Up at night: The integration of rigor and humility

Author: Heather Reynolds, LEO Managing Director

Dear Friends,

Recently, LEO held one of our regular partner training workshops. These workshops are set up to help us build strong relationships with our newest service provider partners and to launch the research design process well with each organization. They have become one of my favorite parts of my work. Often, this workshop is the first time we finally meet face-to-face with the organizations we have been talking to, often for over a year and usually through one Zoom meeting after another, about their hopes and dreams for their missions and how evidence building will help accelerate those missions. I love these gatherings because they give us dedicated time to pour into these incredible partners, help them understand the ins and outs of building causal evidence, begin the process of designing their research studies, and discuss the culture and capacity that they will continue to build to allow a randomized controlled trail to work within their already busy lives.

A headshot of Heather Reynolds
Photo: Heather Reynolds

At LEO, we have a set of values we embrace. Two of those values look a bit wonky next to one another. The first, rigor, is probably something you would expect to see with a serious research shop. This value comes from our equally unwavering commitment to both human dignity and excellence in our research methods. Not all evidence is created equal, and we conduct rigorous research so that we will get rigorous evidence, causal evidence that allows us to measure the outcomes attributable to the program in question. We have prioritized this sort of evidence building because we believe it will help us make the biggest strides towards improving outcomes for people in poverty.  

While rigor is a value we won’t compromise on, rigor alone can feel cold. But would be shocked if any of our partners described the LEO team as “cold.” Why? Because we embrace a second value, humility. We strive to balance our rigor with respect, because we believe that research should serve people—not the other way around. Humility comes in many forms at LEO—site visits to our partners so we can understand their work more deeply; lots of pivoting because of the urgent, daily issues that service providers face and that impact our shared research work; and a commitment to creatively figuring out how to make research manageable for an organization on the front lines of serving people in poverty. We work hard to build relationships with our provider partners—not just because we are nice people, but because we believe that putting our partners front and center in this work is the best way to conduct meaningful research.

To demonstrate LEO humility at its extreme, one of my favorite activities at our partner training workshop comes after dinner on the first day—a “beloved” game called Quest. Quest is one part scavenger hunt, one part creative expression, and it gives our partners and researchers the opportunity to work together to win the oh-so-important title of Quest Champion. Picture lots of running around, solving puzzles, dressing Barbie dolls (you had to be there!), and poetry slams. If our partners don’t feel the warmth of our researchers before this moment, they feel it by the end of this game. Quest has our researchers literally bowing down to service providers, doing ballerina twirls, writing haiku, and sampling the latest pop hit to perform a song about research.

Quest Game Shana Dancing

These Quest moments are the most precious to observe because our researchers and providers form bonds over laughter and fun in a way that makes them come together as one team. Probably my favorite moment from our last workshop was when the team from Friends of the Children (go check out their website to learn more about their incredible mission -OR- check out page X of this issue of Illuminate to learn more about their incredible mission) performed “Data’s Alive, Data’s Alive” to the tune of the infamous “Staying Alive.” Wait—it gets better. Our LEO researcher Patrick Turner burst onto the scene singing in his best high-pitch soprano, “You can tell by the way I work, I am a LEO man...” A lot more “humility” than “rigor” in that very moment, but one that solidified a working relationship that will last for years.

We must solve intergenerational poverty. It is not okay for a mom’s poverty to become her daughter’s poverty, or a dad’s incarceration to become his son’s life sentence too. LEO is solving the lack of rigor in the poverty fighting space. And our partners are teaching us how to break the cycle of researchers flying in and out of social service work. They are teaching us what it means to humbly walk in solidarity with them. I believe that we can turn the tide on poverty in our nation. Why? Because every day we see organizations doing the hard work to rigorously serve their communities. And every day we see researchers at LEO humbly sharing their superpowers to bring this rigor to the real world.  


Rigorously and humbly yours,




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