Developmental evaluation (DE) is a problematic concept because it deals with a complex set of conditions and potential outcomes that differ from and challenge the orthodoxy in much of mainstream research and evaluation and makes it difficult to communicate. At a recent gathering of DE practitioners in Toronto, we were charged with coming up with an elevator pitch to describe DE to someone who wasn’t familiar with it; this is what I came up with.
Developmental evaluation is an approach to understanding the activities of a program operating in dynamic, novel environments with complex interactions. It focuses on innovation and strategic learning rather than standard outcomes and is as much a way of thinking about programs-in-context and the feedback they produce. The concept is an extension of Michael Quinn Patton’s original concept of Utilization Focused Evaluation with concepts gleaned from complexity science to account for the dynamism and novelty. While Utilization Focused Evaluation has a series of steps to follow (PDF), Developmental Evaluation is less prescriptive, which is both its strength and its challenge for describing it to people (things I’ve discussed in earlier posts).
So with that in mind, our group was charged with coming up with a way to explain DE to someone who is not familiar with it using anything we’d like — song, poetry, dance, slides, stories and beyond. While my colleague Dan chose to lead us all in song, I opted to go with a simple analogy by comparing DE to a hybrid of Trip Advisor and the classic Road Trip (due to lack of good vocalizing skills).
Trip Advisor has emerged as one of the most popular tools for travellers seeking advice on everything from hotel rooms to airlines to resorts and all the destinations along the way. Trip Advisor is averaging more than 13 million unique visitors per month and, unlike its competitors, focuses on user-generated content to support its service. Thus, your fellow travellers are the source of the recommendations not some professional travel agent or journalist. At its heart are stories of varies tones, detail and quality. People upload various accounts of their stay, chronicling even the most minute detail through photos, links to their blogs, video, and narrative. If you want to get the inside details on what a hotel is really like, check Trip Advisor and you’ll likely find it.
However, like any self-organizing set of ideas, the quality of the content will vary along with the level of reportage and the conclusions will be different depending on the context and experience of the person doing the reporting. For example, if you are a North American who is used to having even the most basic hotel chain offer a room with full-service linens, a bathroom, closet, desk and separate shower, you’ll have a hard time adjusting to something like EasyHotel in Europe.
The Road Trip part (capitalization intended here to denote something different than a regular trip by road), denotes the experience that comes from a journey with a desired destination, but not a pre-determined route and only a generalized timeline. A Road Trip is something that is more than just traveling from Point A to Point B, which is usually accomplished by taking the shortest route, the fastest route or a combination of the two; rather it is a journey. Movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation (and, European Vacation), Thelma and Louise, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and (surprise!) Road Trip all capture this spirit to some effect. I suppose one might even find a more grim example of a Road Trip in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy or The Road.
Road Trips have a long history and are not just a North American phenomenon as this article from the Indian Newspaper, The Hindu reports in some detail:
“Road trips are fun when they are not planned point-to-point. As long as you have accommodation booked, that is enough. Its better not to have agendas; get as spontaneous and adventurous as you can. My friends and I went on a road trip to Goa last year. It was loads of fun as it was the first time we took off on our own without parents. To me, it was more than just a trip with friends. It showed that I could take care of myself and that I was now a grown-up, free to do what I wanted,” says Siddharth, who is doing his engineering.
Chance favours the prepared mind
“Road-tripping is a great way to bond with the people you are travelling with and I would strongly recommend it to people. It not only makes you appreciate yourself as an individual but is an amazing experience as you get to meet new people, know different cultures and sample different cuisines. I can never forget biking on sleet, riding though torrential rains, gobbling hot rotis at dhabas, the beautiful snow-capped mountains and guy talk with friends on the trip,” says Dheeraj, who recently went to Ladakh.
all is not hunky dory during these trips. You have to be way about accidents and mishaps. And, realise that freedom comes with responsibility. Says Arjun: “I had borrowed my friend’s bike for the trip, and though it looked good, it gave problems on the foothills of Kodaikanal and we couldn’t do the climb. Being a weekend, there were no mechanics. It helps to know your machine. A passion for road-tripping is not enough. You need to be equipped to take care of yourself also.”
Here, the story parallel is about being prepared. Know evaluation methods, know how to build and sustain relationships and to deal with conflict. A high tolerance for ambiguity and the flexibility to adapt is also important. Knowing a little about systems thinking and complexity doesn’t hurt either. Developmental evaluation is not healthy for those who need a high degree of predictability, are not flexible in their approach, and adhere to rigid timelines. Complex systems collapse under rigid boundary conditions and do evaluators working with such restrictions in developmental contexts.
So why do people do it? “Well, my memories of my favourite road trip were an injured leg, chocolates, beautiful photographs and a great sense of fulfilment,” recalls Arjun.
It is youngsters like these who have transformed road-tripping from just a hobby to an art.
After all, friendship and travel is a potent combination that you can’t say no to.
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