This is a full description of how I designed the Dreams Assessment using developmental evaluation and other techniques. If you are interested in learning only about Dreams Assessment as a tool, and not all of its contextual history, please visit Dreams Assessment under My Toolbox.
The creation of the Dreams Assessment utilized the following methods or tools:
I designed the Dreams Assessment while working for Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Ghana in 2013. The context of EWB is an important one. Engineers Without Borders Canada is an international development organization that approaches their work in two distinct ways – using a systems lens, and cultivating a culture of humility and listening.
EWB seeks to address root causes of poverty, and they achieve this by mapping complex systems in international development and identifying tipping points. Tipping points are points within a system that have trickle-down effects that can push a system over some poverty trap and into lasting change. For example, I came to work with EWB’s Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services (AgEx) team in Ghana. AgEx had spent a long time mapping the agricultural extension sector in Ghana, engaging a wide variety of stakeholders and experts to identify systemic tipping points in the system. The team identified four systemic problems, or tipping points, that they wished to affect (See Figure 1), and had decided one route toward affecting these systemic problems was through partnership with five public agricultural colleges in the country.
AgEx knew they wanted to work with the agricultural colleges in order to create lasting change in Ghana’s agricultural extension sector, however they were unsure of how best to partner with the colleges, or what types of programs to support at the colleges. Some of the team’s questions at this time were:
What do we bring to the table?
How do our college partners define and understand “innovation” with regard to extension curriculum?
How do we identify and support momentum at the colleges?
What role can and should we fill at the colleges?
My initial job was to help the team collect and analyze the necessary data to answer these questions and make an informed decision on how to partner with the colleges. This situation seemed like the perfect application for a developmental evaluation process.
Developmental evaluation has four main components:
1. A context of complexity
2. A focus point
3. An initial action where the implementation is documented and any emergent outcomes are tracked and noted
4. Re-development based on the findings in part 3
Parts 3 and 4 are repeated until no longer necessary.
Here, our complex context was the agricultural extension sector in Ghana, and the focus point was the 5 agricultural colleges. The next step was for AgEx to dive into partnership with the colleges in some way, and then to document what happens as a result and any emergent outcomes. The team could then re-develop their approach to working with the colleges based on what is found.
Remember, EWB has a culture of humility and listening in their work. So the action I felt was most appropriate and most in-line with the EWB culture was a listening phase. The initial design was one-on-one interviews at one of the five colleges, where we asked questions similar to a Needs Assessment – focusing on what is needed, or lacking at the colleges, as well as co-defining “innovation” in the agricultural extension curriculum context. A selection of these early questions is provided below:
How do you define “innovation?”
How do you think more innovation and/or critical thinking skills could be brought into the colleges?
Do you have any innovative ideas that you haven’t had the opportunity to try yet?
Is anything missing from the theoretical aspect of the curriculum?
Is anything missing from the practical aspect of the curriculum?
What else needs improvement at the colleges, in terms of curriculum, practicals, infrastructure, etc.?
After conducting a number of interviews at one college, we started to notice an unexpected result, or emergent outcome, of the interview process: By asking the more positive and forward-thinking questions, like “Do you have any innovative ideas that you haven’t had the opportunity to try yet?” interviewees were leaving the interviews feeling heard, inspired, and empowered to follow up on their innovative curriculum ideas. Simply by taking the time to meet one-on-one with staff and ask them their thoughts and opinions, the local partners began to feel empowered and inspired to create their visions while we, the international partner began learning where our niche was.
It seemed like the empowerment was stemming from the recognition and affirmation of each individuals potential, something Appreciative Inquiry has recognized for some time. So the team entered phase 4 of developmental evaluation – I redeveloped the approach based on the emergent outcome by expanding the interviews to all five colleges, and by re-framing the interview questions in the tradition of Appreciative Inquiry. This means the questions only focused on affirming the strengths, assets, successes and potential of each individual and their institution. By using Appreciative Inquiry, the interviews gave recognition, value and gratitude to the lecturers for what they were already doing, or the ideas they already held. I want to note that this is in sharp contrast to much international development work, where an individual or organization reaches out to a community or village with an idea already in mind for how to solve some aspect of poverty. Here, we were taking the time to not only learn about, but also catalyze and support the ideas already held throughout the community with which we wanted to work.
New questions looked a lot more like this:
Where do you see innovation already happening at your college?
Have you ever done something innovative during your career?
Do you have any innovative ideas that you haven’t had the opportunity to try yet?
If given the funding and time to do your own research or project on campus, what would you do?
How would you go about creating the changes [that you want to see]?
This second iteration of engagement with the colleges became known as the Dreams Assessment. This is because rather than focusing on needs and how we, the international development partner, could meet them (a Needs Assessment), the new process was focused on dreams and visions held by local lecturers and administrators, and how we could facilitate their actualization via a setting of empowerment.
In addition to the one-on-one Appreciative Inquiry interviews, there are two other important components of the Dreams Assessment: Group visioning sessions and interactive results-sharing.
Group Visioning Workshops
As an important supplement to the one-on-one interviews, group visioning workshops help cultivate an institution-wide enabling environment where individuals are supported to pursue their ideas and work toward their visions.
Here are the visions for each college that came out of the visioning workshop:
Interactive results-sharing is the third component of a Dreams Assessment. I did this in two ways – idea-mapping and an interactive results workshop.
The idea map was of particular importance in the agricultural college context. The five colleges are spread out across Ghana, and colleagues to not have much opportunity for interaction, nor are they aware of what many of their colleagues are working on or are interested in working on. The idea map was a way to identify which individuals (at which colleges) were interested in the various ideas coming out of the one-on-one interviews. A sample of the idea map is below in Figure 2. This map was shared at a culminating workshop and presentation on the Dreams Assessment where all five colleges were present. In addition to creating the opportunity for collaboration, the public recognition of what curriculum innovations individual lecturers were already doing underscored the feelings of empowerment already felt from the one-on-one interviews.
The last hour of the workshop was devoted to group breakout sessions where colleagues could organize themselves by their ideas, and collaborate in real-time to determine next steps and how to support one another to actualize their ideas.
The Dreams Assessment was hugely successful. It created a setting of empowerment for the college staff and administrators to articulate and implement their ideas and visions for innovative extension curriculum. Simultaneously, AgEx gained a deep understanding of how best to partner and work with the colleges to support systemic changes in the agricultural extension sector. A third outcome was deeper trust and partnership between AgEx and lecturers and administrators at each of the colleges.
There are a number of innovations that were implemented as a result of the Dreams Assessment process that are still thriving today. One of the main impacts of the Dreams Assessment was the creation of an Innovation Committee at Kwadaso Agricultural College. To learn about this platform, and it’s lasting impact at the college, please visit the Innovation Committee section of my portfolio.
Additionally, the Dreams Assessment findings were used in a review of the colleges for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (Canada). They are currently in the process of looking at supporting the colleges for their innovative capacity and building potential within the agricultural system in Ghana. The process is still in an early stage, but it is important to note that even though a Dreams Assessment is a lesser-known tool than Needs Assessment or similar tools, the results have been useful for a traditional funder.