Bringing Beauty Back

On my desk are two books to help improve my writing by writing fewer words, better. It takes me 1,000 words to say anything on this blog.  I don’t have that kind of time and neither does anyone else.   My academic training whispers about APA formatmethodology, and conclusions.

Hey, whisper! Blogs aren’t journal articles. Back off, you’re getting in my way!

I love data visualization.  We should all strive to make reports more beautiful and meaningful by creating thoughtful images to tell a story.  The American Evaluation Association has some of the best resources and people to help do this.

Sometimes, in our quest to make our work professional and impressive, we remove all the joy and wonder.  This is not good.

The last 18 months of my working world focused on designing and implementing the ten-year evaluation of our program.   My colleagues and I experienced the full gamut of what makes evaluation worthwhile and worrisome. We could write a book about embracing favorite fears, dancing with doubts, and bearing witness to the parade of passions that create and sustain programs. It wasn’t easy and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Today is Watercolor Wednesday, so I’m sharing a bit of “art” from this evaluation project. I can share the art because it’s mine and I didn’t produce it on company time.

Our project needed an image to represent what we learned that our audience would relate to. Common challenge.

The inspiration image was a  group concept map.  These things look a bit like a screen capture from the Atari game Asteroids, but have lots of serious data behind them. In a meeting someone said our map had a “hub and spoke” look to it.  You can find out more about concept mapping  here, here   and here  (in increasing level of detail).  We wound up with a  conceptual model that looked  like this:

Conceptual Model

Conceptual Model


No one is going to be put-off by this as a model.   It relates to the data it represents (you’ll have to trust me on that). We can go around the model and talk about each concept in the report or a presentation. The color scheme can be applied to more detailed representations of the data.  (Note:  We did NOT use the default color scheme in  for our report!)  It pleased everyone.
However, the model left me unsatisfied. The time, wisdom, experiences, thoughts and work of almost 500 people went into this project.

Where is the complexity? Where is the depth?  Where is the brilliance?

I needed a way to express the journey. My journey with the program, our journey as a team, the journeys of people touched by the program in the last 10 years- all of it.   I painted this:

The conceptual model (appropriately labelled) is on the front cover of the report.  The center swirly bit of the painting graces the back cover.

I think that’s kind of cool.

I like this little painting.  It reminds me of what drew me to evaluation generally and this program specifically.  We like to isolate variables, control for error, and put things in neat boxes.  This is worthwhile and has it’s place. But, it is simply not how life works.  Life is  interconnected, messy, vibrant, unpredictable and glorious.  Programs and organizations and people are, too.

The charts in the report follow wise data viz advice.

This little painting breaks all the rules.

It’s important that I find a way to value both.


Evaluation Resistance Dudes

We talk a lot about resistance in the field evaluation.  “Evaluation has so much to offer. Why do organizations, funders, participants,  and leaders resist our efforts?”

People resist evaluation for the same reason we resist exercise, meditation, and eating our Brussel spouts*. We fear change.

Even “good for us” change, especially “good for us” change, is scary.  Often, we can’t do anything about the “bad for us”change. That’s going to show up when we least expect it. So, we resist the “good for us” change and other scary things we think we may be able to influence.

We want to be content and avoid discomfort.  Anything that moves us out of our cozy space, whether we perceive the force as “good” or “bad”, will be met with resistance. This is part of human nature. Resistance exists for a reason. In The Power of Habit, Charles Dhuigg writes, “Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.”  Evaluation, if it’s not already a habit, makes us work.

Steven Pressfield writes about Resistance in The War of Art.  Pressfield says,

“The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it”.

That’s true for me. Resistance showed up in full force when I started this blog.  Why? Because as surely as I felt this was important, I feared…um…evaluation/criticism/success/ etc.  I recognized this and figured I should do something about it. Here’s what I did.

I personified Resistance and came up with the idea of Evaluation Resistance Dudes (ERDs).  Brene’ Brown calls hers “gremlins”.  You may call yours Fred, or Maurice, if you like.  ERDs are equal opportunity visitors in evaluative settings.  Doesn’t matter if you’re a Very Impressive Evaluator, a student taking a test, or a Senior Leader of an Important Organization. ERDs will come.

The Anatomy of the Evaluation Resistance Dude (ERD)

The Anatomy of the Evaluation Resistance Dude (ERD)

You’re laughing or at least grinning about that dude, right?  Maybe you’re laughing at me because I totally made this guy up.  I sure did. I painted him,  cut out that hat and crocheted his little arms and legs myself.   I made him orange because I don’t care for orange. Here’s a secret: resistance only has the power we give it!  We create our own ERDs all the time, often without knowing it.  If you run across someone exhibiting ERD behavior, approach with caution and gentleness.

We can play with  Pressfield’s wording and come up with a statement that is true for many organizations.

The more important a call or action is to our organization’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Evaluation, especially evaluation done with the express intent to foster learning or organizational change is going to flame the fires of resistance.  Most of us aren’t taught how to express, let alone handle, this discomfort in our lives, and certainly not in our workplaces.  Evaluators are (at least in theory and best practice) tipped off to expect Resistance in professional settings and  have tools to help. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I agree with much of what Pressfield has to say about Resistance and overcoming it, and I recommend reading The War of Art. It’s one to keep and share. We differ on one key point, however.  Pressfield views Resistance as an evil, invisible, enemy force that is out to get us.  It can certainly feel that way.  Through my meditation practice, I’ve come to understand Resistance differently.

The purpose of Resistance is not to destroy, but to protect.

Resistance isn’t out to keep anyone from living a fully realized life or becoming a stronger, more adaptive and thriving organization. Resistance is not trying to undermine your evaluation work, exercise regime or creative project.  Resistance wants to protect us from hurt, fear, vulnerability, embarrassment, and failure and success and love and change and growth. Resistance wants status quo, cozy comfort.

The equally insidious flip side of the Evaluation Resistance Dude is the Ego Reveling Dude (also, ERD).  They look like this:

Don't let that smiley face fool you, this guy is dangerous!

Don’t let that smiley face fool you, this guy is dangerous!


Ego Reveling Dudes have the same purpose as Evaluation Resistance Dudes.  They want to keep us safe, happy, and feeling a good about ourselves.  If you identify as a curmudgeon, the Ego Reveling Dude wants to keep you that way. We THINK we want to live with these guys all the time. We don’t. They’re dangerous. Well meaning, but dangerous.  These guys are in control when we’re taking ourselves too seriously, believing our own hype, and thinking we’re indestructible, impermeable, and infallible.  We’re not. Sorry. No one is.

What’s to be done?

Well, you could sketch, paint, and crochet your ERDs as a contemplative exercise. This is not unlike the evaluation ice breaker where we ask participants to shout out words they associate with evaluation. In some settings, crafting images of evaluation could be a fun way to help people loosen their hold on Resistance. It wouldn’t work in my evaluation setting  or I’d try it.

Realizing that Resistance is only as powerful as we make it is a good first step.   That’s what the ERD crafting exercise is all about.  Pressfield and Duhigg have great, (and different) advice to help us cultivate new, more adaptive and expansive habits- whether you want to relate differently to exercise, Brussel sprouts, art,  or evaluation.

Understanding the true nature of Resistance helps.  Recognizing Resistance when it shows up can be challenging.  This takes practice, training, discipline….building a habit of noticing.  Which will probably bring up more Resistance. We must not be discouraged. Anything worth doing requires practice.

Evaluators could try applying some good ole objectivity to relating to both sides of the ERD.  We needn’t be too caught up in Evaluation Resistance or Ego Reveling.  A few deep breaths can help, so can silence, a walk in nature, reciting a mantra, anything to break the mind spinning, habitual pattern and give you space to respond with intention.

We can also cultivate one of my favorite words: equanimity. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says,

Equanimity is a state of mind where one relates to others in a way that is free of prejudice rooted in the afflictions of excessive attraction or aversion.

This sounds very much like objectivity, and it is.  Think of equanimity as the kinder, gentler cousin of objectivity.

As I thought about my own experience with both sides of the ERD, I decided to make one more physical reminder of the essentially imaginary nature of ERDs and related critters.  This guy is cute enough I might keep it in my pocket.

Self-created substance surrounding nothing.

Self-created substance surrounding nothing.



Resistance Takeaways

  1. We create our own Resistance  and have the power un-create it.

  2. Approach your own and others’ Resistance with gentleness and equanimity.

  3. Use humor (if not openly, then privately).

  4. Connect to and align your intention with a deeper purpose (your project, your art, your values).

 This post is the first in a recurring series of “Watercolor Wednesday” posts where I’ll use watercolor paintings (and other artistic expression) to explore evaluation themes.

* Yes, I am an evaluator, a meditator,  and a fan of Brusssel sprouts.

How do you recognize your own Resistance or the Resistance of others?    What would your ERDs look like?  What helps you relate more constructively to Resistance?