Sew what?

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Nothing like a little cross stitch to get the creative juices flowing! So first, a quick note about the image above. I accidentally hit the Pinterest button on the top of my browser window while I was reading my email this morning. Because there were no other images in the window that could be pinned (apparently), I got a generic cross stitch image with my email address and company name.  It was cute, so I thought I’d share it – but then I got to thinking, since I do quite a bit of cross stitching, that there are quite a few similarities between cross stitch and evaluation.

1. It helps to lay some groundwork for success upfront.  You’ve got to count squares on your canvas before you start sewing to make sure you aren’t going to run out of space. Eyeballing it gets you into trouble. I’ve learned this the hard way on a few cross stitch projects where I was trying to use up scraps of fabric and was certain I’d have enough room to fit everything in with an even border around all sides – and the finished product ended up being a bit un-centered. The same thing goes for evaluation: eyeballing a project can get you into trouble.  It’s worth it to take the time to get to know a project – the key players, the goals, and all the intended activities.  A logic model is a great way during the planning stages or early-on in a project to make sure all the pieces are going to fit in a purposeful fashion.

2. There are many ways to stitch.  Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different methods…individual x’s, completing a whole row of lower left to upper right hand-corner stitching (////) before completing the same row with stitches in the opposite direction (i.e., \\\\), adding long stitches across multiple rows and then going back to add the other side of each individual square’s x (though I think this is cheating).  When all’s said and done, the finished product often looks the same from the front, but its a whole different story from the back. I think there are three evaluative lessons to be learned from this example.

A) Sometimes it matters how the back-side looks. With some evaluation projects, clients are looking for quick answers to questions and they don’t much matter how the questions get answered so long as they get accurate feedback. In other cases, clients want more transparency and may appreciate opportunities to chime in about the process the evaluation team takes in going about seeking answers to the questions set forth for the project. Sometimes, the “how” of it matters just as much to a client as the finished product, and that’s okay.

B) Different methods may be better in different contexts. While I don’t have scientific proof of this claim, I would assert that some modes of stitching are quicker in certain contexts (e.g., big chunks of color vs. patterns that are more diffuse or complex). As evaluators, it’s important to consider the methods we are using and their fit with the specific data-collection context. Sometimes we need to think strategically about which evaluative method is most appropriate given a wide range of factors or constraints (e.g., time, cost, privacy issues, literacy or language barriers, cultural differences among participants, institutional barriers, and more). One of the important skills that we develop as evaluators is being able to identify and implement the methods that are best-suited to each individual situation.

C) Don’t get in a rut.  I often change things up in the middle of a sewing project just to break up the monotony of stitching the same way over and over again. At the onset of an evaluation project, there is definitely value to thinking outside of the box (i.e., the same set of evaluative methods that we rely on day in and day out), but there may also be value to adding in some variety within an evaluation project to keep things fresh, and to help ensure that we are seeing things from different viewpoints.

3) It’s okay not to be perfect. I’d be the first to admit that my cross stitch projects are rarely perfect. I miscount rows or misplace x’s all the time. Rarely is a mistake so major that I have to unstitch things to make a correction, so most times I just roll with it and make modifications to the pattern as necessary. Ultimately, I’ve come to think of those minor diversions from the pattern as my special fingerprint on a project. It’s a lot harder admitting that my evaluation projects are rarely perfect, but after a considerable amount of reflection, I think it’s fair to say that there is no such thing as a perfect project nor a perfect evaluation. Rarely does a five-year project adhere perfectly to every single detail of the plan set forth in the proposal – so the evaluation has to pivot and evolve. Even with great instruments, the resulting data can be messy. The true sign of a good evaluation, not unlike cross stitch, is the quality of the final product.

As evaluators, we are often charged with asking the question, “so what?” but next time (if you are so inclined) think of this post, and ask “sew what?” –  you might just find some creative inspiration to make your evaluation effort even more awesome.

Below: a few of my recent cross stitch projects

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