it). Another is the often common hidden ‘8’ within the 8 of diamonds in a deck of cards (see below). 

Eight of diamonds playing card, isolated on white background.

Evaluation for innovation involves asking questions about a program, product, or service that includes taking a perceptual view of many different people and from different situations. It’s a systems-oriented perspective that considers what a particular phenomenon looks like from a particular point of view. 

Seeing What’s Hidden in Plain Sight

Another famous psychological illusion is the one conceived of by Daniel Simons and his colleagues called The Monkey Business Illusion. This selective perception task is designed to show how your attention and focus can blind you to other things going on. The video below provides an updated version of the original video (available via the link above) to illustrate how we can miss things that are right in front of us based on what we attend to. 

The Monkey Business Illusion

Innovators are often focused on the core aspects of their innovation: the product, the process, and the intended outcomes. This focus is often what sets successful innovators apart from others, yet it can also be a liability.  An evaluator can help an innovator (an individual, a team, an entire organization) to see the full picture. 

How? The means to do this is first achieved by asking evaluative questions that look at what is going on, what is new, and what meaning is derived from various activities. 

Taking the Temperature (and Other Innovation Measures)

There is a useful, if not morbid, fable about the frog in the boiling pot. In that fable, the frog fails to notice that the temperature of the water continues to rise because the change is so gradual. The frog ends up boiling to death because of this inability to see that he is being boiled alive because the changes are so hard to detect. A good evaluation designed for innovation provides means to collect data akin to a thermostat calibrated to the particular conditions, situations, and product or service necessary. 

This could include monitoring key inputs and outputs, tracking sales or engagements over time, or looking at resource levels like personnel and how they respond to change. The latter example is a good one, particularly with larger organizations where the duties assigned to a single person could be absorbed by others if that individual left the role. However, as time moves on and the extra work is normalized it is possible that the pattern is repeated over time where those who are left eventually shoulder such a burden that it makes the work impossible, but also the performance degrades. 

These are the kinds of situations where collapse is likely. We’ve seen this with leadership when many people start leaving at the top or when those at the front face of an organize leave in large numbers. The cost in capital, focus, lived experience, and working knowledge can cripple an organization over the long haul. But like the frog in the pot, it might not be until just before the boil that it is noticed. 

Evaluating for Illusion & Reality

Evaluation for innovation recognizes that the attention and focus of those leading the charge is precious and that leaders are likely to miss key things without the right tools to draw their attention to the whole system and the parts. Evaluation can be hired to cover some of these perceptual gaps and illuminate things like the present temperature or noticing gorillas, patterns in data like the 8 of diamonds or discerning the best moment to see a young girl or an old woman. 

In the next piece in this series, we’ll look at how evaluation can uncover layers of impact that go beyond seeing what is in front of us to looking far past it. If evaluation for innovation is something that you need help with, connect with us; we can help you see things differently. 

Title image credit: Cameron Norman

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