Learning to Adapt and Adapting to Learn: On Dads, RECODE and Evaluations
Former RECODE Social Innovation Fellow Danica Straith recently wrote about the Power of Vulnerability in reflecting on her experiences with the McConnell Foundation. Her candid thoughts on the value of opening up—even when it’s uncomfortable—are, in part, my inspiration for the following post.
My wonderful and wonderfully inspiring 81-year-old dad has been in and out of the hospital the past few months. Even as his health worsens, and as uncertainty about the future increases, my dad continues to unflappably adapt to his changing circumstances.
Like many men of his generation, he expects to be in control; yet, being in control is an option that is less and less available to him. Even if he’s not quite embracing everything that is happening, he is generally accepting of his circumstances and doing what he can to roll with it.
My dad’s reactions are in marked and noticeable contrast to my own. I keep trying to exercise control by attempting to force my parents to adopt not just a plan, but my plan. For everyone’s sake I need to do a better job of stepping back and adapting to our changing circumstances. Fortunately, my dad is showcasing effective practices such as recognizing that what worked last year, or even last month, won’t necessarily work today.
Somehow, in my haste, desire and need to make things better, I’m ignoring in my personal life what I know to be true in my professional life — adapting to changing context is essential for success. And even if I know in theory the importance of adapting to context, in reality, I can always do a better job. In taking the time and space to watch my dad model how to adapt to changing circumstances, I’m seeing opportunity to hone my professional adaption skills.
As a case in point, I was unusually apprehensive before our most recent RECODE Evaluation Working Group call. This group of RECODE schools helped create our impact reporting platform, which we’ve devoted significant time and energy to collect, curate and share data. I was concerned that when we graphed the results against time spent, we would be disappointed with the outcomes. I was wrong.
Commissioned by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, this image is part of a larger series created by Adjacent Possibilities, featuring watercolour artist Carla Lipkin. The full series will be released at a later date.
In October, RECODE launched the “Impact Reporting Platform” and encouraged RECODE grantees to share real-time data about their success in providing social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for post-secondary students. It was a rigorous effort that leveraged best practices and engaged top experts in the field. Ultimately, the effort gave the RECODE team an appreciation both for how difficult it is to measure impact in complex systems, and how valuable measurement is as a tool to encourage grantees to communicate with the foundation, connect with adjacent projects, and think critically about their activities.
To my surprise and delight, the group was almost universally pleased with our work. Schools enthusiastically reported on how their evaluation processes had elicited patterns and learnings that helped connect seemingly disparate pieces of work, and generated discussions that led to shared language and increased capacity to address challenges.
The schools also highlighted how they were working differently thanks to these conversations and realizations. Their feedback helped me see that I was focusing far too much on the outcomes of our evaluation work, failing to acknowledge the value in ongoing and unexpected learning (results).
Being attentive to the journey lends itself to looking forward…
As McConnell past-President Tim Broadhead writes: “Social Innovation is both a destination – the resolution of complex social and environmental challenges – and a journey – devising new approaches that engage all stakeholders, leveraging their competencies and creativity to design novel solutions”.
Being attentive to the journey lends itself to looking forward—at what’s coming next; whereas traditional evaluation can often be about looking behind you. Ultimately, while in RECODE we have a monitoring, evaluation and learning plan, what we really want to do is look to the future in order to learn how to do our work better. To achieve this, it’s important to constantly capture and adapt to the things we’re seeing and learning.
Yet, we also need to accept that similar to the situation with my dad, there are more variables outside of our control than within it, and that when we get stressed we have a tendency to fall back on what we know. I was stressed about my dad, and stressed about RECODE’s results, and in both instances my instincts were off.
So what are the implications for moving forward? Well, over the summer, as we look at the RECODE data, I’m going to draw heavily on these experiences to look at not just our outcomes, but also to remember how vital it is to track how and why we adapted in our work and to what effect.
We want and need our evaluations to feed into ongoing strategic learning and I’m fortunate to be surrounded—in both my professional and personal life—by friends, family and colleagues who gently nudge me back on track and remind me that in social innovation, the journey is as important as the destination.