Programmers have a process for solving coding problems called “Rubber Duck Debugging.” It emerged from the realization that when they explained a problem they were having in coding to non-programmer, suddenly the solution would come to them. Then they realized that they could get the same results by explaining the problem to a rubber duck (or some other inanimate object) and they wouldn’t have to bother someone. What they do is explain each line of code to a rubber duck, until they hit on the solution to their problem.
How does this apply to evaluation planning? Cindy and I kind of did this yesterday (for full disclosure, I will admit that I was the rubber duck). We were walking through a complicated timeline for an evaluation process. It had a lot of steps. It was easy to leave one out. Some of them overlapped. We really had to explain to each other how it was going to happen.
Rubber Duck Debugging can be employed at almost any stage of the evaluation planning process. Here are some examples:
When creating a logic model, you usually work from the right side (the outcomes you want to see), and work your way left to the activities that you want to do that will bring about the outcomes, then further left to the things you need to have in place to do the activities (here’s a sample logic model from the NEO’s Booklet 2 Planning Outcomes Based Outreach Projects). Once you’ve got your first draft of the logic model, get your rubber duck and carefully describe your logic model to it from left to right, saying “If we have these things in place, then we will be able to do these activities. If these activities are done correctly, they will lead to these results we want to see. If those things happen, over time it is logical that these other long term outcomes may happen.” Explain thoroughly so the duck understands how it all works, and you know you haven’t missed anything.
Process Indicators: in the logic model section, you explained to your duck “If these activities are done correctly they will lead to these results.” What does “correctly” look like? Explain to your duck how things need to be done or they won’t lead to the results you want to see. Be as specific as you can. Then think about what you can measure to see how well you’re doing the activities. Explain those things to the duck so you can be sure that you are measuring the things you want to see happen.
Outcome Indicators: Looking at your logic model, you know what results you’d like to see. Think about what would indicate that those results had happened? Then think about how and when you would measure those indicators. Talk it out with the duck. In some cases you may not have the time, money or staff needed to measure an indicator you would really like to measure. In some cases the data that you can easily collect with your money, staff and time will not be acceptable to your funders or stakeholders. You will need to make sure you have indicators that you can measure successfully that are credible to your stakeholders. The rubber duck’s masterful silence will help you work this out.
I think this is where the duck will really come in handy. To collect the data that you have described above, you will need to have some data collection tools, like questionnaires or forms. Once you’ve put together the tools, you should explain to the duck what data each question is intend to gather. When you explain it out loud, you might catch some basic mistakes, like asking questions you don’t really need the answers to, or asking a question that is really two questions in one.
Then you need a system for collecting the data using your tools. If it’s a big project, a number of people may be collecting the data and you will have to write instructions to make sure they are all doing it the same way. Read each instruction to the duck and explain why it’s important to the success of the project. Did the duck’s ominous silence suggest areas where someone might misunderstand the instructions?
I hope this is helpful to you in your evaluation planning, and maybe other areas of your life. Why use a rubber duck instead of something else? Well, they are awfully cute. And they come with a great song that you can sing when you’ve completed your plan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh85R-S-dh8