Systems and Evaluative Thinking

Systems and Evaluative Thinking help us connect the circumstances and contexts we find ourselves in with the actions we take and outcomes we shape. In this post, we look at what it means to think in systems and evaluatively and how they fit together. This is the third in a series exploring Principles-Focused Evaluation.

Anything with thinking attached to it — design thinking, evaluative thinking, systems thinking — will encounter praxis problems. Praxis is the integration of thought (theory) and action together, where learning is informed through action and reflection. Any use of the term thinking when describing something often omits consideration of praxis. The criticism of the terms is that they are so much more than just thinking about something — it’s about doing.

For the purposes of this post, let’s assume the stance of praxis: thinking and action are symbiont and self-reinforcing. (In other words: when I say systems or evaluative thinking, I’m also speaking of doing systems work and evaluation).

What does thinking have to do with Principles-Focused Evaluation?

Thinking about Thinking

Principles-Focused Evaluation (PFE) is an approach to evaluation and strategy that supports the development, testing, and implementation of values into programs. By anchoring values to actions — reflecting what we believe and desire with what we actually do and produce — PFE can help us design and calibrate our program and product offerings to changing conditions.

Systems and Evaluative thinking support this in multiple ways. By thinking in systems, we recognize how our beliefs and actions are connected around us. We are in relationships with other actors (people, groups, organizations), part of a culture (locally, organizationally or otherwise), and often rely on others to accomplish our goals. Just think of a supply chain and recognize the need to consider systemic issues.

But PFE goes further. It allows us to determine how our values and practices fit within our systems.

This is where evaluative thinking comes in to complement systems thinking. Evaluative thinking inspires us to ask questions about what these interconnections and relationships mean for us. Are our values and what we value in alignment with our actions?

PFE also provides us with a means to calibrate ourselves to the circumstances without allowing those circumstances to unreasonably influence what we do and who we are. In times of confusion or uncertainty, a PFE provides guidance on what to do and how to take actions that align with our values.

We will look at these in practice in future posts. However, it’s worth adding some context to what I mean when I speak about systems and evaluative thinking.

Systems Thinking

There are two ways I speak of systems thinking: capitalized and non-capitalized. I’ve got more detailed definitions posted elsewhere.

Systems Thinking with capitals is a field of study, practice, and academic interest. It features many different methods, tools, approaches, and theories and is supported by the literature.

Systems Thinking (in capitals) is a field that has many branches, schools of thought, methods and other conventions. There is much debate over what is to be included under this umbrella and how it’s transdisciplinary perspective is best presented. I’m not interested in taking sides in this debate but rather presenting possible options for people to consider. Some will take issue with this as they may feel there are rules to be followed and conventions that need to be applied. Not me.

This field brings together research from such diffuse scholarly disciplines as physicseconomicsbiologypsychology, engineeringeducation and more. Some refer to it as transdisciplinary, and others refer to it as a field. Either way, it’s a culmination of many different scholarly perspectives that involves methodologies, science, practice, and education and a language that reflects this kind of diversity.

Systems Thinking is subject to scholarly debate within many sub-communities of interest within these domains. Fields such as cybernetics, system dynamics, complexity theory, and critical systems heuristics are some of the areas within Systems Thinking. These fields overlap considerably, although there is much debate over how much and what it means. I like to refer people to Michael Jackson’s excellent textbook entitled Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers for those looking to learn more.

To write about systems thinking (without capitals) is to speak of the general practice of thinking about systems issues and how we can address them. I define this kind of systems thinking this way:

Thinking about systems involves identifying and understanding relationships between things and their implications about what has meaning and value within a context.

In both types of systems thinking, the key components are relationships, boundaries, interactions, and perspectives. These are also common within understanding complexity — as covered in the second post in this series.

Evaluative Thinking

Evaluative thinking is about asking questions about what we value and what we do to create value.

Tom Grayson’s recent post on the AEA 365 Blog summarizes many of the common definitions of evaluative thinking. In its simplest term: evaluative thinking is what we do when we think about things from an evaluation perspective, which is to say, a point of view that considers the merit, worth, and significance of something.

Evaluative thinking involves asking three key questions:

  1. What is going on?
  2. What is new?
  3. What does it mean?

The first question is about looking at individuals, contexts, circumstances, and activities and applying curiosity to what we see around us.

The second question is looking at what might have changed. This recognizes that our contexts evolve and transform, and we want to understand how what we create contributes to a situation. What value does it add?

The third question is about sensemaking. This is where we determine whether the value created is meaningful.

Evaluative thinking is about how we curiously explore the world around us and ask questions about our values, the value we create (and seek), and their implications on the world around us. Evaluative thinking helps us to align our values with our goals and our actions.

Together, systems and evaluative thinking provide a frame for developing our principles, clarifying our values, and determining what kind of strategy is required to achieve the impact we desire. In our next post, we’ll look deeper at principles — the heart of PFE.

Thanks for reading.

If you’re thinking systemically and looking to assess your impact and shape your strategy using PFE, I can help you do it. Let’s talk.

Image Credits: All images from and machines on Unsplash. Thanks for sharing your art with the world.

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