Evaluation has a pivotal role in project management. Good evaluation maximises learning from projects and facilitates the effective communication of project benefits and successes. It serves as the compass, guiding projects toward successful completion and it should be woven into the very fabric of your project. In our experience, launching a project without evaluation embedded into its design is like embarking on an expedition without a map. However, not all project managers are aware of how evaluation relates to their project, nor the skills and practice needed to ensure a high-quality evaluation.
The UK Government Magenta Book defines evaluation as: 'a systematic assessment of the design, implementation and outcomes of an intervention. It involves understanding how an intervention is being, or has been, implemented and what effects it has, for whom and why. It identifies what can be improved and estimates its overall impacts and cost-effectiveness.'
Evaluation ensures you are on the right track from day one. It helps ensure your project meets its goals and objectives, and importantly, to demonstrate this to stakeholders. Early evaluation allows you to make informed decisions and adapt your project as needed; you can change your route if you identify early that you're heading in the wrong direction. Knowing what your stakeholders want and monitoring their satisfaction is also vital. When you integrate evaluation into your project from the start, you ensure that expectations are set, needs are met, and you build trust and confidence in your team's abilities.
How is evaluation linked to project management?
Evaluation should form part of any results driven project management approach. Evaluation doesn't just happen at the end; it’s an ongoing process throughout the project's lifecycle. Ideally, evaluation starts at the planning stage, when the project work plan is being developed. This is where you set the parameters for your evaluation — what will you measure, how and when.
As you launch and deliver your project (implementation and monitoring), you will be collecting data and assessing progress. Are you hitting your milestones? Are you staying on budget? Are you continuing to meet your goals and objectives? Evaluation helps you answer these questions, giving you real-time insights to adjust your project as needed.
Finally, when your project is complete (benefits realisation, closure and reporting stage), an evaluation closes the project down. You should assess if you achieved what you set out to do and report your findings and lessons learnt. This is not just for internal purposes, it's also about transparency and accountability to your stakeholders.
What key steps can you take for evaluation?
Evaluation scoping: this is an important stage to demonstrate co-design/production by bringing your stakeholders together to clearly outline what you want to achieve through your project and establish what success looks like to all stakeholders. At this early stage, you will also set stakeholders expectations and get their buy-in. A logic model, and a story of change, can help everyone collectively work through this and communicate what success looks like, how you will get there and the data that will tell you if you are on the right track.
Evaluation planning: determine what evaluation questions you will ask and what evaluation approaches will be more suitable to answer those questions. You should plan what data you need to collect, how you'll collect it and when you'll do it. It can be helpful to identify an appropriate evaluation approach or model, depending on your project and what you are aiming to achieve and for whom. and for whom.
Data collection and analysis: throughout your project, you should gather data that pertains to your objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) as agreed during the evaluation scoping stage — in evaluation terms these are your process metrics. After this has been completed, evaluate the information you've collected to see if you’re on track, identify when you achieve your project outcomes and capture learning. Remember that data can be both quantitative and qualitative — and qualitative data can be a rich source of insights on what your project is achieving and how.
What to do with your evaluation data
Make decisions: based on your analysis, you can decide whether you need to adjust your project plan or continue as planned — interim evaluation findings can be incorporated into project decision gates.
Report and share: you should communicate your findings with stakeholders and your team. Remember, transparency is key!
Learn and improve: you should use your evaluation findings to improve your future projects. It's a continuous learning process.
Things to consider and skills needed
While it’s essential to consider evaluation as part of any project, it's not a one-size-fits-all process. Below are some things to consider and ensure you have the right skillset to design and deliver effective evaluation for your projects.
Tailored approach and flexibility: your evaluation methods should be tailored to your project's unique characteristics. What works for an education and training project may not be suitable for a communications and marketing campaign. Be prepared to adapt your evaluation methods and objectives as the project evolves.
Logic modelling: learn to use logic models for your project and evaluation design and how to use this logical method to refine your project outcomes and design your effective evaluations while keeping stakeholders in the loop.
Data collection and analysis: a good evaluation demands a multi-methods approach. Skills in both qualitative and quantitative data collection, analysis and interpretation are highly valuable.
Critical thinking: evaluation is about assessing and making judgements. You will need to have critical thinking to provide effective analysis and interpretation of data and findings.
Report writing: learn to hone the skills of effective evaluation report writing. Effective communication skills are crucial for sharing your findings and insights with stakeholders and team members. Having a good structure to your report, identifying and sharing key messages, and knowing what not to include all help with effective communication of your findings, achievements and learning.