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Identifying that One Thing

A simple approach to program evaluation

Simple approaches often work best. They can be especially effective when tackling complex challenges like evaluating academic programs, administrative systems and organizational practices. But coming up with simple approaches that actually work is no easy task.

Fortunately, they are easy to remember because they are simple. Like the one I learned in grad school. It was worth the price of the entire course, most of which I've long since forgotten. I didn't forget the name of the professor-Vincent Rogers-or the simple principle of evaluation he taught us. I've used it successfully many times, and I now dedicate my first column of the new year to sharing it with you.

It works best in a group setting and immediately gets everyone participating with focused attention. It consists of answering just two simple questions.

The first is: If you could only keep one element of this program (or system/practice), what would that one thing be? Some group members will want to start offering and discussing answers immediately. Don't let that happen. They're usually supporters of the program being evaluated and immediately want to cite more than one thing as important. But don't let them be so generous. Keep them focused on choosing just one thing. This is not a brainstorming exercise. It's an approach designed to get stakeholders to hone in on articulating the core purpose or function of the program.

Keep people focused on choosing just one thing. This is not a brainstorming exercise.

By making them focus on being able to keep just one thing, they have to think about the program's component parts. Since they can hold onto just one thing they must prioritize the parts according to each component's comparative relevance or value.

Give them time to think it through, then have each person state that one thing they'd keep. Supporting reasons should also be given. If you've never done this before, you'll be surprised at how effective it can be, regardless of how much agreement-or disagreement-there is.

If many of them cite the same thing as the keeper, you know you have agreement on the mission or essence of the program's purpose or function, at least in the eyes of those you're asking. Lack of consensus is valuable, too. Participants' differing opinions can serve as the basis for a focused debate on how to reform or modify the program. You may conclude that the program has multiple core purposes that should be supported and promoted. In any case, the group is likely to come away with a clearer sense of mission.


But there's another question you should ask your evaluators as well: If you could only eliminate one element of this program (or system/practice), what would that one thing be? The idea here is to target non-essentials; it's a back-door approach to focusing on core surposes.

In practice, this question gets stakeholders to identify program components that are not only peripheral to the mission of the program, but that may be draining important resources from it. This question often sparks serious debate about both the genesis and current value of various program components. It plays an incredibly important, formative role in evaluation. Often the end result is trimming away multiple components that, though useful when they were introduced, have over time and further development become unnecessary.

At the very least, the group debate and interaction sparked by asking these two simple questions will get participants thinking about the program in new ways. They will better understand one another's perspectives, and they will better understand their own beliefs about why the program (or system/ practice) exists and how it can be improved.

Some people dismiss this approach, because it's "too simple." But it always works; it always produces useful results. It's not meant to completely replace more comprehensive or complex evaluation processes, but it is sure provides a valuable starting point.

Daniel E. Kinnaman,, is publisher.