Systems thinking and complexity science
Developmental evaluation holds promise for product and service designers looking to understand the process, outcomes, and strategies of innovation and link them to effects. It’s the great promise of DE that is also the reason to be most wary of it and beware the traps that are set for those unaware.
Developmental evaluation (DE), when used to support innovation, is about weaving design with data and strategy. It’s about taking a systematic, structured approach to paying attention to what you’re doing, what is being produced (and how), and anchoring it to why you’re doing it by using monitoring and evaluation data. DE helps to identify potentially promising practices or products and guide the strategic decision-making process that comes with innovation. When embedded within a design process, DE provides evidence to support the innovation process from ideation through to business model execution and product delivery.
This evidence might include the kind of information that helps an organization know when to scale up effort, change direction (“pivot”), or abandon a strategy altogether.
Except, it can also be a trap.
It’s a Trap!
Star Wars fans will recognize the phrase “It’s a Trap!” as one of special — and much parodied — significance. Much like the Rebel fleet’s jeopardized quest to destroy the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, embarking on a DE is no easy or simple task.
DE was developed by Michael Quinn Patton and others working in the social innovation sector in response to the needs of programs operating in areas of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in helping them function better within this environment through evaluation. This meant providing the kind of useful data that recognized the context, allowed for strategic decision making with rigorous evaluation and not using tools that are ill-suited for complexity to simply do the ‘wrong thing righter‘.
The following are some of ‘traps’ that I’ve seen organizations fall into when approaching DE. A parallel set of posts exploring the practicalities of these traps are going up on the Cense site along with tips and tools to use to avoid and navigate them.
A trap is something that is usually camouflaged and employs some type of lure to draw people into it. It is, by its nature, deceptive and intended to ensnare those that come into it. By knowing what the traps are and what to look for, you might just avoid falling into them.
A different approach, same resourcing
A major trap is going into a DE is thinking that it is just another type of evaluation and thus requires the same resources as one might put toward a standard evaluation. Wrong.
DE most often requires more resources to design and manage than a standard program evaluation for many reasons. One the most important is that DE is about evaluation + strategy + design (the emphasis is on the ‘+’s). In a DE budget, one needs to account for the fact that three activities that were normally treated separately are now coming together. It may not mean that the costs are necessarily more (they often are), but that the work required will span multiple budget lines.
This also means that operationally one cannot simply have an evaluator, a strategist, and a program designer work separately. There must be some collaboration and time spent interacting for DE to be useful. That requires coordination costs.
Another big issue is that DE data can be ‘fuzzy’ or ambiguous — even if collected with a strong design and method — because the innovation activity usually has to be contextualized. Further complicating things is that the DE datastream is bidirectional. DE data comes from the program products and process as well as the strategic decision-making and design choices. This mutually influencing process generates more data, but also requires sensemaking to sort through and understand what the data means in the context of its use.
The biggest resource that gets missed? Time. This means not giving enough time to have the conversations about the data to make sense of its meaning. Setting aside regular time at intervals appropriate to the problem context is a must and too often organizations don’t budget this in.
The second? Focus. While a DE approach can capture an enormous wealth of data about the process, outcomes, strategic choices, and design innovations there is a need to temper the amount collected. More is not always better. More can be a sign of a lack of focus and lead organizations to collect data for data’s sake, not for a strategic purpose. If you don’t have a strategic intent, more data isn’t going to help.
The pivot problem
The term pivot comes from the Lean Startup approach and is found in Agile and other product development systems that rely on short-burst, iterative cycles with accompanying feedback. A pivot is a change of direction based on feedback. Collect the data, see the results, and if the results don’t yield what you want, make a change and adapt. Sounds good, right?
It is, except when the results aren’t well-grounded in data. DE has given cover to organizations for making arbitrary decisions based on the idea of pivoting when they really haven’t executed well or given things enough time to determine if a change of direction is warranted. I once heard the explanation given by an educator about how his team was so good at pivoting their strategy for how they were training their clients and students. They were taking a developmental approach to the course (because it was on complexity and social innovation). Yet, I knew that the team — a group of highly skilled educators — hadn’t spent nearly enough time coordinating and planning the course.
There are times when a presenter is putting things last minute into a presentation to capitalize on something that emerged from the situation to add to the quality of the presentation and then there is someone who has not put the time and thought into what they are doing and rushing at the last minute. One is about a pivot to contribute to excellence, the other is not executing properly. The trap is confusing the two.
“If you can’t get over your fear of the stuff that’s working, then I think you need to give up and do something else” – Seth Godin
A truly successful innovation changes things — mindsets, workflows, systems, and outcomes. Innovation affects the things it touches in ways that might not be foreseen. It also means recognizing that things will have to change in order to accommodate the success of whatever innovation you develop. But change can be hard to adjust to even when it is what you wanted.
It’s a strange truth that many non-profits are designed to put themselves out of business. If there were no more political injustices or human rights violations around the world there would be no Amnesty International. The World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace wouldn’t exist if the natural world were deemed safe and protected. Conversely, there are no prominent NGO’s developed to eradicate polio anymore because pretty much have….or did we?
Self-sabotage exists for many reasons including a discomfort with change (staying the same is easier than changing), preservation of status, and a variety of inter-personal, relational reasons as psychologist Ellen Hendrikson explains.
Seth Godin suggests you need to find something else if you’re afraid of success and that might work. I’d prefer that organizations do the kind of innovation therapy with themselves, engage in organizational mindfulness, and do the emotional, strategic, and reflective work to ensure they are prepared for success — as well as failure, which is a big part of the innovation journey.
DE is a strong tool for capturing success (in whatever form that takes) within the complexity of a situation and the trap is when the focus is on too many parts or ones that aren’t providing useful information. It’s not always possible to know this at the start, but there are things that can be done to hone things over time. As the saying goes: when everything is in focus, nothing is in focus.
Keeping the parking brake on
And you may win this war that’s coming
But would you tolerate the peace? – “This War” by Sting
You can’t drive far or well with your parking brake on. However, if innovation is meant to change the systems. You can’t keep the same thinking and structures in place and still expect to move forward. Developmental evaluation is not just for understanding your product or service, it’s also meant to inform the ways in which that entire process influences your organization. They are symbiotic: one affects the other.
Just as we might fear success, we may also not prepare (or tolerate) it when it comes. Success with one goal means having to set new goals. It changes the goal posts. It also means that one needs to reframe what success means going ahead. Sports teams face this problem in reframing their mission after winning a championship. The same thing is true for organizations.
This is why building a culture of innovation is so important with DE embedded within that culture. Innovation can’t be considered a ‘one-off’, rather it needs to be part of the fabric of the organization. If you set yourself up for change, real change, as a developmental organization, you’re more likely to be ready for the peace after the war is over as the lyric above asks.
Sealing the trap door
Learning — which is at the heart of DE — fails in bad systems. Preventing the traps discussed above requires building a developmental mindset within an organization along with doing a DE. Without the mindset, its unlikely anyone will avoid falling through the traps described above. Change your mind, and you can change the world.
It’s a reminder of the needs to put in the work to make change real and that DE is not just plug-and-play. To quote Martin Luther King Jr:
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
For more on how Developmental Evaluation can help you to innovate, contact Cense Ltd and let them show you what’s possible.
Image credit: Author