Soft skills are essential assets for every evaluator; we all know it. What we might not realize is how far soft skills can go in supporting the evaluation process increasing its effectiveness and ultimately enhancing the evaluation use.
This is the case of facilitation skills. A recent training held at the FAO Office of Evaluation in Rome by
Milton Kamewendo, a professional (and excellent!) facilitator, shed light to the many cases and situations where facilitation techniques can help advance the evaluation activities, collect new evidence, overcome barriers and create a collaborative environment.
Facilitation literally means, “Helping people to talk”.
People lie at the heart of evaluation, beyond tools, methods and approaches: their disclosure of information and data, their feedback and how they engage with the evaluation as a whole. People provide the wisdom; we need to be good enough to harvest it. Facilitation helps to do exactly that. The human component can make the difference both in the results of the evaluation and in its uptake afterwards.
Put it this way, the roles of facilitators and evaluators have several commonalities.
First, as evaluators we are not the main knowledge bearers: we apply methods and our evaluative thinking lens to understand what is going on, what is working or not, how could things improve. The same happens to facilitators: they are not teaching a class. Their role is to work with the people in the room, creating a collective knowledge coming out from the individuals.
Second, looking closely at the evaluation work, we end up using facilitation skills and techniques in many steps of the evaluation process, often without realizing or calling them necessarily with their name. During the training, we worked on the evaluation “value chain” and looked at the possible entry points for facilitation:
- Scoping phase: to map stakeholders and define the terms of reference.
- Design: to develop or reconstruct the theory of change and ensure a common understanding with stakeholders.
- Data collection: to guide and control interviews with individuals and groups, in particular when conducting focus group discussions (and yes, facilitation can help in one-to-one interviews).
- Data analysis: to facilitate the discussion internally among the team members, gathering information from different experiences, and elaborating the evaluation findings.
- Validation phase: to debrief the team or country offices, solicit feedback about preliminary evaluation findings and validate them with stakeholders.
- Report writing: to consider its use, those who will be using it and how findings and recommendations are shaped and communicated.
- Dissemination: Facilitation can help to improve the way we engage with stakeholders who need to put in practice recommendations and follow up.
In this exercise, we realized that for every phase of the evaluation process facilitation is fundamental.
So, what does an evaluation facilitator do?
- Harvests collective wisdom
- Helps people bring out their ideas and knowledge
- Enables a true dialogue
- Creates common ground for discussion among different perspectives
- Ultimately, changes the perception of the evaluation process as a participatory and fun one.
Some facilitating methods that can be useful for group discussion in the evaluation process are:
- Open space: Is a technique to generate discussion in a group (no matter the size), which is used to create solutions to specific issues or overcome challenges or to set goals and strategies. The trust is placed in the group wisdom. With this technique, groups can be surprisingly creative and quick in providing ideas and solutions compared to other type of more traditional settings.
- Mind mapping: Is an efficient brainstorming technique that helps capturing different thoughts and ideas from stakeholders by linking and grouping concepts together, rather than listing them in a non-sequential manner, which generates more ideas and find deeper meaning and connections in the subject. It is useful for complex situations.
- A3 method: Is a thinking tool that provides root cause analysis and development of a plan to close the gaps between target and actual performance. The A3 paper will list the 1) Problem; 2) Current status; 3) Intended outcomes; and 4) Actions for future.
In addition to these, during the training we had the chance to learn several other facilitation tools and understand in which situation would be most appropriate to apply which specific tool. I was very positively surprised to realize the beauty and the power of combining more tools together and how it can be done so smoothly, making people feel very confident and engaged.
To sum up, good evaluation facilitator plan, guide and manage a group event or discussion to ensure the group’s objectives are met effectively, with clear thinking, good participation and full buy-in from stakeholders involved. As evaluators, therefore, improving facilitation skills may ease the process and help achieve evaluation targets more effectively.