Month: April 2018

complexityevaluationsocial innovation

Developmental Evaluation’s Traps


Developmental evaluation holds promise for product and service designers looking to understand the process, outcomes, and strategies of innovation and link them to effects. It’s the great promise of DE that is also the reason to be most wary of it and beware the traps that are set for those unaware.  

Developmental evaluation (DE), when used to support innovation, is about weaving design with data and strategy. It’s about taking a systematic, structured approach to paying attention to what you’re doing, what is being produced (and how), and anchoring it to why you’re doing it by using monitoring and evaluation data. DE helps to identify potentially promising practices or products and guide the strategic decision-making process that comes with innovation. When embedded within a design process, DE provides evidence to support the innovation process from ideation through to business model execution and product delivery.

This evidence might include the kind of information that helps an organization know when to scale up effort, change direction (“pivot”), or abandon a strategy altogether.

Powerful stuff.

Except, it can also be a trap.

It’s a Trap!

Star Wars fans will recognize the phrase “It’s a Trap!” as one of special — and much parodied — significance. Much like the Rebel fleet’s jeopardized quest to destroy the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, embarking on a DE is no easy or simple task.

DE was developed by Michael Quinn Patton and others working in the social innovation sector in response to the needs of programs operating in areas of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in helping them function better within this environment through evaluation. This meant providing the kind of useful data that recognized the context, allowed for strategic decision making with rigorous evaluation and not using tools that are ill-suited for complexity to simply do the ‘wrong thing righter‘.

The following are some of ‘traps’ that I’ve seen organizations fall into when approaching DE. A parallel set of posts exploring the practicalities of these traps are going up on the Cense site along with tips and tools to use to avoid and navigate them.

A trap is something that is usually camouflaged and employs some type of lure to draw people into it. It is, by its nature, deceptive and intended to ensnare those that come into it. By knowing what the traps are and what to look for, you might just avoid falling into them.

A different approach, same resourcing

A major trap is going into a DE is thinking that it is just another type of evaluation and thus requires the same resources as one might put toward a standard evaluation. Wrong.

DE most often requires more resources to design and manage than a standard program evaluation for many reasons. One the most important is that DE is about evaluation + strategy + design (the emphasis is on the ‘+’s). In a DE budget, one needs to account for the fact that three activities that were normally treated separately are now coming together. It may not mean that the costs are necessarily more (they often are), but that the work required will span multiple budget lines.

This also means that operationally one cannot simply have an evaluator, a strategist, and a program designer work separately. There must be some collaboration and time spent interacting for DE to be useful. That requires coordination costs.

Another big issue is that DE data can be ‘fuzzy’ or ambiguous — even if collected with a strong design and method — because the innovation activity usually has to be contextualized. Further complicating things is that the DE datastream is bidirectional. DE data comes from the program products and process as well as the strategic decision-making and design choices. This mutually influencing process generates more data, but also requires sensemaking to sort through and understand what the data means in the context of its use.

The biggest resource that gets missed? Time. This means not giving enough time to have the conversations about the data to make sense of its meaning. Setting aside regular time at intervals appropriate to the problem context is a must and too often organizations don’t budget this in.

The second? Focus. While a DE approach can capture an enormous wealth of data about the process, outcomes, strategic choices, and design innovations there is a need to temper the amount collected. More is not always better. More can be a sign of a lack of focus and lead organizations to collect data for data’s sake, not for a strategic purpose. If you don’t have a strategic intent, more data isn’t going to help.

The pivot problem

The term pivot comes from the Lean Startup approach and is found in Agile and other product development systems that rely on short-burst, iterative cycles with accompanying feedback. A pivot is a change of direction based on feedback. Collect the data, see the results, and if the results don’t yield what you want, make a change and adapt. Sounds good, right?

It is, except when the results aren’t well-grounded in data. DE has given cover to organizations for making arbitrary decisions based on the idea of pivoting when they really haven’t executed well or given things enough time to determine if a change of direction is warranted. I once heard the explanation given by an educator about how his team was so good at pivoting their strategy for how they were training their clients and students. They were taking a developmental approach to the course (because it was on complexity and social innovation). Yet, I knew that the team — a group of highly skilled educators — hadn’t spent nearly enough time coordinating and planning the course.

There are times when a presenter is putting things last minute into a presentation to capitalize on something that emerged from the situation to add to the quality of the presentation and then there is someone who has not put the time and thought into what they are doing and rushing at the last minute. One is about a pivot to contribute to excellence, the other is not executing properly. The trap is confusing the two.

Fearing success

“If you can’t get over your fear of the stuff that’s working, then I think you need to give up and do something else” – Seth Godin

A truly successful innovation changes things — mindsets, workflows, systems, and outcomes. Innovation affects the things it touches in ways that might not be foreseen. It also means recognizing that things will have to change in order to accommodate the success of whatever innovation you develop. But change can be hard to adjust to even when it is what you wanted.

It’s a strange truth that many non-profits are designed to put themselves out of business. If there were no more political injustices or human rights violations around the world there would be no Amnesty International. The World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace wouldn’t exist if the natural world were deemed safe and protected. Conversely, there are no prominent NGO’s developed to eradicate polio anymore because pretty much have….or did we?

Self-sabotage exists for many reasons including a discomfort with change (staying the same is easier than changing), preservation of status, and a variety of inter-personal, relational reasons as psychologist Ellen Hendrikson explains.

Seth Godin suggests you need to find something else if you’re afraid of success and that might work. I’d prefer that organizations do the kind of innovation therapy with themselves, engage in organizational mindfulness, and do the emotional, strategic, and reflective work to ensure they are prepared for success — as well as failure, which is a big part of the innovation journey.

DE is a strong tool for capturing success (in whatever form that takes) within the complexity of a situation and the trap is when the focus is on too many parts or ones that aren’t providing useful information. It’s not always possible to know this at the start, but there are things that can be done to hone things over time. As the saying goes: when everything is in focus, nothing is in focus.

Keeping the parking brake on

And you may win this war that’s coming
But would you tolerate the peace? – “This War” by Sting

You can’t drive far or well with your parking brake on. However, if innovation is meant to change the systems. You can’t keep the same thinking and structures in place and still expect to move forward. Developmental evaluation is not just for understanding your product or service, it’s also meant to inform the ways in which that entire process influences your organization. They are symbiotic: one affects the other.

Just as we might fear success, we may also not prepare (or tolerate) it when it comes. Success with one goal means having to set new goals. It changes the goal posts. It also means that one needs to reframe what success means going ahead. Sports teams face this problem in reframing their mission after winning a championship. The same thing is true for organizations.

This is why building a culture of innovation is so important with DE embedded within that culture. Innovation can’t be considered a ‘one-off’, rather it needs to be part of the fabric of the organization. If you set yourself up for change, real change, as a developmental organization, you’re more likely to be ready for the peace after the war is over as the lyric above asks.

Sealing the trap door

Learning — which is at the heart of DE — fails in bad systems. Preventing the traps discussed above requires building a developmental mindset within an organization along with doing a DE. Without the mindset, its unlikely anyone will avoid falling through the traps described above. Change your mind, and you can change the world.

It’s a reminder of the needs to put in the work to make change real and that DE is not just plug-and-play. To quote Martin Luther King Jr:

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”


For more on how Developmental Evaluation can help you to innovate, contact Cense Ltd and let them show you what’s possible.  

Image credit: Author

behaviour changebusinesspublic healthsocial mediasystems science

Genetic engineering for your brand


DNA doesn’t predetermine our future as biological beings, but it does powerfully influence it. Some have applied the concept of ‘DNA’ to a company or organization, in the same way, it’s applied to biological organisms. Firms like PWC have been at the forefront of this approach, developing organizational DNA assessments and outlining the principles that shape the DNA of an organization. A good brand is an identity that you communicate with yourself and the world around you. A healthy brand is built on healthy DNA.

Tech entrepreneur and writer Om Malik sees DNA as being comprised of those people that form the organization:

DNA contains the genetic instructions used to build out the cells that make up an organism. I have often argued that companies are very much like living organisms, comprised of the people who work there. What companies make, how they sell and how they invent are merely an outcome of the people who work there. They define the company.

The analogy between the DNA of a company as being that of those who make it up is apt because, as he points out, organizations reflect the values, habits, mindsets, and focus of those who run them. For that reason, understanding your organizations’ DNA structure might be critical to shaping the corporate direction, brand and promoting any type of change, as we see from the case of Facebook.

DNA dilemma: The case of Facebook

Facebook is under fire these days. To anyone paying enough attention to the social media giant the issue with Facebook isn’t that it’s happening now, but why it hasn’t happened sooner? Back when the site was first opened up to allow non-university students to have accounts (signaling what would become the global brand it is today) privacy was a big concern. I still recall listening to a Facebook VP interviewed on a popular tech podcast who basically sloughed off any concerns the interviewer had about privacy saying the usual “we take this seriously” stuff but offering no example of how that was true just as the world was about to jump on the platform. I’ve heard that same kind of interview repeated dozens of times since the mid-2000’s, including just nine months before Mark Zuckerberg’s recent ‘mea culpa’ tour.

Facebook has never been one to show much (real) attention to privacy because its business model is all about ensuring that users’ are as open as possible to collect as much data as possible from them to sell as many services to them, through them, about them, and for others to manipulate. The Cambridge Analytica story simply exposed what’s been happening for years to the world.

Anyone who’s tried to change their privacy settings knows that you need more than a Ph.D. to navigate them* and, even then, you’re unlikely to be successful. Just look at the case of Bobbi Duncan and Katie McCormick who were outed as gay to their families through Facebook even though they had locked down their own individual privacy settings. This is all part of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the folks at Facebook refer to as “connecting the social graph.”

The corporate biology of addiction

In a prescient post, Om Malik wrote about Facebook’s addiction to its business model based on sharing, openness, and exploitation of its users’ information mere weeks before the Cambridge Analytica story came out.

Facebook’s DNA is that of a social platform addicted to growth and engagement. At its very core, every policy, every decision, every strategy is based on growth (at any cost) and engagement (at any cost). More growth and more engagement means more data — which means the company can make more advertising dollars, which gives it a nosebleed valuation on the stock market, which in turn allows it to remain competitive and stay ahead of its rivals.

Whether he knew it or not, Malik was describing an epigenetic model of addiction. Much emerging research on addiction has pointed to a relationship between genes and addictive behaviour. This is a two-way street where genes influence behaviour and behaviour influences a person’s genes (something called epigenetics). The more Facebook seeks to connect through its model, the more it reinforces the behaviour, the more it feels a ‘need’ to do it and therefore repeats it.

In systems terms, this is called a reinforcing loop and is part of a larger field of systems science called systems dynamics. Systems dynamics have been applied to public health and show how we can get caught in traps and the means we use to get out of them.  By applying an addiction model and system dynamics to the organization, we might better understand how some organizations change and how some don’t.

Innovation therapy

The first step toward any behaviour change for an addiction is to recognize the addiction in the first place. Without acknowledgment of a problem, there can’t be much in the way of self-support. This acknowledgment has to be authentic, which is why there is still reason to question whether Facebook will change.

There are many paths to addiction treatment, but the lessons from treating some of the most pernicious behaviours like cigarette smoking and alcohol suggest that it is likely to succeed when a series of small, continuous, persistent changes are made and done so in a supportive environment. One needs to learn from each step taken (i.e., evaluate progress and outcomes from each step), to integrate that learning, and continue through the inevitable cycling through stages (non-linear change) that sometimes involves moving backward or not knowing where along the change journey you are.

Having regulations or external pressures to change can help, but too much can paralyze action and stymie creativity. And while being motivated to change is important, sometimes it helps to just take action and let the motivation follow.

If this sounds a lot like the process of innovation, you’re right.

Principled for change

Inspiring change in an organization, particularly one where there is a clear addiction to a business model (a way of doing things, seeing things, and acting) requires the kind of therapy that we might see in addiction support programs. Like those programs, there isn’t one way to do it, but there are principles that are common. These include:

  1. Recognize the emotional triggers involved. Most people suffering from addictions can rationalize the reasons to change, but the emotional reasons are a lot harder. Fear, attraction, and the risk of doing things differently can bubble up when you least expect it. You need to understand these triggers, deal with the emotional aspects of them — the baggage we all bring.
  2. Change your mindset. Successful innovation involves a change of practice and a change of mindset. The innovator’s mindset goes from a linear focus on problems, success, and failure to a non-linear focus on opportunities, learning, and developmental design.  This allows you to spot the reinforcing looping behaviour and addiction pathways as well as what other pathways are open to you.
  3. Create better systems, not just different behaviour. Complex systems have path-dependencies — those ruts that shape our actions, often unconsciously and out of habit. Consider ways you organize yourself, your organization’s jobs and roles, the income streams, the system of rewards and recognitions, the feedback and learning you engage with, and composition of your team.  This rethinking and reorganization are what changes DNA, otherwise, it will continue to express itself through your organization in the same way.
  4. Make change visible. Use evaluation as a means to document what you do and what it produces and continue to structure your work to serve the learning from this. Inertia comes from having no direction and nothing to work toward. We are beings geared towards constant motion and making things — it’s what makes us human. Make a change, by design. Make it visible through evaluation and visual thinking – including the ups, downs, sideways. A journey involves knowing where you are — even if that’s lost — and where you’re going (even if that changes).

Change is far more difficult than people often think. Change initiatives that are rooted solely in motivation are unlikely to produce anything sustainable. You need to get to the root, the DNA, of your organization and build the infrastructure around it to enable it to do the work with you, not against you. That, in Facebook terms, is something your brand and its champions will truly ‘Like’.


* Seriously. I have a Ph.D. and am reasonably tech literate and have sat down with others with similar educational backgrounds — Ph.D.’s, masters degrees, tech startup founders — and we collectively still couldn’t figure out the privacy settings as a group.

References: For those interested in system dynamics or causal loop modeling, check out this great primer from Nate Osgood at the University of Saskatchewan. His work is top-notch. Daniel Kim has also written some excellent, useful, and practical stuff on applying system dynamics to a variety of issues.

Image credit: Shutterstock used under license.