Michael Quinn Patton’s one Big Top Tip for YEEs

** 5 min read **

Michael Patton is the reason I switched 18 years ago from a senior management position in (at the time) the largest residential university in South Africa, to becoming an independent evaluator. I met him at the first AfrEA conference in Nairobi and found him fascinating enough to spend every waking minute that week pursuing him with endless questions and debates (my Top Tip 11 for YEEs – always spend time with the most important person in the room!). I still treasure the inscription he made in his UFE book that I had just bought; it convinced me to follow this path. I continue to admire the multiple clever ways in which he invigorates evaluation, positions it in our evolving world, and communicates it with the simplicity that speaks of great sophistication. He remains an inspiration to many around the world. Here is his one ‘Big Top Tip’ for YEEs. And I hope he will be back with his ‘classics list’ in a month’s time!

There is a lot to learn as a Young and Emerging Evaluator. You need to know methodological alternatives. You need to ground your work in evaluation standards, principles, and competencies. You need to keep up with new developments in the evaluation profession. You need to network and cultivate professional relationships. You need to hone skills in communicating, facilitating, and working with diverse stakeholders. You need to pay attention to advice from your elders, the kind of wisdom that Zenda Ofir has been assembling in this series of Tips for YEEs, including her own important and perceptive top 10 list. So much to do, so much to learn, so little time.

So, I’m going to offer just one tip in this post. It’s a big one — fundamental, essential, and grounding. But it’s just one, one big tip, therefore easy to remember and, I think, not difficult to implement, though rare in actual application.

Speaking as an elder, what I find most absent among young and emerging evaluators is direct knowledge of, experience with, and immersion in the classics.

My one tip: Steep yourself in the classics.

Baseline question: Can you name 10 classics in evaluation? When I advise, “Steep yourself in the classics,” what comes to mind? Anything? Forget ten. Don’t worry about five. Can you identify one classic evaluation publication that you turn to again and again for insight, inspiration, and grounding?

Most young evaluators, I find, if they have any familiarity with the classics at all – and many do not – have only read second-hand summaries. The wisdom in the classics is not just in their content and substance, as important as those are, but in the brilliant logic displayed, the passion for this developing profession that you can feel in their engagement with major and important issues, and the vision they offer for this profession. The classics provide more than knowledge and insight, they offer examples of great writing, deep thinking, and values-based inspiration. They are old, but never out of date, which is what makes them classics. There is no discard-by a certain time warning. Quite to the contrary , the classics provide a break from the real-time fixation and short attention spans of today’s popular culture.

Do not skim the classics. Don’t just peruse them. When I say, “Steep yourself in the classics,” I mean steep. Look it up.  It means “to immerse in or saturate or imbue with some pervading absorbing or stupefying influence or agency” (dictionary.com).

Every time I revise one of my books or write something new, I begin by revisiting and spending time with one or more of the classics. They are old friends, good friends, inspiring colleagues, and fellow travelers on the evaluation road.

I wrote a chapter for a recent New Directions for Evaluation on Evaluative Thinking (Vo & Archibald, NDE# 158, 2018) entitled “A Historical Perspective on the Evolution of Evaluative Thinking.” The chapter came about because I had seen an outline for the volume that suggested the idea of evaluative thinking was a recent creation when, in fact, it is on glorious display in virtually any of the classics.

Of course, there is no definitive list of evaluation classics just as there is no agreed-on and definitive list of philosophical classics or humanity classics or political classics or economics classics or development classics. Different evaluation elders and professors would, and do, prioritize classics differently. But while there would be considerable variety, which is as it should be, I suspect there would also be some convergence.

So, here’s your assignment. Identify an evaluation classic for yourself.  Steep yourself in it. Savor it. Mark it up. Highlight key insights. Scribble in the margins. Carry it with you. Make it your own. That classic is your ancestor. Respect your ancestors, your elders, your forebears — and take them into the future with you.

Postscript: In a month from when this is published, if there is interest, I will share my personal list of 10 classics. Until then, do your homework.

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Michael Patton

Michael Quinn Patton is an independent evaluation consultant and evaluation pioneer based in Minnesota, USA. He is a former President of the American Evaluation Association (AEA) and author of eight major evaluation books including Utilization-Focused Evaluation (4th ed., 2008), Developmental Evaluation (2011) and Principles-Focused Evaluation (Guilford Press, 2018). He is recipient of both the Myrdal Award for Outstanding Contributions to Useful and Practical Evaluation Practice and the Lazarsfeld Award for Lifelong Contributions to Evaluation Theory from AEA.

4 Comments

  1. I happened to have participated in the first AfREA Conference in Nairobi, where Quinn Patton also rubbed the Evaluation big on me. I met Zenda, Marco Segone and many others who are now making serious contributions to the profession. It was all a result of Patton’s ideas.

    I vividly remember the analogy of “three blind men and the elephant “, each touching a part and sharing a description of the whole. This has been very instrumental in helping me situate Evaluation to context.

    It’s a long story, but my classic book s still the Utilization Focused Evaluation.

  2. It has been some time since I have exchanged with Michael Patton. In fact I have 2 of Michael’s book Utilization Focused Evaluation Edition 3 on my desk which he signed for me and the older one How to Use Qualitative Methods in Evaluation. I am having a debate with some young evaluators on Quantitative versus Qualitative evaluation methods. They are writing something and are rubbishing Qualitative Methods. They have a lot to learn and I gave them Michael’s books to learn and I hope they will. When I saw this post I was referencing it as I write two books on evaluation. I have been around longer than the young evaluators but I have not been around as long as Michael. All I can say is to young evaluators LISTEN TO YOUR ANCESTORS AND YOU WILL GET THERE. I AM STILL LEARNING AND LISTENING. GREAT JOB MICHAEL, HOPE TO SEE SOON ONE OF THESE DAYS.

    Backson Sibanda Dr.

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