A mindset for developmental evaluation

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Developmental evaluation requires different ways of thinking about programs, people, contexts and the data that comes from all three. Without a change in how we think about these things, no method, tool, or approach will make an evaluation developmental or its results helpful to organizations seeking to innovate, adapt, grow, and sustain themselves. 

There is nothing particularly challenging about developmental evaluation (DE) from a technical standpoint: for the most part, a DE can be performed using the same methods for data collection as other evaluations. What stands DE apart from those other evaluations is less the methods and tools, but the thinking that goes into how those methods and tools are used. This includes the need to ensure that sensemaking is a part of the data analysis plan because it is almost certain that some if not the majority of the data collected will not have an obvious meaning or interpretation.

Without developmental thinking and sensemaking, a DE is just an evaluation with a different name

This is not a moot point, yet the failure of organizations to adopt a developmental mindset toward its programs and operations is (likely) the single-most reason for why DE often fails to live up to its promise in practice.

No child’s play

If you were to ask a five-year old what they want to be when they grow up you might hear answers like a firefighter, princess, train engineer, chef, zookeeper, or astronaut. Some kids will grow up and become such things (or marry accordingly for those few seeking to become princesses or they’ll work for Disney), but most will not. They will become things like sales account managers, marketing directors, restaurant servers, software programmers, accountants, groundskeepers and more. While this is partly about having the opportunity to pursue a career in a certain field, it’s also about changing interests.

A five-year old that wants to be a train engineer might seem pretty normal, but one that wants to be an accountant specializing in risk management in the environmental sector would be considered odd. Yet, it’s perfectly reasonable to speak to a 35-year-old and find them excited about being in such a role.

Did the 35-year-old that wanted to be a firefighter when they were five but became an accountant, fail? Are they a failed firefighter? Is the degree to which they fight fires in their present day occupation a reasonable indicator of career success?

It’s perfectly reasonable to plan to be a princess when you’re five, but not if you’re 35 or 45 or 55 years old unless you’re currently dating a prince or in reasonable proximity to one. What is developmentally appropriate for a five-year-old is not for someone seven times that age.

Further, is a 35-year-old a seven-times better five-year-old? When you’re ten are you twice the person you were when you were five? Why is it OK to praise a toddler for sharing, not biting or slapping their peers, and eating all their vegetables and weird to do it with someone in good mental health in their forties or fifties? It has to do with developmental thinking.

It has to do with a developmental mindset.

Charting evolutionary pathways

We know that as people develop through stages, ages and situations the knowledge, interests, and capacities that a person has will change. We might be the same person and also a different person than the one we were ten years ago. The reason is that we evolve and develop as a person based on a set of experiences, genetics, interests, and opportunities that we encounter. While there are forces that constrain these adaptations (e.g., economics, education, social mobility, availability of and access to local resources), we still evolve over time.

DE is about creating the data structures and processes to understand this evolution as it pertains to programs and services and help to guide meaningful designs for evolution. DE is a tool for charting evolutionary pathways and for documenting the changes over time. Just as putting marks on the wall to chart a child’s growth, taking pictures at school, or writing in a journal, a DE does much of the same thing (even with similar tools).

As anyone with kids will tell you, there are a handful of decisions that a parent can make that will have sure-fire, predictable outcomes when implemented. Many of them are created through trial-and-error and some that work when a child is four won’t work when the child is four and five months. Some decisions will yield outcomes that approximate an expected outcome and some will generate entirely unexpected outcomes (positive and negative). A good parent is one who pays attention to the rhythms, flows, and contexts that surround their child and themselves with the effort to be mindful, caring and compassionate along the way.

This results in no clear, specific prototype for a good parent that can reliably be matched to any kid, nor any highly specific, predictable means of determining who is going to be a successful, healthy person. Still, many of us manage to have kids we can proud of, careers we like, friendships we cherish and intimate relationships that bring joy despite no means of predicting how any of those will go with consistency. We do this all the time because we approach our lives and those of our kids with a developmental mindset.

Programs as living systems

DE is at its best a tool for designing for living systems. It is about discerning what is evolving (and at what rate/s) and what is static within a system and recognizing that the two conditions can co-exist. It’s the reason why many conventional evaluation methods still work within a DE context. It’s also the reason why conventional thinking about those methods often fails to support DE.

Living systems, particularly human systems, are often complex in their nature. They have multiple, overlapping streams of information that interact at different levels, time scales and to different effects inconsistently or at least to a pattern that is only partly ever knowable. This complexity may include simple relationships and more complicated ones, too. Just as a conservation biologist might see a landscape that changes, they can understand what changes are happening quickly, what isn’t, what certain relationships are made and what ones are less discernible.

As evaluators and innovators, we need to consider how our programs and services are living systems. Even something as straightforward as the restaurant industry where food is sought and ordered, prepared, delivered and consumed, then finished has elements of complexity to it. The dynamics of real-time ordering and tracking, delivery, shifting consumer demand, the presence of mobile competitors (e.g., food trucks), changing regulatory environment, novelty concepts (e.g., pop-ups!), and seasonality of food demand and supply has changed how the food preparation business is run.

A restaurant might not just be a bricks-and-mortar operation now, but a multi-faceted, dynamic food creation environment. The reason could be that even if they are good at what they did if everything around them is changing they could still deliver consistently great food and service and fail. They may need to change to stay the same.

This only can happen if we view our programs as living systems and create evaluation mechanisms and strategies that view them in that manner. That means adopting a developmental mindset within an organization because DE can’t exist without it.

If a developmental evaluation is what you need or you want to learn more about how it can serve your needs, contact Cense and inquire about how they can help you. 

Image Credit: Thinkstock used under license.

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