In this final installment on Principles Focused Evaluation, we look at how to connect our data with our designs.
If I have principles and don’t follow them, do I have them at all?
This question is something that Principles Focused Evaluation can help us to answer. It’s at the core of our work. The vehicle for transforming principles into action is a mix of evaluation activities and design. We cannot reasonably expect an evaluation to inform strategy without a design component.
Design is what transforms our data into practical, usable strategic actions. Design is also what converts lessons into learning.
Designing For Fit and Purpose
A design-driven approach to evaluation considers the purpose and fit of a program (or policy, practice, or product) in the context of those that use it, are affected by it and deliver it. It matches what we want, what we do, and what we get together by intention. (That means we plan and create for it).
This might seem obvious to some, but my experience is that many programs and services are not set up to accomplish what they set out to do. Consider a program designed to educate people on a particular health problem. We know that, in 2022, information is rarely scarce — instead, the opposite is often true: there is too much. So any educational program needs to capture people’s attention, hold it, engage them, and inform them. It probably also needs to provide suggestions for the use of the information, too. This might be through persuasion, facts and figures, entertainment, fear messaging, and appeals to identity and status. Marketers know this very well.
Yet, how many programs aim to provide “just the facts” in manners that confuse, bore, or don’t engage their audiences? In these cases, the programs are not fit-for-purpose.
This is a design issue.
Designing with Principles
As we’ve discussed earlier, principles are manifested from values. Once we understand our values (that is, what we value and how our beliefs, intentions, and actions align), we can transform them into principles.
Principles are used in strategy to guide our decisions about what to do, what to avoid, and what to consider in our work. Principles are helpful when operating in a complex context with multiple moving parts and influences. They can provide a stable point of reference when things change around us. How will we know what’s changing? That’s where evaluation data comes in.
Before we get to that, let’s remember that a good principle will likely fit within the GUIDE framework suggested by Michael Quinn Patton. According to Patton, a high-quality principle: (1) provides Guidance, (2) is Useful, (3) Inspires, (4) supports ongoing Development and adaptation, and (5) is Evaluable.
If we have a strong principle, our evaluation data can help us understand more about how it reflects reality and can support our decision-making.
Designing with (Evaluation) Data
A high-quality principle might offer guidance (pardon the pun), but only if we know what to do with it. This is where many people get trapped: they can evaluate something, but they don’t know how to design using it.
The essential elements of design are found in the Design Helix below. The process involves two parallel threads (imagination and production) and a series of activities that follow along each strand.
Imagination focuses on curiosity, sense-making, tinkering and envisioning ways to take what we make and implement it within a new context. Production involves our ability to generate data (perceive), create working prototypes of our creations, fit them using the data, and then share what we learn.
There are other models for representing design like the UK Design Council‘s popular Double Diamond or IDEO’s design process. The Design Helix is the one that reflects my experience with design, which is why I developed it. All the models are roughly tied to four things: paying attention, drawing hypotheses, trying things out, and evaluating what emerges.
Principles provide a lens through which we view the data we get from these four steps. Principles guide what we pay attention to. They help inform our hypotheses and what we create. Principles also help us determine what has value and meaning for us.
To illustrate, we might value having representation from different disciplines, roles, backgrounds, and perspectives on a project. Our principle of diversity will inform what we see (are there diverse representations in action?), what that means (e.g., maybe we need to recruit, retain and support more people with X quality), and what we create (e.g., let’s change our ways of working to enable people better to participate). Lastly, we can assess whether that produced desirable outcomes.
This process continues until we no longer seek to continue our work. The number of iterations could be many and everlasting or end after just a few as noted in the image below.
Principles: Fit and Purpose
Principles-Focused Evaluation involves clarifying what we value, what it means in practice, and designing our work to reflect them in what we do, expect, and create. It can be a powerful vehicle for sensemaking and guiding our strategy. By taking a design-driven approach to working with principles, we can better align our words with our actions and our outcomes.
In doing so, we do more, we do things better, and we make a difference.