Evaluation Lessons from The Stanford $5 Dollars Challeng

English: Many dollar banknotes.

Yesterday, I introduced the Stanford $5 Challenge. Today, I look at what evaluators doing design / developmental evaluation work could learn from this.

If you have $5 dollars in seed funding and only 2 hours to make it happen, what would you do to make the most money?

This is known as the Stanford $5 Challenge. Tina Seelig asks this of her students at Stanford University enrolled in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Most students, she explains, would use the money towards a lottery ticket or gamble away the money at Las Vegas. These students assume that the $5 is too little money to do much with, and engaging in high risk/high reward activity is the way to go to net the most profit.

Surprisingly, the teams that made the most money kept their $5. Instead, they reframed the problem and challenged assumptions, and looked to opportunities beyond the initial framing of the problem. Focusing on the $5 seed money framed the problem too tightly.

So, what could design-informed evaluators learn from this?

There are two questions we must raise in working with any innovative program at any phase of our engagement:

  • Does the program serve a real and significant (i.e. meaningful) need, and;
  • Is the program design optimal for effecting the intended change.

Raising the question of whether the program can serve a real and significant need is analogous to asking whether there is a market for a product/service in the business world. A program may be mounted in response to some perceived needs on the part of the implementers (e.g. government, funders, etc.), but not from the perspective of the program targeted recipients. For instance, universities may feel the need to introduce educational programming for students living in residences out of a sense of social purpose, but the program may be deemed  ineffective and flawed, because students see little reasons to be ‘educated’ in their living spaces. Some might view such intervention as an intrusion of their down time, while others might actually resent such attempts on the University’s part. In other words, our job is to raise the question of whether the program serve some real and significant need from the perspectives of the program recipients.

However, raising such a question of program recipients can sometimes be problematic. Recipients may very well perceive that a program is unwarranted, when in fact they could very well benefit from participation (and in some cases, they should participate in the program in spite of feeling no particular need for it). Those of us who have worked with children know this:  few children would volunteer to sit patiently and practice at the piano or voluntarily sign up for swimming lessons at their own will. What good parents do is that they expose their children to these opportunities, build their confidence, and help them persist despite initial resistance. Why? It’s because they know that some activities are good for the kids in the end. In other words, misinterpreting that there are no extant needs in a program situation can be equally dangerous, as the $5 challenge illustrated; those students who focused too narrowly on the problem saw $5 as too little money to do anything meaningful and subsequently gave up.  Evaluators can help their clients by raising questions and questioning assumptions. One way to do is to problematize the situation to promote discourse. “Is it really the case that… ” On to the second question.

The question of whether the program design is optimal for effecting the intended change is about the linkage between the theory of change and the theory of action within a particular program. We saw in the $5 dollar challenge who made the most money thought outside of the box and turned to different ways to make money.  In program evaluation, we can ask the following questions of the theory of change: is the way we currently conceptualize change appropriate? Might there be other ways to effect change? What blinders might we have on? Where else can we learn more and think differently about this program? If this is where we want to end up (and see these kind of changes happening in the program recipients), how else could we facilitate these changes?

Assuming that we are satisfied with the theory of change, we can begin to consider the theory of action, i.e. how a program marshal its resources to operationalize its theory of change. Ask yourself , might there be other ways of achieving the same intended change, given how we think change could be realized? This is a challenge that the business world is especially well-adept at tackling due to

competition. Let’s take the example of a fueling station franchise.  While the business model to turn a product (gasoline or diesel) into profit is essentially the same across different companies, each theory of action differs in where companies place their refueling stations, loyalty programs, pricing of products, and other convenience items (e.g. coffee, car washes). These different operations (activities) influence the purchasing decision, and so companies develop strategies in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage over one another.  In the social space, these inevitably will be questions of the comparative sort, and will have to be answered empirically.

  • To sum up, the take-home lesson here is to think hard about whether the program model fits the program context. When it does, we have a viable program that serve a real need (and therefore stand to make a real difference in people’s lives.)
  • When we are designing program models, i.e. when we are trying to come up with a program, the focus is about optimizing the program model to fit the program context.
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