Among the biggest challenges I face working with clients — which includes back in my days as an academic when I was doing applied research with community groups who I’ll call ‘clients’ for expediency — is understanding what they value. This is not the same as what their values are (which can also be a challenge to get), but what they actually value.
The most difficult way is to ask. For example, they might speak about the need for transparency in their work, empowering staff, using evidence to inform decisions and so forth, but as I’ve come to learn, these are usually not true. Not that I’m being intentionally deceived — it’s that the client is deceiving everyone, including themselves, often unconsciously.
Doing the Right Thing
To speak about what you value out loud sets you up for the examination of what it means to actually do what you say. It’s why it’s much easier to speak in ways that appear to be transparent, but aren’t always honest. Take, for example, the previously mentioned use of evidence.
If we only have evidence for part of what we’re doing, yet say we are an evidence-based organization, what do we mean? Or when we have no evidence to guide our process of making decisions using the evidence have, how is that evidence-based?
Evidence-based decision-making is one of many things that I hear valued, yet what is actually valued is the appearance of using evidence. Organizations like the idea of using the best science to inform their work, yet also want that freedom to do what they would like in spite of a lack of evidence to support it. They might also be uncomfortable with the idea of putting into place the kind of things that actually deal with problems where evidence is weak, contradictory, complicated, or non-existent.
We can’t use evidence all the time because sometimes there isn’t any and that doesn’t mean we can’t evidence-based, but it’s about being open and honest about what we value that makes the difference in doing the best work.
Finding and creating places where people can feel comfortable saying what they truly value aloud to themselves (let alone people like me who are asked to help and support them) is part of the great challenges that innovators and evaluators will face if we are to design options to be helpful.