Here to There: Navigating Through the Unknown

Chart a course forward when the pathway is obscured or uncertain is daunting. The right tools and mindset can illuminate the way.

Like the Italy’s Stelvio Pass (pictured above) we might wonder whether we are going forward, back, sideways or even up and down to get to a destination literally clouded from view.

Visionary evaluation — a topic explored in earlier posts — is a means to do this. Visionary evaluation can be described as a principled approach to continuous learning and strategy that combines foresight with developmental evaluation. It can help us to see the unknown.

In the final article in a series on Censemaking, it’s time to explore some of the components of visionary evaluation.


from: Parsons, Dhillon, and Keene (2020). Visionary Evaluation for a Sustainable, Equitable Future. Charlotte, NC: IAP Publishers

What distinguishes visionary evaluation from other approaches to exploring value and strategy in complex conditions is how it anchors data gathering (and learning), sensemaking, strategy, and action to principles and a forward orientation. It’s not just about what we believe now, but what we can envision for the future. It’s a blend of developmental and principles-focused evaluation with foresight and values-based decision-making.

Action: The action step is asking yourself: what values guide your work? What are the principles you wish to orient your efforts around? Principles are less tied to what you do and more to why you do it (and who and how it influences others). This frees us from the constraints of logic models and strategic plans that make assumptions about what is going to happen based on what has happened.

Principles as applied in visionary evaluation ground the work starting today in what is desired and the vision for tomorrow. It is in tomorrow that our efforts of today will be realised.

It’s a subtle, but powerful distinction.


Vision-setting is the highest point of leverage within human social systems. Visionary evaluation provides a vehicle to develop and set a vision, while organizing the data gathering, feedback and related evaluation use to support learning along a journey toward the vision.

The Iceberg Model

Within these layers of leverage are more entrenched phenomena like structures (cultural practices, policies, histories, etc..) where things like mindsets and mental models shape and are shaped.

A vision is usually abstract, but not vague. It sets a direction, but doesn’t chart the course or specify the journey.

Action: Drawing on Daniel Kim’s Vision Deployment Matrix can be a useful tool for framing the various layers where evaluative thinking is useful. Evaluation data is commonly focused on the lowest level (events) or that which is only seen using the iceberg model.

What distinguishes visionary evaluation is that it builds in means of bringing data together – combining data sets, gathering from diverse sources and perspectives — to develop a more rounded picture of what is happening. It also encourages the use of foresight approaches — looking at things like trends, drivers, and patterns within the system to see what might be coming. This builds data about what has happened, what’s happening now, and what is emerging.


Strategy in this context is the systemic planning of action based on data and feedback directed toward a set of outcomes and a vision. Rather than a hardened plan, much of the strategy used in human systems work (the kind that involve many people, perspectives, and different contexts) is more akin to stumbling, purposefully.

Strategy means creating the space to gather, organize, and sense-make based on the data. Sensemaking is about looking at data that is unlikely to produce clear, discernible outcomes and guide obvious actionable directions. The context — which might be rapidly changing or having changed from the moment the data was initially collected — is critical. Hard, fast rules for decision-making don’t apply to these situations, but principles can.

Action: Great attention at the outset (or at the earliest possible opportunity in the process) to developing a data organization and sensemaking plan along with the evaluation design is key. This includes adopting a developmental design strategy — incorporating strategic design and foresight into what might be considered developmental evaluation. This means designing and re-designing activities as they evolve to fit with a global set of actions (creating harmony among them).

It also means attending to the idea that change will happen not just because of what goes into the effort, but how it mixes — something that will change and evolve.

This is tied closely to execution.


Strategy isn’t worthwhile without execution. It’s one thing to chart a course, it’s another to travel it, even if the destination isn’t visible.

This is about marshalling and organizing the resources to focus the work and maintain momentum. This means adapting to conditions based on situations and changing contexts. Greg Satell‘s recent book Cascades points to ways in which different social movements have done this recognizing that, with large social change, the amount of control that any one entity or organization in the system has is limited. It’s through connecting, adapting, and persisting that change happens.

Visionary evaluation provides the data that informs the decisions about who to connect with (and how to engage them), what adaptations to make (and when), and what to keep doing.

Action: This is about a continued commitment to learning, which means building in time and space to gather, share ideas, reflect, and make decisions on the go. It is this space creation that is often the hardest things for people to do. In all my years of working with organizations and networks, the last step — action — is the hardest and nearly always it’s about “not having enough time”.

The answer is actually: We won’t give this time.

The reasons are many, but mostly anchored to fear. It can also be tied to perceived inaction by others, but as I’ve discussed in a previous post in this series, that can be overcome.


This brings us to one final point about visionary evaluation: it’s about courage. Maintaining a commitment to principles, setting a vision, building a data gathering and sensemaking process to support learning, reflecting hard on our actions, building trust in others (and ourselves), and persisting is hard.

Change is hard, but it beats the alternative.

Cover photo Stelvio Pass by Eric Huybrechts used under Creative Commons license. Thanks for sharing your work with the world, Eric.

Other photo by Mario Álvarez on Unsplash. Thanks, Mario.

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