Thinking Critically About Outcomes (plus, #RKAchat is back!)

Roadmap to Success

When evaluators are called in to evaluate a program, exhibition, or museum, the first question they ask is, “Who is your primary audience?”  After fully addressing the “who” question, the next question is usually, “What are you hoping to achieve among [insert primary audience]?”  This question is code for “What are your intended outcomes?”  While most people associate outcomes with the evaluation process, what many don’t realize is that outcomes are even more vital to the planning process!  As such, it is disconcerting to witness museum practitioners avoiding clarifying outcomes and exuding that they fear doing so.  I have a few ideas as to why some might fear clarifying outcomes.  First, it is very scary for a museum to put itself out there and boldly say, “This is what our museum wants to achieve.”  Fear of failure starts to quickly emerge and squelch the possibility of articulating intentions with any kind of specificity.

Second, some practitioners believe that evaluators should just leave people alone; let them experience whatever, because museums can’t control people anyway.  True, museums can’t control people’s experiences, but they can provide opportunities to affect people’s experiences.  Museum experiences are two-way streets and both parties (the museum and the visitor) play a role and take liberties. Why wouldn’t a museum want to clarify what it wants people to experience and create an environment that purposefully aligns with those intentions?

Third, clarifying outcomes is a difficult process that takes considerable time, thought, deliberation, and prioritization.  If museums want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, then all staff will need decide together on the work of the museum and align their actions with intended outcomes.  The first step to planning is articulating results in the form of clear, measurable outcomes.  Articulating results is not an exercise in futility as those results can be used to plan subsequent work!

I appreciate outcomes for two reasons—the first reason is a prerequisite for the second reason:  First and foremost, outcomes provide an excellent roadmap for planning—whether for a program, exhibition, and an entire museum.  Yes, outcomes are a planning tool!  I know it sounds odd because evaluators champion them, but they are most useful for planning.  They clarify what practitioners want to achieve, after which they might ask, “Okay, this is where we want to go, so what do we need to do to get there?”  Outcomes can be used to make decisions about what one needs to do, what one can stop doing, and what one might need to change moving forward.   Oh, and the second reason: outcomes provide evaluators with a gauge for examining evaluation data; without outcomes, evaluation is moot.  However, if I were asked which is more important, using outcomes for planning or using them as a gauge for evaluation, I would say, using them for planning!  When good intentioned outcomes are used regularly to guide a museum’s work, the result is generally a “successful” exhibition, program, or museum experience.  By contrast, when outcomes are only used for evaluation, the evaluation often indicates that outcomes should have been considered in planning and throughout development to achieve a successful exhibition, program, or museum experience.  It sounds like a catch-22, and that is because it is.

If you’re interested in talking more about outcomes, be sure to participate in our next #RKAChat— “Thinking Critically About Outcomes”– on Wednesday, October 7th from 2-3pm EDT.  We look forward to chatting with you!


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