READINESS: a state, condition, or requirement?

READINESS: a state, condition, or requirement?

Written by ‘Ricardo Ramírez & Wendy Quarry’

Readiness is all those things that are not expressed in a Request for Proposals or a signed contract. It is the behind-the-scenes power play that at first glance is impossible to appreciate.   Readiness can mean a state or condition; a willingness to try something. 

The term is context specific. For instance in education, readiness is associated with the ability, preparedness, and commitment to start a course or program.  Or in a class setting it can be about gauging the students’ readiness to talk about a subject.  To do this A teacher could begin by asking questions as to what the students are thinking, what they know and what they don’t know and how they feel.  It’s important that the facilitator be prepared to step back and listen and be patient until he/she understands the level of engagement the students are willing to take.  The job is to listen and not to direct the conversation.  

We first came across this idea through our application of Utilization Focused Evaluation (UFE). We have since applied it through trial and error throughout our work in participatory communication, teaching and every day living. We think of readiness in the context of people and organizations working on projects to improve social and environmental issues. We consider the extent to which they are willing and able to engage in learning, especially through evaluation or communication planning. 

We focus our readiness assessment around organizational culture, power differentials with funders, staff profiles and attitudes, resources (financial, time) and commitment to reflect and learn. We have found that it is important to clarify ‘expectations’ as one element of ‘readiness,’ very early on in any project or organizational engagement.

So much of it can be hidden, as one cannot assume others understand things in the same manner.

Evaluation and communication are fields of work that share the challenge of confirming what things, images, examples… actually mean to people, how they interpret what they hear and see.  This is why we emphasize ‘active listening.’ We have come to understand that the most important part of communication is getting ready to communicate. What we mean is the ‘listening’ part of the communication equation: it is the effort that must go into understanding the thoughts and wishes of each audience – audience research.   It is the asking questions and waiting for answers and not assuming what each will say that forms the ‘readiness’ part of the communication – listening before telling equation.  It took us a long time to learn the importance of this first step but now it is indelibly written in our brain.

In practice, readiness is difficult to confirm. It may have many layers. Sometimes the partner organization is committed to another agenda but is not forthcoming about this conflict.  It may also be that staff changes or budgetary pressure change the willingness of the team to remain flexible.  Not surprisingly, the word is difficult to translate into other languages. Spanish, for example, requires three words to express the idea. 

 In one instance, upon being offered a contract to develop a national communication strategy we negotiated for months with our contractor. We sought confirmation that the type of strategy we were going to design would include a significant component whereby rural stakeholders would have a voice.   We were given the assurances and we went ahead. We were very cautious in this work – we did not promise nor did we argue that things could be done – we held back – we listened.  Many months later, after the communication strategy had been completed we learned that the component we were so keen about had been discarded.  What remained was a top-down information campaign with no feedback options. We learned that this was done purposefully. As it turned out, there were interests behind the scenes that did not see value in the bottom-up aspect of the strategy.  

This experience was a lesson in how difficult it is to negotiate readiness – perhaps the word ‘navigate’ is more a propos. Depending on the stage in your professional life, you might have more options to negotiate hard, even walk away.  You may find the time to do the research or not; so often a contract requires a quick start-up to satisfy the donor. Listening takes time and it can be a challenge to seriously appreciate people’s views, their thoughts and expectations. It is also true that this exploration may prove that earlier assumptions about an apparent satisfactory level of readiness can be wrong.  For this reason constant vigilance is needed to ensure there is sufficient readiness for us to take on commitments with open eyes – easier said than done.  

Further reading