Tuesday, April 2, 2013

When in doubt, it's your job.

Over the past few weeks, I've been working obsessively on a project. In December, we sent out a needs assessment survey of our nonprofit network.  My job was to analyze over 400 data points (using Excel and Word, which will soon change to SPSS and NVivo), summarize them for the different departments in headquarters, and organize meetings to study the results and discuss use. 

It's been a lot of work, and fortunately, it's never enough.  

I say fortunately because if you are ever in a place where you have decided that your work is done, you're either too confident or out of a job.  When I sit down in these meetings I learn so many things that will help my future work - in short, it will make me even more useful for others.  

During one meeting, I learned that I should have vetted our needs assessment survey with all the members of one of our office's teams.  There was an awkward moment - worthy of a clip from The Office - where everybody essentially said, "Where the hell did you get these questions anyway?"

Awkwardly, the answer was, "Uh, I think it was one of you."  No, really.  I don't know a darn thing about this departmental function, so I'm pretty sure that the content was from someone in the department who apparently had forgotten s/he had given it to me.

Instinct tells us that we should react to this situation by flexing our muscles and trying to prove them wrong.  Interestingly enough, animal instincts don't get you very far in an office environment.  They especially don't get you very far if you're trying to get people to make use of your data.  Instead, I kept my mouth shut and my biceps covered and moved on.  

Though instinctively I would have expected people to remember that I had emailed them to discuss the content of the survey, the fact is that a) it was a year ago and b) I didn't sit down with everyone in that department.  So, if I am looking to find a lesson in all of this, the lesson is that I didn't do my job.  The next time that I create a survey for our office, I need to meet with everyone in each department, at a team meeting, to vet the survey.  Institutional memory is stronger if everyone is involved in the process, and that's true even if there is no turnover in your institution.  In this particular department, there had been significant turnover recently, so it's entirely possible that my having the survey vetted by only one individual caused a gap in the results this department is now receiving.  And again, it was a year ago.  People don't remember what they ate for lunch yesterday.  How are they supposed to remember an email from a data geek about this awesome groundbreaking survey?

When people face difficult information, like learning that their beautiful survey had a few imperfections, their instincts often tell them to move more strongly in the direction they were already headed.  People don't want to change currently laid plans or to feel self-doubt, because we are taught that this is a sign of weakness.

To a certain extent, they are right.  Self-doubt can be a debilitating thing.  But there is a difference between self-doubt and reflective self-questioning, and the latter can spur incredible growth.  Upon questioning myself, I often find that there was more that *I* could have done to make a project run more smoothly.  I don't blame myself for this - I'm human, as far as I know - but I always learn from it.  

If you want a project to be successful, you have to learn to communicate with people and navigate organizations in multiple ways.  So ask yourself, if someone misses a deadline, what could you have done to remind them of it?  Perhaps more in-person conversations or email reminders.  (Maybe this person uses carrier pigeon.  Consider it.)  If someone is a thorn in your side, what can you do to alleviate their concerns?  You may have to go out of your way, change course slightly, ask for help, or think creatively, but that doesn't matter.  What matters is that the onus is on you.  If you see a problem, perhaps you aren't human.  Perhaps, like Superman, you have been blessed with special vision.  With this gift, you can help those who need corrective lenses to feel like they are part of a successful project.  This way, you'll be part of a successful project, too.  And that's the point of all this.  It's your job.


  1. Love this!! Actually super applicable to some things I've been struggling with only this morning. Thank you :-)

    1. :-) No problem! I love writing and am glad it was useful.

  2. Megan, well done! I'm teaching research methods at AEA's Summer Institute and will use this as an example. Vet those questions, get buy-in! But, hate it admit it, at some point the stakeholders often aren't going to agree or are going to recommend bad questions. It's a balancing act. Thanks for sharing.

  3. p.s. just added The Practicing Researcher to the American Evaluation Association's list of Evaluation Blogs at http://ow.ly/kgbkV

  4. I really agree with this point When people face difficult information, like learning that their beautiful survey had a few imperfections in write my college essay, their instincts often tell them to move more strongly in the direction they were already headed.