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Strategic Engagement: Leveraging the Tree of Alignment for Impactful Creative Evaluations


By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD


This blog post brings together two topics we write about frequently: Creative Evaluation and Engagement (CE&E) and the Tree of Alignment (ToA).


 

Introduction

In today's rapidly evolving world, understanding and facilitating meaningful change in a timely and useful way is critically important. At Inspire to Change, the Tree of Alignment is our theory of engagement. We use it to design our engagement–the who, what, where, when, how, and why of our work. Creative Evaluation and Engagement helps us understand whether our engagement strategy is well-articulated, embodied, and leading to its intended impact–the what, so what, and now what of our work. Through this blog post, we hope to share how the Tree of Alignment serves as a powerful template for designing initiatives, and how weaving it together with a Creative Evaluation and Engagement approach enhances our work's impact by fostering better alignment, continuous learning, adaptability, and embodiment.  


But before we do that, here’s a quick overview of these two concepts.


Tree of Alignment

Because metaphors are a powerful way to convey complex concepts across various disciplines, we developed a framework called the “Tree of Alignment” to help us communicate more powerfully and coherently, even among diverse changemakers who may not be familiar with each other's work. Drawing inspiration from the natural world with a tree-inspired metaphor, this approach–a theory of engagement–considers the entire ecosystem of change in the evaluation plan, from the nurturing 'soil' of our environments to the 'fruit and seeds' of our impact. By mirroring the organic growth and resilience of a tree, we explore a dynamic pathway to evaluate and foster meaningful change in organizations and communities.


Creative Evaluation & Engagement

Creative Evaluation and Engagement (CE&E) is a transformative evaluation framework designed to tackle social justice issues through developmental, principles-focused, and arts-infused evaluation methods. This approach adapts innovations to dynamic environments, keeps guiding principles central to the evaluation process, and utilizes artistic methods for data collection and analysis, making it engaging and accessible. Fundamentally, CE&E is committed to social justice, ensuring that its processes contribute to creating a more equitable and just society. This comprehensive methodology, far more than a collection of buzzwords, is a multi-faceted approach to effecting meaningful social transformation.


Weaving Together the ‘Tree of Alignment’ with ‘Creative Evaluation & Engagement’

In this section, we’ll explore the synergistic integration of two transformative frameworks. The 'Tree of Alignment' provides a structured approach to designing engagement, focusing on the nuances of who, what, where, when, how, and why in the context of social change. When this is interwoven with 'Creative Evaluation & Engagement,' a method that combines developmental, principles-focused, and arts-infused evaluation techniques, the result is a comprehensive strategy. By merging these frameworks as we outline below, we create a powerful tool for designing, evaluating, and refining efforts towards meaningful and effective change. 


Soil - Conditions and Capacities for Transformation

Change must be cultivated in an environment conducive to growth. Like the soil's role in a tree's growth, our 'soil' consists of trust, openness, hope, and curiosity, creating a fertile ground where new ideas and practices can take root and thrive. This soil directly impacts our initiatives in the here and now, offering a tangible, immediate environment that we can actively cultivate and enhance by building and deepening our internal capacities and influencing our external conditions. Through consistent nurturing and attention, we ensure this soil remains vibrant and conducive to transformative growth.


  • Evaluation Purpose: To assess the extent to which the conditions and capacities needed for transformative work individually, collectively, and across the ecosystem are present.  

  • Possible Evaluation Activities: Creative workshops, storytelling sessions, and arts-based reflective practices to explore the cultural and emotional context.

  • Key Actions: Cultivate a responsive and inclusive engagement and evaluation culture that unleashes the potential of individuals, institutions, and initiatives to thrive in complexity, while regularly revisiting and reinforcing the nurturing environment.


Roots - Guiding Principles

Guiding principles are our moral compass, ensuring consistency and integrity, akin to the roots of a tree that provide stability and nourishment. They adapt to fulfill the tree's needs, reflecting its core values, which are essential for growth and resilience. Guiding principles are deeply embedded in our ethos, providing a foundation that influences every decision and action. They serve not only as anchors but also as nourishment, feeding our strategies with values-based direction and purpose.


  • Evaluation Purpose: To understand how well an organization's core values and principles are articulated, understood, integrated, and lived, as well as the extent to which these principles are meaningful and relevant.

  • Possible Evaluation Activities: Ethical storytelling circles, value alignment art projects, and principles-focused group discussions.

  • Key Actions: Develop and continuously embed and realign guiding principles, ensuring that they resonate culturally and ethically.


Trunk - Compelling Vision 

Serving as a guiding star, the trunk of a tree is akin to a compelling vision in a change initiative. It facilitates intricate processes within the organization and aligns various functions and levels towards a shared objective. The trunk, though seemingly straightforward, houses a complex system that supports and sustains the entire tree, mirroring how a compelling vision must underpin and unify all aspects of an initiative. It is the sturdy core from which all strategies and actions grow, providing strength and direction.


  • Evaluation Purpose: To evaluate the organization's vision for its clarity, alignment, and cultural resonance and to understand how well the vision is articulated, communicated, understood, and motivating 

  • Possible Evaluation Activities: Vision mapping through visual arts, collaborative visioning workshops, and cross-cultural vision discussions.

  • Key Actions: Describe a healthy, equitable, inspiring vision for the initiative being evaluated, ensuring it is culturally relevant, specific enough to be clear about what the work is and is not, but general enough to inform all strategies.


Rings - Levels of Change 

Change unfolds across various dimensions, each adding depth and resilience to the transformation process, much like the growth rings of a tree. These rings represent the tree's life story and adaptability to environmental changes, paralleling the different stages of change from personal to systemic. Each ring, or level, is a cumulative result of experiences and adaptations, illustrating the progressive nature of change. They symbolize the journey of transformation, marking the passage of time and the accumulation of growth and learning.


  • Evaluation Purpose: To assess change across personal, team, and systemic levels, while being sensitive to cultural nuances and to ensure the efforts support the potential for individual, collective, and ecosystemic transformation.

  • Possible Evaluation Activities: Personal growth art journals, team change narratives, and systemic change theater exercises, journey maps, 3D art installations.

  • Key Actions: Be clear about what “levels” or “rings” you intend to influence, understand how you would “see” change at each of these levels, how these levels might interact with each other, and what transformation would look, feel, and sound like at each of these levels.  


Branches - Core Strategies and Strengths 

Core strategies, enhanced by inherent strengths, are vital for actualizing the vision. They are flexible enough to suit different levels of change and diverse contexts, like a tree's branches that support growth in various directions. Each branch, representing a different strategy or strength, extends from the central vision, distributing resources and ideas where needed. The diversity of branches signifies the varied approaches and tactics employed, all converging towards the common goal of transformative change.


  • Evaluation Purpose: To assess the effectiveness of the core strategies and determine how well they align with the vision, embody the guiding principles, and build upon and enhance existing strengths.

  • Possible Evaluation Activities: Strategy mapping using visual arts, role-play exercises for adapting strategies, and workshops on cultural adaptability to thoroughly evaluate the strategies.

  • Key Actions: Identify and refine strategies and support learning so strategies can be understood with great clarity, depth, and relevance


Leaves - Contextualized Implementation 

The effectiveness of strategies depends on their relevance to specific contexts, much like how leaves adapt for photosynthesis. Our strategies are flexible and tailored to meet the unique conditions and needs of each setting. Leaves, through their adaptive nature, optimize their function for photosynthesis, just as our strategies must be optimized for the specific environments and challenges they address. This adaptive approach ensures that our actions are not only effective but also resonate deeply with the local culture and context.


  • Evaluation Purpose: To understand the ways in which the core strategies are adapted to local cultures and contexts, and the extent to which these adaptations are meaningful and relevant.  

  • Possible Evaluation Activities: Contextual storytelling, community-based art projects, and cultural adaptation discussions.

  • Key Actions: Tailor strategies to align with local cultural contexts and needs, ensuring relevance and effectiveness.


Fruit and Seeds - Ripples of Impact

Every action has the potential to trigger a cascade of effects, both anticipated and unexpected. The diversity of seed dispersal methods in plants symbolizes the range of strategies and their unpredictable impacts on transformation efforts. These seeds, representing ideas and initiatives, can find fertile ground in unexpected places, leading to new growth and development. Like the fruit and seeds of a tree, our actions and their consequences spread far and wide, often in ways we cannot predict, but always with the potential for significant impact.


  • Evaluation Purpose: To understand, measure and/or assess the individual, collective, and systemic ripples and impacts of actions and initiatives.

  • Possible Evaluation Activities: Impact photography exhibitions, community impact stories, and seed dispersal art projects. 

  • Key Actions: Bring people together to build a collective understanding of what has or has not happened as a result of the work, and what impact this has had on individual, the community, and the larger system  


Ecosystem Dynamics - Community and Context 

'Ecosystem Dynamics' symbolize the complex, broader macro environment that encompasses initiatives, similar to how a tree is situated within a wider ecosystem. This element highlights the intricate interplay of stakeholders and external factors, such as historical contexts, political climates, and prevailing policies, which collectively shape the environment in which change occurs. These dynamics are more macro in nature, representing elements that, while beyond our immediate control, require our awareness and understanding. The health and evolution of our initiatives, like a tree, are profoundly influenced by these surrounding ecosystem dynamics. Acknowledging and adapting to these broader factors is crucial, even though direct influence might be limited, as they play a significant role in the overall trajectory and effectiveness of our transformation efforts.


  • Evaluation Purpose: To understand and adapt to the cultural and community dynamics.

  • Possible Evaluation Activities: Ecosystem mapping through collaborative art, stakeholder engagement in cultural activities, and community dialogues, review of historical records, listening sessions with elders.

  • Key Actions: Regularly engage with and adapt to the cultural dynamics of the community, ensuring relevance and effectiveness.


Looking Ahead

We hope this exploration has illuminated how the Tree-Inspired Framework not only enriches our understanding of change and its evaluation but also serves as a powerful template for designing initiatives. In our upcoming blog post, we'll delve deeper into how the Tree of Alignment can be seamlessly integrated into the very fabric of initiative planning. The true beauty of this approach is found in its cohesive harmony: when an initiative and its evaluation are both grounded in the same framework, it creates a journey that is not only consistent but also culturally attuned and impactful. This integration of planning and evaluation streamlines processes, ensuring that every aspect of the initiative–like the interconnected parts of a tree–works together to foster growth, resilience, and profound impact.

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