This is an Eval Central archive copy, find the original at evalacademy.com.
So you landed an evaluation contract and the first meeting date is set. Here are some pointers for kicking your evaluation off on the right foot.
Determine who is going to chair the evaluation meetings
It is important to determine who is going to plan and run the evaluation meetings. You do not necessarily need to be the person to plan and run the evaluation meetings; however, as the evaluator you should work closely with that person to ensure the agenda items include what it is you want/ need to discuss as the evaluation progresses.
Work with the meeting chair on meeting logistics
The meeting chair will likely be able to advise on meeting logistics (e.g. date, meeting location). However, you should work with the meeting chair and advise on the length of time for the first meeting, as well meeting attendees. I like to schedule the kick off meeting for 1.5 to 2 hours -1 hour is not enough time and anything over 2 hours and you start to lose people’s attention.
The meeting attendees should include your evaluation’s primary intended users. While you might not know who these people are at your first meeting, the meeting chair can help advise on who should be included in the evaluation meeting. Once you conduct your stakeholder analysis you can always invite the people that were not included from the beginning.
Request program documentation in advance
You may have received some high level information to inform the development of your proposal; however, it is best to request and review additional project documentation prior to your kick off meeting. You will likely want to get your hands on any documentation that outlines goals, objectives and activities of the program (more recent is better). Likewise, any previous evaluation reports are always useful. Previous evaluations show you what has been collected, any previous measurement challenges or limitations, and recommendations going forward – all of which are useful for your future evaluation planning.
Work with the meeting chair to set the meeting agenda
The program documentation that you reviewed in the previous step likely uncovered a lot of questions you want to hash out in your first meeting. However, temper your expectations for what you will cover in the first meeting. Your kick-off meeting is really about getting to know one another and beginning to build a shared understanding around the program and how it will be evaluated. Subsequent meetings are where you can really start digging in to what you need to build that evaluation plan. With that in mind, below is a sample agenda for your first evaluation meeting.
Agenda: Evaluation Kick-Off Meeting
Introductions and icebreaker
a. What is the program trying to achieve?
b. What are its core activities?
a. Who wants to know what?
b. What will they use the information for?
a. What are some important considerations that should guide and inform the evaluation?
Confirm project timelines and next meeting date(s)
Introductions and icebreaker
The kick off meeting is a chance to get out of the way people’s assumptions or negative ideas regarding evaluation and energize people about what evaluation can be. With that in mind, I like the first item on the agenda to be introductions, coupled with a bit of an icebreaker. You can keep it simple and have people introduce themselves and answer a question, such as “what comes to mind when you think of evaluation?” If you want to get a bit more creative, I have also asked people to look in their wallet and select an object they feel represents their feelings related to evaluation. Either way, this icebreaker will help you determine the evaluation perceptions people are coming to the table with. After everyone has introduced themselves I like to introduce myself, reflect on what was heard from people relating to evaluation, and then talk about my approach to evaluation.
This is when it’s really important to put on your listening ears. As an evaluator it’s always important to listen, but it is especially important when learning about the program. Even if you are a subject matter expert, it is crucial to hear how others describe their work and how consistent or inconsistent that is with others at the meeting. Since the discussion is so important, I will often times ask to record it. Recording the discussion allows me to go back and listen for discrepancies or differing assumptions that can be addressed later on in evaluation planning. While it is valuable to have a completed evaluation plan, what is even more valuable is the process to get there and all the rich discussions you facilitate through that process.
Why the evaluation is being conducted and how the information generated will be used will differ depending on the stakeholder. Your goal in this meeting is to get a general lay of the land of who is interested in what, and how they will use the information; most importantly, it will be to identify those primary intended users. Primary intended users will be your go-to’s and the ones you should be tailoring your evaluation to. They are the people with the “willingness, authority and ability” to put the evaluation findings to use. You don’t need to overcomplicate it – often times, after generating a stakeholder list and discussing it, I will just ask the group who these people are. If the primary intended users are not at the first meeting, make sure to catch them up after the meeting and invite them to subsequent ones!
It is likely that with the icebreaker described above that you will have touched on quite a few evaluation principles. If not, it is important to know people’s expectations for the evaluation and how it should be conducted. As described above, stakeholders have different wants and needs for the evaluation, but we can’t be all things to all people. Coming to a consensus on principles for the evaluation is helpful for providing direction when you are being pulled in all different directions! I am just starting to address this in my current evaluations, but I can already see the value principles serve for laying out expectations from the start. For more information on evaluation principles refer to Michael Quinn Patton’s Principles-Focused Evaluation: The Guide.
Confirm project timelines and next meeting date(s)
If you can get through all of the above, then pat yourself on the back because you are a rockstar! But don’t forget to leave time at the end of the meeting to wrap-up. If you have a good meeting chair they will leave time to summarize the action items and discuss timelines and meetings dates. If not, leave 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to review timelines with the group. If you have an upcoming deliverable that requires more discussion from the group, then that will help you determine when your next meeting(s) should be (i.e. before that deliverable due date).
That is a lot of ground to cover in one meeting. I always like to put more on the agenda than less. It takes a lot of time and effort to organize meetings so it is important to utilize as much of that time as you can; of greater importance is to be fully prepared and to utilize that time effectively. If you have a lot of ground to cover at your first kick-off meeting and are worried you won’t adequately cover it, then don’t feel like because it is called a “meeting” that it needs to resemble a traditional meeting format. I try to facilitate discussion through methods other than sitting around a big table and talking in a big group (don’t you find it is usually only a fraction of the people talking while the rest are too disinterested or unsure to speak?). So tape some big white sheets of paper around the room, write the questions outlined on the agenda at the top, and get your group up and jotting down ideas on each sheet. Depending on the size you may be able to discuss in one group. If not, break people into smaller groups and have them discuss and present back. No one says meetings need to entail sitting at a table – trust me, people are more energized, engaged, and willing to share when you remove that physical barrier (i.e. the meeting table) and literally come together.
So to sum it up…
When pressed for time and when we want to get going on an evaluation it is easy to default into jumping into timelines and deliverables at the kick-off meeting. While important, what is more important is carving out some time to talk (and listen!) about the program, what it is trying to achieve, how it is trying to do that, and how evaluation can support the work of the program. Aim for that at your next kick-off meeting and you’ll set yourself up to kick some ass!
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