Creating the solution space, instead of the problem space
This blog is part of a series about advancing your developmental evaluation (DE) practice. While the series is designed for evaluators working in the DE space, the tips and tools have relevance to many other settings, including for strategists and evaluators more broadly.
After a decade of being a developmental
evaluator, I’ve noticed a pattern. When I get on a problem-finding roll, where I can surface one issue after another, investigate, understand, and make the issues actionable… action stops happening. Or
rather, reaction stops happening, which means we never get to action. The partners I’m supporting give me less time, not more, to share insights. They are more likely to move onto the next topic without digesting and acting on insights shared. I’ve created a place for them to hear what’s wrong, again and again and again, and not only does that not feel good, it also doesn’t feel productive.
Yet, when part of your charge is to surface hidden dynamics, test assumptions, and unpack complexity, it’s really easy to become the “problem person” - the person who sees problems everywhere and can always point out what might go wrong or has already gone wrong.
I’ve learned to put the brakes on that tendency. Instead, I try to create a space where solutions can be found, even if there is a problem to discuss. Instead of saying, “This is going wrong,” I try to say, “What would it look like if this was going right?”
For example, I worked with a client a few years ago who had 80 stakeholders representing about 30 different institutions all coming together in a multi-day meeting. The vision was to find alignment and agree on a set of actions to take together, requiring the institutions to cede some of their power and collaborate in ways that were outside their usual experiences. Two days into the meeting, I had a mix of observation and survey data that made it increasingly clear that we were facing significant barriers to getting to shared action, barriers that seemed insurmountable in the remaining day.
I did two things to avoid being the “problem person.” First, I collected my last piece of evidence publicly, where everyone had to be part of finding the solution. I asked for the floor and had everyone in the room put up their fingers: “5” for yes, I’m on board, let’s do those action plans; “1” for absolutely not, I am not ready to plan action, and “3” for being uncertain.
The room was mostly 3s, some 1s, and then a couple people held up their fists. They wanted to participate in the vote, but the options didn’t work for them. They shared their reasons, which helped to surface some unstated assumptions in the room about why we all came together. After we all listened to their reasons and briefly discussed them, I broke the room into pairs to discuss what they were experiencing and what needed to happen next. Each pair then joined a couple other pairs to form small groups and come to a recommendation. The groups shared their recommendations back to the organizers in front of everyone and the meeting closed for the day.
Yes, I surfaced a problem – and very publicly. But I didn’t stop with the problem space. After that 20 minute intervention, the organizers had a variety of possible solutions and a room that was poised to accept a solution, because the solutions came from them.
Often finding the solution space isn’t quite that public, but what it almost always has in common is this simple concept: the purpose of your intervention as a developmental evaluator is not to point out problems; the purpose is to create the conditions where your partners can solve them. It’s amazing how differently things can turn out when we design a discussion around solution finding instead of problem naming.