Critical Evaluation: 3 Steps to Assess the Big Picture

By Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP
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The following is excerpted from Chapter 2 of Applying Critical Evaluation (SHRM, 2017), written by Jennifer Currence. 

Recently, I was sitting on a (covered) hotel balcony, reading while a storm rolled in; I love the smell of approaching rain. As I awaited the impending downpour, I noticed the flurry of activity below me. My room was situated above a parking lot, and the valet attendants were running to fetch the cars before the rain came in. As I looked down over the lot, it occurred to me how different the cars looked from above. I was only seven floors up, but I couldn't really even tell the difference in the types of cars—was it a car or an SUV? Was it a Mercedes or a Ford? Was it a late model, or was it older? They all looked disproportionate compared with what I was accustomed to: They appeared a lot longer when looking directly down on them than they do when I'm standing next to them. I looked around and realized that I could see the entire lot from my vantage point, and there were some poor parking jobs over the lines and some wasted space in one corner of the lot. These were all things I would not be able to see as quickly (or at all!) if I were downstairs standing in the lot next to the vehicles. 

There are several advantages to stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. And doing so can help others too. I once knew a fisherman who said he would take his boat to where the birds were circling in the sky. The birds had the better view to see the fish in the water. Back on land and in our companies, the "30,000-foot view" can also be helpful in many ways:

  • We are able to see all of the contributors to the issue.
  • We are able to consider other options for a solution.
  • We are able to consider other sources or people who can help create the solution. 

It's important to start with the big-view approach. When we get too far into a process, it's more difficult for our human brains to think of other options. In this chapter, we'll review three steps to getting started on your critical evaluation journey: understanding the situation, identifying the desired outcome, and planning your process. 

STEP 1: Understand the Situation

To use our critical evaluation skills, we need to have a situation to evaluate. These situations come to our attention in one of two ways: Either we are hit with an issue to evaluate, or we create one by evaluating. Let me explain. 

In the first instance, an issue in the organization is blatant and nearly impossible to ignore. An example could be that your bottom-line profits are low, and the company is unclear exactly why this is happening. The company needs to critically evaluate what's going on in order to fix the problem. In this case, HR needs to critically evaluate how the "people part" of the business is affecting the bottom line. How is your turnover different from others in your industry? How much is that costing the company? If your turnover is high, why are people leaving? No, I mean, why are they really leaving? 

In the second instance, sometimes over the course of our daily work, we uncover data that make us say, "Hmm." Consider an HR manager who is gathering census data for a new benefits broker. Through the process of collecting the information on all of the employees, he notices that several employees have birthdates in the 1960s. When he sorts the data and extrapolates that one demographic piece of information, he learns that 40 percent of the workforce is over the age of 55. Houston, we have a situation! He realizes he is going to need to critically evaluate these individuals and their positions, strategically consider the long-term effects on the company, and analyze the need for and creation of a succession plan. 

Before we go any further, there's a third thing to consider when identifying the situation, and that is—maybe there is no situation. This consideration, however, is still part of the critical evaluation process. For example, let's say your CFO thinks your employee turnover is too high and wants you to prepare a plan to reduce it. Upon doing some critical evaluation on the subject, you learn that your company's turnover is actually five percent below normal. You look at what prompted your CFO's request and notice that three people left the company within the past two months, which is above average for your organization. When you look at why those individuals left, however, you see that one moved away, one retired, and the other one had a baby and decided to stay home. When you approach your CFO with this information, you both agree that there's really not a problem that needs fixing and that your time is better spent on other projects. You've still critically evaluated the situation; you've just come to the conclusion that nothing further needs to be done in this situation. I love when that happens! It's like coming home to a meal made in the crockpot. You've already done all the work, and now there's nothing else to do but enjoy the fruits of your labor. 

STEP 2: Identify the Desired Outcome

Once you have identified your issue, the next step is to clarify what you would rather have instead. Be specific. For example, if your top-line revenue is down, how "down" is it? Is the company 2 percent off target or 18 percent off target? If your revenues last year were $22 million, what exactly do you want them to be, and by when? Does the company want to target the same $25 million next year that it had targeted (and missed) for this year? Or does it want to increase the goal to $28 million? (This is just the "what" stage—the "how" will come later.) One tool you can use (and are likely already familiar with) is the framework of SMART goals. These are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound to help you clarify the outcome for your organization. Actually, SMART goals are a great tool for critical evaluation because each component provides a sort of framework to more easily evaluate the situation critically. A SMART goal worksheet is provided for you in Appendix II of this book.

Another way to identify your goal is to do a gap analysis, also called a variance analysis. In other words, look at where you are versus where you want to be. (Think of analysis, the "A" in the ADDIE model, discussed later in this chapter.) What is the difference? What steps do you need to take to get there? What's missing? What's in the way? In conducting a gap analysis, completing an environmental scan to help you see the big picture is sometimes useful. These can help potentially identify an obstacle that you might otherwise overlook. 

STEP 3: Plan Your Process

You've probably heard the adage "If you fail to plan, plan to fail." I've found it to be true in life and in business. Research has shown that for every one minute spent planning, you will earn 10 minutes in execution. Talk about increasing your efficiency! There are a few things to consider as you create an action plan. First, you need to select a framework, then determine which stakeholders you will involve in the process, and lastly consider which tools will be helpful for you in this journey (and don't forget to work your plan, or all of that planning will be for nothing!). Several models can help you develop your action plan. Here are three that you can consider. 

Jennifer Currence is the president of OnCore Management Solutions in Tampa Bay, Fla., where she partners with leaders and companies to improve performance of people operations. She is a national and international speaker on per­formance improvement and human resources topics such as creating a dynamic onboarding program, developing business acumen, and cre­ating a coaching environment and is the author of the SHRM Competency Series: Making an Impact in Small Business.

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