Using Principles To Frame Strategy and Evaluation

Welcome to the Censemaking Methods Series where today we look at how to apply principles to guiding evaluation and strategy. This builds on our previous lessons on Principles-Focused Evaluation and the building blocks that underpin the approach.

What are principles and why do they matter? Principles are anchors between values and strategy that allow for decision-making in turbulent times. They are your guides when confronted with uncertainty that connect your values to actions in a manner that points you toward your ‘true North’ when you are disoriented.

In this post, we’ll look at how to use them and why it’s worth considering crafting some principles to guide your work.

Principles in Practice

When we look at principles in practice we first need to look at the definition of the term.

Principles are guides for conduct. They are touchstones that can inform planning and action in the face of uncertainty. If we were sure about causes and consequences, we could rely on rules. When we are uncertain, principles will have to do. They not only guide our actions, but how we evaluate the outcomes of those actions.

Michael Quinn Patton has riffed on this role of principles in his GUIDE Framework for Principles-focused Evaluation.

As Patton writes on Principles-Focused Evaluation,

Principles-focused evaluation examines (1) whether principles are clear, meaningful, and actionable, and if so, (2) whether they are actually being followed and, if so, (3) whether they are leading to desired results.  Principles are derived from experience, expertise, values, and research.

Michael Quinn Patton

Principles, Values and Strategy

Principles reflect our values. Values are about what has meaning for us, what we invest in, and subsequently, what has value. That is why we can evaluate good principles.

The first step in developing principles is determining what you value. 

The second step is determining your values. Values are the beliefs we hold that guide our actions and shape our identity.

Thirdly, connect the two; this is strategy. 

Drawing on the GUIDE framework above, consider reflecting on what you value, your values, and how (or if) they are connected. We work with many organizations with a gap between their stated values and desires and their actions. Much of our work is on closing this gap with our clients. The reasons are often that we let our environment shape our actions without connecting them to values or value.

Many organizations engage persist with low value products of legacy systems that were put in place to accomplish something else. By clarifying our values and determining what has value, we can change this by design.

This is what strategic design is all about.

Connecting Principles to Strategy

Once you’re clear on what principles you’d like to reflect your work, the next phase is to ensure that you create space in your operations to draw on them and reflect them in practice. What you might find is that the principles require some ‘fitting’ and that the wording, framing, and use of the principles need to be fit-for-purpose. These are almost always required activities because principles, above all, need to be useful.

If they aren’t, some adjustment to the principles or the program/project might be necessary. To make changes is not to betray the values associated with them, rather it might mean adjusting the language and expectations associated with them.

Using the GUIDE framework to balance the different requirements associated with a good principle involves some adjustment and tinkering over time. This is natural and expected as the utility of principles are only understood in the context of their use and usefulness in practice. So try them out, test them, and tinker until you find the right fit. For this reason, I’d recommend not publishing your principles widely until you find a closer fit. (Not that there is any shame in changing principles once established).

Principles can help provide guidance when things are rapidly or constantly changing. Drawing on Seth Godin’s words below, having principles allows you to know when to stand still and what to do when those collisions with the world around you take place.

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