Principles-Focused Evaluation: A Series Introduction

What is a Principles-Focused Evaluation approach, and what does it offer those seeking to support change, adaptation, and innovation? This first in a series of posts will introduce you to an approach to strategic innovation and evaluation for complex situations.

Principles-Focused Evaluation (PFE) is an approach to generating value in complex situations. It is an approach to evaluation that supports strategic thinking, action, and value assessment in a dynamic way. Principles-Focused Evaluation is also a means to provide stability and evidence to help sense-making and action in ‘zones of complexity.

Michael Quinn Patton, who I’d describe as the approaches’ chief architect, advocate, and instigator, describes PFE this way:

Principles-focused thinking is for principles-driven people engaged in principles-based change. An effectiveness principle provides guidance about how to think or behave toward some desired result (either explicit or implicit) based on norms, values, beliefs, experience, and knowledge. A high-quality principle provides guidance about what to do, is useful for informing decisions and actions, provides inspiration as an expression of values, is relevant to diverse contexts and situations, and can be evaluated. Evaluating a principle involves examining its meaningfulness to those expected to follow it, whether it is being adhered to in practice, and, if adhered to, whether it leads to desired results.

The central concepts and ideas behind PFE are straightforward; however, the way they intersect might be confusing for some. Over a series of forthcoming posts, I hope to reduce this confusion. I aim to provide readers with a practical, accessible, and impactful means of taking a principled approach to innovation.

Systems and Evaluative Thinking

For starters, PFE combines strategic and evaluative thinking, borrowing language from these areas of study and practice. Terms like adaptive strategy, developmental or utilization-focused evaluation and complexity are commonly brought to bear when speaking/writing on PFE. If you’re familiar with these terms, PFE language will not be problematic.

Over the next few posts, I’ll go through these terms and speak about how they are used with a PFE context.

Firstly, I will introduce you to the concept of complexity and hopefully make it simpler.

Next, our focus will turn to systems and evaluative thinking and what they bring to innovation (and how PFE fits into this).

In the next post, I’ll break down Patton’s GUIDE Framework. I want to clarify how principles support innovation and why they matter.

Another post will look at the process of using PFE in practice. It’s one thing to know about PFE, entirely another to use it. We will explore some methods and tools that can help as well.

Lastly, we’ll look at the interplay between PFE and strategic design. In this post, I will show how design, evaluation, and strategy go together and how PFE helps knit these together.

I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts with you and helping open your mind to a new way to shape innovation (and its evaluation).

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “Principles-Focused Evaluation: A Series Introduction”

  1. systemswiki – United States – Storyteller of relationships & implications

    Patton’s description or definition simply used the work principle far too many times for me to consider it meaningful!

    1. Cameron D. Norman – Toronto, Canada – I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. to channel curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects aimed at improving the health of our organizations and communities.

      That’s one reason why I’m doing this series. I’m trying to make the approach accessible to those outside of those that are most motivated and versed in the terms (and field).

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August 2022