Principles in Action

Principled or values-driven approaches to strategy only have value when we can put them into practice. In this latest post in our series on Principles-Focused Evaluation, we look at the nuts and bolts of putting principles into practice.

It is a lot easier to speak of principles and values than to live by them. I know this firsthand. I took an interest in values-driven strategy early in my career and thought I’d apply it to my own life’s work. After all, I believe in walking the talk I offer my clients.

I’d love to say it all worked well, but it didn’t – at least not at first. It took me years to learn how to identify values and set principles that are practical, not just aspirational. Look around at the organizations and people around you, and you’ll see a lot of vague, puffy language regarding values and principles.

As I wrote earlier, principles can be tricky to develop. A good principle is based on values and has qualities we can assess and evaluate.

What happens when you have principles in place? How do we actually use them?

Got Principles? Now What?

Principles are not static. Whatever principles you have will likely require some kind of adjustment. Why? Because of the complexity of human systems.

As I wrote earlier, complexity reflects a set of conditions that are dynamic, interactive, connected, and non-linear. If I’m dealing with a complex situation, it means I am unlikely to be able to apply a ‘best practice’ drawn from experience. In complex situations, we tend to deal with simple rules that act like principles. As Margaret Wheatley writes,

“we need to be able to trust that something as simple as a clear core of values and vision, kept in motion through continuous dialogue, can lead to order” (Wheatley, 1994, p. 174).

Principles can act as these simple rules. Michael Quinn Patton suggests we can turn values into principles by adding an imperative verb that transforms a stated value into an actionable and evaluable principle. One example he offers is:

Value statement: We believe in social justice.

Principle: Design interventions to support social justice.

It’s critical that whatever value or principle you use that you be clear about what the term means. For example, let’s take the example given above. If you are designing interventions to support social justice, you need to 1) define what you mean by social justice and 2) state some kind of theory of change around what a social justice intervention looks like. If you do neither, how can you know if you’re adhering to the principle?

(Developmental) Design Matters

Developmental Design is about designing for moving things. We use developmental design when we anticipate adaptations as conditions change. Let’s return to the example above and say that design interventions to support social justice is your principle of interest. What if a program determines that, in practice, this principle is not specific enough? We might decide that, for this principle to truly guide strategy, we need to be more precise about what kind of intervention we want to develop or what specific aspects of social justice we want to focus on.

Many organizations begin with a focus on one area and change that over time. This is taking a developmental approach and adapting our strategy to suit changing circumstances and needs. A principle is context-specific, so as contexts change, so do the value and utility of the principle in practice. A principle is not universally good or poor, rather it’s in the context of its use that we assess such things.

Design plays a role in creating our interventions, policies, and other actions so that a principle’s utility is ultimately measured. If I can’t apply a principle to practice — including making a decision — it’s not a good principle. It means a principle must be fit-for-purpose. Design working with evaluation helps us to assess the alignment between fit and purpose. A good design means the intervention fits the purpose and a good evaluation sets that degree of fit over time.

Principles and Processes

What does this mean for everyday practice and Principles-Focused Evaluation (PFE)? It means coupling PFE with strategic decision-making and is part of it, much like a design-driven approach to evaluation. A PFE is to provide the data to determine the suitability and fit between a principle with activities and align that with strategic choices. This means a PFE has to be an active, engaged part of the strategy process.

It might mean:

  1. Setting a structure for engagement between the strategy or management team and the evaluation team. If they are different, there must be some process to ensure they regularly work together.
  2. Ensuring regular communication between the evaluation team and the strategy or management team.
  3. Mutual influence. The strategy must inform the PFE, and the PFE must inform the strategy. It can’t be a one-way system.
  4. Much like sensemaking, teams must budget time to sit and reflect upon the results and discuss the meaning of the findings.
  5. A design process for converting insights into actions is required; we can’t assume that the insights will reveal the strategy to put them into action on their own.

These steps, organized as part of a program or initiative, will help you to put principles into your practice.

In our next and final post in the series, we will dive deeper into the design process. We will explore how design and PFE go together and why principles are powerful design tools for creating change.

Image Credits: Lou Lou B Photo on Unsplash

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