We are well aware, of course, that if something doesn’t work, we should stop doing it – although that knowledge doesn’t necessarily prevent quite a few people from pressing on regardless with tactics that just don’t deliver the required results. Part of the problems is the power of habit (particularly when such habits have become ingrained in the culture and become part of the expected norms of the workplace concerned. So often people get into an established way of working that they feel comfortable with and stick with it, whether or not it actually works. Much of the time they don’t even know whether or not it is working. So embedded are they in this standardised way of working that they do not take time out to gauge whether what they are doing is making a positive difference. In some cases it may actually be making the situation worse.
I have spoken to many groups of people (on training courses, at conferences or in consultancy projects) about the importance of evaluating our efforts. I have highlighted the dangers of pressing on regardless, without having a clear picture of whether what we are doing is actually helping us to move forward. Huge amounts of time, effort, energy and scarce resources can be wasted through working practices that have not been evaluated. This is not only inefficient, but can also have an adverse effect in terms of morale. Ineffective practices are unlikely to generate much job satisfaction or opportunities for creativity and learning, so unquestioned habitual practices are bad news all round.
However, there are two common responses I have encountered and have had to deal with when raising the issue of evaluating working practices. The first is the ’We don’t have time’ response. I am then faced with the challenge of trying to get across – tactfully and constructively – the message: So, you have got time to waste on ineffective and inefficient practices that undermine morale and block progress, but you haven’t got time to look at whether what you are doing is actually worth doing? It’s a question of using time to save time.
The second common response goes along the lines of: ‘We don’t have the expertise to evaluate our work’. This displays a confusion between formal, research-type evaluation carried out by experts (an activity that can have an important role to play in many circumstances) and day-to-day evaluation processes. What evaluation boils down to is being clear and focused about: (i) what you are trying to achieve; and (ii) whether or not you are achieving it. Often the problem lies with either: (i) a failure to establish in the first place what was to be achieved (that is, the goal-setting phase has been omitted from the work process); or (ii) objectives have been developed that are too vague, making it difficult to establish whether or not they have been achieved.
Evaluating our work efforts is not rocket science, and it gets easier with practice. The key, as I have already suggested, is clarity – particularly clarity of focus. Habit and unquestioned cultural norms tend to act as a fog, serving as a barrier to clarity and generating a lack of focus. Consequently, we need to understand evaluation as part of reflective practice – being prepared to think about (and think through) what we are doing and not just rely on habit and routine to get us through the day.
By making evaluation a part of our working lives, we are in a strong position to know what doesn’t work, so that we can stop doing it, and appreciate what does work, so that we can do more of it.