Developmental evaluation is a powerful tool to support innovation, engaging communities, and foster deep learning. While it might be growing in popularity, increasingly in demand, and a key difference-maker for social and technological innovators it might also not be for you.
Developmental evaluation (DE) is an approach to evaluation that is designed to support innovation and gather data to make sense of things in a complex environment. It is a powerful tool full of promise and many traps and has become increasingly popular in the social, finance, and health sectors. Maybe it’s for you. Maybe it’s not.
Chances are, it’s not.
If you are looking to force an outcome, DE is not for you.
DE might be for you if you are confused, nervous, a little excited, and curious about what it is that you’re doing, how you can make it more sustainable and useful, and interested in working with complexity, not fighting against it.
If you are not interested in learning — really, truly learning — skip the DE and try something else. DE is only good for those individuals and organizations that are serious about learning. This might mean struggling with uncertainty, honestly reflecting on past actions (including all the false-starts, non-starts, rough starts, and bad finishes) and envisioning the future and challenging what you belief (and sometimes affirming beliefs, too). A DE prompts you to do all of this and if that’s not your thing, don’t get into DE.
If you know the end of the story with your innovation before you begin, DE is not for you either.
If the status quo is your thing, DE is not.
Therapists see this all the time. They encounter people who say: “I want to change” and then witness them fight, struggle, deny, and abandon efforts to do the work to make the change happen, because it’s far easier to ask for change than it is to do it. This is OK — this struggle is part of being human. But if you are unwilling to do the work, struggle with it, and truly learn from your efforts, DE is not for you.
If you have the best idea in the world and a plan to change the world with it, DE is probably not for you. DE might get to you to re-think parts of your plan or the whole thing. It’s going to make your expected outcomes less expected and gum up the nice, simple, but wrong picture.
If practice makes perfect, DE is not for you. If practice is more of a vocation like medicine or doing meditation — a way of doing the work — then that’s a different story. For a DE practitioner, it’s not about becoming great at something, an improved version of yourself or your organization, or the best in the world. It’s about learning, growing and evolving (see above).
If you think DE is going to make you better as a person. Nope. Just as a 30-year old is not 6-times better than a 5-year old, someone who does DE is no better than they were beforehand. But they may have learned a lot and evolved as an innovator.
If you want something fast, efficient, outcomes-driven, and evidence-based from top-to-bottom don’t even think about DE.
Want to be trendy? Do DE. It’s what the cool kids are doing in evaluation and if being cool is important to you – definitely get into DE. (Unless you don’t like putting in a lot of work to become proficient areas of complexity, social and organizational behaviour, many different aspects of evaluation, and even design).
Lazy? Uncommitted? Allergic to creativity? Undisciplined? Low energy? Have a low tolerance for ambiguity? Then DE is not for you.
If you’re looking for a direct plan, a clear pathway to improvement and betterment, and quantifiable outcomes, DE is not for you.
If innovation has a specific look, feel, ROI, and outcome then you need tools and strategies that will assess all of that – which means you should not engage in DE. DE will only disappoint you. You will be exposed to many things, including possibilities you’d never considered, but they very likely won’t fit your model because, if what you are doing is truly innovative, it’s never really been tried before.
If you are changing the game while playing it, the rules that started won’t apply to what happens when you finish. You can’t start playing chess and wind up playing volleyball and still seek to measure the movements of the Rook, Bishop, or Queen. If you’re not really into game-changing – the kind that’s not about hyperbole and catchphrases — DE is not for you.
If you are short on time, commitment, and resources to bring people together, take time to pause and truly reflect, sit with uncertainty, delight in surprise, exceed your expectations, and sometimes end up disappointed, DE isn’t for you.
If strategy is a plan that you stick to no matter what, then DE is not for you.
If you’ve embraced failure as a mantra or are afraid of “failure” (which to you means not doing everything you set out to do in the manner you set out to it), then DE is certainly not for you. The only way you will fail at DE is the failure to devote attention to learning.
If you view relationships as transactions, rather than as opportunities to grow and transform, DE is most certainly not for you.
Innovation is about discovery. If you wish to work in ways that are aligned with natural development — the kind we see in our children, pets, gardens, communities, and ourselves – you might find yourself discovering a lot and DE can be a big help. If ‘discovery’ is a code-word for re-packaging what you already have or doing what you’ve always done (be honest with yourself), then DE is a big waste of time.
Can’t handle surprises? Run away from DE and use something else.
If you’re looking to just check off a box because you committed to doing that in your corporate plan, then make your life easy and give DE a pass. If you see organizations as living beings and wish to create value for others in a manner that is consistent with this perspective, then DE could be a powerful ally in that process.
DE is becoming popular, but it most certainly not everyone. Maybe not for you, either. Now, you have lots of reasons to show why you should try something else.